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Imaginary Road Studios

Fully appreciating what an anomaly the Windham Hill music label really was requires some honest musical history. Think back to the 1980s, when the California-based label achieved enormous popularity. Was there ever a decade when music and recordings sounded more slick, artificial, overly-processed and overproduced? Clearly the stripped-down and natural-sounding Windham Hill, which often featured a single acoustic instrument, offered a much-needed antidote.

It wasn’t just sonics, however, that made Windham Hill stand out, as gimmick-free recordings require real talent. Somehow Windham Hill discovered a crop of previously obscure artists who went on to become names, among them George Winston, Alex de Grassi, Shadowfax, Scott Cossu, Liz Story, Mark Isham, and Michael Hedges. The A-list also includes, of course, guitarist William Ackerman, who created the label as a side project for his work as a carpenter. Windham Hill was, from the start, a labor of love; it just happened to make millions of dollars. Even so, the business side of things eventually caused the experience to sour, so he walked away from it.

He didn’t walk away from music, however. In 1993 Ackerman built the Imaginary Road Studios on a mountain in Vermont. He did so without a blueprint or a backlist of recording artists to keep the studio busy. A new crop of musicians surfaced, however, whose music is very much in the spirit of Windham Hill. So while Ackerman no longer has any interest in running a label, he’s still a force in the music industry, as the new sampler entitled The Gathering confirms. Consisting of selections from projects recorded in Imaginary Road Studios, The Gathering is more than just a taste test; it’s a memorable CD in its own right, with lyrical, colorful, sensual solo performances as well as some fine ensemble work. (To purchase a copy—and learn more about Ackerman’s recent endeavors—visit imaginaryroadstudios. com.)

Given Ackerman’s activities, The Absolute Sound was clearly due to check in with him, and I feel fortunate I was in a position to do that. Where some artists answer with an eye on market share, Ackerman shot from the hip. Restless, probing, and passionate, he gave the interview his all. Readers who fear that all the questions have been answered when it comes to the recording process will benefit from reading this interview, for, as Ackerman makes clear, there is still plenty of room for exploration. Although he’s well aware of what other folks do in the studio, nothing that’s ever been written about recording will ever trump what he hears with his own two ears.

JW: I’m curious about both the end of your involvement with Windham Hill and the beginning of Imaginary Road Studios. Also, what’s different this time around?

WA: From a structural standpoint, the primary difference now is that I work as an independent producer for artists rather than the owner of a record label I produce for. Every single client I’ve had in the last decade or more has recorded his or her project for his or her own label. The end of my involvement with Windham Hill was more personal than anything. I absolutely loved the experience of Windham Hill in the early days. The company grew at ridiculous rates: 700 % growth years, 1000% growth years, independent distribution to branch distribution through the deal I made with A&M records, overseas and domestic platinum and gold records, Carnegie Hall, the Montreux Jazz Festival, The Hollywood Bowl. It was so so swift and so remarkable especially given the fact that I really only envisioned the label as a hobby on the side of my general contracting company, Windham Hill Builders. As late as 1980, my business card still read “Windham Hill Builders/ Records/Music (BMI).” My only regret is that the Grammy Award for New Age was so late in coming. George Winston certainly would have won a slew of Grammys, as would Michael Hedges and, I’d guess, The Winter’s Solstice recordings, among many others. As the label became more corporate I liked the experience less and less. The company was sold probably at just the right time, but, again, my motivations were more personal than financial.

When your recordings were all on one label, it was easy for fans of the type of music you were recording to track down the music. Even though musically what you’re recording now may be every bit as identifiable as Windham Hill, the fact that these recordings are on so many different labels has to make marketing the music more challenging. What are you doing to spread the word?

You’re certainly right in the premise of your question. I haven’t jumped easily back into the record business, but ultimately I felt that I had to do something that would create a “strength in numbers” sort of scenario. I’m not sure how far this will go, but I’m more than willing to find out. I actually loved the recent experience of assembling twenty-one of the artists I’ve produced in the last few years (I put one of my cuts as the 22nd on the CD) in a compilation called The Gathering, subtitled “A new generation of musicians produced by Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records.” Somehow just hearing and seeing this compilation assembled awakened something in me that feels like Windham Hill in the early days. The Gathering gives very tangible form to my work and seems to inspire me to work on behalf of all of these artists where the prospect of becoming the manager for all of these people would obviously be too daunting. Somehow we’ve all pulled together in this and already the reviews are so glowing that I know we’re on the right track. I’m not sure how far it will go, but I’ll let it go and accompany it on the ride getting wherever it wants to go and wherever I can help it go. These are greatly talented musicians on The Gathering and they deserve all the recognition they can get and I’m genuinely proud to be a part of it.

It sounds as if the musicians you’re recording and producing are seeking you out. How does word get out there that you’re open for business?

I’m not even in the phone book. The legacy of Windham Hill is still what keeps people contacting me…a fact that seems remarkable to me. I don’t suppose that I’d imagine a label that I sold 20 years ago would disappear completely, but the emotional impact the label had on so many lives is something I couldn’t possibly have envisioned. I’m touched by the amazing amount of e-mail I still get from people. They tell me of hard times in their lives that the music got them through. They talk about everything from simple relaxation to nearly religious revelation. The most touching ones have to do with someone telling me that a loved one chose to listen to our music as he left this world. How could one possibly do more on this planet than to have provided solace and meaning to people? I’m incredibly grateful we offered that and I feel very much that the music I’m producing today with these brilliant musicians is a continuation of that legacy.

 

If any musicians might be reading this article and might be inspired to send you a demo tape, how would they go about it?

I may not be in the phone book, but I’m certainly on line. I can be contacted via my Web site, williamackerman.com.

This may be like a parent trying to pick a favorite child, but are there any artists who stand out to you amongst the musicians you’ve recorded thus far at Imaginary Road Studios?

You’re right about the analogy…and I can’t pick a favorite. Pick up The Gathering and make your own decision on that. It frankly matters little what I think anyway; it’s the people who support these musicians whose opinion counts.

What’s the hardest thing about getting a good recording?

I don’t find it hard at all. I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years and I know what I like, I know how to get there, and I work with the finest engineer I’ve ever encountered in any studio on this planet in Tom Eaton who’s recently moved to Brattleboro to be closer to the studio. Tom knows the Windham Hill catalogue better than I do and increasingly he and I are producing together. I don’t feel fatherly in any way; Tom and I are on a very even footing, but I do hope he’ll want to continue with this legacy after I eventually slow down in my producing. That said, I have no intention of disappearing soon; I’m having too much fun.

What’s the most difficult instrument to record? What do you do to get the best possible sound from that instrument?

I don’t know that I’ve found anything particularly vexing in getting the sound right. I do now and again experiment a bit with mike placement and find a subtle variation that I may employ from time to time. From the beginning, the Windham Hill recordings were considered audiophile. I think that had to do with my own ignorance (maybe innocence is a more flattering word, but I can’t deny the ignorance either). As a guitarist, my body was against the instrument, my ears very close to it, and I placed mikes to imitate that proximity. When I started recording piano I did the same thing. I jammed microphones into the guts of the piano, pedal and damper noise and all, and did so unapologetically. In recording piano, I’ve always been a huge fan of imaging—hearing the lower register left and the higher register right. I like to hear the movement of that in a recording. I credit the brilliant engineer Steven Miller (who engineered a lot of the seminal Windham Hill recordings) with helping create that sound for us. So proximity has a lot to do with my sound. I think my mixes are distinctive too. I use the term “psycho- acoustic” to describe what I’m after. I have no idea if that’s a phrase that others use or not, but to me it means envisioning exactly where in an imaginary room each of these players is sitting. Are they forward in the room, or in the back? Are they sitting to the left or the right? This mental puzzle is at least part of the methodology of my mixes.

Many of your recordings consist of one instrument. Putting aside recording issues for a minute, what is it that makes one solo performance memorable and another not?

Obviously I admire brilliant playing, but if I’m given a choice between perfection in execution and a performance that is emotionally evocative, I’ll take the emotion every time. How I (or anyone) makes that determination I can’t say. I’m either moved or not. There are times in the studio when I’m brought to tears. To be in the presence of this beautiful capacity of the human soul to express itself is a mystery as much as it’s an honor. I live for those moments and with the talented people I work with I’m very fortunate to be able to experience that often.

Although this is only part of the equation, good sound costs money. Are there ever any compromises that have to be made because something is simply too expensive?

As a producer I have to figure out pretty quickly where the strengths and weaknesses of any artist are. Even looking at my own work, I’m not the incredible innovator that Michael Hedges was or the staggering technician that my cousin Alex de Grassi is. What I do is achingly simple, but it requires real precision to make it work. Each artist who comes to Imaginary Road has something unique and I need to figure out what that is, shine a light on that and be forgiving in areas that are not likely to ultimately yield the greatest achievement. In short, fight the battles you can win and don’t spend an artist’s time, energy, inspiration, and money chasing something that isn’t likely to bear fruit. Knowing where the thresholds are in the various aspects of composition and performance is the first thing I need to do which is why pre- production is such an important element in the process for me.

Much is made in The Absolute Sound, and in the audiophile world in general, of getting the most realistic sound possible. For starters, do you agree with that aesthetic? And is realistic sound to some extent an illusion? (An example: the reverb that producers add to some records to make it sound more like it’s a live performance.)

I’m in no objective sense a purist. I’m happy that my recordings sound like I am, but I’m not. I was once a zealot for the matched pair of Neumann microphones being the grail of recording. I’m not any longer. We’re using an absolutely insane ten microphone configuration on our Steinway these days! This would be seen as sheer madness by most of the audiophile crowd and I’m sure you’ll have readers who will henceforth boycott my recordings just for the heresy of confessing this audiophile sin. I really am not at all interested in the academic and often mathematical preconceptions about how recordings should be done. I honestly don’t care about some theoretical goal of recording which agonizes over some platonic ideal that can’t be reached once a microphone or a wire or humidity or electricity is involved. What I want to do is to make a recording that moves people. I don’t want clinical perfection. I want warmth, I want glistening high end: I want controlled, but physically felt, bottom end. I want to have the listener feel he’s in a space he can almost visualize. (I do wish we could do more surround mixes.) If I get pretty close to all that I feel I’ve done my job.

 

When the Miles Davis Quintet played the concert that eventually spawned their masterpiece My Funny Valentine, the whole band was in a bad mood, and no one in the group thought he’d played anything special that night—and when someone played a tape back of their performance they were absolutely amazed at what great music they had created. Are there ever those kinds of surprises when you play back either studio or live recordings?

Not for me, at least. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and one of the early jobs I have in working with a new artist is to earn his trust as well. Tom and I use a system of my devising which allows me to make decisions in real time about what I’m listening to and I’m more or less grading a performance, bit by bit, as it’s played. In notating all this I know the moment we have all the parts that would enable us to edit a clean and inspired master recording. This is in many ways a huge time and money saver. It also saves the artist emotionally and physically. To record music that has a strong emotional component is not much different from coaxing brilliance out of a great actor. It’s emotional work and it’s exhausting. By knowing the instant we have all we need to edit the master I allow the artist to remain emotionally involved in a day’s recording. Tom is usually able to edit even the most complex piece in twenty minutes and I’ve seen him pull this off in three or four minutes. If there were an Olympics for editing, Tom would be a competitor.

All artists are to some degree selfish. As a fiction writer, I know that if I agree to edit my friend’s manuscript that’s taking time away from what I’m writing. Do you ever think hey, this is great music I’m recording, but I sure would love to be playing my guitar?

Not for a moment. I don’t touch a guitar sometimes for months at a time. I simply don’t need to and, frankly, I think my music is better for my leaving it alone for a while. The work we do in the studio we refer to as “circumcising the ant.” This is minutia and I need to escape it frequently for balance. My background in building is everywhere evident on my property. I do all the tree felling, log skidding, assist in the milling and do all the carpentry around here and, in complete sincerity, if you told me I could never pound another nail or be working in the woods logging I think I’d really have to decide if a worthwhile quality of life remained for me. If, on the other hand, you told me I could never play another note of music, I might miss it, but it wouldn’t affect my sense of myself or quality of life. I’d simply be grateful that I got to write some nice stuff and play for a lot of people. I’ve always seen my work as being a producer and tend to regard my own music almost avocationally.

When you play music at home, what do you listen to? I’m not so much searching for specific equipment; I’m more looking for things like, do you listen to hi-res downloads, CDs, or vinyl; do you prefer listening to tube equipment; do you ever listen to mono recordings or 78s or 8-tracks (okay, that’s pushing it)— things of that nature.

People often comment on how little music there is in the house. It’s not that I’m sick of music ever, but having listened so intensely all day, I’m happy with the sounds of nature and conversation with my wife and friends. I actually don’t like background music and I’m either listening to music or I’m not. My wife will have music on the kitchen when she’s working there and she’s turned me on to some great music while I’m chopping cucumbers. I hate to disappoint you, but the medium makes absolutely no difference to me at all. What listening I do outside the studio is not in any sense critical. I’m trying to think of a joke that revolves around what a urologist does at home for relaxation, but I’m not coming up with anything. My point being that one simply cannot listen critically constantly. It’s healthy just to be another guy enjoying music and getting out of the producer’s chair for a while.

Are there any plans to return to the vinyl format in the future?

Absolutely. I just got my Returning master back from Universal. Returning won the Grammy in 2005 and even before I release this on CD I’m going to bring it out in vinyl. The new pressings sound incredible and I love it that younger listeners are getting into LPs by going through their parents’ LP collections and finding music they love.

What about hi-res downloads?

Sonically this appeals to me tremendously, but I have yet to see the financial argument for it. If anyone out there can make a valid argument to the contrary I would be very grateful.

As far as listening tastes are concerned, do you have any guilty pleasures?

I’m a sucker for a good pop hit. I’m currently into “Just A Kiss” by Lady Antebellum; there’s one chord change at the lyric “my whole life” that just kills me. I love the current Gotye hit. I think Adele deserves to be famous. I’ve tried to stay current and actually liked a lot of hip hop, but have tired of the dominance of rap. Obvious bands like Coldplay appeal to me. I don’t consider Ray LaMontagne, Florence and The Machine, or Matt Kearney a sin by any means. All of them are brilliant musicians…but these are artists I’ve listened to over and over again. Ray’s Gossip in the Grain is a beautifully produced record and it’s rare that I’m as jealous of a production as I am of Ethan Johns’ treatment of that recording. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Smokey Robinson; I think Sam Cooke had the greatest voice on the planet; I think Gregory Douglass is the greatest undiscovered singer/ songwriter on the planet. I think Iron and Wine is remarkable, I think Happy Rhodes should be famous, I think Mark Knopfler should be canonized. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks changed my life by showing me what a small ensemble can do in any form of music. I don’t think anyone will ever write a greater soundtrack than Ennio Morricone’s The Mission.

I’m not going to let you go without a Michael-Hedges-in-the-studio story. He could be a bit of a character onstage, and am I correct in assuming he could also have a playful side in the studio?

Michael was as alive as any human being I’ve ever known. He embraced all aspects of life and certainly had an ironical sense of humor, but in the studio he was pretty workmanlike. I was working with him in his studio in Mendocino, California, and saw a tiny little guitar in the corner, leaning against a wall. I picked it up and started fooling around with it and Michael came over and commented that I seemed to have a feel for it and that he hadn’t been able to master it. I’ve rarely heard a more preposterous statement; the notion that Michael Hedges couldn’t find the potential in a unique instrument was ridiculous, but he delivered the line with a straight face. A few months went by and Michael visited me in Vermont for a few days. He talked about making the next Aerial Boundaries and we were both really excited about working together again. He left my home very early in the morning to make a flight from Boston back to San Francisco and when I got up in the morning I found a little guitar case in front of my kitchen door. It was, of course, the little parlor guitar I’d played in Mendocino. Michael died a couple of weeks later and I still burst into tears now and again when I play it.

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