Chicagoan of the Year for Classical Music: Dan Nichols

Published on December 22, 2021 by Hannah Edgar       |      Share this post!

Third Coast Percussion was happy to see long-time friend and collaborator Dan Nichols named as Chicagoan of the Year for Classical Music by the Chicago Tribune. Dan has engineered all three of TCP’s GRAMMY Award® nominated albums, and TCP member David Skidmore was glad to participate in this interview to honor Dan. Read the full feature article below.

To date, Dan Nichols has never run a marketing campaign for his multimedia production company, Aphorism Studios.

He doesn’t have to. Musicians call him.

Even before he founded Aphorism in 2010, Nichols was one of Chicago’s fastest-rising recording engineers in a specific niche: contemporary classical music. Since then, musicians like flutist Nathalie Joachim, Spektral Quartet, Ensemble Dal Niente, and the vocal quartet Quince have all called upon Nichols and his growing team to engineer their albums.

“All of these artists are trying to recalibrate classical and new music to be inclusive and have a broad appeal,” Nichols says. “We don’t draw genre-specific boxes around ourselves; we don’t want to be part of the problem with classical and new music. We want to be what moves it forward.”

To date, five Aphorism-engineered albums have been nominated for Grammys — most recently “Archetypes,” a freewheeling collaboration between Third Coast Percussion, guitarist Sérgio Assad, and singer — instrumentalist Clarice Assad that’s up for three awards this season, including best engineered album in classical. The Grammys count swells if you count the projects engineered by Nichols’s high-flying former students at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches as its head of recording services.

“Dan’s built this great company, and he’s also training the next generation,” says David Skidmore, member and executive director of Third Coast Percussion. The ensemble first worked with Nichols when he engineered its 2013 album, “Unknown Symmetry,” and has tapped Aphorism for “almost every other album that we’ve ever done.”

“Even when we’ve worked with other lead engineers, we bring Dan and his colleagues. He’s probably the most technically savvy recording engineer I’ve ever worked with,” Skidmore says.

That expertise isn’t limited to the recording studio: Nichols estimates that at its height, Aphorism was juggling about 130 video projects a year. So, after the first several heart-plummeting weeks of shelter-in-place — when the Aphorism crew went from triple-booked weekends to zero gigs, like so many artists — musicians started reaching out to Aphorism again, as always, brainstorming ways to take their work to the small screen. Nichols and his team jumped in headlong, doubling up with cloth masks and P100 respirators. Aphorism’s tireless work made it the city’s most ubiquitous independent studio in classical music concert streams, engineering or distributing digital performances for Ear Taxi Festival, Haymarket Opera, Ensemble Dal Niente, the Milwaukee Symphony, the University of Chicago Presents, Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and more.

“I consider media technology to be a unified field,” Nichols says. “Everything is convergent; it’s moving together.”

Aphorism also offered webcasting services to musicians seeking to coordinate remote performances in real-time. Nichols had been working in telepresence software since the aughts, when he was a grad student at NIU; the university has long been on the cutting edge of musical applications of telepresence technology, hosting the first-ever color demo of LoLa — a low-latency, high-quality audiovisual transmission system that experienced a renaissance during the pandemic — in 2012.

“The client comes to us and says, ‘Is this impossible?’ And we say, ‘OK, well, based on what we know about how all these different softwares work, here’s four different options for you. What appeals to you?’ But the overhead for the artists can’t be so much that their mission fails,” Nichols says.

It helps that Nichols and his team — full-time partners Mark Alletag and Bill Sherman, plus a rotating roster of contractors, often NIU students or recent grads — are musicians themselves. Nichols is a multi-reedist, Alletag is a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, and Sherman is a percussionist who formerly played in the Bears drumline.

“When we’re doing a saxophone album, and we ask, ‘Have you tried this alternate fingering?’ or if we can empathize with an oboist about how their reed’s working, they’ll know we’re actually in this world. Once that barrier comes down, that trust is so much more rewarding and real,” Nichols says.

That mutual trust paves the way for truly symbiotic creative processes — freely swapping session files with artists, or experimenting with how to mic percussion suites that might call for 40 or 50 different instruments. (Nichols’s solution, by the way: use 40 or 50 different mics.)

“Third Coast’s sound is intertwined with him,” Skidmore says. “There’s so much focus on the artists in any genre, and it’s easy for the recording engineer to sort of disappear into the background. But behind any great recording artist is someone who’s working really hard to make sure they’re capturing the sounds in a way that they represent them best.”

Nichols, for his part, takes a more self-effacing view.

“To think that we have an identity independent of our artists that is somehow more important than their identity is something we could never endorse,” he insists. “Our job is to facilitate their musical message and say, ‘Hey, the arts are alive and well during COVID.’

“We’re simply lucky to be useful enough to make that happen. And who could dream of a better thing?”

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