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Recording A Jazz Quartet On A Budget

Exploration By Per Villez
Published September 1994

Irritated by the pop‑fixated production values of small commercial studios, Per Villez decided to attempt a jazz recording session at home, using minimal equipment to produce master‑quality results. Here he explains how he went about it on his own terms.

I was recently told by a cynical jazz saxophonist about his experience in a local studio. It seemed to him that smaller commercial studios cater only for particular types of production practices, based around popular music styles and music technology. The result of his sessions was unbearably compressed and excited, and being an acoustic guitarist, I sympathized with his plight. My own experiences were not dissimilar, and as a result I set up a home production facility, so that I could retain, as far as possible, some of the natural tone and dynamics of my instruments. We decided to re‑record some of his material using fairly basic equipment, and set out to unravel some of the recording myths adhered to in smaller commercial studios, which mainly cater for 'electric' music.

In some ways, the production of acoustic music demands less effort on the part of the recording engineer than pop music, partly because it requires a simpler set of recording equipment and practices. However, it helps to understand some of the physical aspects of the instruments being recorded, and some basic musical knowledge can also come in useful.

Balancing Act

Most mainstream jazz is recorded using live takes. This might demand a multiple microphone setup, but allows more creative tone 'balancing' (an older word for mixing) than by standard EQ manipulation. If you change the tone of a recording by altering the microphone placement, you change very complex levels and ratios of harmonics and spatial relationships, whereas standard EQ'ing just boosts or cuts preset windows in the audio spectrum. It makes the difference between a recording which contains a sense of air, which sounds naturally clear and warm, and a recording that sounds overproduced. For example, the kind of warmth often attributed to 'classic' jazz recordings has a lot to do with the bass ambience picked up in the room by large diaphragm microphones. This intermingling of ambient low frequencies on an extremely thin sheet of material cannot be recreated by the best EQ in the world.

A further interesting and little‑known point concerns the intonation problems arising from using a background mic to pick up the room ambience from a sax. At source, the instruments sounds sharper than at a distance, and the higher the register, the worse this becomes, as more energy is needed to produce the same level of sound. While most people probably don't notice, it can drive a good sax player half crazy.

Equipment And Planning

The instrumentation comprised tenor sax, upright piano, upright bass, and a drum kit with brushes (a very important factor in this recording). Figure 1 shows the arrangement of the musicians, instruments and acoustic screens (a more technical word for mattresses, curtains, and quilts in this case).

The 'Equipment List' panel, elsewhere in this article, lists what was used to record the session. In this sort of recording, it is important that the mixing desk has plenty of headroom and a neutral EQ. Most contemporary budget desks will do the job, for example the Mackie 1604 and 1202, the Spirit Folio, and so on.

Well before the session, we discussed various 'classic' jazz recordings, and decided on the kind of sound we would be aiming to achieve. Because of the size of the band, it seemed practical to create the sort of sound that gives the impression that the players are in the same room as the listener. Consequently, we decided to record, to DAT, in the living room of the pianist's flat. Listening to the quartet's previous tape made me aware of the difficulties that would arise when recording this type of music. Straightforward jazz involves a lot of spontaneity, so no amount of listening to the tapes would make me familiar with the dynamic fluctuations of each instrumentalist's performance, as each take would be different. However, I still decided to ride the gain manually, instead of using a compressor. This can be done safely if enough headroom is provided for problematic instruments. Indeed, most 'classic' older recordings were made in exactly this way.

The Piano

For miking up the piano, I used two Oktava MK219s. The piano is important in a way that is not often considered. Its spectral complexity and textural capabilities make it an enormously flexible sound generator, for which two mics are the absolute minimum. The piano we used was an upright, with its back against a half‑wall kitchen bar, and its right‑hand side against an adjacent wall. Normally, this kind of piano would be miked up from the top with the lid open, but I chose to open the bottom part near the pedals, which I felt would provide a more uniform sound if any gain riding had to be done. Also, for jazz, the kind of sound you're after is a much warmer one than for pop music, so you don't need the pronounced attack transients that you get when miking from the top. The sound at the bottom end, with the mics placed as in Figure 3, provides a good balance between the different string registers of the instrument. Pedal noise is often a worry with upright pianos, but in fact I got no more pedal noise when miking from the bottom than I did on previous occasions, when miking from the top.

I ensured that both mics were placed so that they were in front of the convergence of the different string types, facing between 60 and 90 degrees away from each other, and at a distance of somewhere between 6 and 12 inches from each other. This arrangement approximates that of a stereo near coincident pair, though a true near coincident pair will usually have a wider angle of somewhere between 90 and 110 degrees. This configuration may be used to record just about anything, as it maintains a reasonable phase coherence between the mics, while also adding a sense of air and location to the stereo image, thanks to the spacing. If the angle is increased too far, or the microphones are moved further apart, the mono compatibility of the result may be unacceptably compromised. I used a couple of short stands with short booms, so as to allow the pianist freedom of pedal operation.

The Bass

The double bass, because of its large sound box, has a very low frequency range, and listening to the bass player in our band made me realize how much of its sound can be felt rather than heard. As it was a case of using available mics, I opted for an AKG 414EB set to a cardioid position, with LF roll‑off at 75Hz. Recording the bass is normally done by placing the microphone close, and in direct line with the bridge, or alternatively in direct line, close to the f‑hole. If you choose the latter, place the mic on the higher‑pitched string side, to help compensate for the already dominant low frequencies.

However, with either of these placements, critical factors will work against the overall instrument balance. If the player suddenly decides to swap to his bow, it is quite possible that in the first of the positions discussed, the sound will be thin, and you will almost be able to hear the rosin jumping off the bow.

The second position presents problems of another kind. One of the elements which helps our ears to discern what the bass player is doing is finger articulation against the fingerboard — which is, unfortunately, altogether masked when using this mic placing. A partial solution is to mic up the fingerboard, though on a double bass this is rather long, and as a result, unless the mic is equipped with heat‑seeking missile sensors, it doesn't track the player's hand very well.

The close positioning of the mic when directed at the f‑hole is critical, because of the colorations which can arise in the recording space. Room colorations produce frequency peaks related to the geometry and construction of the room, and can constitute a serious nuisance. One way around this is to absorb unwanted room reflections by placing objects in their path; contrary to what you might have heard, it isn't always a good idea to remove all the furniture from the room you record in.

An alternative solution is to take advantage of the rejection pattern of the mic you are using. This is the opposite to its pickup pattern; for example, on a cardioid mic, sound coming from behind is heavily attenuated. A figure of eight (bidirectional) mic will reject at the sides, while a hypercardioid is least sensitive at 135 degrees off‑axis. Once you know which is the least sensitive pickup area, try to locate the player you are recording in such a manner that the microphone rejects the reflections from the nearest wall. This may require a degree of trial and error, but is usually worth the effort. Luckily, we had no serious problems recording the double bass; what we did have to do was to literally wall the bass player in with mattresses, adding to these all the blankets we could lay our hands on.

The Drum Kit

The kit was comprised of a bass drum, two toms, a snare, a hi‑hat, two rides, and a splash cymbal. The most economical way of miking a kit like this, while still retaining an open and clear sound, is to use just three mics; one dynamic mic for the bass drum, and two condenser mics for the overall kit. The bass drum was miked up using one AKG D202, which rested on thick foam two inches away from the drum head. The condensers (AKG 414s in cardioid mode, with no attenuation), were mounted at the back and to the sides of the kit, and aimed just above the drummer's head. What made this kit easy to record was the fact that the drummer uses brushes; these help the overall sound to blend, and keep the dynamics under control. There are many other possible miking arrangements for this kit, usually involving additional mics, but you definitely shouldn't aim for individual drum separation; this only makes the kit sound like a bunch of samples, a common dislike of jazz drummers.


To monitor the proceedings, I used the hall of the flat, in which I set up the mixing desk (a Mackie CR1604), plugged into an average hi‑fi amp and speakers. The isolation was sufficient to allow a good balance to be achieved without the monitor mix being overwhelmed by the sound of the live performance. One word of warning though; watch the bottom end of the double bass. Small speakers will not reproduce the deep lower end of this instrument, and it's wise to check the master recording on a decent pair of monitors, to see if the bottom end of the spectrum needs subduing by further EQ. I added a very small amount of Hall reverb from an Alesis Quadraverb Plus to the saxophone, but otherwise, I relied on the natural sound of the recording.

Achieving superb results from a setup like the one described above is not difficult, and the general consensus was that the results were indeed stunning. It took just six high‑quality condensers and a decent dynamic bass drum mic, a good budget mixer and a portable DAT recorder — and all of these are second‑hand!

Bargain Mics: Don't Fear The Cheaper

Admittedly, some of the mics used to make this recording are expensive when bought new, but alternative master‑quality microphones are becoming significantly cheaper, and if you look around in the very healthy second‑hand market, bargains can be found. Alternatively, for those working on a very low budget, a pair of new Tandy PZMs at £35 each will capture a great sound from a wide range of instruments if set up properly, although they don't have the sensitivity of serious capacitor mics, which makes them less suitable for recording quiet instruments. PZMs can be run from 9V batteries to increase the sensitivity and headroom, and by simply removing the jack and wiring on a balanced XLR, the output may be used balanced.

Tenor Sax

To record the sax, I chose a Microtech Gefell UM70. The reason for this choice was that the mic has a slight lift around 6‑7kHz which, on saxophone and brass instruments, can enhance their definition and presence. These mics also possess a high sensitivity coupled with a classic warmth, though in all fairness many other reputable large diaphragm mics will work equally well. Large diaphragm microphones give a larger‑than‑life sound, and have a specific colour or character, which can only be evaluated subjectively, and not by looking at the spec sheet. Mic coloration shouldn't be equated with a lack of clarity and detail, however, as many of these mics actually emphasise detail rather than hide it.

I used a pop shield to create a barrier between the player and the mic, not because pops were a problem, but simply to establish a minimum mic distance. Because of the high sensitivity of the mic, it's a good idea not to use a mic distance of less than 12 inches. The mic was tipped down at a very slight angle, as shown in Figure 2, to maintain an average direct signal path and to pick up the player's breath, which imparts an organic quality to the sound.

In popular forms of music, where the alto and soprano sax reign supreme, the breath of the player is invariably disconnected from the sax, by additionally miking up the instrument along the first few holes, and de‑essing is often used to cool the higher part of the breathiness (though why you'd want to do this, I don't know). The latter positioning is popular on wind instruments, as miking the bell only can lose the body of the sound. There are exceptions, for example the bass clarinet, which can be miked up more like the tenor sax. However, you may find that miking a soprano only at the bell gives a too bright and disembodied sound. A compromise to the bell position is to mic up at the last hole near the bell, but this rather assumes that the player is going to stay in a rigid position, which makes the results less than predictable.

Also, as is clear from Figure 1 in the main article, the positioning of the saxophonist's mic is important in rejecting the piano and drum kit, and allowing visual contact between all the players. This is an important factor, as it can make the difference between a relaxed session and one in which the players have their heads permanently twisted so that they can see each other.

Before recording, you should discuss the music with the player, and get him or her to play any loud passages so that you can set the recording level, leaving around 10dB headroom. This will keep your level from peaking into distortion, which on any sort of digital recorder sounds particularly nasty.

Equipment List


  • 1 AKG D202CS Dynamic.
  • 3 AKG 414EBs.
  • 1 Microtech Gefell UM70.
  • 2 Oktava MK219s.


  • Mackie CR1604.


  • Alesis Quadraverb Plus.


  • 1 Popper Stopper pop shield.


  • Domestic hi‑fi amp and speakers.