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Mixing Atmos: Ricardo Bacelar

Producing With Immersive Audio By Sarah Collins
Published December 2022

The SSL Duality Delta console is the centrepiece of Ricardo Bacelar’s hybrid analogue/digital studio.The SSL Duality Delta console is the centrepiece of Ricardo Bacelar’s hybrid analogue/digital studio.

The ultimate one‑man band, Brazilian artist Ricardo Bacelar uses layers of drums, percussion, guitars and keyboards to build up dense immersive mixes.

Ricardo Bacelar is a renowned jazz pianist, composer and record producer, whose music is loved in North America and Japan as well as his home country of Brazil. He is also a diplomat (Honorary Consul of Belgium), President of the OAB National Culture and Art Commission, and a copyright lawyer. He manages this multi‑threaded working life, he says, through his close relationship with his family, and the practice of yoga.

As if this wasn’t enough, last year he finished building a house for himself and his family in Fortaleza, on the coast of north‑eastern Brazil, and equipped it with a state‑of‑the‑art Dolby Atmos recording studio, which he has named Jasmin Studio after his Jasmin Music label. Bacelar spent three months experimenting in the studio before embarking on his new album Paracosmo, which he produced last year alongside Brazilian guitarist Cainã Cavalcante, and on which he played every instrument. Since then, he has worked on several other projects, including another album, Congênito, which will feature 12 songs where once again Ricardo will sing and play every instrument.

Thought Processes

“I ‘think’ in music,” he says, “Good music is what drives me, and I wanted to have a space at home to produce and record, to have more comfort to work with my compositions and develop my own catalogue. The studio is a place for creativity where my ideas can flow, and I can develop them at will. Five years ago, when we started thinking about this studio, Dolby Atmos was still very much focused on movie theatres, but I already had the feeling that it had to serve the music field, too. Designing a room, specifying the equipment and ensuring the microphones are set up to capture sound in an immersive way offers us a great advantage in the initial mix and in post‑production.”

Bacelar worked with architectural acoustic company Walters‑Storyk Design Group (WSDG) on the build, and with Daniel Reis from Sennheiser on the configuration of a 7.1.4 array of Neumann KH420, 120, 310 and 810 loudspeakers. It was Reis, notes Bacelar, who had the idea to create a hybrid studio where it would be possible to move seamlessly between the analogue and digital worlds, using Burl converters and Dante networking technology. A key priority was the ability to use an analogue console, analogue outboard units and plug‑ins at the same time. SSL’s Duality Delta console made this possible: it’s an automated analogue mixing desk that also has comprehensive DAW control features.

“Of course, the SSL is of a very high standard overall, but it also has a great personality because of the preamps, and the architecture presents a host of possibilities to work with,” Bacelar explains. “It also works as a controller for Pro Tools or any other software I want to work with. It’s almost as if Duality were two devices in one: you can use it both as the input for the recording channels and as the controller for Pro Tools. This gives a lot of flexibility.

“It has analogue inputs and outputs, AES‑3, Dante, MADI, and these are precisely the protocols that we are using here in this studio. Due to its monitoring role, it also makes it easy to control different environments, which means that one moment we can work with stereo using the analogue console, and at the push of a button, we start working with Atmos, listening to all the different formats such as 7.1.4, binaural, stereo and 5.1.”

Jasmin Studio is equipped with a 7.1.4 Atmos monitoring system from Neumann.Jasmin Studio is equipped with a 7.1.4 Atmos monitoring system from Neumann.

Respect The Ear

The studio has a Yamaha CFX concert grand piano, a Hammond organ with a 1969 Leslie cabinet, a drum room, a full keyboard set, various stringed instruments such as guitars and bass, and amplifiers. Ricardo Bacelar also has a wide selection of microphones at his disposal. Modern Neumann models including the U87Ai, D‑01 and KM184 sit alongside vintage reissues such as the U47 FET and U67, as well as an original Telefunken U47. More unusual options include the KU100 binaural dummy head and a 1950s RCA ribbon mic. He often records with immersive presentation in mind, and will typically close‑mic each instrument to get the dry sound, but augment this with the KU100 or a Sennheiser Ambeo Ambisonic mic to capture the ambience of the studio.

At the same time, by his own admission, he is not primarily an engineer, and he does not like to follow convention. “I respect my ear when I record, and avoid equalisation,” he says. “It gives the sound more personality. I use filtering judiciously: for example, when I record a hi‑hat, I know I don’t need the low frequencies, so I cut them out. But I try to keep true to the form of the music and the way I play, the sound of the room, the instruments, and the position of the microphones. You can change the way the drums sound simply by the force with which you play, the position of your hands, your arms... all this changes the sound. This is why I like to play every instrument myself. It enables me to create the sound I want.”

The studio includes six isolation booths, each of which was designed by Bacelar to have different acoustic characteristics. “If I want to record percussion instruments, for example, I try them out in three or four different booths,” he says. “When I play back the recorded sound, I then choose the best microphone. There are rules that people follow about what mics should be used where, but I like to experiment. If you want to make a record with personality you have to escape from the rules. Particularly with jazz music, I like to move away from what’s expected and make a different sound with each microphone.”

For Ricardo, the position of the microphone is important as the mic itself. “You must find the raw sound, then you can filter it or compress in the mix, whatever you want. But the source is very important to me. If you have a good source from a good musician, a good microphone, preamp and console, you can create a different ambience working with the position of the microphones.”

Bacelar loves the RCA ribbon mic for vocals. “It’s incredible,” he says, “but you need to be careful as the temperature of the room or temperature within the microphone itself changes, and the sound can be very different from one day to the next.”

The six isolation booths in Jasmin Studio each offer a different acoustic environment, which Ricardo Bacelar often captures using the Neumann KU100 dummy head (left).The six isolation booths in Jasmin Studio each offer a different acoustic environment, which Ricardo Bacelar often captures using the Neumann KU100 dummy head (left).

Finding The Sound

When recording alone, Bacelar’s musical knowledge allows him to form a vision of the final mix before he starts, and recording ‘conscientiously’ in the room avoids phase issues. “I mic everything very carefully,” he says. “For example, for the congas I use a Sennheiser e904 to record dry sound and have the Neumann KU100 head placed to the side to record ambience. If you don’t add the KU100 and record the ambient sound, then it just sounds like you need reverb; it’s too dry with just the e904 to capture the ‘size’ of the sound.”

Bacelar deploys a pair of Neumann TLM103s for overheads on drum kit along with a Shure SM57 taped together with an AKG C451 on the snare, a Neumann U47 FET plus a Yamaha Subkick for the bass drum and five Sennheiser MD421s on the toms, including the floor toms. He passes everything through a Neve 1081R preamp. “It has a very special sound,” he smiles.

Bacelar’s approach to recording is fluid and depends on the music. “I prefer to embrace the music with my ears and do whatever is appropriate for my vision, my creation,” he explains. “There’s a lot of rhythm in Brazilian music, so you need to discover the pace of the music, think about the flow.”

He typically starts with the bass drum to define the pace of the song, then works out how the other instruments fit in, using a click track for synchronisation. “It’s a process,” he says. “We like tambourines and a big drum sound here, so I add layers to recreate that. Sometimes, I will double a drum and double it again to create the sound of the percussion of the streets. It’s the same with the tambourines, and I use one mic to record the dry sound and the KU100 or Ambeo VR mic to record the reverberant sound to get the personality of the instrument.”

Bacelar also works with Brazilian engineer Melk, who has a vast amount of studio experience. “We will record a little, perhaps exchange one microphone for another, listen again, and then decide what is the best sound,” he explains. “I will never be happy with the first sound I hear. I’m always striving for what we can do to make it more innovative. The art of recording is to research and to find a song with a personality, find what the music needs, or what your heart needs. The most important thing is the music and the techniques are secondary. It’s the details that make the final product and that comes with experience and a good ear.”

Ricardo Bacelar: There are rules that people follow about what mics should be used where, but I like to experiment. If you want to make a record with personality you have to escape from the rules.

Place Marking

Working in Dolby Atmos has been a good experience for Bacelar, and the immersive format gives him more space in the mix. “But it’s not easy,” he cautions. “If you use too many effects, you scramble the reverbs, and it doesn’t sound good.” The information from the front and centre of the mix is vital to understand the message of the lyrics or the solo instrument. “But the listener should not always be in its absolute centre,” he says, “and we must keep the format of the music and the acoustic function of the ears in mind. But it isn’t a formal rule, only a natural flow of the audio to our perception. In the history of recording, there are rules about where you place things to produce a stereo image. But I believe that by using Dolby Atmos you can listen like you listen to a live session.

“Of course, you have to maintain the central point of the performance, whether that’s the voice, the guitar or the drums, but then you can add the counterpoints and the ornamentation: percussion, little effects to create the environment, making it more complex with reverb, with delays, with a lot of other toys. But the most important thing is always to remember that you are telling a story, and you need to include surprises. You can surprise the audience with different elements, emotions, unexpected moments; a pause or a silence, which in some ways is more important than the sound itself. If you explore these moments, then you can create colour.

“Recording is my passion,” he concludes. “I record and mix my albums, and I like to make it into an experience. The studio, for me, is a way to develop my happiness. Music is a form of communication; we make the music to tell a story. It’s powerful and we must deliver our emotions to our audience. I like to find new ways to explore music and the transformation from stereo to immersive is part of that process. Maybe we are making a little history.”  

Maximum Piano

Miking the grand piano at Jasmin Studio can be a complicated business.Miking the grand piano at Jasmin Studio can be a complicated business.

To record his piano, Ricardo Bacelar deploys no fewer than 12 mics, using a combination to blend into the mix, then adding more reverberation, more reflection, more live sounds. A current favourite is the Neumann D‑01, chosen for its clarity. He notes that is it highly sensitive and can pick up noise from the bench or pedal, but the sound it records is gorgeous. Again, he favours the Neumann KU100 binaural stereo microphone, which he finds advantageous for working in Dolby Atmos. “I put the KU100 in the middle of the room to capture the sound of the environment,” he says. “Occasionally, I will move it closer to the piano; then, when you listen in 7.4.1 you can hear the environment of the piano and you stay ‘inside’ it.”

On his latest album, he recorded a song which was just piano and voice, using the KU100 plus a selection of other mics near the piano’s strings, with its lid open, to record its detail. “I used a Neumann KM184, a pair of D‑01s in the back, and the KU100 for small ambient sounds. For bigger ambience I used the Sennheiser Ambeo mic. I also used a pair of Audix SCX25As, which were very good for picking up the hammer strikes. At the end of the piano, I used a pair of Neumann KM184s. I also used like to use Neve preamps as they have a very specific sound to them.”

His main live room also has movable wooden diffusion panels and curtains to vary the acoustic and shape the piano sound. “After a year of research, trying different microphones and preamps, I have settled on a certain configuration, but the size of the reverberation and resonance is important. Sometimes you need more reverb for a big sound, so the curtains are open, other times you want it to sound more dry.”