Elite Recordings: A Conversation With Freelance Recording Engineer Veteran Marc Aubort

Swiss-born recording engineer Marc Aubort began his career in the late 1940’s working first with wire recorders and later with tape. Aubort first came to America in 1955 to inspect the American operation of European budget label MMS (Musical Masterpiece Society).

In 1956 he made his first recording (monophonic) for the Vanguard label in Vienna, returning to America for good shortly thereafter to become Vanguard’s chief engineer for eight years from 1958 to 1965.

In the 1970’s, when the recording world went batty for multi-miked, multi-tracked productions, Aubort and his then producer, the late Joanna Nickrenz, who passed away in 2002, remained true to their belief that simply miked productions, though often more difficult, time consuming and expensive, created more spacious, dynamic, natural-sounding recordings that were more pleasing to the ear and more importantly, true to the composer’s intentions. Their production company was appropriately named “Elite Recordings.”

Because Aubort and Nickrenz maintained their minimal miking technique long after the commercial mainstream had abandoned it, their recordings during the ‘70s and ‘80s tend to have the same sonic caché as the treasured 1950s and ‘60s recordings from RCA, Mercury, UK Decca and EMI labels, most of which by then had abandoned those original techniques in favor of multi-miked productions that allowed them to save money by “fixing in the mix” rather than adding expensive session time to get the live orchestral balance correct. Ironically, the advent of digital recording saw a return to simple mike techniques with producers using the excuse of “digital” to say they could now hear the problems and sonic degradation wrought by multi-miking—problems that audiophiles began complaining about with the inception of multi-miked, multi-tracked recordings.

Therefore, when you see the Elite Recording team Aubort/Nickrenz production team on a record, chances are it will be a great sounding recording. More importantly, it will be a recording that attempted (and usually succeeded) to bring to the listener the intentions of the composer based on the score. Both Aubort and Nickrenz were trained musicians.

The duo eschewed studio recordings in favor of good halls that produced pleasing, natural ambience, though not every hall in which they worked proved ideal for recording. They worked together for 32 years, averaging some 20 projects annually.

Ironically, most of their greatest sounding recordings were made for budget labels like Nonesuch, Vox/Turnabout and Candide. These were inexpensive when new and most can now be found for a pittance, though some well-regarded ones have achieved collector status and can cost plenty, though sometimes the recordings were better than the performances.

Unfortunately, selling records for less means making them for less and that often meant less expensive, sometimes noisy vinyl was used to press them. Still, the adventurous Nonesuch catalog is filled with great sounding, well-pressed and performed records that can often be found in used record store “bargain bins.”

For instance: Aubort’s three Vox recordings of Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony performing Gershwin are well worth looking for. The Aubort/Nickrenz team recorded the works of many American composers including Charles Ives, Elliot Carter and George Crumb. Some of the Vox titles have been reissued on RTI-pressed180g vinyl by Analogue Productions and may still be available. Mobile Fidelity issued a surround sound SACD of Aubort/Nickrenz’s recording of Slatkin and the St. Louis Orchestra performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” “American in Paris,” “Cuban Overtures,” and a few other pieces that is still available.

Because the Aubort/Nickrenz team was usually responsible for every aspect of a recording from the venue, to where the microphones were placed, to how the tape was edited to how the lacquers were cut (while they didn’t do most of the actual cutting, they provided specific cutting instructions based upon a thorough understanding of the technology), what you’ll hear on their recordings is what they wanted you to hear instead of being the result of decisions made by committees. They insisted that original master tapes be used to cut lacquers and the result of that can be heard in the exceptional sound quality of virtually all of their records.

In May of 2008 in New York City I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Mr. Aubort, who is still active and now in his 80s. The classical recording business isn’t what it once was, of course, and while there’s less work for freelancers like Mr. Aubort, in 1999 Mike Hobson’s Classic Records hired Aubort and Nickrenz to record the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra at the Festival House Concert Hall in Salzburg, Austria. These productions, including recordings of “Scheherazade” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony Number #5,” now available on 200g vinyl and Classic’s HDAD digital format, will be reviewed elsewhere on this site.

Michael Fremer: I just spoke to a 17 year old kid who is going to become a recording engineer, which I think is an amazing aspiration, considering everything that’s going on. I said, “do you want to make a living?” But he told me why. He heard something…a recording that just inspired him. So when you got into this, what was it that you heard in a recording that made you want to do this?

Marc Aubort: Actually, it was the advice of a guru in Switzerland (W.A. Wettler) and we started recording on the Webcor wire recorder. I remember knotting those wires together (Aubort and Wettler developed a technique for wire recorder editing they later applied to tape using a Magnecorder).

MF: I remember those. This was that heavy purple thing with the grille in the front and the spools?

MA: The thicker platter was the one on which the wire wound and the head was going up and down…there’s one in the Smithsonian actually.

MF: I got one at a garage sale once

MA: And then I started working with this guy. Actually it’s because an amplifier I had built didn’t work and I went to him and his name was synonymous at that time with the great recordings and he told me what I’d done wrong…you have to put the ground wire, here and do this…and lo and behold it worked, and so we struck up a friendship and we started recording for (David Josefowitz’s) MMS/Concerthall labels. Remember MMS? Music Masterpiece Society?

MF: Vaguely

MA: His idea was to introduce records at a third of the price of the big ones. Not necessarily the big artists…

MF: Like what Naxos does now…

MA: Exactly

MF: And this was in Switzerland?

MA: There was an outfit in Switzerland, in France it was Guild du disc, in German it was another record club type thing but the company was here in New York

MF: Like Musical Heritage Society

MA: Something like that. And what he told me at that time about how to set a balance stuck with me. It’s not just a matter of listening to what you hear. It’s a matter of comparing what you hear to what you want to hear, and it if doesn’t conform, you go out and fix it. And that’s what I have been trying to do. So it’s not just listening and “oh, that sounds great,” but already knowing what you want to hear is what’s important

MF: What is it that you want to hear?

MA: The whole balance. The distance to the back of the orchestra, for instance, or the perspective of the stage, if need be re-seating people so that I can avoid using a microphone when not necessary

MF: So what you’re saying is that you’re creating an illusion of what you want it to sound like in playback but it might not conform to what it looks like to the eyes

MA: Yes, of course sometimes you have to have clearance from the conductor to reseat people and he may not like that

MF: So there’s a tension sometimes between the artistry of the musicians and the artistry of the engineers

MA: It’s a question of trust. For instance taking the harp forward within the second fiddles because when it’s where the stage door is, it’s not being heard…thing like that, or the balance between the celli and bassoons. I try to seat them so that it blends by itself.

MF: Did you do most of your early work in New York?

MA: No, in Europe. In Switzerland. I came here when I was 29 years old. Since then (in New York) yea, obviously!

MF: So you came to New York with a reputation as an engineer. So at this point you were working with tape?

MA: With Magnecorders (a brand). Then we got this big box and tried to figure out what it was and we started to travel around to Holland, to Germany and other places to record for MMS. We called it Music Murderers Society!

MF: So you were learning doing remote recordings and you had to set it up in different places that you were not necessarily familiar with. So that was like a trial by fire in a lot of ways

MA: That’s right

MF: A lot of engineers at the time worked at big studios and they would do studio recordings in a familiar space

MA: We always did location recordings. That’s the way we did it

MF: You came over here as a independent engineer, right?

MA: Right. I did not come over here for MMS but then I did (work for them) and they wanted me to sign a contract and put me in the place of my boss, my friend in Switzerland and I said, “no thank you.” Then I called (Vanguard founder) Seymour Solomon and I asked him if he had a job and he said “join me in Vienna I’ll be there May so and so 1956 and if it works out, you have a job.” So I went to Vienna and joined him and that’s how I worked eight years for Vanguard

MF: Now did you record The Weavers at Carnegie Hall?

MA: Oh, sure. A lot of Weavers

MF: The reunion at Carnegie Hall, in stereo, did you record that one too?

MA: Probably. That was quite a while ago.

MF: I would love to sit you down in front of my system and play you the 45rpm Classic Records reissue of that recording. It is astonishing. There’s almost nothing as good as that. I play that for people and they flip out because it’s the most realistic thing. How did you do that? Do you remember?

MA: Well the other Weavers recordings were done at the Manhattan Towers ballroom

MF: In fact, On Tour With the Weavers was recently reissued on vinyl by Cisco (now defunct). Did you record Joan Baez’s Vanguard debut?

MA: Sure. All of her records. I followed her around the country. Joan Baez In Concert

MF: I saw here live in 1963 or ’64 at Town Hall in NYC. Was that recorded?

MA: Not at Town Hall. I don’t think so

MF: Unfortunately, the stereo tape of her first album is no longer useable. The mono tape had to be used for a recent vinyl reissue. But The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall it looks like there were just three mikes in front of them and that was it. Ronnie Gilbert sounds like she’s standing there right in front of you. Everybody sounds like they’re really live right in front of you

MA: Yea because if you have the microphones in one plane, you get the depth and width of the stage. As soon as you start putting microphones all over the stage you flatten out the whole thing

MF: So when multi-miked multi-channel recordings came in, you must have been appalled

MA: No, not really because I didn’t get into it

MF: But other people did! It saved money, right? Because the musicians’ time was valuable and you could just stick everybody in front of a microphone, record it, and fix it in the mix instead of working to get the right balance with their time clock running

MA: It’s easier to get a balance with two or three microphones than if you have ten of them

MF: If you know what you’re doing and if the musicians can play

MA: Sometimes on these union orchestral sessions we had at best two minutes to set a balance and you ask for a few spots here and there and the conductor gives you an ending or an exposed spot (in the score) and you set your balance and then “let’s go!” You don’t touch the mixer anymore.

MA: Now did you record Bob Dylan’s early performances at The Newport Folk Festival in 1963?

MA: Either 1962 or 1963

MF: Peter, Paul and Mary were on the stage and you can hear Mary Travers over “there,” and Dylan “there,” and they are three-dimensional entities you can see. Did you realize at the time how great these recordings were?

MA: No. Not at all.

MF: It was just “I gotta do this and get it done with?”

MA: I remember it was awfully damn hot! I had tan short on and apparently from a distance it looked like I was actually stark naked. People told me, “what’s all this? You were naked on stage?”

MF: I’ve written about that record and I wrote that you can “feel” the summer air on that recording

MA: It was summer

MF: You can feel it. It’s astounding

MA: It was done with (Sennheiser) C-12s. Also the jazz festivaI—I recorded Errol Garner with one foot on the stop switch. You’re not supposed to do that. His manager was going around from truck to truck trying to check if somebody was recording

MF: This was at the Newport Jazz Festival for Columbia?

MA: No that was for Vanguard

MF: But they never released any of that

MA: I think they couldn’t get the release from some of the artists and they finally dropped it

MF: You didn’t record stuff like Country Joe and the Fish, during the rock era. You didn’t get involved in that

MA: No. That was just after I left in ‘65

MF: So you were there for the Newport Folk Festival, Joan Baez era, The Weavers era

MA: Also for the series in Utah (Maurice Abravenel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra)

MF: Which are also amazing and some of those have been reissued on vinyl as well

MA: There was an interesting phenomenon with Vanguard SRV (the budget label’s catalog prefix—they were done exactly the same way: same microphones, same pressings, but due to the fact that they were cheap, people would comment “not bad for the price”

MF: And it was the same!

MA: They wanted to pay more

MF: Sounds like hi-fi “You’re not charging enough for the piece! Audiophiles won’t take it seriously unless you charge more… so when you left Vanguard where did you go from there?

MA: I started my own in 1965

MF: Your own independent recording service and you worked for whomever…so who did you work for?

MA: Oh, God, Nonesuch, obviously, VOX, EMI, BMG (more recently), virtually all of the classical labels

MF: There was plenty of work in those days and plenty of studios

MA: I never worked in studios. I worked on location in concert halls, churches

MF: So you’re working for all of these different labels and somehow with the Nonesuch series it seemed to really catch on with a lot of people

MA: A lot of people would come up to me and say, “I grew up with your records on Nonesuch”

MF: And I’m sure many of them didn’t know why they were responding to them so strongly…obviously musically they were, but I think it was more than that

MA:  But they also liked the price! They were relatively low prices for decent performances. That was the idea Josefowitz had at MMS. In the beginning the big labels were fighting him like crazy and suddenly they realized that people were buying turntables and therefore their records as well. They were eventually quite thankful to Josefowitz for that

MF: And Jac Holzman was all for having a classical label that was relatively inexpensive

MA: Yes, that was a spinoff from Elektra then

MF: You were one of the first engineers to use Dolby noise reduction, correct?

MA: Yes, because (Ray) Dolby walked into my room and he brought these two suitcases and I immediately realized he had a breakthrough because my fight was constantlybetween hiss and fortissimo, so I bought his prototype practically out of his hands. I still have it. It was number 19

MF: That’s collectible. Don’t let anything happen to that!

MA: I also have serial number 1 of the SR card that he brought to me and said “here’s my thank you that you didn’t spill the beans that I was coming out with the SR system,” because I know about it. He said “I have a new system coming out and it’s better than digital, but mum’s the word.” Actually being the first to use the Dolby system, I struck up a friendship with Ray and eventually began importing the units and servicing them and explaining how it works and all that.

MF: They were made in the UK?

MA: At that point, yes and that’s how I couldn’t handle both horses, so I hired (the late) Joanna Nickrenz  at that time and she was my end at Elite (Recordings, Aubourt’s company) and I was doing Dolby. And then they moved to San Francisco and I didn’t want to go there

MF: So she was your producer?

MA: It was overlapping functions. In the beginning she didn’t even know what a tape recorder was. I met her at a birthday party and she was just in the middle of a divorce, and she was about to go to DeKalb for teaching and she said “You have a job for me?” and I said “Yea, you could be a great editor,” and she said “What’s an editor,” and I said “Come by tomorrow and I’ll show you” and that’s how I hired her.

MF: And so she edited tape? You taught her?

MA: Yea, I gave her overlapping copies to cut together and so we worked together for 32 years

MF: Wow. Was she a tough cookie?

MA: Yeah, she was

MF: Yes, that’s what I heard. That she was tough

MA: She was “Miss Razor Ears”

MF: “Miss Razor Ears?”

MA: She would tell people that they were playing the wrong things and I would remain silent, for instance, and they would say “Wrong? I’ve been playing that for 40 years! And she would say “Well come here and look!” And sure enough, he had totally re-learned what was not in the score and she immediately caught it. And when she passed, it said on the urn, during the memorial service, “And what’s written is also nice.” Because she used to say that when she was correcting somebody, “What’s written is also nice! (laughs)” And her daughter put that on her urn…32 years. She died in 2002

MF: And how long did you keep working for Nonesuch?

MA: That came to a rather abrupt end when (Robert) Horowitz took over. Somehow he got wind that we didn’t care too much for Philip Glass and all of the minimalists and that was sort of the end of the era for us.

MF: But did you do any of the Philip Glass recordings?

MA: No

MF: Any of the Steve Reich?

MA: No, neither

MF: So when the bottom dropped out of that…I mean that was probably steady work

MA: Vox and Nonesuch were my biggest clients

MF: And who owned Vox?

MA: George H. DeMendelssohn Bartholdy

MF: How am I going to spell that?

MA: Just like the composer…but when I knew him in Vienna he was just George Mendelssohn and then the H. DeMendelssohn Bartholdy came much later and he knew the history of the Mendelssohn family so well that he had to have learned it…

MF: H was dedicated

MA: Very dedicated

MF: So that was another really interesting label, because you had Vox, which already was a budget label and then they had Turnabout that was an even more of a budget label. That was the budget budgetlabel!

MA: They had Candide as well.

MF: And those labels had many very good recordings because you did them!

MA: Well not all of them. He did a lot of them in Germany. A fellow called Heinz Johnsen (sp?) was his guy in Germany.

MF: And they licensed a lot of stuff too.

MA: Yes.

MF: And they had David Hancock doing some with the Dallas Symphony.

MA: He did some, yes.

MF: And those were very highly regarded but they were never pressed on good vinyl.

MA: We called them “Rice Crispies.”

MF: Exactly.

MA: Because they were bought for a half a cent off on the pressing cost.

MF: So you worked so hard to get a good recording and then….so I can understand why you would not be too enthusiastic about vinyl when you hear bad vinyl of a good recording.

MA: Also, technically speaking, when you play vinyl once, you’ve ruined it.

MF: Well that’s the interesting thing: I will play for you records I’ve had for 40 years and played repeatedly and then I’ll play you the CD version and you tell me which sounds more real for whatever reasons. The most skeptical people come down and they listen and they go “you’re right!” Whatever it is, there’s something about it that sounds more real. Sometimes there’s noise but you know what? I have a subscription to the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall and if I want to pay attention to old guys coughing and hocking and bringing up phlegm, which goes on all nightand if I want to say “this concert is ruined because of “blechhhaaaa” I’ll never enjoy the concert! However, if Hymie behind me takes his cane and taps on my seatrhythmically in time with the music, I can’t put up with that. So if a record has a scratch on it, I can’t take it but an occasional pop or click? It doesn’t bother me. And I know with piano, there’s wow and flutter and it’s not perfect. But still, but despitethat, when I put on a CD of a piano recording it sounds like a glazed donut and I put on a record and I hear wood and I hear strings and I hear hammers hitting.

MA: That’s what I like in a digital recording, that a piano that’s really in tune stays in tune on a CD.

MF: Yes, the tuning part, yes.

MA: And on the LP more or less it isn’t.

MF: But you have to hear a reallygood turntable to hear what’s possible and the problem is a lot of people stopped when CDs came out figuring “that’s as good as turntables get.” You know the guy that originally mastered that from tape (Greg Calbi) came over to my place and I played him the record he mastered on my turntable, which sells now for $120,000 and he said “I heard things on that record that I didn’t hear on the tape.” Now he didn’t hear it on the tape because his mastering system at the time was not as good as my stereo system is now. He said “I’ve never heard it sound like that. Ever.”

Wes Bender (friend of MA and National Sales Manager for loudspeaker manufacturer Hansen Audio

 who arranged and sat in on the interview):

Same thing with John Leventhal. He would give me recordings he was doing with his wife Roseanne Cash and he’d say “Take it home and tell me what’s wrong with it and I’d take it home and I’d make notes and I’d give it to him and he’d make the corrections and then he’d say “I’ve never heard these things before” and he’d come over and say “I’ve never heard it.”

MF: But he heard it at your place.

WB: Yes. I mean he’s using $500 self-powered Event 20/20 little monitors.

MF: I don’t understand that!

WB: I don’t get it either! This is a guy that audiophiles consider some of the best recordings and he thinks it’s just as funny as you think it is. He cracks up. He records with great microphones, C-12s, Telefunken stuff, great stuff and he records at Sear Sound, which is one of the havens of analog recording technology but then he’ll take home the tapes and he’ll play them on a  Studer and dump them to his A-DAT and then he’ll continue to add layers onto the A-DAT and then he’ll take it back to the analog and along the way it can get so fa-kakted up…

MA: You know what Connoisseur does? They’ll record digital and then transfer it to analog and edit it and then re-transfer it back to digital.

MF: Right. There’s plenty of that too. It’s all manipulation as you were saying at the beginning of this conversation. It has to end up creating the illusion of what it is. It doesn’t have to be, you know, you can’t take two microphones and put them where the ears would be, you have to put the microphones where the microphones make it sound good, make it sound as if that’s where the ears were to get that sound when it’s finally played back. I find that vinyl cut from digital sounds better than the CD version for whatever reasons. Is it as “accurate?” To what? To the recording? Maybe not. But if the end result is more realistic sounding, that’s all I really care about—though I’m sure that statement really pains you! So then after Nonesuch and VOX/Turnabout what happened in your career after that?

MA: Well there were reissues and recording new artists and (I did some work for National Geographic) around 1973

MF: Did you work with the cutting engineers? Did you get to hear lacquers before they made the records?

MA: There were many that I cut myself

MF: Really. So you were a cutting engineer as well

MA: Oh yeah.

MF: Don’t hold back now!

MA: Claude Rie. He was a friend of Al Grundy (a still-active cutter head technician and founder of the Institute for Audio Research) and when he fell ill I took over his operation so he wouldn’t lose his clients. So I cut a lot of Westminsters and Vanguards

MF: Really? How did you learn that art?

MA: By just being around him. Claude Rie had a cutting studio on West 4th street and that’s where I had my outfit before that I was sub-letting.

MF: Did you cut on Westrex heads?

MA: No. Ortofon

MF: They are making so many cartridges now. The whole analog thing has made an enormous comeback. It’s really unbelievable what’s going on right now.

MA: You know what record I cut the most? Over and over again? The First Family!

MF: The Vaughan Meader album satirizing John F. Kennedy. “The rubber swan is mine.” That sold millions. You find that at every garage sale.

MA: Yes and of course the sales fell flat starting the day Kennedy was assassinated.

MF: I remember where I was when I first heard that record and bought it. It was at a Davega store—  a sporting goods storeon Francis Lewis Blvd and the Long Island Expressway. Back then (1962) everyone was trying to cash in on the LP boom. There were record departments everywhere.

MA: We were going around the clock cutting lacquers of that for pressing plants around the country. That was a really hot item!

MF: Did you have a “secret scribe” that you engraved in the lead out groove area?

MA: “AU”

WB: What did that stand for?

MA: Aubort

MF: It didn’t stand for Goldwater!

 




 End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


COMMENTS
zenmaestro's picture

michael:

you mentioned in the posting above that you planned to review elite recordings'
shostakovich sym #5 conducted by pavel kogan with moscow state so. so, did you ever write such a review? if yes, where do i find it? if no, do you intend to write the review that you promised?

thank you.
--willie

Timbo in Oz's picture

Makes me wonder about this hobby.

All those edge-cancellation losses built in to the recording.

And then we add Eq, phasing Aphex Aural Exciters, and compression.

Fidelity? to what?

Sighhh!

X