Q&A: Udi Koomran, Audio Engineer for Shub Niggurath
Udi Koomran is an audio engineer based in Tel Aviv, Israel, who has made quite a name for himself in the world of avant-garde progressive rock. Most recently, he remastered the 1985 debut cassette tape by French band Shub Niggurath. Released as Introduction by France's Soleil Zeuhl records, this album is reviewed in this week's City Paper.
Koomran has worked with musicians from all over the world, including as a live soundman with Belgian "chamber-rock" group Present, on an international tour that hit the United States in 2005. He's worked on recordings by 5uu's and Ahvak, and in fact is credited as a full member of those bands on their recent releases. Additionally, Koomran has recorded works by experimental jazz musicians like Russian pianist Slava Ganelin and unclassifiable contemporary musicians like Israeli composer Yitzhak Yedid.
I conducted an e-mail Q&A with Koomran to find out a bit more about his experience working with this long-lost album. Read the full Q&A after the jump, and scroll down all the way to the end for some samples from Introduction. (As an imported obscurity, Introduction can be tough to find – try Wayside Music for a CD or Anthology Recordings for a download.)
Washington City Paper: How did you first come across Shub Niggurath?
Udi Koomran: Hmmm... If memory serves right, it was through the Recommended Records mail order catalog some time in the late 80s. This was a time that the Zeuhl scene seemed to be dwindling down a bit (Offering [Christian Vander's post-Magma group] wasn't my cup of tea then) and then suddenly being exposed to music with so much emotion, power and beauty was like a breath of fresh air. The whole feel of the music appealed to me in every aspect. The instrumentation, the playing, the arrangements: they were all captivating, and more than anything it was the physical element of the music that moved me.
You had two versions of the Introduction recordings to work with. What were the sources of these two transfers, and how did they differ? What was the reasoning behind which one was ultimately chosen?
Around 1998, I found out that Les Mort Vont Vite was actually not Shub Niggurath's first release. So after some lengthy searches, I acquired a tape from a local collector friend. I transferred this tape and mastered it casually and intuitively; it sounded like it was a bit harsh on the higher mid range and too light in the bass department, so some quite aggressive tonal balancing, a tad of noise reduction and voila!
Years later, when Frank Fromy [Shub Niggurath's guitarist] got to eventually hear this version, he was quite pleased and wanted us to use it as is. But when I sat down and tried to prepare this version as a definitive master, I started having doubts about whether the transfer I made was good enough. I had an uneasy feeling that I did the initial mastering with a heavy hand and not enough respect to the original sound, but wasn't sure because of the time that had passed (almost 8 years). So despite Frank being happy with what we had, I was determined to investigate this further and actually try and trace another tape and try an additional alternative version.
After some searching, I got some help from my friend Eric Lambleau, who gracefully transferred and provided us with his tape. The new version I made from this was actually harder on the edges and lighter with less bass enhancement. So it was now Frank's task to choose the version he thought served the music's vision and vibe the best. To my surprise, he opted for the original version mainly because of the character of the bass. I must admit I was a bit disappointed at first, because I thought the later version was more true to the initial recording – but as time goes by, I realize that Frank made the right choice as I overlooked the limitations of the initial format (ie the tape used was not able to carry through the full frequency spectrum and my initial mastering actually compensated for these limitations).
Tell us about the work you had to do to clean up these recordings.
Regardless of what job I am doing – whether it's recording, mixing, mastering, or live sound – I always work intuitively and my main goal is achieve a result that will move the listener emotionally (as I learned from working with Roger Trigaux [guitarist of Present], the test is if the music is able to raise the hairs on the back of your arm). And it's the same with audio restoration: the main priority is to come up with a result that will evoke emotions and touch the listener. For example, on a project I did for Ad Hoc Records (The Work – Live In Japan), the focus was to be able to enhance the punch and raw energy these guys were generating that day on stage in Osaka. For Shub Niggurath, my goal was to retain the unique balance of between the heavy, distorted, blistering passages (like Frank's scorching solo on "Barback") and the beautiful ethereal landscapes on others (like the trombone and vocals on "In Memoriam"). This fine balance is the essence of Shub Niggurath's magic, and I wanted the beauty of this music to be able to shine through (yes, I'm aware that some people who have heard this music might raise an eyebrow at that, but I find this music to be extremely beautiful).
So I am not necessarily too orthodox about the result needing to stay 100% faithful to the original mix. I mean, I do respect the artist's initial vision, and I take great care to discuss this with them and find out their thoughts and feelings and what they expect from the mastering. But when it comes to "cleaning up," I try my best to work as hard as I can, regardless how painstaking the process might be, to do this without resorting to programs that automatically remove pops, clicks, static, noise, drop-outs, etc. I go to great lengths to remove these artifacts by homing in on them and manually removing them by micro-editing or waveform redrawing. As for this recording, as I already said, the keys were making sure the bass has enough mass and muscle, making the trombone and vocals heard warm and clear, leaving enough space for the keyboards, retaining the attack and transients of the drums, and making sure the whole spectrum of Frank's guitars come through.
Why did it take so long for this album to be properly reissued on CD? Why didn't [French label] Musea pick it up after releasing Les Morts Vont Vite?
I never was able to understand this. When I was with Present at NEARfest 2005, I did ask Bernard Gueffier, Musea's boss, about this, and only got a vague answer. But the interesting thing is that it was the recent reprint of Les Morts Vont Vite on Musea earlier in 2008, and reading the many positive responses it got, that made get up and do something about it. I mean, this music is amazing, so why should I be the only one to get to hear it properly, right?
You introduced Alain Lebon at Soleil Zeuhl to this recording. What was his reaction to hearing this album for the first time?
Alain was unaware of this album, but he has great taste and immediately wanted to release this. After some searching, he was able to trace Frank Fromy and Jean Luc Herve, and meet and play them the initial version. I find it amusing that a guy from Tel Aviv is able to introduce two Parisian musicians to a French Zeuhl expert and label owner to resurrect a half-forgotten album from long ago.
How were the original band members found? What are they up to now?
I think Alain just looked Frank up in the phone directory. No idea about the other former members or if they are active musically. Alain Ballaud, the bass player, died of cancer sometime in the early 90s; I recently had a conversation about him with Jamie Hugget of Combat Astronomy and we were both raving amd marveling on his unique playing and amazing tone. Jamie wondered if Alain's family know what a source of inspiration Alain was to fans and musicians. But to be honest, the most rewarding and exciting aspect for me to come from this project is the fact that Frank stated this release ignited a spark for him, and he immediately started to make plans for a new band that I hope will continue in the path that he was planing Shub Niggurath to go after Les Morts Vont Vite. I find this extremely gratifying: Frank is such a unique and inspiring musician and guitar player, yet his recorded works sum up to just three albums. I am really looking forward to what he does next.
Now that your work on this reissue is complete, what other projects do you have on your plate?
Tomorrow [July 28th], I am hopefully finishing the new Present. That has taken quite a while, so I look forward to working on something new and different. I am currently test mixing for Xing Sa, the alter ego of French band Setna, whose debut album I mastered last year. There is a possibility of some audio restoration projects for Cuneiform Records. And there has been talk of mixing Guapo's NEARfest 2006 performance for a DVD release. I already mixed one bonus track from the RIO Festival performance in 2007, and that came out very well. Also, at some point Soleil Zeuhl will be rerestoring and releasing Eskaton's 4 Visions. I did a test on the opening track and the band members gave the green light for this reissue. So lots of possibilities – we'll see which of these will actually be done in the next few months.
Also, sometime ago, I was approached by Radio Village Nomade to take a part in an soundscape project, with contributors like Fred Frith (who actually recommended me), the legendary engineer/producer Etienne Conod, and many others. The aim of the project was to cultivate works out of sounds that highlight the ever-changing moments that make up our collective realities, windows into different sound worlds, actual or constructed. So I rose to the challange and, after messing with my computer for a while, submitted one track, "A Walk" – basically day-to-day mundane sounds of my house such as my kitchen sink, air conditioner, my laptop fan, and a kettle overheating. These were edited, heavily processed, and shaped to simulate "A Walk" though different stages of contentious emotions I felt that day. I enjoyed it enough to start doing this in the very little spare time that I do have, and so far I've come up with two additional tracks. Who knows, maybe this will lead to something.
If there were one project you have worked on that you wish had gotten more exposure, which one would it be?
Wow, that's a hard one, as there are quite a few of these. Let me see... that would probably go to Live In The Head by Tatsuya Yoshida (drummer/vocalist of Japanese avant-rockers Ruins), a live CD I recorded of Yoshida's first visit to Tel Aviv that I was able to sucker Auris Media Records into releasing. It's made up of two sets; the first is Yoshida's solo set with him performing on drums, keyboards, sampler, guitar and vocals, mostly on the more progressive side of Ruins Alone plus some amazing "real time compositions," improvisations he made. The second part is a free, spontaneous set he played with Igor Krutogolov from Kruzenshtern & Parohod on bass and vocals and Asif Tzahar on tenor sax. I am quite happy with the result, and with the fact that I got to mix something for Yoshida, whom I regard as one of the finest musicians walking this planet. Too bad Auris Media's steam ran out, and as a result this recording hardly got any exposure. But maybe this can help a bit.
all photos courtesy Udi Koomran