Variety, it is generally agreed, is the spice of life. Little wonder, then, that Kirsten Cowie, a recording engineer at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, is so charmingly enthusiastic about hers.
“There’s heaps of variety in my job here, which is terrific,” says Cowie, who has worked her musical magic alongside big jazz bands and classical soloists, with full orchestras and even the brass section behind chart-topping Robbie Williams. She has saved for posterity everything from baroque, opera and chamber-music pieces to electronic compositions and narrated works.
“The academy’s students are fabulous – so enthusiastic and willing,” Cowie says, “and over the years we’ve had amazing visiting professors, musicians and conductors to work with, including legends like Sir Colin Davis, Sir Charles Mackerras and Lord Yehudi Menuhin.”
Of the many artists she has recorded herself, Cowie is reticent to pick favourites or highlights. “Xuefei was wonderful, a fantastic person to record,” she says of acclaimed Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang. “She just makes such a wonderful sound; a lovely woman."
“Not so long ago we made an album of the music of Frank Zappa with a huge orchestra – two harps, two pianos, I think there was a lute involved, too. It was all very eclectic, and huge fun. Then we had a 10-piece brass funk band, with a drummer, with us recently. They had a tuba player, who played the bass parts, and he’d hang a 58 mic down the bell of his tuba, which was great!”
Founded in 1822 and a constituent college of the University of London, the Royal Academy is Britain's oldest degree-granting music school. Its impressive list of former students includes late British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, conductor Sir Simon Rattle, minimalist composer Michael Nyman and pop royalty Elton John and Annie Lennox, among many other luminaries.
Cowie’s personal journey to the academy, however, began far from London – it started on the other side of the planet, in fact, more than two decades ago. “I’m a Sydney girl, from Australia,” she says. “I did a music degree straight out of school, at the University of New England in New South Wales, and ended up working with live bands – pub bands – in Sydney. I had a brilliant time.
“Sydney had some great venues, and most of the equipment was in-house, so the band’s didn’t have to bring their own. But the in-house equipment could sometimes be… let’s say ‘quirky’. There was one pub near Sydney Race Course and the speakers would cut out if they went over a certain volume because of the neighbours, so you had to get a broom handle and reset the amps – which were placed up high – so I’d be wandering around a packed pub carrying a broom handle. It was crazy!”
On her arrival in the British capital, Cowie secured her first music-related pay-check courtesy of a small studio, and she rubbed professional shoulders with the likes of 1980s synth-pop mainstay Marc Almond and London-based Zimbabwean drummer Zeke Manyika, who played with bands Orange Juice and the Style Council in that same decade.
North London’s state-of-the-art Angel Studios was another formative stepping stone on Cowie’s road to the Royal Academy, where that aforementioned variety – while undoubtedly adding excitement to life – also presents challenges.
“I have to work with many students and musicians, and all have different expectations,” she says. “First thing I need to ascertain is exactly what they want, and how they want me to record them. ‘Would you like a bright sound, or a dark sound? Do you want the recording to sound like it has been made in a huge room, or something more intimate?’”
When engineer and artist are thinking along the same lines, Cowie enthuses, the results can be “magical”. She cites a recent example of collaborating – at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios – with Dutch rock band Racoon.
“They are fab, really great,” says Cowie. “We recorded an ensemble from the philharmonia – who are wonderful players and make my life so easy – and some work with a brass section, which was fun. It was also interesting because I got to play with all the valve microphones at Abbey Road, which is always a pleasure, and gives a very distinct sound to the strings.”
The right equipment for the job is any essential to a recording engineer, and Cowie regularly uses KEF LS50 speakers. “They’re great – very clear and easy to work with,” she says, adding that her personal relationship with KEF equipment has lasted through the decades.
“Way back, when I worked at Angel Studios, we had huge KEFs – absolutely massive.” Cowie laughs at the memory. “You could have lost a maintenance man behind one of those things.”