A small production company in Norway is at the very forefront of a musical revolution. The surround sound recordings of Lindberg Lyd do not only transform the entire listening experience, more radically, the recording techniques that the firm has developed and perfected overturn some very basic concepts regarding how music is played and even composed. In February it will be decided whether Divertimenti, Lindberg Lyd’s latest masterpiece and the world’s first pure audio Blu-ray release, will take home any of the three Grammy awards the album is nominated for.
-What we are seeing is a completely new conception of the musical experience, says Morten Lindberg, founder and lead producer of Lindberg Lyd.
-Experiencing music is no longer a matter of a fixed two-dimensional setting, but rather a three-dimensional enveloping situation. Stereo can be described as a flat canvas, while surround sound is a sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially; with surround you can move about in the aural space and choose angles, vantage points and positions.
Being a neophyte in the field of 21st century audio, the first part of my interview with Morten Lindberg is mostly about getting the basic concepts in place. I learn that Lindberg’s version of the surround experience is not necessarily a matter of being surrounded by sound.
-What we do, says Lindberg, is that we capture a three-dimensional aural entity. Our records recreate the actual situation, which is constituted by the musicians and the physical room where the recording was made. As a listener you get to experience the richness of the original setting in your own home and the further privilege is that you can choose where in that recreated situation you want to be; in the middle, at a distance, or perhaps moving around. Hearing a surround recording from a distance is nothing like hearing the sound of a normal stereo recording. With surround you experience that the physical musicians and instruments are really there, the sound comes alive.
Lindberg Lyd specializes in classical recordings, which are always done on location. The studio we are visiting in the outskirts of Oslo does not contain a single microphone. Only powerful computers and digital devices and a speaker rig that exudes uncompromising quality (and cost). A lot of the equipment they are using at Lindberg Lyd has in fact been developed for them especially. But the microphones and all the actual recording equipment is gathered in the mobile rig that they bring along to select venues around the country.
-The physical room is absolutely essential to what we do, says Lindberg. Bringing musicians into a “dry” recording studio is simply unthinkable; it is the exact opposite of our philosophy. We take great care to find the right room and to come up with the optimal way of using it acoustically. Together with the musicians we find the best way of organizing the ensemble around our five recording microphones. Thus we record from the place where one would naturally want to be when enjoying live classical music, a place surrounded by the musicians where the balance of sound is a simple and genuine matter of position and distance. That, in addition to the vital issue of choosing the right room in the first place, is the whole story of how we mix our records.
But isn’t being surrounded in such a way in fact an artificial situation; something that never takes place in reality?
Historically one always enjoyed the music in the midst of the musicians. The rationale behind having the musicians on a podium up front is simply a matter of economics; it only became the norm when it became necessary to attract a lot of people to concerts. The prevalent and dogmatic notion that music is best experienced from the fifth row in a concert hall is really quite strange, because it is based on a situation where the audience is laregly excluded from the actual musical situation. And of course stereo is a recreation of this situation. It is a flat two dimensional canvas, something you behold from a distance. Surround recordings are very obviously a more genuine way of both capturing and experiencing classical music.
How does this principle of capturing what actually takes place affect the musicians?
-The big difference from working in a studio is that the musicians realize that the recording session itself is an event, and that everything must work because there is no way of going back and manipulating the recording in retrospect. This might sound intimidating, but in fact it is very empowering. When the musicians get accustomed to the fact that everything depends on their performance and ultimately on their vision of what they want to achieve, then they start to make use of us producers as a tool in their hands instead of the other way around. I always come back to the fact that the vision has to be theirs, not mine. As a producer I am a tool they can make use of to fulfil that vision. My experience is that our recording technique; the surround technology and the experience it delivers in the end, makes the musicians upgrade their notions of what they want to achieve.
Why is it that this recording revolution is happening in Norway? –Because it is quite revolutionary is it not, that a tiny Norwegian production company is nominated for three Grammy awards, and that your own label 2L should be the first in the world to release a Blu-ray audio?
-It has to do with a number of factors, says Lindberg, but primarily it depends on our ability to create the right context for the recordings. Like I said it is the physical room and the way the musicians relate to it that constitute the backbone and essence of our records. What we do is to open up for a story to unfold; a story about a piece of music, a group of musicians, a special room –very often a church- and a couple of producers presenting a new concept of recording.
I find that there are good reasons why we are able to spearhead this philosophy here in Norway. First of all there is a general open-mindedness towards cultural projects, so that even when playing Mozart people are not afraid to think in novel ways. And then there is the fact that our projects are not predominantly commercial in nature. A lot of our funding comes from the government and most of our records come to pass as a cooperation between local and national cultural interests, private and public money and the musicians and ourselves. This means that there is a lot more personal commitment, enthusiasm and not least available time than is the case with purely commercial endeavours. Our projects take the form of a common effort where a shared idea of achievement makes everyone strive for a standard of excellence that transcends anything that money can inspire or authoritarian producers of the kind we know from Great Britain and Germany are able to impress.
So you don’t fantasise about working with the international superstars of classical music?
-No, I truly believe that a unique musical product has more to do with spirit and circumstances than the names involved. The big names would never have the time or find the occasion to work the way we do and that is why I don’t fantasise about working with international stars. I think the formula we have found is unsurpassable, and a lot of it has to with it being in Norway
Divertimenti, the record that is nominated for three 2008 Grammy awards, was the first music Blu-Ray in the world. How big of a gamble was this release for your company, and how is it possible that you beat the majors in being first?
-To the last question the answer is simple: the big companies are profit-driven enterprises led by business people. Profit-wise it makes much more sense to milk back catalogues than gamble on completely new technology and new concepts of musical experience. For us the situation is the complete opposite: we take great pride in our progress and in our products, and everyone we work with is driven by this sense of accomplishment. Still, Divertimenti was a gamble of course, not least because the Blu-ray standard is such a monolithic thing. The whole format is controlled by a consortium of American film studios, and needless to say they are skilled at safeguarding their own interests.
So how does a producer of classical music feel about answering to the film industry?
-The fact is that we are riding Hollywood’s back. What has happened with Blu-ray is a major breakthrough: first of all a format has been decided that will remain the standard for all audio and video in the foreseeable future. And second, by developing one common format the surround technology that we have been working with for years finally becomes accessible to the general public. Fairly soon almost all disc players will be Blu-ray devices, and already now a majority of the sound systems that come off the shelf are 5.1 surround systems. People bye the equipment for the sake of film entertainment, but with it they get access to the unique musical experience that we are offering. Stereo is still possible of course, but the fact is that the resistance towards surround is mostly based on ignorance. People just don’t know what they are missing.
One thing is certain, the nominating bodies of the Grammy Awards are not missing out on what is happening: Divertimenti is nominated in the following categories: Best Surround Sound Album, Best Engineered Album (classical) as well as Best Small Ensemble Performance (Trondheimsolistene). The Grammy Awards are held on February 8th, in Los Angeles.