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Mixing Ornette Coleman’s Last Album

All That Jazz By S Husky Höskulds
Published March 2016

Author and mix engineer S Husky Höskulds in his Groundlift Studios.Author and mix engineer S Husky Höskulds in his Groundlift Studios.

When Ornette Coleman died last year, a planned celebration of his 85th birthday turned into an epic tribute album. Either way, no-one wanted a “jazz guy” to mix it...

In the Fall of 2000 I was recording Joe Henry’s album Scar. We had flown to New York to do some orchestral parts at Sear Sound, and on the last night, Ornette Coleman came in to do a solo on the epic ‘Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation’. The line-up already consisted of Brian Blade and Abe Laboriel Jr on drums, Brad Mehldau on piano, Meshell Ndegeocello and David Piltch on bass, and Marc Ribot on guitar. But this... this was a stunner. Ornette had only ever played on a handful of albums that were not his own, so we were in the company of Lou Reed, Lennon/Ono and maybe one or two other artists.

Horn Of Plenty

I set up the standard Coles 4038 and my not-so-standard Victrola gramophone horn, with an SM57 taped to the skinny end. We did some takes, and it was beautiful. We were working on tape, and we had some tracks open, but not an unlimited number. Ornette came in and listened, and felt that wearing headphones was distracting, so I dragged the two refrigerator-sized Altec-Lansing speakers (typically used for band playback) out onto the tracking room floor, and unplugged the headphones. I jumped back into the control room and shifted the blend of the mics more towards the horn and less of the Coles. Those gramophone horns not only sound great — instant Billie Holiday — but are amazingly directional, almost like a telescope. I quickly realised that we were going to run out of tracks, and that we would absolutely not want to erase anything, so I had my assistant cue up the DAT machine and started spinning off two solos at a time to the DAT, as I was recording new takes. This way we could archive the previous takes, while making room for more, without stopping.

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman was one of the most influential figures in the development of jazz music from the ’60s onwards.Saxophonist Ornette Coleman was one of the most influential figures in the development of jazz music from the ’60s onwards.

Ornette came in for another playback, and was not quite happy yet: “I know the saxophone so well. And I still hear myself playing the saxophone. I need to keep going until I’m not playing sax anymore but just playing music.” So he went out into the tracking room again, patiently zeroing in on what he was feeling for the song. After a few more takes, Ornette put his horn down and came into the control room. It was epic. The takes were all amazing, of course, but the last one... well, you’ll have to hear it for yourselves. No point in trying to go on about it here.

Not A Jazz Guy

Fast forward to the Summer of 2015, and I got an email from an old record company friend. He’d just had lunch with Ornette’s son Denardo Coleman, and said they were looking for someone to mix a live album recorded the previous Winter and scheduled to be released in conjunction with Ornette’s 85th birthday. He said they’d talked about a few guys, but when Denardo told him they weren’t looking for a “jazz guy”, my name came up. Maybe it was the work I did with Mike Patton/Fantomas. Maybe the sonic explorations with Joe Henry or Tom Waits. Whatever the reason, there it was: Ornette Coleman’s name and mine in the same conversation again.

Denardo and I spoke on the phone a couple of times and decided to start with one song, as a test so I could see what shape the tracks were in, and so they could see where I might take the material, sonically. Denardo had assembled a core band for the show consisting of himself on drums, Antoine Roney on tenor sax, Al MacDowell on electric bass, Tony Falanga on acoustic bass and Charlie Ellerbe on guitar. This would be the core for all but four songs. However, the first song, ‘Broadway Blues’, also had David Murray, Henry Threadgill and Flea — so a full band, three horns, three basses, and then some. It quickly became clear that this would be a considerable amount of work. There were a lot of tracks, and a lot of music, with some of the songs clocking in at close to 20 minutes.

Parallel Universes

The first mix went well. Denardo and Ornette were happy, so I got to it. Having set up a template for the band with some basic processing as a starting point, the next thing to address was the overall sound: the tone, colour and size of it all. There were no room or audience mics from the show, but clearly this was a fairly large venue, so I would need to place this all into a believable-sounding space. I set up three instances of Audio Ease’s Altiverb 7: two for the band and one for the drums. I find that in most cases, when adding space, that the one that sounds the best for guitars or brass might not work so well with the drums or the vocals. I also like to bus the drum ambience together with the dry drums and then treat those as a whole.

For the drums, Altiverb’s ‘Clinton’ room seemed to work pretty well. It keeps the low end pretty solid, and doesn’t get too splashy on the top. I found a good starting point for EQ on the Altiverb returns, and got to work on the rest of the band. The horns are obviously featured here, so for the band sound, I started scrolling through my favorites in Altiverb to see what sounded good, until I got to Stockholm’s Royal Opera House. Again, with the right EQ on the returns, this worked great. I played with the pre-delay until I found a good spot: a setting of around 120ms gave a convincing live sound and a sense of space, without getting too busy.

Now that I’d found the settings I was happy with for the ‘band room’, I copied those to the other ‘band’ instance of Altiverb, and fed each with separate sends. Panning the returns hard left and right, so that the first instance returns to the left and the second returns to the right, gives me complete control of the reverb positioning in the mix. Whatever I send to the first plug-in, only comes back on the left, and anything sent to the second plug-in only generates reverb in the right channel — but by sending to both equally, I’ve got a ‘standard’ stereo reverb, since both instances of Altiverb have the same settings.

With this number of tracks, and this many parts, it would have been way too busy to have every single instrument’s reverb in full stereo, and would have made it a lot harder to keep the stereo image intact. I needed to keep things live and open, without adding clutter, and this approach is key. I find that being able to ‘steer’ the rooms to land exactly where I want them makes for a much more flexible setup. It’s something I used to do even back when using EMT 140s: I’d use two separate plates for a single stereo (or dual mono) reverb.

Once this basic room setup was achieved, I set up a couple of delay lines using FabFilter’s Timeless 2. I set up a short slap-type delay, and a longer ‘live sounding’ delay, which I would bring in for solos and some of the more effect-y vocal and guitar stuff later. Both of these had my ‘standard’ analogue delay setting, with steep filters at 2500Hz and 400Hz. I also sent from the longer delay to the ‘band Altiverb’, so when I pushed the delay up for a solo, it loaded the rooms even more, adding drama.

One great feature in Sequoia, my DAW, is the object-based editing. This not only allows each object (or region, or clip — call them what you will) to have separate gain and pan settings, but also allows me to add plug-ins and instantiate sends on a clip-by-clip basis. This makes the workflow of adding some delay or extra room to a solo or lead part on a track very simple, and saves me a lot of time while mixing. And with multiple tracks feeding the same rooms and delays, automating the Altiverb or delay returns (for a solo, for instance) wouldn’t have worked.

Fixing A Hole

Moving on, we picked five pieces that were sonically close and had similar instrumentation, and I got to work. On song two, the snare track was a bit of a problem, probably because of a bad cable. On some hits the snare disappeared completely; and on others, there was a lot of static. I made MIDI triggers from the overheads, chopped out the non-snare parts and loaded up my 8 Bit Kit library into FXpansion’s BFD3. As with the overdrive plug-ins, none of the drum sample libraries out there have that aesthetic that I like: they all have too much top, rooms sound splashy and thin, and there’s no drama. So I made my own, about 10 years ago. The room mics are dark, the overheads are warm, the snares fat. Just the way I like them. I dialled in an old ’60s Ludwig snare, and with some tweaking of the velocities, I got a pretty convincing live snare sound to match what was there before.

This drum setup worked like a charm, and the ailing snare mic/cable issue was now fixed with a simple swap of the live snare track and BFD, where needed. I slowly got the hang of where best to put the players, how far it seemed OK to ‘push’ them away from where they were actually standing on the stage — this mix was to be used for the DVD as well, so we had to keep an eye on positioning, but at the same time, I needed some width for the mix — and I finished the first five songs in as many days.

For the most part, S Husky Höskulds works entirely ‘in the box’; but he prefers Magix’s Sequoia DAW to the more conventional alternatives.For the most part, S Husky Höskulds works entirely ‘in the box’; but he prefers Magix’s Sequoia DAW to the more conventional alternatives.

Next up were the acoustic piano songs. Geri Allen played Rhodes and grand piano on ‘The Sphinx’ and ‘Sleep Talk’ and, later, on ‘Lonely Woman’, and there was an amazing amount of leakage in the acoustic piano mics. The piano was quiet, the drums were loud (and close) and it took a bit of experimenting to get this to read properly in the mix. I grabbed iZotope’s RX4 and Zynaptiq’s Unveil, two of the best ambience removal tools out there, and after some experimentation I found that using Zynaptiq first and RX after it gave the best results. Somehow, a little of each sounded more natural than going heavy-handed with just one or the other. This setup, combined with multiple settings in DMG’s Equilibrium which varied from one clip to another, gave me the flexibility to pull out the frequencies only in the range of the part in question. When Geri was playing up high on the keyboard I boosted higher up the frequency spectrum than when the notes were in the middle of the instrument’s range, and so on. This was probably the most ‘surgical’ I got on the whole album, but it was worth it. It was either that or not have piano on the album at all.

Feedback On Feedback

Next up, I tackled a group of songs which had a mix of guests: Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Ravi Coltrane, Bruce Hornsby, Patti Smith, Branford Marsalis and more. The Laurie track was the only one where I did a couple of revisions myself before sending the mix to Ornette and Denardo to listen to. The track consisted of Laurie’s violin, with stereo effects on a separate track, Laswell’s big bass, John Zorn and five tracks of live electric guitar feedback — five guitars leaned up against five amps, and a ‘feedback wrangler’ swelling them up and backing them off, creating a pretty unique wall of sound. The first mix I did was OK, but after listening to it, I felt like I could do more. I worked more on the dynamics of the feedback and of Laurie’s effect tracks, and really pushed them. Again, by using object-based editing, I could grab eight clips with long crossfades between them and use a single mouse-drag to create long swells and dips, without getting stuck in multiple tracks of automation and rides. In fact, in the 10 years I’ve used Sequoia, I’ve almost never used automation. All rides and gain changes are done offline using object-based gain combined with long or short crossfades. I find it more accurate than using fader rides, and instantly tweakable. I can very quickly grab across 12 tracks of drums, do a quick cut and crossfade, and push the bridge drums up 1.5dB and then down again for the outro. There’s no real-time playing or holding of a fader: you simply click and drag.

So, the second version had the drama closer to where I wanted it, but still... This is Ornette. And Laswell... and Laurie, and five tracks of feedback guitar (the working title for this track was ‘Lou Reed Reverb’), and I just couldn’t let this one go until I was sure they’d be wearing their woofers as hats after listening. So I dove in again. I set up two new aux tracks, one with the Sly-Fi Kaya distortion plug-in and one with Altiverb’s Clinton room again. I’ve used this room a few times for bass, both acoustic and electric, as well as drums. It has a nice resonance in the low end, and sending the feedback and some of the bass and effects to that room, and then using Kaya on the returns, really nailed the woofer/hat thing.

Nels Cline and Thurston Moore did a duo version of ‘Sadness’, and I treated that in a similar fashion: multiple layers of distortion, Kaya, Altiverb. This was not meant to be a subtle interpretation of the tune, and the mix underlines that.

I was on a roll now. Almost 12 mixes done, and they were happy. We seemed to be landing nicely on the same page, aesthetically. We would do minor tweaks and touch-ups along the way, but nothing drastic. I did a mix of Patti Smith’s dramatic poem to Ornette, followed by a blistering performance by her own band, and was ready to tackle ‘Lonely Woman’, an epic 19-minute rendition of Ornette’s most famous piece, with Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen, David Murray and more. I took the weekend off and put that one to bed the following Tuesday.

Ornette Leaves Us

At this point, the only tracks left to mix were the two pieces Ornette had actually played on. It was June 10th, and I didn’t have any notes from Denardo in my inbox. There were no touch-ups required to the mixes I’d done the days before, and I was still waiting for the files for the last two songs. I went about my day, and in the late afternoon I got a text from Denardo saying he’d taken his father to the hospital the night before, but was thinking it would be “a quick thing” and he’d get back to me the following day with some notes.

The morning of June 11th I woke up to a slew of text messages and a full inbox of emails. Ornette had passed away.

Among the many performers paying tribute to Ornette Coleman at his funeral service were his own Prime Time Band.Among the many performers paying tribute to Ornette Coleman at his funeral service were his own Prime Time Band.Photo: Taylor Hill / Getty Images

As I had my coffee, the reality of what had happened started to hit me. Not only had we lost one of the greatest jazz musicians we’ve ever had, but I was now in the middle of mixing his final public performance. Overnight, the project had gone from being a live album marking his 85th birthday to a celebration of his life and career.

I walked to the studio and sat down at the desk. In front of me were the four black and white photos I’d printed out years ago. The ones that always inspired me to push the envelope, to experiment: Rudy Van Gelder in his studio, Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now, Lee Scratch Perry in his studio... and Ornette with his Quartet. I sat there for a good hour, just looking from one photo to the next. I couldn’t turn one damn thing on. I made some more coffee, put The Shape Of Jazz To Come on the CD player, and listened. For the rest of the day.

Last Respects

Three weeks later, Denardo got back in touch. Ornette’s service had been held at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, and Denardo had recorded the whole thing. We were adding a whole other disc and two sides of vinyl, bringing the grand total to three CDs or four LPs. He sent the files for the last two songs from the live show, and the recordings from the service. These included performances by Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Jason Moran, Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen, a Quintet led by Denardo and featuring David Murray on sax, Joe Lovano on sax, Charnett Moffett on electric bass and Al Macdowell on electric piccolo bass, a stunning duo performance by Jack DeJohnette and tap-dancer Savion Glover, and a rare reunion of some of the members of Ornette’s Prime Time.

I stayed clean and big for the mixes from the service. Most of the performances were either solo or duo, and we had good-sounding room mics which needed little augmentation. This was about staying out of the way. Again, the DMG Equilibrium plug-in came through with flying colours. The flexibility is stunning. I could have different models, EQ and filter types on every band, not to mention variable scaling of the curves and the ability to use mastering-quality processing on every instrument. To round it out, Ozone’s Limiter kept things in check while not adding unwanted colour.

Mastering The Master

We decided to have Ted Jensen at NYC’s Sterling Sound do the mastering. I had some work in Iceland and was flying back and forth from Reykjavik to LA, so this was the best solution, as we were now getting slightly pressed for time, if we were going to meet our release schedule for the winter.

It had been over eight years since I had someone else master anything I’d worked on, so I was glad this was in Ted’s hands. And we had over three hours of material now, so I didn’t mind getting to sit back and enjoy it. Ted did a great job, of course, with very little limiting and only a touch of EQ here and there. It’s a dynamic record, with a lot of drama, and we didn’t need a piece of gear to prove it. I suppose when you hire a mastering engineer who’s been around for a while, someone who clearly loves music, and most importantly (and as a result, maybe) has nothing to prove, this is how it goes.

Towards the end of the mastering session Denardo turned to me and asked me: “Do you think the drums are too big on this album?” I said: “We’re not making a jazz album here, are we?”

Mother Fuzz & Her Children

When I was working as staff engineer at the Sound Factory (90 years ago), I found an old suitcase-model, all-tube Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck in a pawn shop. I dragged it to the shop at the studio and plugged it in. It wouldn’t play or rewind, but it seemed like the other electronics were in good shape. I put new (old-stock) tubes in it, and plugged a mic into it. It sounded OK, but nothing special. So I plugged it into the console, fed the input with an aux send, and tried overdriving the mic preamps. This was much more interesting to me, but still not stunning.

I was determined to make something out of this thing, so I took it home and started taking it apart. Over the next few days I poked, prodded, unscrewed and hacked away at it, finally getting it down to the bare electronics: no transport, no box, just the guts. I was obsessed with this overdrive thing, and was trying to find a way to either cascade the left and right inputs, or somehow get more grit out of it, when I noticed the playback heads of the deck, just dangling there. I grabbed the cutters, snipped them off and hooked up a pair of XLR connectors. I ran some signal through it, and man! There was the sound. Massive bottom. Massive bloom. Huge range of distortions: everything from subtle, round and woolly to completely out-of-this-world ring-mod-style overdrive. And somehow, there was no harshness, no ugly fizz. It was warm, and totally unique.

Pa and Ma.Pa and Ma.

I’ve used this box on every single recording I’ve done since, using one channel to mix some low rumble in with my kick drum mics and the other one augmenting the bass DI. Having it on a send allows me to tailor the sound a lot, so as to control the amount of distortion and drive for each application. In fact, that huge kick-drum sound on Joe Henry’s ‘Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation’ from the album Scar is mostly this box. This got me fully obsessed with tubes and tube circuits, and I quickly built another unit from scratch, based on a hybrid of tube-amp circuits from Aspen Pittman’s fantastic Tube Amp Handbook. On that one, I replaced the two bias resistors with potentiometers, so i could easily put the tubes well into non-linear mode; and even if it ended up being less dramatic and thick than the first one, it’s been on a lot of records as well. So, the thin one, and the thick one, or Ma and Pa as Waits called them, were my first two pieces of outboard gear.

I’ve been mixing in the box for over 11 years now, and from day one, I never felt the need to go outside of it for anything — except for Pa. That was really the only analogue piece I missed, and last summer that was finally rectified. I had known Gregory Scott from Kush Audio for a while — his UBK1 and Deflector plug-ins are pretty much my two favorite compressors — and we got to talking about modelling, new plug-ins, how computers and how CPU speeds were finally catching up to where real high-resolution and dynamic modelling are possible. And, of course, my first thought was “Pa!!!”. Since there is not one plug-in on the market that does anything remotely like it, I figured we’d make one. Greg had the original in his lab here in LA for a few weeks, we did a few follow-up tests and a handful of alpha and beta versions, and finally this summer (days before the Ornette project), I had a working version. Greg called it Kaya and I was thrilled. This was going to be a game-changer.

On Ornette’s album I used the Kaya plug-in on the basses and horns, as well as the parallel drum bus, right next door to the UBK1 and Deflector. The combination of the high-cut shelf, the dual gain stages in Kaya and the clip gain in Sequoia allowed me to dial in exactly the amount of colour, thickness or edge. Using Kaya on quite a few of the channels made it so I effectively had a whole new console in front of me — not like the console emulations out there today, but something you could really dig into. And this was not subtle! I could add grit and drive to the basses to make them cut, or bring out the warmth of the horns without making them muddy, all with a few clicks (or drags) of the mouse.

Kaya is out now — see