Interview with recording engineer Kendra Borgen

Kendra Borgen is a recording engineer based in Den Haag, the Netherlands.  Originally from Alaska, she studied classical saxophone (and some jazz) at the University of Oregon (USA). During her studies, she also worked as a student assistant Sound Engineer, which is when she became interested in audio engineering. She spent a few summers at the Aspen music festival and school in Colorado (USA), first as a student and later as an engineer. After her Bachelor’s degree, she decided to pursue further studies and a profession in audio engineering, moving to The Netherlands in 2004.

This is an interview I conducted with Kendra in 2009, right after she recorded a CD for my ensemble Il Sussurro.

Much has been made about how clean and perfect CDs can be, as opposed to live recordings. In your experience, what is the reality of what can be done during a professional recording?

Just about absolutely everything is possible. It’s known that Yo-Yo Ma makes easily between 300-500 edits per CD, and even the famous ‘live’ performance at Carnegie Hall of Glenn Gould was edited (although only very, very slightly). Technology gives us the possibility to smoothly edit multiple takes together. And recent advances in computers allow us to sample acoustics of spaces — i.e. churches, concert halls, performance areas  — giving us the flexibility to place a recording into another space (of course also given microphone techniques and abilities). Some people make edits because they have to  (mistakes, etc.) while others (like Yo-Yo Ma) make edits to choose between the better of two amazing takes. Of the other side, mistakes, I can recall 2 specific instances of creating something out of nothing. The first was a classical sonata filled with 16th note runs, and for 8 of the notes we took a different take…that edit took some time to get the flow and musicality correct. This was done over 8 years ago and if I listen today I can’t even remember where we did it! The second instance was a CD that was recorded in one day.  However, by the end of that day, one of the musicians’ chops were blown and he was unable to hit a very high note at the end of a very difficult passage of music. In the three takes we had, first he hit the note but then it broke, in the second he squeaked at the beginning of the note but the end was fine, and finally the third take had a great middle section. I literally edited all three parts together to create this one note. Of course there is a sound that occurs – a beat frequency because of the slight intonation differences – but it can be excused as a not-perfectly-executed note. The end result was far better then any of the takes.  These two instances stand out in my 11 years of work as two very special moments of technology.

What are your goals for a recording session?

I don’t know if I have goals, but there is something I always consider a good sign. Once the equipment is set up I ask the musicians to come in and listen to the sound check. If they begin to speak about their playing (versus the sound of the recording), then I know I’ve done my job right. It’s natural that small adjustments are made through the sound check process, but it’s nice when the years of experience get it right straight out of the gate.

How do you deal with fragile musician egos when you are recording?

Frankly, I don’t. I’ve lost some work in the past due to my inability to deal with others’ egos, sadly. However, I think I also get a lot of repeat work because people enjoy my candid communication technique. Since I am a saxophonist, perhaps I have a better insight to what musicians’ thoughts or needs are on the other side of the microphone. I know what they commonly think or need, and I try to anticipate any problems. Some of my colleagues could stand to be a bit more understanding of musicians’ points of views, which I think I do excel at.  At the end of the day, I sometimes feel like a parent, always balancing tough love with well-timed encouragement.

How do you approach preparing for a recording session?

In an ideal world I’ll only record music I love and am interested in. I do that because then I think I have a better understanding of what the music should sound like. Still, I always ask the musicians to give me a reference to what they think it should sound like. Usually I’ll ask for recording that they think sounds good and even perhaps a recording that might not sound good but could be influential to them musically. Like in theater you have ‘method actors’ – perhaps I’m a ‘method engineer.’

What are some common misconceptions with what you do as a recording engineer?

There are a lot. I’m a trained recording engineer. Which means I don’t have a clue about live sound reinforcement. That does stop other people from doing it badly, but to me it does. I can and have done live sound, but I feel very much like a fish out of water. You could liken it to any classically trained musician – if they can read a really amazing piece of music it does not mean they could naturally improvise an equally impressive piece on the spot. Sure, if high enough quality, they’ll give an adequate performance, but they won’t feel good about it. I’m the same way. I will record genres I don’t like or know, or I will do live sound, and I’ve often got good feedback, but I’m very nervous the entire time!

When you are in a recording session, what are the things you are listening for?

Depending on the role I’m hired to do, I’ll listen for different things. I often ask for scores both to give me something to focus on and to give me the ability to comment on blatant mistakes. In the past, recording sessions had a recording engineer and a producer. Generally the producer’s job was to find and fix mistakes. In this age of low-budget recording, the sound engineer is often asked to work as producer, even if not formally. I’m always asked my opinion on how the music was played or if the musicians have ‘enough material’ to edit. Sadly I cannot ever be 100% about all aspects — tempo, intonation, musicality, mistakes and if there are fixes — but I can give some feedback.  Beyond the music I’m listening for variation in sound quality. It might be background noise, or some other unnatural sound. It’s also important to maintain a standard distance from the microphone on each take. If between takes a musician moves and stands nearer or farther away from the microphone, then the sound quality can change drastically. I’m always on guard to hear if there is a large variation and then stop and fix the problem when needed.

What is listening to a live concert like for you?  And a CD?

As you can image, listening to live concerts can be very difficult for many reasons. In classical settings I simply find myself getting very anxious to stay still for so long. Roughly, I’ve recorded over 1400 live concerts, exams, recitals, etc… in the last 11 years.  Usually I get to see a great video feed or at least a comfy chair and perhaps a snack. Sitting in a concert hall, hands folded, is very difficult for me. If you speak of anything that is amplified, I’m usually in serious agony. Most sound reinforcement engineers just miss the mark all day long.  Maybe I’m getting old- no that’s not it because I never liked it – but I subscribe to the Les Moore school of sound amplification. In other words, if you amplify the sound less, and work from the natural balance of the musicians and the hall you are working in, then the sound will be more in balance. CDs are interesting. I almost always first analyze the sound of the recording before the performance or music. I suppose we call this a hazard of the job.

In recording quieter instruments–such as our disc for Il Sussurro–what are the special challenges?

Nothing really…. Depending on the musician’s flexibility, sound concept, and trust in my experience, then we usually can get to a sound that we all are happy with. In your recording, you learned that in order to really get the ‘balance’ correct we had to move the two of you into non-traditional performance positions. This is very common. Some musicians can be uncomfortable with this because it’s unusual to them, which is understandable. It can be difficult to convince less experienced musicians that this is the solution for getting as natural a sound as possible. For others, I’m forced to place a microphone closer than what is natural.  I’m not usually pleased with this result, but it’s been done by many a sound engineer.  Perhaps in these instances, working with the ‘fragile ego’ the most demanding.

Talk about artistry versus craft as a recording engineer. Are you looking for your own voice, or is it something different?

I’m certainly looking for my own voice. I have my own vision about what music and recordings should sound like. I’m certainly influenced by recording of my past: 70s/80s Deutche Grammaphone, or London Decca. In the case of jazz, anything Rudy Van Gelder did. There are some brilliant engineers who have come before, but I’d love to take their sounds and grow from there.

Are there any record labels that get it right all the time? Or most of the time?

YES! Aside from the aforementioned labels, I can say today one record label stands out to me all of the time. That is the great work of Stefan Winter and is record label ‘Winter & Winter.’ Stefan has produced some of the best music I’ve ever heard. And, important to me, he is not pigeon-holed into a single genre. I’ve heard the best jazz, classical, contemporary, electronic, and world music on this single label. On top of that he has a cover design that stands out from all the rest. He works with modern artists to collaborate with design. To me, Winter & Winter looks at the entire process from a creative point of view. If creativity is the bottom line then quality will prevail! There are times I walk into a record shop just to browse and see a cover that is clearly ‘Winter & Winter’, and I will buy that album without knowing anything of the artist. To this date, I’ve never been disappointed in my purchases!

What inspires you creatively?

Passion! I want to work with people who want to make music because they need to! Because they love this work and profession so much it’s the only thing they can be doing. In my ideal and completely unreasonable perfect world, I’d be working with people who are striving daily to create something new. Even if it’s music that’s been played for 400 years, why do you have to play it as if you have been playing for 400 years straight? I think any person who approaches music (or for that matter anything) with intensity and passion is infectious. I love being around people who are engaged and dedicated and hope that I can continue to meet and work with these people in the future!

How do you keep up-to-date on equipment? Any favorite websites or magazines?

It’s difficult. Technology is changing and the needs of the individual are changing. There are a million ways to stay up-to-date. Magazines are good sources of getting the professional point-of-view of new products, but blogs or help forums give me insight to what the ‘real’ person is dealing with. Also, I have a few good engineering friends, and it’s natural to talk shop when we’re together. Furthermore, I seem to find a lot of audiophiles in my life, and they will shower me with questions or give me info they’ve discovered, in order to show what they know about audio equipment. It all helps. Staying in-the-loop can be difficult, but the internet is a vast source of information at one’s fingertips.

You’ve lived and worked in both the US and Europe. Are there any distinctions to recording approaches?

Not really. But the focus can be different in the genre field. I can make a living from recording what I consider good music: classical, jazz, world. But the US is very focused on pop or rap music. On both continents when people ask what I do, I get different responses. In the US, most people assume I record pop music, and when I mention jazz they draw a blank face. In Europe, when people find out I do jazz they get excited. It’s sad really. In the US there is a huge cultural divide in music. People either listen to jazz or classical and they behave a certain way, or they listen to pop or rap and behave another. Not so much blending. But I had a teacher in Holland who was 77, and he loves, LOVES, wind music and especially brass band. One day I walked in and he was blasting the latest Madonna album. I asked him what that was about, and he said ‘Man I just love her, she’s so amazing!’  This really highlighted to me the differences between the two.

What are your future goals? How would you like to develop as an engineer? Or as a business?

I have some very clear goals of what I want to do in recordings. I ‘run’ a record label but to me it’s not the bottom line. I want to make Audio Engineering an art form. I’m an artist not a technician. Technology is changing, and fast, and I think the future of how we listen to music is changing. I want to be part of that. I have my own idea I’d like to develop, and it might take me the next ten years, but I hope I succeed. I think it could be embraced by the listening community at large and perhaps even inspire future engineers to stop be so technically minded and start to explore the creative side of engineering. But I’d rather not get into it any deeper at this time.

We hear about a general decline in CD sales. In your opinion, what is the future of recording?  How can musicians use this to their advantage?

These days lots of people make CDs but not everyone sells. I think people are still going to buy music but it might be in different ways. I’m not worried. Radiohead released their album for free and people still paid money for it. I don’t know what the moral of the story is, but I will go back to something I previously mentioned — when you do something from a creative and passionate standpoint, people will get it and support you.

Any interesting upcoming projects?

Currently I’m laying low, trying to work on my own ideas, and I have a lot of them. I’m doing the odd recording here and there, but I’m also just trying to make a living. I’m not quite educated enough to execute what it is I want to be doing so I’m studying a lot and trying to teach myself some things…    We’ll see what the future has in store for me.

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You can read more about Kendra and DAR Productions at her website, here.