In this article we introduce Nathan Haines the New Zealand born jazz musician, producer and recording artist. Nathan discusses both his home listening and studio systems and shares his views and preferences on recording and musical playback.
Nathan Haines is one New Zealand’s most successful jazz exports. He’s had multiple albums released in the UK the Europe and has played many festivals and clubs worldwide including the Tokyo Blue Note and the famous Ronnie Scott’s in London (where he has lived on and off for over two decades). Currently based in Auckland, New Zealand after the birth of his first son Zoot almost 3 years ago, he’s been working recently on his 11th solo album recorded and produced from his home studio. Nathan also has a keen interest in vintage recording equipment and instruments, and also of course high end hi fi.
Nathan has 2 certified Gold album sales in New Zealand (‘Shift Left’ from 1994 and the UK produced ‘Squire For Hire’ from 2003) and has earned his place as a musical icon during his 25 year career in music.
Nathan has also collaborated and made an album with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and his direct to vintage 2-track tape all analog album 'The Poet’s Embrace' was released recently in the UK and Germany on the Warner Classics and Jazz label and was considered a high point in Nathan’s musical output. You can also purchase all his albums digitally via band camp in nice big juicy formats (non MP3’s) or as MP3’s for those who seek convenience. See here.
“We may live in a digital world but I like to hang onto analogue aspects. I use both analogue and digital formats in recording and when I DJ. Even when I make a 100% analogue recording, in the end it is always converted to digital to be listened to by consumers”
“I own a very nice Blaupunkt cassette deck in my 1994 Citroen XM - I record vinyl straight to my 1970’s Nakamichi tape deck to be played in my car. This is a 100% analogue process and I love that, as a lot of my day is taken up with music in the digital domain. I worrk using Logic computer software for writing music even though I use and record ‘real’ instruments. I find myself constantly moving between both the analogue and digital worlds”.
Nathan continues - “As a music producer for me it’s about getting back to the original sound of the recordings as they sounded straight from the master tapes in the studio. I am not into ‘hi fi’ per se or equipment that flatters the recording or gives you multiple listening options like those digital amplifiers that offer jazz/stadium/club/movie settings that are really just eq and/or reverb added to the signal. Why would you want that? That said, I do not classify myself as a technological Luddite. I embrace new technologies especially when it comes to what can be done these days in the digital recording domain. I also know the value of analogue technology and real instruments and the beautiful sound of a well set-up 2 inch tape machine. Tape has its own compression and in the right context compression is your friend when it comes to mixing down a recording”.
“A lot of people sold their record collections 25 years ago and went to CD. Perhaps that was not such a great idea in retrospect. I am personally paying now more for original pressings of jazz records that I ever have in my life. The resurgence of vinyl has pushed up second hand prices. But back to CD’s - in fact a lot of early CD’s had inferior versions of the original recordings on them – and were way down the evolutionary chain from the original master tape, copies of copies of copies. The early CD versions of the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue released by Warners in the 1980’s were woeful sounding pieces of crap compared to the 1959 mono vinyl versions on the Columbia label. When the iPod surfaced several years ago all I said to myself, was why would I convert all my lovely big WAV and AIFF flies to crappy MP3’s? And still it continues…”
“I’m running a 1980’s Perreaux 180W per channel 3000B beast of a power amp - cosmetically it’s pretty ugly with a home-made metal top plate but it powers my Technics SB-7 large studio monitors and does the job with aplomb. I’m also running classic Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors (a matched pair from the 1980’s) which many studios use as their reference monitors. These are not ‘nice’ sounding monitors - quite the opposite! However they are very flat and are an industry standard and useful for translating what you may be hearing in your mix down in your studio to what people end up hearing in their car, at home or these days even on your mobile phone! My main near field studio monitors are some lovely new Neumann KH-120. They are AMAZING! Neumann are known for their incredible microphones (of which I own several) but they’re really upped the monitor stakes with these.” “The front end of my home studio is the Prism Orpheus which is a high end digital converter. It’s a serious bit of kit and is very neutral when it comes to recording instruments and making sure they sound natural. I use Logic software for recording and mix down but I have some nice hand built valve preamps by Ekadek who mixes vintage parts sourced from recording consoles with bespoke cases. Having some vintage circuitry when recording into the Prism Orpheus certainly adds flavour”.
Nathan’s preferred format is vinyl, so after going through several turntables including the legendary Linn LP12, he eventally settled on the classic Garrard 401 with SME arm combination, favoured by audiophiles for over 40 years.
1968 Garrard 401 turntable with a 1968 SME 3012 12” arm and Ortofon CG25 mono cartridge or stereo with the Ortofon SL 15 (which was a very special studio order cartridge not really available for home listening…high end stuff). “what’s not to love about the Garrard 401 turntable. You don’t even need to listen to it, though of course it sounds fantastic. It’s like driving a 1960’s Jaguar. All mechanical and wood and low down torque.”
Sonic Frontiers SFC-1 valve integrated running all 1960’s NOS British valves (Mullard)
French built 1990’s Micromega.
Analogue Marantz 2050 AM/FM tuner
restored Yamaha NS-690.
Musical Fidelity via infra-red cable from laptop. Says Nathan “I NEVER use the headphone out port on my laptop and I think bypassing this and using an infra-red cable on the same port via a good DAC is perhaps the first and most satisfying upgrade you can make when taking the leap into audiophile territory”. Nathan also runs two Technics SL 1200 professional DJ turntables for his DJ set-up with a Condessa Lucia hand built rotary analogue mixer which he uses for his vinyl DJ gigs. Nathan’s waxes lyrical about the sound of this DJ pre-amp which had an 8 month waiting list and has some neat bespoke mods just for Nathan.
Due to its’ long history, popularity and huge catalogue of vinyl pressings, modern day jazz aficionados have access to unparalleled levels of resources. Nathan is no exception. A collector for over 30 years he owns a nice collection of original pressing jazz records with lots of Impulse and Columbia ‘six eye’ first pressings in his preferred format of mono. He also owns a large quantity of 1960s and 70s Brazilian material as well as a collection of 70’s and 80’s classic soul, boogie and disco which makes it’s way into Nathan’s DJ sets. All things considered, it goes to make up a very impressive vinyl collection.
Listening to his collection of early albums recorded by engineers such as Fred Plaut (Columbia) or Rudy Van Gelder (Blue Note/CTI), Nathan feels the combination of well built bespoke studio rooms along with incredibly knowledgeable audio engineers running hand crafted equipment, played by musicians at the zenith of their creative output resulted in the classic sound of jazz which we know and love.
“As an art form jazz was unique as it was music of the people, from the streets and ghetto’s mixed with highbrow classical sensibilities of form and melody, recorded and captured in real time by some of the best engineers the world has ever seen or heard. So many musicians of that era elevated music with advances in melody that people have still not grasped even today. And then there was the actual ‘sound’ of those records! The whole deal for me with my home listening set-up is I’m trying to get closer to what those recording sessions sounded like on the day. When I got my first “real” turntable and speakers and a nice original vinyl pressing, the experience and the sound was so completely different to the CD’s of jazz records I had worn out in the 80’s. My Dad had a nice set-up at home and a nice collection of jazz which I grew up with, so I was no stranger to listening to jazz on vinyl. This in turn really got me interested in attempting to make a record that utilised vintage recording techniques and equipment, with all of us playing at the same time in the same room. I know that sounds sort of normal but today, trust me, it’s not!”
Says Nathan “It’s not really the sound of the room, rather that a real room or space was often used as a reverb chamber later - after the session the recording engineers played back certain instruments (such as voices or saxophones) through speakers in a chamber or room then used microphones to capture these
instruments in this space. This was then added this to the dry mix. Most big studios had “echo chambers” which really defined the sound of a lot records, along with of course the desks and microphones used. Nathan along with UK based producer Mike Patto used this exact scenario when recording “Vermillion Skies” when they used a large empty carpark adjacent to Auckland York Street Studios as their own “echo chamber”. You can see more about this and of how they made the album by checking out ‘The making of vermillion skies’ here.
Creating more realistic analogue sounding musical recordings became central to the Nathan Haines sound most evidenced on his two classic jazz recordings “The Poet’s Embrace” and the follow-up “Vermillion Skies. Both were the result of a collaboration between Nathan and UK based producer Mike Patto utilising live in the studio musicianship, vintage recording equipment and fantastic ensemble performances including New Zealand pianist Kevin Field. It’s no wonder both albums were awarded New Zealand Jazz album of the Year concurrently! However never one to live completely in the past, Nathan has taken the lessons learned in the analogue domain and applied these to making music in the digital age.