A friendship of Ivars Ozols with musicians and a mixing console
To carry boxes and connect wires, make a recording in a bedroom with just a couple clicks: nowadays reality of sound recording in Latvia
The music industry consists of many heroes, but one of its representatives, whose duty is to make the listener enjoy a recording or a concert is a sound engineer. On one January night I’ve caught one of the most sought–after representatives of this job in Latvia to get to know his backstage story.
Ivars Ozols. Where do you come from?
From Valmiera. Just as everyone else — I came to study in Riga, studied at the Latvian University and RPIVa, didn’t graduate from any, just a bachelor’s paper away from a diploma in both schools. I began playing music, and that’s it, didn’t have any time left for school.
And how did being a musician lead you to sound engineering?
Earlier I played music in Valmiera, corporates, balls with Zintis Žvarts, Guntars Mucenieks, Ilvars Manfelds, I played, then I came to Riga and kept on playing.
By the way, I started over in December 2018. Took a bass guitar in my hands and thought I have to start all over again. My fingers ached! That’s because my arm was broken and doesn’t move so good anymore, that’s bad. Stupid — twice slower. Thanks to the «amazing» doctors who «know» how to put your bones back together.
How did it all end up in a studio?
At one point I went to play some pop music with a band called «Republic». We had a recording in Moscow, Mosfilm, one song, I went there and got hooked. I was around 20 years old. So I started to slowly teach myself how to do that.
So, do you think the education in this field is needed?
Of course, if there’s an opportunity, then yes, you don’t need to invent a wheel all over. But nowadays when there’s a lot of information on everything available on the net, then self–teaching is way more productive, and if one really wants that, he can learn 90%, not going anywhere.
You still teach at the Latvian Academy of Music yourself.
Yes, unfortunately I still do. I hoped to stop, but saw that my contract lasts until summer 2019, so I have to wait a bit. The pay is 6 euros including taxes. I get to invest in my own money when I teach, there’s no other options. In the beginning there’s motivation to do that, but at some point it starts to disappear. I got fed up with the school and teaching — I still like it, bet got fed up with it.
What do you teach them?
Multichannel record technology, sound basics for jazz students — I actually tell about basic things which are needed to turn on the devices and start doing something. Earlier on there was a course on mastering — I wasn’t too happy to teach it, because, in my opinion, I wasn’t competent enough to do that. I’ve been doing it for 5 years now. Everything is, of course, connected to sound. Speaking about jazzists — it all somehow died down, earlier I used to take them to some sound equipment warehouses, for example, to «3S». But in order to do that, I had to thank someone, I’d buy «Jack Daniels» to some three guys who helped us there, and I can’t afford even that for my 6 euros, so I wasted my time, payed my money and didn’t see a lot of point in it. Earlier there were such workshops at «Sound Division», but they were attended by people who were interested in it, it was in a short period of time, a lot of information, people were interested, paid money, listened, everyone was happy, all cool. In my opinion, nowadays education model has greatly changed. There’s no place where you have to study something you completely dislike — you learn what you really want to, what you can do and what’s worth learning.
Do you think it’s important to create professionals in this field?
In Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music there’s a notion that they create tone masters who can consider themselves classical music sound engineers, producers. For specialists like this in Latvia during a 20–year period there’s, in my opinion, maximum of some 4 vacancies. The real job is to carry boxes, connect the wires and work at pop music concerts. Of course, the education is useless then.
But there’s still interest among them? How many are interested?
If they enrolled, then they’re interested. There happen to be those who don’t attend lectures at all — in any case those who are interested now have a job and everything’s great.
Speaking of the job offers — do you see a difference between a studio recording and a live concert sound?
Earlier on there was a difference, there still is some, but way less. Those people have similar qualifications and so many things are similar. Of course, it’s a bit different recording in the studio or working at a live concert, where within a minute anything can happen and you have to make a split second decision, but in the studio you can sit for a year and try to invent something. To be objective — at least knowing some foreign colleagues who earlier have been working only in the studios and now work with live concerts due to a very simple reason — to earn the money. The studios have become less significant, people record in their living rooms. So very often there’s no need in that — you have a small soft with a couple of buttons.
If you get offered the same sum of money to work with a studio recording or provide sound equipment for a live concert and work there, which will you choose?
I, of course, will choose a concert. Soundcheck, for example, is at two, then a concert is at eight, so I have to spend some 5 hours with that. In the studio I’d have to spend at least ten, then I’d have to set everything up and then disassemble, some 14 hours all in all — I would definitely choose a concert. I’d have to work less.
You’ve been one of the persons who’s the hardest to catch in the industry for a long time.
Until now, because I undertook a lot of things. As time went on, I’ve decided to do way less, that’s why we could meet today. It just happened so that I didn’t have to record anything today — there was only one vocal recording. My calendar looks five times emptier now.
How did you sort out your clients?
I guess, my behavior was what made a lot of clients go away, they choose my colleagues over me now.
How does your usual working day go?
I’ve no such thing as a usual workday. I just look at my calendar and decide what I have to do. I’d like to say I wake up at eight and go jogging, but I don’t. I think I’ve had a vacation only once in my life. I don’t have any days off. On a New Year’s night a concert was suddenly canceled, and I was warned about that only 2 days prior, which is crazy because I’d already told no to many other offers, so I could spend some time with my daughter. This is what I’m planning to do tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as well.
So this life style somehow goes along with the family life?
There’s no family life. My family broke apart, I’ve divorced because of that: I’ve worked too much and did a lot of stupid things. That’s a reality. The other person has to be the one who tolerates it and supports you, but I guess, everyone gets fed up with it at one point. It’s way easier to wake up at eight, go to work at nine, be home at six, but I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to do that. That wouldn’t happen.
If we get back to recordings: which differences have you dealt with, recording jazz musicians?
If there’s a good musician, there’s no major differences. There are some specific things though — jazz musicians never play with a metronome, they need some specific things that you sometimes have no idea why someone would need, and you have no idea if that’s even adequate or not — is that something professional or just lack of knowledge. I unfortunately don’t know that much about jazz, but I think that many would agree with me that sometimes, when listening to some avant garde, you have no idea if that’s art or bullshit.
Is the attitude of the musicians themselves different? Speaking of a concert or a day in the studio.
In my opinion, there are no musicians in Latvia that are doing only jazz — most of all they are able to do work in genres. In my opinion, a musician has to be able to play everything. I am lucky to have such a friend as Artis Orubs and a couple more people I know who bring some people from abroad here — I record them from time to time, and it’s interesting to watch how different they are from Latvians. Simpler. The main thing is to be a good person and a good musician.
It’s different with a jazz musician, but there’s a whole system with a foreign pop music: there’s a band that already had pre–production, the producer has listened to the material and knows how that will sound, the studio is just a place where the musical material is being recorded. If the band needs it, there’s some dimmed lights and lit candles, and everything happens fast and with no stress. In our case musicians just come to the studio, play a tune for 7 times and don’t like any of them, and everything’s bad. The reason for that is, in my opinion, professionalism. Those who arrive from abroad know what they want and know how to reach it. How can one eat pasta with a knife and a fork? You can, of course. I’m just bad at it. I, by the way, had no idea this place exists (we meet at Kinfield cafe), I’ve never been here. I’ve never been anywhere except the studio. I had no idea for how long I haven’t sat and ate while sitting. I’m trying to savor it.
How often do you record with the first take?
You know, you could read it in the literature somewhere, but they look at the first three takes: either it’s there or it isn’t. Then some weird stuff begins. Maybe sometimes one of the next ones is the best, but most probably you pick one of the first three.
Yes, I remember an experience recording our album in your studio, when I wanted to think different at some points, make it better, record another take, but after the first one our saxophone player went home, so we couldn’t continue without him. Everything done in one take, but I wanted to work more and do another one or several.
But look at that experience — you also had a recording in Latvia, so you know what I mean. Okay, a recording, one runs after something, another runs home, and in the end an inner feeling is destroyed. I know how that works, if I agree to work at a concert and then one little corporate at the same time. At the end neither works out good. Most probably that’s what happens with a lot of Latvian recordings: a band comes and after a while someone had to leave because his wife had asked, someone left to do something else, and the whole vibe is out. So foreign dudes come here and concentrate specifically on the things they have to do.
In our case it was really sad — one of the guys just slept over and was late for 4 hours, another one had health problems…
It isn’t just you with such problems, it happens really often! Somebody isn’t present, someone has a rehearsal. So all the recording process isn’t that important anymore.
For how long do musicians wait for the recording results?
Usually the foreigners take the result with them right after the recording, then they mix it themselves somewhere. It’s better to mix it after some time, not instantly, so that there’s a fresh view on all that, not a cliche right after.
Do you like mixing the material yourself?
Yes, but I like acoustic music way more, and the aim of it is to sound as honest as it can. I really don’t like using an autotune. While listening to the old recordings it seems that the arrangements were so right that the sound engineer had to just fix them. Nowadays it’s not like this, of course. I like arranged music, when you record and it already sounds so cool that you have to add only some 5% so that it becomes better.
Which are the most irritating things in the recording process?
When I haven’t eaten after 8 hours of a working day. It’s often like this: all musicians have already eaten, but the sound engineer hadn’t, and the moment he wants to do it, musicians tell him — hey, we’ve eaten already.
Did any interesting things happen to you in the recording process?
Well, I’ve fallen asleep during a recording for a couple of times. Woke up only when the musicians have come to a directing room and woke me up. Earlier on to save the money people were recording at night as well. There was a million of some other things happening — cola spilled on a console, some files lost. There once was an international orchestra with 40 people and absolutely everyone was food poisoned. Then all toilets of «Sound Division» were occupied all the time and the next day’s concert was like that as well — most of the time the conductor was occupying the toilet.
That sounds terrible! And how did the movie industry came into your life?
That was very natural — if a client needed to make some sound for his movie, I made the sound. Earlier the movie sounds were made way more specifically, using fingers and some other methods to replicate what was sounding there. Nowadays unfortunately this doesn’t happen anymore — everything is being done by a sound engineer who puts the samples together. There are many different sound tracks, many automatic processes and many effects. I like it that you can do anything in the movies: if there’s a picture, it has its own meaning, but if there’s picture with the sound, the feeling can be completely different. You have a opportunity to change it. If the picture shows the cemetery, it’s hard to put some happy music on it, but you can do that and then the meaning is completely different.
Do you somehow choose musicians you work with? Did you ever refuse a collaboration to anyone?
That’s the thing I try to learn: saying no. I hope I’m beginning to progress in it. There sometimes are clients who are quite problematic — you feel it in your phone conversations that you have nothing in common, it will be difficult to work together. You feel the client, tell him a no, give him an alternative contact. Then the one whom you’ve advised to a musician calls you and tells you what an idiot you’ve sent me. The second is, of course, a finansial side — if you see that the music is really cool, I used to do a lot of things for free. Worked at nights. with the time I’ve been doing it less, but if there’s something good, nothing against doing it for the sake of the idea just for charity. It doesn’t matter, if there’s a meaning and some motivation.
And if you see you’re very busy, but someone comes and desperately asks to work with you — is there any magic word he or she could tell you to make you agree at once?
No, there isn’t such. Sometimes I even used to agree to work at 2 a.m. until 4 a.m., if somebody desperately needs it, but now I’ve realised I can’t physically do that anymore, everything else isn’t in order because of such gigs. Family and quality of work.
Do you listen to anything when not at work?
Latvian Radio 3 (classical music channel) or BBC is constantly turned on in my car. Today I was walking with large headphones, heard a weird song of «Kings of Leon» — the guitar was so weirdly panned into the left channel — this created some interest in me, so I put my huge headphones on and walked like this. Then it seemed to me that everyone is really watching, because those «ears» are really huge. Earlier I used to listen to the monthly charts — English, American, German pop–rock. Unfortunately I cannot listen to that more than once, I really don’t like the music. But on New Years Night, by the way, a thought came to me that I should probably start listening to those again. There were a lot of youngsters in the company of my daughter, and they showed me everything they were listening to — that music is, in my opinion, disgusting, only two words were repeated in it — «lasagna» and «bitch», two chords, but a billion unique views on «Youtube». You can hate it, but you have to know what’s happening around.
Have you been listening to something where you’ve liked the music material, but didn’t like the recording?
To be honest, I think that the song and the music are way more important than what’s recorded. A couple of weeks ago I was walking through the Old town, have drank two beers already, and I’ve heard one musician playing on the street, which I liked a lot. I came closer, told him — hey, let me do a recording with you for free. Earlier on I’ve thought in a more technical direction and the sound was way more important in it, and now I’ve analysed the situation — no other options, music and performance are more important. You can technically record it on tape, a CD, anything, doesn’t matter.
Instrumental or vocal? What’s your opinion on words?
I like it when somebody sings, except in classical music. If someone sings classical, I turn it off or don’t listen to it, I have no idea why but it doesn’t fit together. To me, classical music has to be instrumental, but I like the vocals in other genres.
And speaking about musicians themselves: if we put aside some export–ready professionals, and take any garage band which has just started, practiced a bit and now thinks they can do it. Which is the moment you agree to record them?
I think there’s quite a lot of historical examples when those people haven’t been ready to go record at all, they aren’t professional, but everyone listens to their music. One of the examples is «Nirvana». Of course, if they can’t reach the end of a song, there’s no point in going to the studio, but if there’s enough work and financing put into that, even that kind of song can be made really easy to listen to. There has been one man who had a studio on the second floor, and if he didn’t like the band and the band couldn’t play anything at all, he just threw them out of the studio down the stairs. He had psychological problems, that guy. This depends on a person who’s working. If there’s a producer sitting near a sound engineer, I have to keep my mouth shut — I really often laugh my head off while a boy or a girl tries to sing. But you should really smile and carry on.
I hope our case wasn’t like that!
Artis actually has a completely different way of thinking, and this is cool because it freshens everything up. I often don’t understand if that’s a joke or an art, but okay — I better keep my mouth shut. I just qualitatively record the signal and do what I have to do. So historically there has been a sound engineer, a producer in the industry, one of them responsible for the technical quality, another one — responsible for something else. Then nobody’s quarrelling, everyone keeps doing his thing. Nowadays you record yourself and produce yourself, which, I guess, is okay. In any case, I wouldn’t build my house myself, I’d choose a professional.
I got the impression that you’re not a fan of a sound processing.
Of course, I also do some of it — when «ProTools» appeared and Tālis Timrots who was some 10 years older than me couldn’t do that. I did just this certain thing to him, for example. I cannot say I don’t like it, but I often don’t see any point in it, this seems banal. Actually that’s lying. But nowadays everybody lies, even the music. It’s ok that you cannot sing it — if you have money, you can do anything.
A New Year’s resolution of Ivars Ozols?
I don’t wish for anything. I was listening to a podcast yesterday with one great sound engineer, producer, beatmaker, he has three «Grammy»’s, everything’s cool. Someone asked him just the same question. It’s cool to desire something when you really do something. I have a lot of wishes in my head but only some 1% comes true. I hope I will find something that makes me calmer in some 10 years. This profession is a great one, I like it, but I have so many things that I have to deal with, so I want to change something a bit. Maybe I’m getting older, but I want a bit of stability as well.