An interview with
Micha de Kanter

By Beppe Colli
Apr. 6, 2016

This interview has a very simple starting point: quite often, in the course of the last decade, while looking for the name of the engineer who was responsible for the fine sound of a CD featuring "improvised music" recorded in Holland, the CD booklet showed me the name Micha de Kanter. In the end, I thought that having a conversation could prove to be great fun.

So I did a search, and I discovered that - alongside a freelance role that I assume keeps him busy - there's also a personal recording studio, and an intense "live" work.

Though he was quite busy, Micha de Kanter kindly accepted to answer my questions. The interview was conducted via e-mail, in the last two weeks.

If you don't mind, I'd like to start our conversation talking about a CD that I reviewed quite recently: Reverse Camouflage by Oguz Büyükberber and Tobias Klein. Since you mixed and mastered this album, I'd like you to talk about the way you regard your role when it comes to mixing music that I assume to be for the most part improvised. I mean, when mixing a written work one has at least the score as one's guide (even if a score doesn't necessarily tell us how the piece is supposed to sound), but what's your general rule, your compass, when it comes to mixing an improvised performance?

Well that is an interesting question. Indeed I don't have a score, and often even the performers can't guide me in how it should sound. What I do is that I use my imagination and try to let the music guide me here. So that requires improvisation from my part, experimenting in the mix. I mean, I do get an idea when listening to the recordings, imagine what musical role voices, instruments, and sound have and give that a corresponding place. I like working in space, I see the sound-field as my space. As a painter can spread out his elements on paper, not only in the two dimensions but also in depth, color, contrast etc. I think that is quite similar in audio.

And the thing I like in improvised music is the fact that we have more freedom in the audio field too, as listeners expect less. I mean, in a pop song everybody expect the vocals to be clear, understandable and surrounded by either some reverb or instruments. I do like pop music too though!

In the past, I've noticed your name as the engineer on CDs by artists such as Ab Baars, Meinrad Kneer, Tobias Klein, Wolter Wierbos, Albert van Veenendaal, and so on, so I assumed that "recording the avant-garde" was your specialty. Even if my assumption is not correct, would you mind talking about your relationship when it comes to engineering works by those people I mentioned?

I think you could say so indeed, working the improvised contemporary music is my specialty. Although I do a lot more too, like concert recording for public radio, contemporary "classical" music, live sound design, jazz music. But to answer your question, it all started in the nineties for me when I studied at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague and later got to get working at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, that I still do since 1998! At the conservatory there was, and is, a great composition department as well as sonology that I was interested in, aside from the jazz department that my engineering study was more related too. I contributed a lot to events, concerts and recordings of more contemporary music as well as jazz.

The Bimhuis in Amsterdam had been the most important base for improvised music since the seventies and so I got to know the scene when I joined the team in the late nineties and recorded a lot in the studio with them.

I'm quite curious to know who you regard as your "role model" when it comes to recording. I'm not talking about your mentor, or about "learning the ropes". I'd like to know what you consider as being "a perfectly realized sound picture”.

I get inspiration and got influenced from quite some different sources. An important one is actually not recorded sound, but sound that I hear, live, in real life, without any electro-acoustical interference! So in that sense trying to reproduce music as natural and transparent as possible contributes to my "perfect sound picture". But that is not all, as "real" reproduction is not possible, and the fact that we can "add" surrealism to the sound gives lots of interesting possibilities that I think do contribute to the music and listening experience. So I like to bring contrast in recordings, together with a balanced sound picture. A different field, but I find the sound of engineer Tchad Blake interesting, for example his work with Neil Finn, to mention one name.

I had a look at your studio's website, and I saw that one of the projects you mention features a lady playing a whole variety of recorders, performing written compositions. Would you mind talking about this, and your role in this?

"Susie, tell me a Story!" is a project by Susanna Borsch, a very talented recorder player. Her idea for the project was taken from Christopher Booker's book The seven basic plots. She asked seven composers to write a piece as one of the ingredients of a story. Recording and electronics are seamlessly integrated in the performance so I was happily involved in the creation and making of the project. The piece by Kate Moore for example consists of nine shifting recorder voices, of which eight are pre-recorded and played back around the audience and one played live. Others have soundtracks that play along as we play phrases that sound like a looping effect of what Susanna plays but are not, as they evolve individually.

Here again I find it very interesting to present the audience live with just nice recorded sound, but also add some contrasting element. So for example Susanna played contra bass flute to which I add a big sound, and distortion. And the image varies from very subtle elegant flutes with reverb to quite loud soundtrack with shaking bass.

Sometimes it happens that, upon listening to an old record that one "simply enjoyed" at the time of its original release, one notices things one hadn't noticed before. (For me, it was my understanding that the sound I heard on an album by The Doors such as Strange Days was a prepared piano, with paper on the strings.) Has it ever happened to you?

Oh yes! I had the experience when professionally listening to sound and developing my musical ears that I started to listen differently to all recordings and music. I was shocked as I feared I could "just" enjoy the music in its totality without analyzing the sound and voices, harmony, rhythm etc. But happily after a while I kind of developed the ability to take different listening perspective actively. So from a more "overview" sort of listening to more in-depth analytic listening. Now I really enjoy that I learned that, and I'm still learning. It is interesting how different people, and you as individual too, can listen differently to music!

I'd like to know how you started to develop an interest in sound. Was it due to your listening to a recorded sound (such as a record), or to a "live sound" (even if, say, broadcast on the radio)?

I was interested in sound for all my life. My mother told me that the first thing I did as a young kid when she bought new pans was to check out how they sounded! And as a kid playing piano and composing some songs I asked for a microphone for Christmas and put it all over - and under - the piano to see how it sounded. That kind of things, but it was totally natural to me, so I was not really aware I was especially interested in sound or recording. Just when I finished high school and was searching what to study I found out that recording music was actually a study, that would fit me well.

I noticed that on your website you have a list of studios where you like to work, and I had a look at some of them. I'd like to know more about the situation when it comes to studios such as those, in your area or otherwise, given the fact that for quite some time now, for multiple factors, studios have been in a perilous financial state.

Well, times have been changing in music and the audio industry, that is no news. CDs don't sell, record companies hardly produce any big selling records. So lots of productions are done independently by musicians themselves, distribution is easy too. You do not even have to make anything physical anymore. On the other hand, in audio land, development of equipment makes production so much cheaper and faster that is way easier to make recordings with less budget and fewer people. So studios that adjust to that change do well right now, and new studios arise. All the studios I work in are professional and healthy businesses. The most important and hard to find is a good and silent room, that doesn't even have to be a studio.

What's your opinion about nowadays "standards in audio"? I'm talking about the current state of technology when it comes to, say, hi-rez and DACs, but also about the "redundancy" of fine sound in an age when mp3s and ear-buds are the current listening model.

Honestly, I care less. I work with the finest equipment, analog to digital to analog converters are important to me, as is digital clocking, because when that goes wrong you introduce such random distortion to the signal. But things like sample rates... You know, I never heard a great record and thought: "it's just a pity that it has been recorded at only 44.1". Remember the discussion not so long ago that digital audio was unmusical, harsh? Never hear anyone about it anymore. That is because converters are so much better now. What you have got in your phone right now is probably better than thousand euro costing 'hi-end' equipment from twenty years ago. It's all quite relative, if people enjoy lots of great records on their phone in poor mp3 quality, who cares? That's just great I think! There is also another positive thing now. Many people listen to music nowadays in a more concentrated way with way better playback quality then most used to do, namely earplugs (instead of low quality speakers placed under the couch).

It's been said that nowadays we live in a sound dimension that - due to the same equipment being in use all over the world - negates any chance of "regional originality", in so differently from the situation up to the 70s, when a lot of studios had different hardware/equipment, some of it custom-made, so that one could easily tell when an album was recorded in the U.S.A. or U.K., etc. What's your opinion?

I prefer "personal originality" over regional, that doesn't mean a lot to me. Might be consensus of our time, I don't know. But having less restrictions these days, and the fact that a lot of equipment, software is available to all does not mean everything sounds the same. Not at all. It's what you do with it. By the way, we use 60Volt microphones and power supplies we build ourselves! Indeed because we wanted a clean and open sound not available on the market, and we have a unique sounding equipment. So that still happens.

I'd like to know more about your current and future projects. Your schedule appears to be quite full!

Indeed I am pleased to have a lot of very nice projects to work on and planned. We are recording a new album of Reinier Baas (Reinier Baas Vs Princess Discombobulatrix), originally a North Sea Jazz Festival composition project. A very special CD of Spinifex Maximus, the band led by Tobias Klein, just came out, recorded all live in the studio Fattoria Musica.

I am touring and made sound design for an exiting new music theatrical opera written by Boudewijn Tarenskeen with Electra (with the recorder player Susanna Bosch among others), and just mixed a new CD with the still very energetic and fresh ICP Orchestra.

Also very interesting is the fact that we started a Bimhuis Radio station, with streaming live recording of selected concerts at the Bimhuis, with interviews and other recordings played. As public radio stations get cut on their budget more and more, local independent initiatives are the future I think.

And the English hosted shows are available on demand afterwards from the Bimhuis website. The quality of music, location and recordings are stunning if I may say so myself. But better check it out yourself.

© Beppe Colli 2016 | Apr. 6, 2016