Inside Jane Ira Bloom’s Picturing the Invisible and the role of Merging Technologies

Acclaimed saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom recently released her latest record Picturing The Invisible: Focus 1, a collection of improvised compositions inspired by the science photography of legendary NYC photographer Berenice Abbott. The music was recorded remotely during the pandemic in high-definition stereo and immersive sound by audio engineer and co-producer (alongside Bloom) Ulrike Schwarz, mastered by Morten Lindberg, and mixed by Jim Anderson. Headliner caught up with multiple Grammy Award nominees Schwarz and Lindberg to find out about how they approached this unique project and the vital role of Merging Technologies in its creation.

Tell us about the concept for this project and how you came to be involved.

Ulrike: Jane Ira Bloom, Jim Anderson and I developed the idea to create an immersive audio project based on the science photography of Berenice Abbott, a New York photographer active from the 1920s to the 1990s. Jane and I received a grant from the New York Foundation of The Arts in cooperation with NYC’s Women’s Fund for Media, Entertainment and Theatre in late 2019.

The concept of the album was to record the space in between the notes with unusual instrumentation, like vibraphone, koto, pipa, percussion, bass in conversation with the soprano saxophone. The plan was to get everybody in the same space and ‘picture the invisible’ together. We wanted to present this in Ultra High Definition and Immersive Sound to illustrate the space even better.

Then the pandemic hit, and we had to revisit our concept. Jane chose duo partners and reshaped the arrangements; I came up with a concept to record duos in home spaces and via the internet. One of my Pyramix recording systems was set up at Jane’s tiny office and microphones set for immersive recording. I travelled with the other system to the other partners Allison Miller, Mark Helias and Miya Masaoka, and turned their rehearsal spaces and living rooms into recording sites. I controlled both Pyramix systems from my main recording system.

How different is the process of working on stereo and immersive projects?

Ulrike: Mixing for stereo and immersive formats each have their own difficulties. This recording had additional challenges in that the album was recorded exclusively in spaces that were very different from each other – none were meant to be a recording space. Generally, in stereo, the mixing challenge is to get all the musical information into two channels while keeping the clarity of the musical content and providing a depth and space in a recording.

For immersive mixes, the challenge lies within the placement of the instruments and musical content in the 3D space. Sometimes the lack of musical or psychoacoustic knowledge can result in wrong mixing decisions that will distort the musical content and, in the worst cases, appear unintentionally comical.

Jim and I had in depth conversations about the microphone setup that would allow us to do both a 3D impression of all instruments and exclusion of the room footprints of the recording venues. It all came together with the 3D reverb chamber at Skywalker Sound that we used during the mixing process.

My mentality for mastering is not to get in the way of the qualities of the recording. Morten Lindberg, mastering engineer

Is the process of immersive mastering different to mastering a stereo recording?

Ulrike: Yes and no. Theoretically it is the same process, but with immersive projects, the delivery formats are very varied. The workflows for each one are sometimes established, but sometimes they need to be developed. Very few mastering houses have monitoring options that can work in multiple immersive formats on a very high level.

How did you each approach this project?

Morten: My mentality for mastering is to not get in the way of the qualities created in the recording. With the mixes coming from Jim and Ulrike I didn’t feel the need to apply any EQ, compressors or limiters. My most important tool is extended range monitoring in a good room. I spend a lot of time focusing on the broad strokes affecting the consumers’ perception of the album. It mostly comes down to energy curves, making small adjustments to levels, securing a loudness target and tailoring transients to keep within a safe True Peak value. Our Pyramix platform secures lossless transport of the content, using the MTFF format preserving 32-bit float resolution at the project's original sample rate.

Our major challenge today is to fit a single delivery master into a wide range of consumer formats, ranging from lossy stereo to high end immersive. I’ve developed within the Pyramix a matrix style of mastering that works in stereo, surround and immersive. From these originals we derive deliverables according to the specification of the services. We also explore new formats, especially within the home cinema market, using open source containers like MKV to carry Dolby Atmos TrueHD, DTS and Auro-3D. It is important for us to challenge the lossy low-bandwidth services and provide an alternative with higher fidelity alternatives.

Ulrike: The main objective was to deliver a technical setup that would enable the musicians to collaborate and make music as if they were in a studio, all while keeping everyone safe during the pandemic. That eliminated the possibility of assistant engineers, as only I was allowed to enter Jane’s or anybody else’s apartments.

One set of microphones and a Pyramix system with Hapi interface in 384kHz/32bit was set up and sound-checked at Jane’s office. The room treatment was winter jackets on the sofa, towels on the desk to reduce early reflections. The microphones were split analogue and sent to a n-1 ready, latency free Acousta LE03 interface that was working with the communication software. The other Pyramix system with the Merging Technologies Horus travelled with me to the other duo partners. The same setup to the communication platform and room treatment was used.

The heart and soul of our system is the Merging Technologies Clock U. Ulrike Schwarz, recording engineer and producer

Can you elaborate further on your Merging Technologies setups?

Ulrike: My main Pyramix workstation is a prototype of a PC Audiolabs laptop with expansion chassis and the Pyramix Extended Software with MassCore that allows for recording 64 channels in DSD/DXD. This was developed at the end of 2018 for the mobile recording of a Patricia Barber album Clique!. I have a second laptop based on an Apple Power Book that can record up to eight channels DSD/DXD. We have a Horus, a Hapi MK1 and one Anubis Premium interface. Currently we have 52 channels Premium DA and 44 channels Premium AD.

The heart and soul of our system is the Merging Technologies Clock U. Once you have heard it you can’t go back. We used it the first time on Clique! and knew we had to get one. The stability and sonic properties the clock brings to the recordings are unmatched.

What is it that you particularly like about these systems?

Ulrike: Merging systems are state of the art and in many ways ahead of its class. I haven’t been able to achieve sonic results even close to those we achieve with Merging systems with other workstations and components. We haven’t had a single freeze in a recording situation as of now. It allowed us to sneak a system into Cuba once and run a complete recording on one machine only! The AoIP enables us to shorten copper cable connections significantly, provide a multitude of inputs in many locations with ease and work flexibly.

How did you come across Merging products?

Ulrike: When I left my broadcasting job at Bayerischer Rundfunk in 2015 I was evaluating which system I wanted to work with in the future. All the state-of-the-art High Definition or Ultra High Definition production houses worked with Merging Technologies products. Those were mostly for classical music projects, and I wasn’t sure if I could adapt the software for our hybrid production styles but it turned out to be not a problem. The quality of audio processing is singularly high. The versatility in the monitoring options is also something I wouldn’t want to miss anymore. The learning curve is steeper than with other systems but the payoff is worth it.