5 Questions with a Musician: Christian Amonson
This week I am honored to feature Christian Amonson on 5 Questions with a Musician!!
Christian is the owner of Arts Laureate, a top-of-the-line audio recording company that specializes in classical music and live performance recordings. He and his team have recorded some of the best vocal and orchestral ensembles in the world, but Arts Laureate provides amazing recordings for musicians of all levels (including me!) Christian also happens to be a crazy nice human being.
1) Though I know that you have a background in composition… I’m realizing that I have NO idea what your primary instrument is! How did your musical expedition begin, and how did you discover your aptitude/passion for music technology/audio recording?
I began by singing hymns as a kid in church, and then I learned to play percussion in middle school and by playing drumset along with CDs out in the garage. My whole world changed sophomore year of high school when I took Music Theory. I finally had a language and framework to understand everything that I heard in my head. I began staying up late writing pieces for a program called "Noteworthy Composer" and composing songs on piano and baritone ukulele. And if I wrote something, I wanted to record it. Fast forward four years, and I noticed I was more likely to stay up late mixing a recording than I was composing. And when I was composing, I wasn't thinking about normal composer questions like "Who will perform this?" or "What festival will I submit this too?" Instead I was thinking "How will I record this?" and "Where will I have the players sit?" I realized that I was composing Recordings all along.
2) It’s one thing to make excellent audio recordings, but turning it into a well-known, well-respected business is quite another! What were the challenges of starting your own business, and how did you overcome them?
There are so many challenges! The hardest part is finding the right people that are willing to learn to make a great recording, take care of the client, and have the maturity and communication skills to work in a team. Each one of those things is hard to find on their own (let alone all three), but I've made it my mission to make sure that clients can count on Us, not just me. This has involved countless hours of work -- scouting, auditioning, teaching, reviewing, hiring, firing, and establishing processes, tools, and techniques that can be shared among a team. Even finding office space, arranging payroll and invoicing, and paying the bills is tricky! We're actually in the midst of that now: we've hired 15 new editors and mixers to work on VirtualChoir.net projects. We are all working remotely, collaborating on the same projects while keeping everything organized. I'm really lucky to have a great team, and we have some big changes and improvements on the horizon.
3) What’s one memorable story you have from your life as a recording engineer (maybe one where you realized, wow, I have such an amazing job!)
I feel really lucky every time I record a senior recital. Knowing how many years of practice and training and stress and sweat and tears went into the performance makes it really special, even more so than recording a big professional ensemble. That said - it's hard to compare the dark corner of a recital hall with being outside on the steps of the U.S. Capitol running live sound for the Marine Band playing Williams or Bernstein as the sun sets in the summer. (I've blocked from memory the four hours of set-up each concert baking under the hot sun.) There are so many crazy, fun, and dramatic stories though:
recording the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on two days notice while they were on strike, and then the recording went on BBC
trying to drive to a project four hours away with food poisoning and having turn around after throwing up on the side of the road every 10 minutes
having all my gear stolen overnight but still managed to run, record, and film a show the next day
flying up to Boston so I could save money *not* flying into Portland for a festival in Maine, but then learning when I arrived in Boston that car rentals were $175 per day so then I stayed on a couch on AirBnB (with another person in the room!) for $80 and drove up and back to the festival the next day so I wouldn’t rent for more than 24 hours
showing up to a big symphony recording to be the audio engineer and having the executive director say 40 minutes before the show, "our videographer is still on a plain from Spain - do you have a way to film us?"
taking a detour from Germany to assist at Abbey Road Studios - I ended up producing the two days of orchestral sessions
landing my first big client as a senior in college with Virginia's only professional vocal ensemble after they spent a year auditioning pros with 30+ years of experience
flying to Prague to record an orchestra for a film score just days before all flights were shut down due to COVID-19!
And then there are the sordid people/industry stories: the engineer who wrote an angry letter the chair of the School of Music about me and tried to tear down all my fliers, twice; a con-artist/engineer who scammed me out of $50K and is still in town scamming the Kennedy Center; the Grammy-winning producer I brought on for a project who said "if we don't have trust, we don't have anything" and then proceeded to derail the project to get more money for himself from the client by engineering himself; the Indian classical music superstar who wanted me to run his show so loud that we a verbal dispute during his rag when I refused to turn it up anymore (I had the blessing of the presenter thankfully after about 50% of the audience complained after intermission...); and the videographer I hired who refused to hand over footage for almost a year until I threatened to sue. The same videographer recently applied for a job at Arts Laureate believe it or not! Don’t know what they were thinking. All the soap opera stories are tolerable because of the wonderful performers, talented team, hall staff, and colleagues we work with on a regular basis.
4) How is your job fulfilling, and how is your job draining (read: what are the best and worst parts of your job?)
When you can record someone, it's like taking the best picture they've ever had of themselves. And you get the chance to show it to them and say "hey this is you!". It's a way to say "I love you", "you are seen", "what you do matters", and "people should hear you". That dynamic is still there even though I'm being hired and paid to do a job. Feedback from last week includes: " Nothing is ever beyond my expectations because, if you knew me, you’d know I always expect greatness from those around me in their work. THIS IS BEYOND MY EXPECTATIONS. Bravo, BRAVO, BRAVO! " And "My community is going crazy over this video - you have no idea the impact you made today." These words of affirmation inspire us and confirm that our work and our labor has value too. The job is hard because there are no shortcuts, no safety nets, and usually no do-overs! There's only one shot to get it right, and you have to have the right people and the right tools to make it happen.
5) What do you hope for the future of recording engineering?
There are three things I want to change:
I hope that by the time I retire, people will record and think about sound and perception in a new way. It's natural for me because I see sound, and it’s possible to hear the difference right away even if you aren’t an engineer. I have a secret video I send to orchestras that demonstrates the difference between "the best" recording and what's actually possible when everything gels together.
I want to break the cycle of secrecy and insecurity. When I was fresh out of school and wanted to learn classical recording from established professionals, I was treated like an intruder or a threat. No one would let me carry gear or even invite me to a recording. It was frustrating, and I had to pave my own way from scratch (which was for the best). I'm not going to treat others the way that I was treated. I try to share freely, teach, and encourage colleagues and performers. This has come naturally since Arts Laureate is a team (we are constantly reviewing and assisting each other), and we also help other companies, engineers, and performers. I'll be releasing a guide on "The Fundamentals of Recording Wind Band" for teachers, and I'm going to present at the Midwest Clinic in December! During shelter-in-place, we've been helping friends record from home. From a talented opera singer: "Dude, I am almost in tears. I literally thought it was impossible to capture the voice well. I've always had difficulties capturing it. Thank you so much -- you've literally changed my life." That’s the good stuff!
There need to be more auditions. Everyone on stage probably had 20 years of training and won a national audition to become a member of the ensemble. And the organization might spend two years on an international search for a music director. But the engineer is just “the guy” (and yes, usually a man) that happened to have microphones or worked at the radio station or was the buddy of the guy who installed the gear. But the audio engineer has a tremendous impact on the sound, blend, and balance, and reaches even more people than the group does in person. Consider this: the NY Phil plays for 500K people in person every year, but reaches 36 million on the radio. The Berlin Phli plays for 100K people every year, but 280K people *per week* on their Digital Concert Hall. The same is true for small organizations. A concert with 200 people might get 2,000 or 20,000 people online. Even a recital with 15 friends in the audience might reach a thousand people online (or a half million! - true story). Engineers need to be auditioned, and ensembles need to compare and contrast recordings. It's one of the biggest things holding the industry back -- it isn't truly competitive.
If I can make an impact on the world by recording, I'll be happy.
Thank you again, Christian, for offering incredible insight to your craft and participating in this new blog series!!