Linn Records: Vinyl to Digital – the Song Remains the Same Page 2

Q&A with Philip Hobbs of Linn Records

My sincere thanks to Philip Hobbs for taking time out of his crazy busy schedule to answer all my questions.

Rafe Arnott: Philip Hobbs, you are one of those rare souls whose abilities allow him to straddle two halves of the music/playback whole: Studio engineer and high-fidelity engineer. Having a head in two disciplines must allow for unique insights into the processes of both. Can you describe what it’s like to be hands on the mic which is recording the piece and hands on the transducer that is reproducing the piece?

Philip Hobbs: “I think the first thing I must admit is how extraordinarily lucky I have been to find somewhere open-minded and open-hearted enough to enable me to work on both my passions. Linn is a wonderful company, which even 30 years after I started there still feels like a big family, but the whole place runs on music. Almost everyone plays something, is in a band, or is at least a rabid fan of some group or other. So, in that sense it’s not a great surprise that as a company we should want to get involved in the process of making music as well as reproducing it as perfectly as possible.

“In terms of the ‘two disciplines’ of recording and loudspeaker development, there is something curiously similar about the process of fine-tuning microphone positions and ‘voicing’ loudspeakers, at the point where the physics alone is not quite enough and your intuition takes over, and when that works it is a tremendous sensation. I’ve yet to find a good idea in hi-fi design that doesn’t turn out to be a good idea in recording practice as well.  As a very simple example, when I first started working on recording equipment for Linn Records, it was very obvious that the whole recording industry was incredibly broadcast-orientated, so there would be several different sets of transformers in the signal path – for good reason, since the designers had to make sure their equipment would work in any number of situations with all sorts of other unknown machines. We were in the lucky position of knowing exactly what our recording chain was going to be on each occasion, so there were significant improvements to be had just by applying the ‘minimum signal path’ design rules that we had always applied to our hi-fi.  

“Equally, at the ‘voicing’ stage of loudspeaker design, the measurements are your compass but the music you listen to is your map – it’s by listening to music, changing a design parameter and then listening again, that you eventually make progress. Of course, we all use our favourite tracks, or tracks which we think demonstrate particular aspects of sound. But while I might like to use Pink Floyd, I’ve no idea what Dave Gilmore’s Stratocaster actually sounded like and if I make it sound brighter on my loudspeaker I might like the sound more, but I’ve no idea whether it’s ‘right’ or not. However, I do know precisely what Ingrid Fliter’s piano sounded like when we were recording the Chopin Concertos, not least because I can still remember moving the main pair of DPA 4041s further round towards the tail to get the tenor octave into focus.”

In the recording studio.

RA: Thirty years in the business of music and hi-fi with the same company has seen you wear numerous hats on both the hardware proper side and the record label, do you have a specific favorite role, or is the very act of moving between them the most satisfying of all?

PH: “There’s no doubt that the best way to have fresh ideas on something is not having to be responsible for it for a while. I’ve also been very lucky in that my very long-suffering managers at Linn have often spotted that change of scene could be of benefit to me. I think the most obvious example of this was around 2000, when I had been running the record label for several years. Ivor Tiefenbrun, Linn’s managing director, invited me up to the canteen for a long lunch. About 20 minutes in he asked if I were to ‘start again’ with loudspeakers, what would my design objectives be and how would I do it. An hour later we’d covered several napkins in scrawled diagrams. A month later I was asked to lead the project that turned into the KOMRI monitor, which is the direct antecedent of the 3K array-based speakers we still make today. I hugely enjoyed being part of that whole project and I’m enormously proud of the speakers that came out of it. 

“But, I think these days I find working with artists and working with them over a series of recordings is probably the most rewarding thing I do. I am so fortunate to work with the amazing musicians I do, and to share a part of their journey.”

RA: I’m curious about the mention in your bio of you leaning toward historically-focused material for your recording work? Is there an attraction to music out of time – anachronistic, if you will – that compels you to bring these works to new generations?

PH: “I think, when I started out in the ’80s, the whole ‘historically informed performance’ thing was just reaching its zenith, at least in terms of public interest. Today it’s so much part of the natural vocabulary of all musicians and listeners that I think we forget how far we’ve come in 40 years. But, back then there was still a great sense of discovery… artists were literally re-inventing the sound worlds of familiar masterpieces. And, of course, it was also about the technology – different keyboard and wind instruments, different strings, different temperament and pitch – and that was something I found naturally appealing. 

“One of the main points of Linn Records is to ‘add to the argument,’ to make recordings which change the way people think about the musical work. A good example is Dunedin Consort’s recording of Bach’s John Passion, where John Butt sets the passion as we all know it within the context of the actual service in Leipzig. So, before the Passion setting begins there are 10 minutes of chorales and organ pieces and Lutheran austerity ending with an almost-gothic Buxtehude Prelude. And as soon as this cadences, the opening Herr, unser Herrscher of the Passion crashes in, and it literally feels as if the TV has gone from black and white into colour – it’s a true revelation.”

RA: You’ve worked with all types of artists, from Amjad Ali Khan to Paul McCartney, and received too many awards to list. I’m sure you have many favorite moments from your decades in the studio, is there anyone who has managed to escape collaborating with you that you want to get mic’d? Is peer recognition important to you? Would you be just as happy doing what you’re doing in anonymity or have the awards opened doors and allowed you to do the work you’re most passionate about?

PH: “I’ve been extremely lucky – and a great deal of any successful career is luck. I think that while awards are always, genuinely lovely, I think the doors are almost always opened by the people you work with or meet along the way, and that’s a big part of the luck. And, of course, I’m always interested in working with other distinguished and exciting musicians. Of the current generation there are too many to mention. Of those of the past, where the opportunity has gone, most of my heroes are pretty obvious: Britten, Furtwängler, Cortot… but… I got to record Idomeneo with Sir Charles Mackerras and that’s going to be pretty hard to beat – listen to D'Oreste, d'Ajace with Barbara Frittoli as Elettra. It is just miraculous.”

RA: Running a record label today is, I imagine, is a different proposition than it was three decades ago, what has changed the most? The least? What would you like to see change more?

PH: “It’s very different. Everyone (the label, artists and their sponsors) are, necessarily, more aware of costs and this has led to a more collaborative approach to making recordings. Conversations with artists now are different to those I was having 10 years ago and the ‘balance of power’ in the relationship between the label and the artist has altered too, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“The biggest difference is the way in which people listen to music. Demand for CDs has decreased, but not ceased, and far more people are accessing their music via streaming and download. Yet musicians are still automatically thinking about recording in terms of 78 minute programmes. More importantly, almost all the print media is still working on the basis that a recording is only released if it manifests itself on a five-inch piece of polycarbonate, so there is still a real imperative to produce things on CD, if only to make sure that the press reviews the recording. I had a bit of a breakthrough with a digital-only release of the Strauss Horn Concerto last year, where we managed to secure both an excellent review in one of the major UK music magazines, as well as ‘CD of the Week’ on the BBC Radio 3 ‘Record Review,’ but, I would love this to become normal. 

“The other major area of concern is how people consume their streamed music, and how we find ways of strengthening the connection between the listener and a particular artist and performance. Everything to do with streaming is set up for either very famous pop music or the entirely generic, and this is only going to get worse as people become more reliant on voice control for their audio. I’m a huge fan of streaming when it’s done well, but I worry about new things getting lost. I also worry that people over time will lose the relationship they once had with particular recordings that they actually owned. I’ve got recordings I’ve had since I was at school, which changed how I thought about music and which were the reference for so many things that followed. Even if I only come back to some of them every five or 10 years, I still learn a lot about both how music has changed and also how I have changed. I wouldn’t be parted from these discs for anything.”

Analog songwriting.

RA: Now that Linn Records no longer offers vinyl for sale, do you miss the analog mastering process, managing the cutting/pressing of the vinyl or the creativity and QC that went along with manufacturing/printing LP sleeves, artwork for covers, etc.?

PH: “We still make CDs, via our splendid partners at the Outhere Music group. There is something fantastically tactile about analogue mastering and I remember very fondly the first LPs I cut and the first time you hold your ‘own’ record in your hand is wonderful, but in truth I don’t miss it. Essentially mastering in all its forms is an exercise in pragmatism, in trying to make compromises in a way that people don’t notice. That’s something that happens relatively frequently in most walks of life, so I am happy to be free from some of it.”

RA: Can you discuss in some detail what projects you’re currently involved with on both the production/recording/mastering side and the hifi/engineering/design side?

PH: “I’m about to go to Berlin for a recording with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the wonderful Robin Ticciati. It’s Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony and we’re recording in the Sendesaal in the Main Radio centre – it’s a fantastic 1920s building and the concert hall is fabulous. I’ve done a number of recordings there and we have a very nice, minimal rig based round DPA omni mics and some lovely DAD converters. Then the following month I’m in Paris recording Vierne and Widor masses with two wonderful Cavaille-Coll organs, and that will be a huge experiment in surround recording. I’ve no idea yet how that will appear in the world.”

RA: Some lament that modern music production techniques, and modern music in general, are but a pale facsimile of decades previous when the recording/music industry was in its heady prime. Do you agree that modern artists, and the ubiquity of digital production/recording software has diluted the creative waters of music artists and the engineering/production experimentation that took place in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s? Or do you think this current music epoch will stand the test of time and prove to be just as fertile from a quality standpoint of not only the music being written, but in the way it is recorded?

PH: “I think the equipment is basically much better than it was and I think there are still plenty of fantastic engineers and producers working. There are some fabulous recordings being made, and if they don’t sound the same as those of the ‘golden age’ then I don’t think that’s a problem – every generation must have the chance to make its own sound and I think in 30 years some of it will stand up well in comparison. I think there is also an aesthetic issue, in that we are so used to certain styles of sound for a particular sort of music: if you listen to Verve or Blue Note recordings from the ’50s, there’s plenty you could improve, but if you do, it just sounds less like a jazz record.

“I think there are risks because some things are easier than they were. When I started we were still doing whole operas or oratorios straight to stereo, and we were thrilled when four-track became possible so we could re-balance the voices against the orchestra after the event. But while this was sometimes scarily hard (and some terrible mistakes happened!) it meant that everyone understood that what they heard in the control room was how the disc would sound. So, people made time for balance and mic setting – often days of rehearsal and balance before a single note was recorded in anger. Today the default is to record every microphone on a separate track and the assumption is that it can be ‘fixed in the mix’ – in truth it mostly can be ‘fixed,’ but that’s not the same as taking the time to get it ‘right’ in the first place.”

Attention to detail a key part of the recording process.

RA: Do you have any parting advice or collected wisdom to pass on to those reading this article who might fancy a job like yours? Many would consider it their ‘dream career.’

PH: “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and have enjoyed almost every working day. But it has always been a rather narrow field and it’s not an easy option these days. There are certainly easier ways of earning a living, finding a career that can grow to support you through the other parts of your life. But, I think that’s true of many careers and occupations these days. So, if you feel you HAVE to do it – go for it.”

Linn Records

dadracer's picture

I thought his name was Ivor and not Igor as you have in the blog. I don't agree with much of what he has had to say over the years but he is/was right about LP quality. These days I see so many 180g albums and yet many sound as though they were mastered from a CD. It was a pity he chose that Blue Nile album. Great sound, but not such great music....sorry.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Thanks, it certainly is 'Ivor' not 'Igor.' It got 'corrected' it seems. Fixed now.
whell's picture

....I love it. I need to use that as my screen name. :)