50 Years of Soundmirror: The past, present, and future

For half a century, Soundmirror has been one of the most revered recording and production companies in the world of classical and orchestral music. Recording on location and conducting post-production services in-house, its reach extends to everything from orchestral, solo, opera, chamber recordings, and much more. To date its recordings have notched up some 135 Grammy nominations and awards. Founder John Newton and chief engineer Mark Donahue join Headliner for a chat about this landmark anniversary, the technology that powers the company, and what the next 50 years hold…

Tell us about the origins of Soundmirror.

John: I started the company 50 years ago, not knowing I was starting a business that would last this long! We’ve had a very interesting experience and just this year we’ve made plans for the next 50. I’ve transferred ownership to the employees, so they are definitely going to keep it going for another 50 years.

As for me, I started out working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra doing radio broadcast work with the classical music station. Early on I met the people at Soundstream who built the first digital tape recorder that was suitable for music, and I worked for them for four or five years taking their digital recorder to record classical music sessions run by all the record labels around the world. When that company finished, I bought my own digital recording equipment and carried on doing the same thing. And we continue on today doing much of the same work we’ve done throughout our history, which is recordings of orchestras and operas. Most of that is live recording. When we started it was almost never live recordings, as everything was done in sessions. But economics became one of the big factors in that, so we changed with it.

Why did you decide to pass ownership to the staff?

John: It was time. We were in the middle of our 50th year and started to think about how things will continue and it seemed a logical thing. All the staff wanted to keep doing what they’d been doing. So, I took the opportunity to make that transfer and it’s been working very well, and I think it will continue to work very well. None of what we do has changed and we don’t anticipate it to.

How has this sector changed over the years?

Mark: When I first started we worked for record companies and they made all the decisions. Then in the late ‘90s we were watching as Rome was burning and all the record companies were basically going away. Every major classical label had their own recording department and we supported those departments, but in the ‘90s they all went away. Now it’s a completely different animal in that most of the time it is the actual organization that is driving these projects, so it’s very different to how it used to be. There are a lot of the old war horses being recorded but there is also a lot of new music being recorded, especially in the opera world; virtually everything we do is a first recording. They are commissions that the opera company has decided to record.

One of the things that’s always been at the forefront with Merging is its flexibility. Mark Donahue, chief engineer, Soundmirror

What have been some of the key moments for Soundmirror over the last 50 years?

John: One of the basic ideas that we can now look back on and say we had this from the beginning was that technology was improving all aspects of the music recording business. There were very interesting things in the ‘70s. At that point digital recording came of age and everyone could hear the significant advantages over conventional analogue recording so there was a huge market for rerecording as much of a catalog as a record company could afford to rerecord.

Then digital recording got more sophisticated and more expensive, so a lot of our middle years were spent working with record companies who didn’t want to make the investment in large amounts of expensive digital gear – they would rather have us come in and do it. And then when the record companies decided that the economics had changed to the point that they wanted to start getting rid of their in-house departments, we got a little bit less work because all of those in-house people set up shop on their own. And when they realized it was a tough business, they went away and all of a sudden we had a surge in business

Record companies wanted to be able to acquire content and be able to sell it, but they didn’t have their own internal departments. The SACD innovation was a very interesting point in our history because we went to work with Sony and Philips, helping to develop that and make it a popular format. That was the beginning of the end of physical media being such a big thing in the marketplace.

We met the people at Merging Technologies during the early days of SACD because they were creating the tools that Philips was using for their share of the Sony Philips cooperation to develop this format. It turned out we had a little bit of influence in some of those tools and we ended up developing a fantastic relationship with a number of companies, including Merging, which has benefited both of us.

Tell us about that relationship with Merging.

John: The relationship began because they had a phenomenal history in the analog world. Their CEO Claude Cellier realized digital was an important improvement in a lot of the things coming forward, and the SACD put an emphasis on better sounding digital recorders. We learned about the company and its capabilities, and they learned from us about what we needed in the way of practical tools to go out in the field and make recordings.

Everything we do is based on Merging products or software. Other than mics and loudspeakers, what we take out into the field is Merging equipment and we bring the content back to our studios for post-production. And we use Merging software and some hardware for the post-production process.

Why Merging?

Mark: From the start of our relationship with Merging, one of the things that’s always been at the forefront is its flexibility. In the early days we had this software that allowed us to do things that nobody else could do. It’s the high track count and high sample rate recording we do that is unlike what virtually 99% of people in the world do. A typical week for us is 48 tracks of DXD and if you look at how much data that is, people’s eyes roll into the back of their heads. But the Merging stuff has allowed us to work at higher sample rates than most of our competitors because the hardware and software has always had this power built in from day one. In 2002 when I started using Pyramix we were already recording 128 tracks of 96K, which at the time was unheard of. It was the only system in the world that would allow you to do it.

John: Basically, the Merging equipment sounded better than anything else and has continued to improve and sound better. It also has a very interesting economic value to it in that you can replace a lot of otherwise expensive gear with Merging equipment. So, if you’re not mixing and matching lots of brands to get a job done and you use Merging, you can do it more economically.

Mark: The first time I saw the Horus I looked at that box and realized exactly what it was, because it completely changed our way of working. In the old days we would show up to do a recording and have 300lbs of mic preamps and 150lbs of converters and cables and adapters, and computers with lots of cards in them, and then Claude showed me this box and says it’s 48 channels, has mic preamps, converters, and it connects to your computer with a generic network cable. And for a 48-channel box it’s going to cost $19,000.

I realized that if you took 48 channels of preamp, you’re already at $30,000 worth of equipment, and then you have the converters and everything else. And the fact it’s all in a single ecosystem that is optimized for the purpose means the audio quality was significantly better than what we were previously using. It was before and after.

I can’t imagine going back to those days, given the bulk of our work is on location, and allows us to work at the highest resolution available. Fundamentally we can just work, and my level of productivity wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is if I had to work with disparate products in the process.