icethesite talks to Bernard Löhr

In December 2023, icethesite was lucky enough to have an interview with Bernard Löhr at Mono Music on Skeppsholmen. It was fascinating to see the new Dolby Atmos-enabled studio space he has there now, having moved upstairs in the building. A big thank you goes to Bernard for being so accommodating and also to Benny Andersson for helping to facilitate the conversation.

Bernard Löhr photographed in Mono Music, December 2023
Bernard Löhr, Stockholm, December 2023.

Bernard, the former head of Polar Studios, has recorded and mixed tracks for many renowned artists, such as Céline Dion, Britney Spears, Westlife, Will Young and others, as well as ABBA, of course.

Where did you start on your music engineering journey?

I went to Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, studying acoustics and mathematics. And while doing that I was playing guitar in a rock band and all my spare time was taken up with a new build studio in Gothenburg. It was owned by an Italian guy that that was an old pop star in Italy, Marcello Manci, he moved to Sweden and started pizzerias actually, but his dream was to build the studio and he did. 

When I was doing my exams, he called me one day and asked, “Do you want to come here and run the studio?” – I thought that sounded much more interesting than working as an engineer, but of course I completed my engineering degree but soon started working in the studio.

The work was mostly with local bands initially but then also some artists that were famous nationally in Sweden. Then I met Claes Olof af Geijerstam, known as ’Clabbe’. 

Clabbe was the producer for a big Gothenburg band and came down and worked with me at the studio. One day, I asked him, “Is there any way I can progress with my music business ambitions? Can you help me to find a place in Stockholm to work?”

He made a few enquiries and gave me some suggestions. Finally in 1985 I moved up here to the capital, and started working at Soundtrade Studios, in the north of the city.

Because I was an engineer, when work started there on building a new studio, I got heavily involved – doing all the cabling etc., and I ended up as engineer on recordings with a lot of Swedish pop artists at that time.

During this period, I got to know Bruce Swedien, who was Michael Jackson’s sound engineer and who had connections with Sweden. He ended up inviting me to go to Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to be there when he was recording and I could look closely at the technology in the studios, which wasn’t yet used in Sweden. 

The team in LA used two tape recorders and synced them in way that gave them more than 24 tracks to record on, which was really something back then. I imported that idea to Sweden and started working using that method. Then, one day, I got contacted by Polar Studios.

Polar wanted me to join them to rebuild the old ABBA studio, which was not being used very much by now as the technology was a bit old. So, I joined Polar and bought a new mixing console and to house the tape recorders, we built a new machine room. Previously, the tape recorders were in the control room and so when you were working there, you could hear them all the time.

How did you end up working with Benny and Björn?

At this point Polar Studios was owned by Tomas Ledin and his wife Marie, Stikkan’s daughter.

I became the Head or Studio Manager of Studio A, the old ABBA studio. We had rebuilt it and that’s when Benny enters the picture. Following on from the Broadway run of CHESS, there was a recording of it which they wanted me to mix. I did that together with Benny and Björn and that was the first actual work I did with them.

The Broadway recording of CHESS was done on a Sony 24 track digital recorder, which was way too limiting really to work with such music. And of course, it was a very different musical soundtrack to say, the original Concept Album of CHESS, with its many pop effects. The original studio recording was done on 3M 32-track recorders. I still, to this day, think that the original mix of One Night In Bangkok is completely fantastic.

Then things took a strange turn…Benny was recording his solo album, Klinga mina klockor together with Michael Tretow, who was, of course, the engineer of ABBA. One day, Michael asked me if I could join the production process because part-way through the day, he would have to leave to visit the dentist. I went along to the studio and helped them record Födelsedagsvals till Mona and sure enough, during the session, Michael had to go to the dentist. I have done everything with Benny ever since. I have thought from that day, that maybe it is dangerous to leave a session!

When I say, everything, I mean, it was everything that wasn’t ABBA. Michael wanted to do the ABBA work of course and quite rightly. So, I started my work with Benny and Björn on recordings such as the Kristina från Duvemåla soundtrack and pop albums by the likes of Ainbusk Singers and Josefin Nilsson.

Please tell us more about recording Kristina and Mamma Mia!

Kristina was a long process of course with a lot of preparation, I think we started out with something like 53 songs. The recording was done on a 48-track Sony recorder in a High School down in Malmö using a big rented recording truck. You park it up and then widen it and suddenly it becomes double the width, so you can accommodate both a studio and a control room. It was possibly during this period that Benny could see my interest in not only technology but also music.

I helped him out with getting the best from his Synclavier (even managing small repairs here and there – if it breaks down. Benny asks Steve Hills, the engineer from England over for more serious problems). 

So, I was already getting pretty busy with Benny’s music when Michael Tretow suddenly and very sadly had his stroke. It was after that happened that he asked me if I could work with the ABBA catalogue as well. ABBA has always kept me very busy ever since. There is always something ABBA to work on! It has been really fun and exciting to work with the soundtracks (and actors) for the Mamma Mia! movies right through to Voyage, of course.

It became clear very early in the Mamma Mia! movie process that we could not use the original backing tracks as the actors would sing in different keys from the originals – plus, there were even rights and contract complications. So, all the music is re-recorded with almost the same musicians as on the records but of course with the actors singing. 

Most of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was recorded in our studio here, where we have had a few actors come in and do their parts. Other recordings were made in Air Studios in London.

It is a little challenging to begin with, to pick up in a new studio when your home one is so familiar. Despite all my experience from all around the world, there is a slight sense of unfamiliarity at first but essentially, it’s just a lot of knobs on a desk, and I soon settle in.

Besides, the assistants at places such as Air are highly skilled so they can help us out with everything, even if it’s just locating the exact microphones we want. We just tell them what we need and everything is ready by the time we go in.

Most of Meryl Streep’s vocals were recorded at Air but as the director and editors work on the movie and cut certain scenes and move things about, there is sometimes the need to re-record certain parts. That is how Meryl coming here and recording with us in Stockholm, came about. For the parts of Dancing Queen where she is jumping up and down on the bed, the original Air recording sounded a little too ‘studio’. So when she was with us here, in Stockholm, we had a television showing her the scene from the film and she was jumping up and down, watching herself and singing live! 

One other thing I always remember from the Meryl sessions is her recording The Winner Takes It All. The ABBA original is quite up-tempo in parts, with almost a disco rhythm – ‘four to the floor’, as we call it – but the one that was she was doing in the picture with Pierce was more like a ballad.

So we had to re-record it and that was before we had the studio here, so we were at Atlantis Studio for that. Meryl came in and sang it live with the band and it was so fantastic from the very first take. The way that she inhabited the picture’s character and lived and breathed the song. 

Because the song had much more of a ballad feel, the band were figuring out how to play it in a way that they hadn’t originally. They stopped after the first take and thought no, we can play better, let’s do it again. So, they probably did three or more takes and then they all came into the control room to listen. It was very clear to Martin Lowe (musical director), Rob (music editor)  and me, the very first take of the session was fantastic, and we played it back and they agreed. It is almost 100% of Meryl’s vocals from that very first take that are in the final movie. That was a fun and amazing experience.

Amanda Seyfried also recorded with us here, as did Lily James in Mamma Mia 2.

How and when do you get involved in a new Benny Andersson track?

I’ve done so many recordings that the process is second nature for me nowadays. The way it usually works when Benny writes a song today, is that he composes it on the Synclavier and will often ask me down to his office to take a listen to the backing track. No vocals exist at this point, and maybe just a piano or flute playing the melody. Then we transfer the file to my system. I have 24 lines connected to his Synclavier and so I can analyse his backing track in detail and split it up into different channels before we start the recording with the live band, Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg.

If it is a full-on band track, I make sure that the bass has its own channel of course and I also do that for the drums so that the musicians have a solid backing track to work from. And the Synclavier recording is their guide to how to play the track. The guys also get sheet music to follow, written by Göran Arnberg, transcribed from Benny’s Synclavier demos.

When it’s time to record for real, I go over to RMV and go through my long list of activities. I create the click track that the drummer likes to play along with and it can also have a little of the drums that Benny has programmed, if he wants. But the click track is the main thing. I go over and make sure everyone knows where they need to be and all the musicians’ mics are positioned just-so for the very best sound for every single instrument, which of course varies from song to song.

I get help from the girls at the studio in running through my long list and we check things off as we go. They usually start on the list the day before the recordings and then everything is prepared. We have a 16-channel listening system over there at RMV, which means that (almost) everybody that is playing can mix the sound that they want to hear as they play. It can be a bit tricky with BAO because there are so many musicians, so a few of them have to share channels occasionally but it works out quite fine most of the time.

We record the backing, maybe in just two or three takes or something like that, these are very accomplished musicians after all! And then…most of the time, that is when Helen and Tommy join the process and they listen to a guide vocal (depending on whether the lyrics are finished by then) and sing their parts.

Benny will do his final arranging after the vocals have been recorded, as he likes to have the voices there to listen to. Often the first vocals that Helen and Tommy record, even if they are being recorded as a guide, get kept because they are such skilled singers.

Then we come back here to Mono and Benny goes through all the recordings. I prepare them here in a virtual environment and Benny has his own system linked to mine and that is when he will make any fine tuning that is required.

Then it is time to mix. We transfer all the Synclavier tracks one by one, plus all the band recordings and the final vocals. This is the very final process where we have control of everything and can make everything sound as good as it can be. 

We have done the whole process so many times over the years that it is very efficient. I usually know exactly what Benny wants, although, if it is an out and out folk track with maybe just fiddles and accordion then Benny is more in control of the faders than say on a pop track, because it is then when he knows more about exactly how he wants it to sound.

It is very seldom that there are any big discussions about the mix, sometimes one instrument, say a flute might be a bit high in the mix but we easily sort things. Benny hears music incredibly well, and of course as composer, he knows what he wants to hear. 

He can pick up on the smallest of things that don’t match the sound he is hoping for. On times when we have recorded with a symphony orchestra, he is able to hear if there is a loose string vibrating on one of the violins, for example.

Sometimes when it is not completely clear where a problem is, we must go through all the channels until suddenly it reveals itself and we can put it right. He has a really good ear for that.

We have a new BAO album coming up, that was moved from a 2023 to a 2024 release…

Yes, originally Benny hoped to have the record out before Christmas 2023 but he was after a few more tracks with vocals. Helen and Tommy were both busy up until January with theatre work but then we could get going again. We think the release may happen a bit later [than Spring ’24] now.

I have the full list of potential tracks here of course, and also some recordings which are finished but nothing is mixed yet. I have to be as good as I can be with labelling and archiving and keeping copies of everything old and new that Benny creates because, for example, for this new album, he asked me one day to find a song that he last worked on in around 2016 but was never finished. Usually, I can lay my hands on things very quickly – although, sometimes if songs originally had dummy lyrics then the title of that particular track may have changed over time. Then it might take me a little longer to find!

And finally, recording ABBA Voyage, I imagine it was very similar to recording a BAO album?

Exactly the same process! It all starts with Benny and his Synclavier and finding songs that would suit Agnetha and Frida, even if some of those were never originally written with ABBA in mind. And as most people know, it was just meant to be two tracks at first. Agnetha and Frida came in to the studio and as soon as they started singing, there was the sound of ABBA again. Everybody had fun and the next thing I knew was that Benny said, we are going to do more.

I didn’t feel any sense of extra pressure because it was an ABBA recording. As I said before, I have a process that is very familiar to me and I have my list to run through and as long as I do that, I know it will be okay. I had also worked with the musicians many times before which added to the familiarity. With all the secrecy that we had to maintain, it did all feel very fun and very exciting though!

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