Brigitte Mixing Masha y Medwedje in Moscow at Petroshop Studio
Mixing Máša i Medvéd' (Masha and the Bear) at Petroshop Studio

Brigitte Angerhausen is a classically trained pianist, composer, producer, and award-winning audio engineer based in Köln (Cologne), Germany. Her career has included film sound, live recording, and collaboration with an international roster of clients. Here she talks with Lisa Machac (of Omni Sound Project) about her work, plans for the future, and a love of Bach.

You've been involved in music for a long time. How did you get started?

I started in music at the age of four, because my parents sent me to a music preschool. Apparently, I loved it. I hit that hard, playing on the glockenspiel and having a connection between the color of the note and the sound of the glockenspiel. I was really into this as a kid. They said, "Well, do you want to play an instrument?" I said, "Yes, I would love to play the piano." So, I had classical piano lessons, starting at the age of five. I had a marvelous piano teacher. She was from Japan, and she left Japan because she wanted to teach music in a loving way for music, and for the children who are learning it. We stayed together until I was finished with school. We stuck together for a long time; even through the hard times of puberty. She was loyal and a very good teacher. When I was older, coming to the end of school, the question arose of, "Where am I going to go?" I would have loved to study music, and piano also, but not classical.

Angerhausen at WDR
Angerhausen at WDR

Luckily, I had a friend of my parents telling me, "Well, you could sit on the other side of the window and learn how to be a recording engineer. Wouldn't that be interesting?" I had a big chance to go to national radio [Westdeutscher Rundfunk] here in Köln and visit a big recording studio there. I was fascinated by all of the big buttons and the red recording light. I thought this was magic. That's why I decided to study sound engineering. I had close relatives in Chicago, [Illinois]; they had invited me and said I could come whenever I wanted. I went to the U.S. At the same time, another friend gave me the August edition of Mix Magazine. In that edition they had lists of all the education places in the United States, so I picked out a couple of them. I checked out schools in Chicago, Washington, and New York.

 

We were just talking about being that last generation that went to college by looking at a catalog.

It was exactly that. It was a humongous list of places, and to me they all sounded interesting. Since I was close to Chicago, I had a chance to meet the representative of the recording department (at that time) at Columbia College Chicago on Michigan Avenue. The way they explained to me how they handled the teaching and the classes – how all of that is organized – sounded appealing to me. It was a lot of practice, a lot of hands-on. All the teachers were active experts in their respective fields. The guy who was teaching acoustics was doing acoustic building of professional recording studios. I loved my studies in the U.S. Then I went to work in Düsseldorf, [Germany], and I had a hard time – after the high energy of working and living in Chicago – to go back to having a controlled 9-to-5 job doing audio for film.

What was that like? Was it just that you had been a student with all this free rein, and then you had more focus?

It was not a matter of free rein. It was a matter of energy. I thought it was a little boring.

You've said that you didn't intend to do film. How did you get into that specific area?

At Columbia College, since it's a college of liberal arts, I hung out with a lot of film students while I was studying. That's why I had, at first, an inclination into doing music for film recording. I applied for a job at an audio film studio. I had a hard time, not only with the place I was working, but with Germany altogether. The way of life here to me appeared, at that time, very small and closed-in. By chance, I went to Madrid [Spain]. I found myself a new job there – also very interesting – doing audio for film and commercials. It was a huge recording studio, and they had in-house musicians composing.

Did that allow you to tie in more of that classical training?

No, that came much later. What was interesting was what it was like for women in the business at that time. When I started in Madrid, I was young, and I found out through my colleagues that they were earning more than three times as much as I was. My colleagues were good friends of mine, and they said, "Brigitte, you should talk to your boss. This is what I'm earning, and this is what you're earning, and this does not match." I confronted my boss at that time, and he said to my face, "You're 25 years old, you're not married, and you don't have any kids. So, what do you want to make more money for?" I said, "Not for my age, nor for the number of kids, nor for being married or unmarried. You're paying me for what I'm doing here." I was the only engineer who was speaking any other language than Spanish. I was doing all the international productions. I said, "You know what? Either this is going to be a heavy raise, or I'm gone." And he said, "No way," so I said, "Okay, I'm leaving." I went back to Germany to start as a freelance engineer. For 15 years or so, I worked as a freelance engineer. The classical music production really started when I worked as a freelancer for public radio. The public radio station does a lot of classical productions. I started little by little, working on classical music production at the WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk], and then they offered me a part-time job. That's where I got – over the past years – more and more into classical music, up to recording symphony orchestra, chamber music, and all of that.

Did you find a more hospitable scene for women when you got back to Germany, or did you still also have some of those barriers?

In the beginning when I was working here, I was more of an exotic phenomenon than anything else. Over the years, more and more people had the experience working with me and liked working with me. I have a lot of clients who I have been working with for over 25 and 30 years, because they like the intense relationship of cooperation and digging deep down in music production together.

Are you working more locally in Köln, or do you travel? What does that world look like for you?

Angerhausen Recording her album Inside Out at The Loft_Cologne
Angerhausen Recording her album Inside Out at The Loft, Cologne. Photo by Stephanie Kunde

Well, it has changed quite a bit. When I was working only freelance, I was infrequently in Köln and more over in other places. Since I started the part-time job for the WDR, I decided to open the lid of the piano again. I'm pulling back a little bit in the intensity of working as a freelance engineer. Having a part-time job in music production at the WDR gave me space to develop my own music. I took major lessons in jazz piano and jazz harmonics and started to compose. Since working half-time at the WDR, I've released six CDs: Four of them being only my compositions and my arrangements. Not traveling that much, and not being so much on the front edge of music production in the pop/rock scene, gave me the chance to develop my own musical sound. I was intrigued about how I could find my sound in music on the piano.

What do you listen to personally these days?

It goes on and off. Lately, I've been listening a lot to [Johann Sebastian] Bach again. One thing that is on my list that I want to develop is the mystery of harmony. Bach was the maestro of harmony in music altogether. He created celestial sound and development of music. There's a logic behind it that's breathtaking. At the same time, it is so elegant and highly emotional without being kitschy or anything. What, to me, is so surprising is that it's locked solid. Don't change a single thing. The way it is, that's the way it is, period. There's a wonderful German word for this; I don't know it in English. You cannot change a thing. It's this, or it's not. I think that is totally impressive.

As someone who has such a mind for jazz, it's interesting that that you would be drawn to that.

Bach is so beyond everything, that where he moves – with the knowledge and understanding that he had of harmonics – he was absolutely free. I want to say even freer than some of the jazz instrumentalists. What he did on the organ was improvisation, and then he wrote it into notes to transcribe it. I don't see that much of a difference. Even if you go to composers like Mozart, and really analyze the way they're using harmonics, there are jazz harmonics in there too. Jazz and classical music are not too far apart.

I'm daydreaming about getting together, listening to Bach, and talking about it.

Well, come to Köln! First, we'll go by the cathedral and then we'll listen to Bach.

That sounds amazing. What are you working on these days?

Angerhausen Recording on location in Austria
Angerhausen Recording on location in Austria - Photo by Michael Riessler

Well, these days I'm very lucky. I bought myself a new Steinway B piano right before the pandemic. That was good timing. I was also lucky that I got to meet the new generation of classical musicians who were finishing with their degrees from music school. I do recordings for them here at my house, in duo or trio formations. This is rewarding, and I appreciate their expertise on their instruments, as well as their development as people. They're so open-minded. No borders in their heads. They're coming from countries from all over the world: Belarus, Italy, Japan, and China. They come here to my house and it's like we are all one world. They make it a reality. I'm happy to be working with them together in music. I work as a Tonmeister, overseeing the recording. I'm also working with a singer-songwriter cabaret guy [Felix Janosa] – who's famous in Germany – on his new album [Trotzdem Optimist]. Yesterday, I recorded an opera in the Philharmonic Hall in Köln as part of my part-time WDR job.

How are you recording at your home?

What I offer here is this is the room, and we all play together. When I was working as a freelance engineer in pop and rock music – around 2002, just before I made the gold record [Aff Un Zo, for German-based band BAP] – I found myself in the studio overdubbing vocals with a lead singer. We spent days tracking, I don't know how many takes, for one lead vocal. I was very bored. I thought, "This is not what I'm looking for musically." What I'm looking for is this vivid moment where people interact and make music together.

To capture the recording of an event.

Yes. Creating a magic moment. The moment happens or it doesn't happen. I'm interested in creating the surroundings that make it possible for some musical magic to happen. The way we started to record, with pop and rock music, inhibited a lot of that spontaneity. In my point of view, the process of communication is what music is all about. The way the rock and pop business was developing then was not what I was in for doing music production.

You're tracking everyone at the same time, performing together. What are the technical aspects of doing that?

I prefer that they set themselves up in a way that they're comfortable; being able to see each other and communicate with each other. I like to work with a main microphone stereo setup that could be a stereophonic MS [mid/side] setup; like a Decca tree, or something like that. Then, I'm pinpointing the different instruments. It depends on a lot. For example, the piano I have is the same piano in the same room, but if I'm recording the singer-songwriter I told you about, I'm mic'ing the piano in a different way than I'm mic'ing it for the classical recordings. I have my own set of microphones. I have certain microphones that I like, where I have the experience that I can get a sound that comes closest to what I think is the instrument's sound. I have my preamps here, and I recently bought myself this nice little old Studer radio console. I'm recording all this, converting at a very high level [sample rate] into the digital range. I'm partially processing sounds internally in digital. If I want to clean up something, it's great to do that in the computer. If I want to add something of interest to the sound, that's much more achievable on the analog side. Sometimes I re-convert. For example, when I mixed this album for the Russian band Megapolis [????? ? ???????], they sent me their tracks and I mixed it here.

You're mixing your recordings as well?

Yeah. I'm mixing them, and I'm mastering them at times. For example, my first album that I recorded with my own compositions [Beyond The Border] I had somebody else record it, and we went to a studio to do it. I mixed it and gave it to somebody else to master, because I always like to have somebody else do the next job and not be the same person processing a project from beginning to end.

You have learned so many different skills in your career so far. What are you most excited about learning next?

I'm curious about the recent development of plug-ins. Plug-ins have been around for quite some time. I did use them, but I never liked them much. They did the job okay, more or less. But in the recent year and a half or two years, there's a new generation of plug-ins out on the market where I think that it's become very interesting. That's something that I want to start integrating, even for live recording at the Philharmonic Hall. We have a [Universal Audio] UAD plug-in system that we're now also using for live recordings. The other thing is what I just said before: Diving deeper into the harmonic skills of Bach. What I'm longing for is finding the room, the time, and space to sit down again and get something on paper and finished from A to Z. I'm longing for more understanding of the harmonic system of Bach. That's one thing I want to learn. I also would like to learn more about how to manage to be even more present. To act and decide in the thriving moment; to understand what I'm saying, and to become more one with the moment and develop my life in music. When I'm improvising, I experience a unification between me, the instrument, what I'm hearing, and what I'm seeing. It's a constant feedback loop in the here and now. This feels very lively to me, and I like that state. What I would like to learn is to have that same awareness; being on, present, or open – not only when I'm behind the piano making music and improvising, but also when I'm meeting people. When I'm doing my job as an engineer, and in life in general. To transfer that experience into my day-to-day life.

Angerhausen photographed by Ann Weitz
Photo by Ann Weitz

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More