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 Recording of the Week  Nimbus

I’d like to tell you a little bit about the record label Nimbus this week as their history is far more interesting than most and we’ve also just started a ‘Buy 1 get 1 free’ offer on the whole label.

Nimbus was founded in 1972 and is based in a beautiful country house near Monmouth on the English/Welsh border. I went down to visit them last year and find out more about their set-up and history. From their earliest recordings (such as Vlado Perlemuter’s Ravel and Bernard Roberts’ complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas) I’ve enjoyed the 'Nimbus sound' as it always seems very realistic. This is achieved partly by the skills of the recording engineers, but also by a recording technique called Ambisonics. The name sounds like jargon, but is actually very simple as it involves putting all the microphones in the same place, but pointing them in different directions. The ones pointing at the stage for example will pick up a lot of detail, while the ones pointing backwards pick up more of the acoustic (which of course varies according to location). The different channels that these microphones record are then mixed into a standard stereo version to achieve a good balance of clarity and ambiance, but always sounding realistic.

The other side to Nimbus’ history is their LP and CD manufacturing business, the revenue of which was often used to fund the recording activity. In 1984 Nimbus became the first company to master and press CDs in the UK and became part of the Mirror Group in 1987. The huge increase in funds meant that they could embark on some notable orchestral projects, such as The Hanover Band in Beethoven and Adam Fischer's complete Haydn Symphony cycle with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra.

The horn used for Prima Voce re-issues
The horn used for Prima Voce re-issues

They’ve made over new 500 recordings, virtually all of which are still available, but the other major part of their catalogue worthy of exploration is their historical early vocal recordings series called ‘Prima Voce’ which they began in 1988. This concentrates on recordings made in the first part of the 20th century where the soloist would have stood in front of a horn, and his or her voice travelled down a tube on to a diaphragm and through a lever arrangement into a needle cutting hot wax. To transfer these original recordings onto CD most companies use electronic or computer-aided solutions as it enables them to clean them up and eliminate a lot of the background noise. Nimbus’ solution is to simply reverse the recording sequence, so they find mint condition 78s, play them on a turntable and attach a very large horn (which is vital in order to hear the lower frequencies). They then record the results in the same way as they do any of their other recordings with their single location cluster of microphones in a concert hall. The results, while not the cleanest, sound remarkably life-like, and with the benefit of the concert hall acoustic give a more realistic impression of how the singer would have sounded had you been able to hear them live in a theatre.

In 2002 Nimbus launched a short run CD and DVD manufacturing and printing operation. Developed initially in order to be able to keep their own back catalogue available, it is now used by a number of labels, and is a wonderful way of keeping older slowing selling titles available when otherwise they may well end up deleted.

Nimbus’ constant search and exploration of new ideas and developments combined with their imaginative approach to problem solving is almost unique in the classical music world. In addition to the short-run example, another recent experiment is a couple of 8-disc sets of MP3 files, one containing the complete Haydn Symphonies (under Fischer) and the other containing the complete Bach Organ Works (with Kevin Bowyer). They won’t work on a standard CD player, but for people who want to listen to music on their computers or (dare I say it) transfer it to their iPods, these sets represent astonishing value in terms of amount of music for your money.

In short a label well worthy of exploration, with lots of great recordings and interesting repertoire hidden within.


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