I recently had the pleasure of visiting the co-founders of jazz label Sound Liaison at their studio in Hilversum. Frans de Rond (recording engineer) and Peter Bjørnild (producer) took me through their histories from music-lovers to musicians, from players to producers. I learned how they met at the Music Conservatory in Den Hague and how Sound Liaison was born years later out of a passion for Dutch jazz and top-quality high resolution audio recordings. We discuss some of their signature recording techniques, stories from the studio, and some of their favourite albums they’ve produced. Let’s take a look behind the curtain and meet the magicians that are Sound Liaison.
Can you give me a bit of the origin story of Sound Liaison? When did you both decide to start the label?
Frans: I guess it was about ten years ago or so, back in 2012. Already for thirty years I had been a recording engineer and back then the way jazz music worked in the Netherlands was that no jazz musicians were linked to any labels or recording companies. They all had to do their projects independently – so a band would come in to record for a couple days, then we would do the mixing for a couple days, I’d give the final product to the band and they would disappear with it. It would be up to them from then on to make CDs and to try to sell it themselves. I did this for project after project and I finally thought, why don’t we all just join together and create one place where people can find all the Dutch jazz music. Already twenty years ago I thought about doing something like that but never did anything with it. Then ten years ago I realised that with how far the internet has come, well maybe now is the time! So I started the webshop and shortly after I asked Peter to join. We just started with one album, which we had already recorded of Carmen Gomes ‘Thousand Shades of Blue’.
Peter: Maybe the reason Frans asked me is because we go so far back, when he studied engineering at the conservatory and I studied bass. One of the first successful recordings we ever made was with a Brazilian band I played with back in the ‘80s. Frans recorded an album for us as a school project and it sounded so good that the band went on to get a recording contract because of it. Years later I would be playing in Carmen Gomes’s band and she wanted to do a solo album but was tired of the pop world and the big studios and labels, so I suggested we work with Frans because I knew him from school. So Carmen actually has recorded all of her solo albums with Frans as engineer. Later we worked on another project separate from Carmen where I was in more of a producer’s role and we realised that we had good chemistry working together not only on Carmen’s music but also on other artists. So that’s probably where our partnership -as it is now – began.
So the birth of Sound Liaison was actually out of a wish to create one place to find well-recorded jazz music?
Frans: Yes, the idea was rooted in hi-end audio. I remember at the time I used to go to the hi-fi shop RHAPSODY here in Hilversum very often and for years they always used the same albums for testing equipment. I remember thinking “man, we have the musicians. We have the space. Why don’t we create new jazz albums for hi-fi audiophiles”. So that was always the goal as well.
Peter: And Frans’s background of many years as an audio engineer, but also working on radio plays really helped in this. He used to do the recordings for theatre plays that were broadcast on the radio, so he really had to think of the entire sound field, not just a stereo image. That skill came in handy when we decided to make records for hi-fi systems – he was very good at placing things in the sound field which not many engineers have that.
And how do you typically choose projects to work on?
Frans: We always say that the music we record is also music that we will put on at home just to enjoy. If it’s not music that we enjoy listening to then we don’t work on it. Sometimes we have to refuse projects – people may come to us with a demo and ask if it’s something we would like to work on and we literally ask ourselves that question: would I put this on and listen to it myself? If the answer is no then we have to pass on it.
Peter: Yeah and sometime Frans will get hired as an engineer and the band will pay for the studio time and everything, usually hoping to get on the label, but we won’t use it. And it can happen the other way around as well. I remember one time a band won some contest to come in a record and when we heard them we really liked it, so we offered them a contract with us right away. For something to be on the Sound Liaison label we have to really be fans of the music first because we really put an enormous amount of work in to it without very much financial return. If we do not love the music and are not passionate about it then it just doesn’t make sense financially.
Right, and Frans you mentioned earlier that in order for SL to focus only on projects you are passionate about it means that you both are busy with other work outside the label as well.
Peter: Yeah that’s true. It’s also probably my fault because back when we started this and Frans asked me to join him I said “Okay let’s do it, but we have to be a straight label. We’re not going to cheat anyone and we have to be completely open and fair.” Which means that the deal a musician gets with us is probably about as good as it gets it the music industry. It’s about a 50/50 split that we give to the musicians.
Well that’s commendable. A label that treats the musicians as equals. The world could use more of those.
Do you guys remember if there was a specific person, artist or album in your past that lit the original spark of fire that would be your life in music?
Peter: Yeah I have two things. The earliest thing that got me to start playing the guitar and later switch to the bass was The Beatles, they were very important to me as they are to many. And the thing that piqued my interest in becoming a jazz musician when I was in high school – it actually inspired me to quit school and go play double bass full time – was the album ‘Kind of Blue’ from Miles Davis. Especially inspiring was the track ‘All Blues’, they played that track in my music class in high school and I remember it feeling almost like a religious experience. I got goose bumps, and I’ve never experienced anything like that, before or since. Then I just became obsessed with double bass and practiced all the time.
Frans, any person or musical piece that you remember being your initial inspiration?
Frans: Well kind of, my story is a bit strange I guess. For me it all started out of nothing really. I had a cousin who was playing in a band and the bass player quit suddenly. The next morning my cousin was at my house with a bass guitar and said “Here you go Frans, a bass. Next week we start rehearsing.” I was very interested so I decided to go for it. I was only sixteen or seventeen but I remember thinking that I was very far behind so I would need to learn the bass quickly! So I was looking for a teacher and – actually now that I’m thinking about it I guess it was that teacher who inspired me – because on the second lesson with him he gave me a cassette tape of highlights of all the bass players he had in his record collection. On the first side was double bass players and on the second side was electric players. That was the first time I heard of Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Marcus Miller, of all the great bass players. I listened to that tape so many times with my mouth open just thinking “Wow, what’s happening here?!” I was just so shocked and impressed. So that was really what started my interest in jazz music and the double bass.
Peter: It’s funny that you say that about the cassette tape Frans because I had a similar thing happen to me. That day I was in music class and hear ‘Kind of Blue’ for the first time, the guy sitting next to me was Frederik Lundin – who is now one of the top tenor saxophonists in Denmark – and he said “hey I need a bass player for my trio.” So I was like Frans where I had one week to learn! But the most important thing that Frederik did was he made me a 90 minute tape of mainly Charlie Parker with a bit of Lester Young playing the blues. See he knew I was playing bass in some blues bands in town, but that I didn’t really understand jazz. So to help me he made me that tape of great jazz musicians playing blues songs, which I could understand. And from there it was much easier for me to begin understanding the more complicated world of jazz music. To this day when I see Frederik I still thank him for that tape. It’s that kind of little extra attention or help that is so important in life. And that’s a bit of what we like to do at Sound Liaison as well. We try to also get young people on the label to give them that first chance to establish themselves or begin their careers.
Can you tell me about your signature One Microphone Recordings? When and why did you start recording in this way?
Frans: I can tell a story about my relationship with a Japanese manufacturer of speakers – TAD – and Mr. Hirano. He is always very interested in what we’re doing here with our music. One day he retired, but people in Japan never really retire, so he said to me, ‘You know, if I can ever do something for you like promoting or maybe put some LPs or CDs in some shops because I have a lot of connections with High End audio shops.’ Together with Rhapsody we made a record of Carmen live and we gave that to him. His response was that “yes, this recording is very nice. But… we already have so many nice recordings. Why should I listen to this recording and not something else?” His advice to us was that we had to look for something special – and he mentioned an example of a Japanese label who record with only one microphone. That idea was very interesting to me, just one point stereo recording, that’s it. Also during that time I discovered the Josephson microphones from California. We were so blown away with them, I mean for studio recording jazz, it’s amazing the quality! And they have this beautiful stereo microphone the c700S with the triple capsule.
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So we started experimenting with this recording format with Carmen Gomes and her band. We did a session and it was a bit uncomfortable for me in the beginning. I had been so used to the typical way of recording – you set up your players in the room, then you set up your microphones depending on where your players are, and you record. Now, I had this one mic in the middle of the room and I had to move the players around in order to hear a good balance. Really I thought ‘okay, yeah this doesn’t work for me’. Regardless, we tracked a couple songs. When the band and I went to listen I was a bit stressed because of how the session went and thinking it didn’t sound great. The band’s reaction was a bit different. They were quite surprised, saying they’d never heard themselves this way before, and they thought it was great. I thought it was so difficult and annoying to record this way so I didn’t think much of it.
A few days later I decided to go listen again to the songs we recorded, still thinking that they don’t sound good with just the one mic. But as I listened I realised – ‘whoa, this is interesting. I’ve never heard something like this before.’ And when it was over, I put it on again, and I couldn’t stop listening to it! It was so real, and with a lot of depth. And I realised how special this technique really is. Since then we’ve been using it more and more and we have now many of our signature One Microphone Recordings.
Do you find that now after using the technique more often it became easier to achieve the results you want?
Frans: Well, I more and more start to know where to put the players. Here, I can show you. (Frans proceeds to draw for me a demonstration of how he would set up the players in the room… on his ‘White Board Table’)
For the album ‘Nola’ by Red we had the players set up in this arrangement [see above image]. It takes a bit of time and trial and error to find the right position for each player. And in this recording we also had to figure out the position changes during solos. So when everyone was playing together they would stand on their marks, and when someone played a solo they would step to a new position (usually forward) in order to get the balance right, and we would have to make markers for each musician. Another fun example is the album ‘Feebbrothers Play Dave Brubeck’.
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These four brothers are spectacular musicians and for this recording we struggled a little bit with the saxophone player Paul van der Feen only because he likes to move a lot when he plays. It still sounds great this recording but every now and then you can hear the saxophone changes character. But this is one of the unique circumstances to One Microphone Recordings – you hear it like it is.
Yeah I’m curious, how do musicians usually take to this style of recording? It was foreign and uncomfortable for you at first, but do you find the same for the musicians?
Yeah well first we make sure that the musicians are actually interested in this type of recording. They have to be curious about it because already in the beginning it takes quite some time to set up, maybe one or two hours. For a typical recording session they’ll come in and the microphones are already set up, we’ll check that levels are okay and then they’re off. But for this it takes quite some time to find each players position for the right balance. Now once we have that down, then it’s all up to them, then it feels normal for most people. And really every time when we go listen back to the recording they are surprised and delighted!
I noticed another unique recording method – or rather album arrangement method – that you’ve implemented. What is The Arch Recording Series?
Peter: Yeah actually I had this idea when the covid lockdowns began. At that time we had many recordings scheduled and due to the lockdown they all got cancelled. Then we were given regulations that we could work but only with two people in the studio at the same time. So I had this idea, what if we start an album just with a solo artist and then we can expand to two musicians and then when the covid restrictions lifted we could introduce more musicians in the session. It was a sort of workaround to be able to keep recording during the lockdowns. It also created a fun challenge for Frans to use all of his talents at once, going from a solo artist, One Microphone Recording to a large scale recording with many musicians and microphones all on one album. So yeah, this idea started out of covid times, and it has proven to be very work-intensive so the decision is whether we are going to continue doing so in the future. But these albums have been received quite well, the album ‘Ebb Tide’ with Gidon Nunes Vaz was elected Album of the Month at Hi-fi News & Record Review and they gave it a 5-star review.
Wow, congratulations that’s great. And you mentioned previously that for all of your One Microphone Recordings you use the Josephson c700S?
Frans: That’s correct yes. After the first time I used this microphone I knew it was something special. Some people also have made one mic recordings with different microphones, certain ribbon mics for example, but I always find that they miss something. They miss a kind of third dimension that the Josephson captures which creates a full 360 degree listening experience.
And is it a very characteristic microphone or is it more clean?
Frans: Clean. Yes very clean. You know, sometimes when you’re recording say a saxophone and put a really nice ribbon mic in front, when you listen back the player says “Oh yeah, wow how nice. Listen to the sound that the mic gives it.” With the Josephson you don’t have that feeling that it adds some colour. It just sounds so realistic. And it never fails, the musicians mostly react like; “Wow, this is my sound, this is what I hear when I play!” I rarely get that reaction using another microphone.
Peter: Yeah and also we hardly have to use equalisation with the Josephson. For example with bass – I’m a double bass player myself – and whether it’s me playing or another bassist, Frans often has to EQ specifically for each different player because every double bass sounds different. But when we use the Josephson he hardly has to touch the EQ at all which is quite amazing. So it really just capture the instrument in front of it as it is, and that’s been quite a revelation for us. And same goes for the drummers! They are typically even more surprised than the bassists because they are used to being fully mic’d up with many microphones around their drum set. Now they just see this one microphone standing in front of their kit and they’re thinking “is that it?” But every time they are back in the studio to listen they are happily surprised.
It’s funny that you mention bass Peter. You are both double bass players if I’m not mistaken. Is that just a coincidence or is that what brought you both together originally?
Frans: Yes that’s correct we both play double bass, but not sure if that’s what connected us originally. The funny thing is that you see many engineers/producers who are also bassists. I think it’s common because your role as an engineer or producer is the same as the bassist: not to be too noticeable, to blend in to the background while simultaneously being the glue that holds everything together.
Peter: Yeah I think there’s definitely a connection there. As a bassist your typically standing back keeping an eye on everything. And you have to be very careful and intentional with your notes. As a bassist if you decide to play a third you can suddenly change everything. And the same responsibility falls on a producer, you have to stand back and keep an eye on everything and only make changes or recommendations when they are warranted.
Can you tell me about where you make most of your recordings here in Hilversum?
Frans: We have done almost all of our recording here in Studio 2 at MCO, the Muziek Centrum van de Omproep. This is the oldest radio studio in the Netherlands and it has a lot of amazing history. It was built around 1930 and there are many amazing photos from the ‘30s of some of the jazz greats – Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Flip Philips, Oscar Peterson, Irving Ashby, Max Roach and even Ella Fitzgerald!
This is my favourite room to record in. It’s not super big but it’s got high ceilings, so you have space but it’s still quite dry. The whole room was designed for live radio with music, so everything had to be clear – the music, the DJ, everything need to come through clearly. For jazz it works really great. We also do here live recordings with audiences. Together with MCO (Muziek Centrum van de Omroep) we organise four or five concerts per year.
Peter: Yeah there is something special in this studio. You can tell because musicians quickly feel comfortable in this room. At least the jazz musicians do, classical musicians tend not to like it so much because they think there’s too little reverb. But for jazz and blues and folk it’s just perfect.
Why do you think they feel comfortable there so quickly?
Peter: There’s something with the early reflections that you hear your instrument very clearly. For example, this is the only studio in my forty years experience as a bass player where if there is also a drummer, I feel comfortable playing without an amp. Here you can just take your double bass and you hear it perfectly. There’s something about the way the sound comes back to you in this room. That’s one thing, and maybe it’s also because it’s full of ghosts!
Frans: Haha, yeah I think it’s those two things indeed. One is that right away when musicians hear themselves in this room it’s an immediate relief they feel. The other is energy – a lot of people that play in this studio talk about the energy in the room and I think it has to do with the history of the room. There have been so many amazing musicians and so much great music being made here and I think you can feel that.
We already spoke in detail about your favourite Josephson microphone. Can you take me through some of the other gear you use in the studio?
Frans: Well here in the control room I have the TAD speakers which I love. They’re actually Hi-Fi speakers that are very analytical and people say they almost sound like studio speakers. But that’s what I love because with these I can listen very analytically but I can also sit back and really listen to the music. I combine them with a really powerful, really clean amp from Moon. Another piece we really like is a headphone amp from RME, we’re really impressed with how it sounds. And of course we use the standard hi-res recording hardware Merging Technologies and we have the Anubis interface from them as well.
Desert Island Albums
Well the last question I have for you is a tough one. Can you tell me a few of your favourite albums from the Sound Liaison catalogue that you would want if you were stranded on a desert island?
Peter: Oh man that is tough. You’re asking us to choose between our children… not cool! Haha. Okay I’ll first say to all the musicians out there we’ve worked with that I’m being forced to do this, so please don’t take it personally! I can give you three albums that are important to us. “Don’t You Cry” is very important because it was our first One Microphone Recording. Another one is “The Gift” from Michael Moore and Paul Berner. It is magical to listen to them, the music seems to flow in a natural and unhindered stream, each note being an obvious continuation of what was played before. It was a thrill to witness those two masters feeding off each other. And the third one in my opinion is “Free: Soulful Piano Reflections” by the Witmer Trio. I just really like this album from a musical standpoint. I often put this album on at home just to enjoy. I’ve always loved the way that the pianist Cajan Witmer arranges for his trio, and I think he’s very underrated. But again, I’m not a fan of this question! Haha. It really hurts to have to choose because we are so proud and happy with all of the artists we’ve worked with and all of the albums we’ve made. So I hope no one takes this personally.