One of the pleasures of experiencing a second golden age of audio is witnessing all the ways record labels keep evolving. Take, for example, Yarlung Records, a California- based company that, when it was launched in 2005, was just one more small label in the increasingly sink-or-swim music industry. Almost ten years later Yarlung remains, in the words of owner Bob Attiyeh (uh-TEA-yuh), “too small to fail,” yet its list of accomplishments points to the success a label can achieve when it combines carefully-chosen performances with superb-sounding recordings. Case in point: In 2010 Yarlung won a Grammy for Antonio Lysy at The Broad: Music from Argentina, a recording that also earned a spot on the list of top forty best-sounding recordings TAS compiled in Issue 234.
A big part of Yarlung’s success comes from its status as a nonprofit organization that relies on support ranging from small donations by students who attend live concert recording sessions to much larger gifts from album underwriters (typically between $25,000 and $30,000) who are credited as executive producers, invited to participate in every aspect of the recording, attend vinyl mastering sessions at Bernie Grundman Mastering, and host album release concerts and events.
Attiyeh, an audiophile in the truest sense of the word, bases his sonic judgments not on textbooks or statistics but his own ears, which, as this interview makes clear, received much of their training in concert halls, where he prefers to record. Much of Yarlung’s discography is devoted to classical music, with releases by a mixture of well-known names and up-and-coming artists. The label isn’t limited to classical only; there have been excursions into world music, and Yarlung is about to put out its first-ever jazz release, a delightful new record by the Sophisticated Lady jazz quartet. Every time I chat with Bob Attiyeh on the phone I can tell how much he enjoys his 70- to 80-hour-a-week job, a labor of love that happens to be successful, and that comes through in this e-mail interview as well.
Tell us about your early experiences that helped shape your future as an audiophile.
The real shift toward audio came when I bought my first tube amplifier, a McIntosh 240. I asked a friend who could help me test it, and through this met my first audio mentor. Gustavo Hidalgo had participated as an extra set of ears or as a producer on a number of recordings here and in South America. He was in the mastering room at Bernie Grundman’s when Bernie cut lacquers for Distingué Lovers and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. I spent hours listening with him, mostly jazz and classical, soaking it all up. He introduced me to Antal Dorati on Mercury, Cuban music on audiophile pressings made in Spain, and Jeff Buckley. In exchange, I introduced him to Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay.
Are there any music labels that particularly inspired you when you first fell in love with music?
Indeed! Mercury Records. Wilma Cozart, whom I never met, remains a hero of mine. Her technique (and her husband’s) with three Telefunken 201 microphones for full orchestra recordings became my principal inspiration. I wanted to learn how to record like that, to preserve the timbres of natural performance and to capture the real acoustic environment of the concert halls, and to give listeners a soundstage of this precision. I’m a soundstage junkie as anyone knows who’s heard our recordings of Smoke & Mirrors Percussion Ensemble. This love of a great soundstage came from listening to Mercury recordings. We make most of our recordings with one stereo or two mono tube microphones. We “cheat” for full orchestra recordings by using a stereo pair (or stereo mike) in front and two mono microphones further back to reinforce the winds and percussion. So this is three or four microphones, depending on how you count them, not the standard 30 or 40 or more mikes common today.
Other inspirations are the Vanguard recordings with Joan Baez, and the work Robina Young and Brad Michael continue to do at Harmonia Mundi USA. Philip Hobbs at Linn Records is another genius.
When did you begin listening to reel-to-reel tapes, and what was it about the sound that made that format stand out for you?
Gustavo Hidalgo got me into reels before there was a Yarlung Records. We found and modified old Tandberg and Revox consumer decks and played 4-track tape. Now we have the luxury of making recordings with brand-new analog tape equipment from Sonorus Audio (the ATR-12), and before that Len Horowitz designed tube circuitry for Yarlung Records for my trusty Ampex 440B.
The best record companies and audiophile listeners want the recorded sound to reproduce the sound of live music as closely as possible. There’s something about analog tape that captures this “reality” well. It may be that the resolution of analog tape at 15ips is almost infinite, and/or it may be that analog tape artificially boosts the first harmonic overtone (one octave above the note you hear) slightly, giving us that palpable “real” quality that our ear recognizes as living and authentic. If it is this second element, the overtone boost, I love the irony that what makes tape sound so lifelike is actually a mistake caused by the medium.
Before forming Yarlung, what experience did you have in the recording industry?
I was hired to make a couple of recordings for other people before starting Yarlung. I had no academic training in the field, but I had the best training possible: I listen as a musician, and I attend 50 or 60 live concerts a year. I spend more of my life than I would like to admit driving in traffic to Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Yarlung has also had the privilege of making several recordings. And I have had as friends, mentors, and teachers some of the greatest audio people in the world: Gustavo Hidalgo, Elliot Midwood, Steve Hoffman, Arian Jansen, Bernie Grundman.
When you started Yarlung Records, what was the biggest challenge you hadn’t anticipated?
When we make an album and record to analog tape, I don’t like to edit because of the degradation in the musical intent that increases with every edit. So we do our best to use complete takes of movements even if there is a mistake somewhere in the playing. When I try to explain this to musicians as we prepare for a recording, some react with horror. These people have spent years, decades normally, honing their techniques and want to leave only a record of perfect playing. Luckily we tend to work with extraordinarily talented musicians who often produce one flawless take after another.
Is there a particular recording that you’d recommend as the first Yarlung release to try?
I’d suggest two. One is our first album with an opera singer, Sasha Cooke, who has taken The Met, San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden, and more by storm. We called it If You Love for Beauty, after one of the Mahler songs on the disc. If one likes classical voice, this is my recommendation. The other is our first jazz recording with the Sophisticated Lady jazz quartet, made in the brand-new Cammilleri Hall at The Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. This is a concert hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, and lovingly built by Antonio Damasio, one of the most important neuroscientists in the world.
How do you select venues?
We’re fortunate in Los Angeles to have many world-class concert halls. Yarlung has been privileged to make the first commercial recordings in Walt Disney Concert, Cammilleri Hall, and The Broad Stage. We’ve also used Zipper Hall for about twelve recordings, Royce Hall, Ambassador Hall, and Alfred Newman Hall. We’re talking about a series of recordings in Costa Mesa at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The acoustics are adjustable in Zipper, Segerstrom, Ambassador, Newman, and Royce. We’ve been lucky that the most expensive halls have generally invited us to make recordings in them without charge to support their publicity and reputation.
Walt Disney Concert Hall works well for a full orchestra or for a soloist. Suryodaya, with solo violin and tabla, remains one of our most lauded acoustic triumphs despite its esoteric music, partially because of the legendary Badal Roy who plays tabla on this album. Hearing Badal’s tabla in that hallowed space is thrilling. While one might think that a larger space is better for greater numbers of musicians, that’s not always the case. We recorded If You Love for Beauty, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and The Colburn Orchestra, in Zipper Hall, which seats only 400 people. It’s a jewel of a concert hall, but small, like La Fenice in Venice. Making that recording remains one of the highlights of my life.
You’ve joked that Yarlung is too small to fail, but new labels often pass under the radar. How have you avoided that fate?
Unlike a big company, we do fewer recordings and spend the time each album deserves to make it really special. If the album isn’t ready we keep working on it and change the release date. At the same time, Yarlung has been fortunate to receive incredibly strong support from our customers and from reviewers.
Sophisticated Lady is Yarlung’s first-ever jazz recording. What was that experience like?
The musicians and I selected some pieces they had played often before, but—taking inspiration from the legend surrounding the creation of Kind of Blue—I also asked them to write new tunes which they would not share with each other until our recording session. The takes on our recording are the first performance of these pieces. The intense musical connection between these four people comes across in these takes and provides that truly live improvisation I wanted. To up the ante, I gave them a few tunes myself, and played the melody for them on the piano right before the take. What they gave us back demonstrates their supreme mastery, and being part of this was a thrill. It was a new adventure for me and I look forward to doing this kind of recording again.