Only big studios have the space, skills and equipment to track a full big band, right? Not necessarily...
I’m a big fan of biting off more than I can chew. Diving into deep water with both feet and figuring out how I’m not going to drown is my usual modus operandi, and it’s with that mentality that I decided to record a big-band album in a small apartment.
The inspiration was simple enough: money. Only costly studios have the space, equipment and experience to record a full big band live, and that was not going to work with my budget. I could have gone to a smaller studio and recorded the band in sections, but even in a more budget-friendly venue, the number of hours involved would have made the price tag steeper than I wanted.
I had recorded as many as four players at a time in my apartment before, both for small groups and for big bands, but never for more than one track — and this project involved seven full-length songs. I was taking a big chance that it could work, but as the production got under way, hidden benefits emerged that turned my DIY big-band album from a dreadful idea with no chance of succeeding into a not-horrible idea that might come out acceptably.
As I mentioned, I had attempted this before. Seven of the songs on the album were recorded using my gear, but in a rented recreation room in my apartment complex. Because of the size of that room, I was able to record the band in a somewhat more live setting. But for these next seven songs, I would have to put into practice a method that I have been slowly testing for the last two years, and quickly. I wasn’t only producing a big-band album: it was also a holiday album, and so an accelerated timeline put strict deadlines on something I would otherwise be inclined to tinker with indefinitely. You’ll not be surprised to learn that holiday music sells best in December — and I was starting recording in August. I was already playing catch-up.
Working backwards from a September 15 deadline to deliver my mixes, I set a schedule. Besides wrangling the musicians, I wanted to maximise the time I had with vocalist Lucy Woodward, who tours with Snarky Puppy and Rod Stewart. With limited windows to record in Los Angeles, that was one of the first things I had to book, and it set the course for the recording. I’ve learned that it’s not much harder to record seven songs than it is three, so I set out to write and arrange as many songs as I could in the six weeks leading up to the first day of the recording.
There was no way I could fit a whole big band in my apartment at once, and even if I could, complaints from neighbours would have ended up shutting the whole thing down. I would have to record the band in sections, which is not novel in big-band recording. When comparing notes with other big-band leaders and arrangers, however (and there do seem to be a lot of them here in Los Angeles), I realised that I was the only one doing it the way I’m going to describe.
Without exception, all the other bands record the rhythm section first and then record the horns. But in my method, I record the rhythm section last. In order to accomplish this, I create a rhythm section mock-up in Logic, then record the horns into that. Finally, I replace the MIDI rhythm section instruments one by one.
When I tell people this, they’re surprised. They think the horns will not have the same feel and vibe playing to a MIDI track that they would have playing to a live rhythm section. I don’t agree, and I don’t think horn players would either. I would make the case that it’s the other way around: the rhythm section vibes off of the horns. As a bassist, I couldn’t imagine grooving to a big-band chart I was reading while only hearing myself and a drummer.
The other question that comes up is whether the band can play as well in sections as they can as a whole band. Again, it’s a myth that big bands that record together sound better. The reality is that big-band producers spend tortuous amounts of time editing between takes to get the tracks in shape. It’s not just a little slop here and there (which can be a good thing): it’s wrong notes, cracked notes, unplayed notes and bad intonation that go unnoticed when the whole band is playing at once. Most players are unaware they even make errors, never mind raise their hands to ask if we can take a song again.
But in a small section of musicians, players make fewer mistakes and hear everything much better, and nobody has any problem speaking up when they gaff a note. As far as editing goes, I don’t have to do any. I record the sections in eight-bar chunks and once we have a good take, usually in one or two read-throughs, we move on. I’ll hold onto a take only if we get to a challenging passage that sounds good, but the players think they can get it even better.
You really notice the advantage to this method of recording the band when the brass sections need to use mutes. Usually, they have only a few measures to get their mutes in, play, and then take their mutes out again. In section recording, the players have time to tune to each other with their mutes in and the engineer has time to adjust input volume on these sections.
After writing seven new charts in Sibelius, I moved them into Logic to begin the pre-recording process. I set up the songs with their tempos and time signatures, and then played in the MIDI drums, bass and piano from the score. This step is crucial, as I often spot problems with the arrangement during this phase. I don’t use markers to identify the sections, but I do make sure that my measure numbers correspond to those in the score. If your score has any repeat sections, you would be prudent to have the measure numbers pick up after the repeats so that your score always relates correctly to the sequencer’s timeline.
Then there’s one more step before recording: you need to get the arrangements to the singer right away. Since I could only book a few short sessions with Lucy, I had to share a vocal guide with her early enough in order that she could nail the songs in our limited timeframe. Fortunately, my wife can read music, so I was able to record her singing the guide tracks and not have to do them myself. Nobody should ever have to hear me sing. I also sent tracks to the drummer so he could get a feel for the arrangements.
To pull off a project like this, you almost need to be naive to the point of stupidity. During pre-production, when explaining how I was recording the band in my apartment, I would say things like “Why go to a studio? What is a studio anyway? It’s just rooms with gear.” Once you have that mindset, it’s not a huge leap to notice that you, too, have rooms and gear.
The idea was to use my little bedroom studio upstairs as the control room and the living room as the live room. I used a 12-input snake to connect the mics to my Universal Audio Apollo interface and a few extra preamps. The snake additionally had four TRS inputs that I used for headphone lines.
On earlier attempts at this kind of home recording, I would set up four headphone mixes, giving each player his or her own discrete mix. I had pictured the baritone sax player wanting to hear more of the bass trombone and the first trombone wanting to hear more of the lead trumpet. It turns out that, because their instruments are so loud, horn players rarely need to hear themselves or their section-mates in their headphones, so you don’t have to worry about monitor mixes the way you would with singers and other instrumentalists. I noticed quickly that the only thing horn players ever need more of is the click, and sometimes bass. So now I simply use the headphone mixes that are easily available in UA’s Console.
I’ve never seen a recording studio that didn’t have the obligatory glass window at a 15-degree angle between the control and live rooms, and I knew that somehow this recording would be doomed to fail if I didn’t install a window in my studio floor to look down into the living room. Then, I came up with a solution that allowed me to keep my apartment’s security deposit. By mounting an old iPhone on a mic stand and sync’ing it with the Apple TV in the studio, I was able to watch all the action in the live room.
Don’t spend too much effort on a video link-up, since it’s more important to be able to hear the players speaking than to see them. I recommend setting up an extra SM57 or similar mic in the middle of the horn section that’s used solely to communicate with the band. In the ‘control room’ I had a mic close to me at all times on a broadcast-style boom.
The trumpets were first up in the recording order. I set up the living room with chairs, microphones and music stands for each player. My little headphone amps include four outputs each, but for the sake of keeping things tidy, I elected to have one amp for each pair of players. I should point out here that, while headphone amps can be found inexpensively, the pricier models are a good investment. Besides being louder, they are heavier and tend to stay put when players turn their heads.
I used four very affordable MXL ribbon mics; I had experimented with more expensive ribbons and found that the difference in sound was not considerable enough to warrant the extra expense. That said, when producing jazz, you will not be able to make something that was badly recorded sound great in post. I have learned this the hard way and knew that I had to get the sounds perfect at the source. In addition to the spot mics, I put up a pair of AKG C414s as room/section mics. Mounted on a bar, I pointed them at the outside players about five feet in front of the group. The sound from these mics proved to be sensational when blended in with the close mics.
I used the Universal Audio Apollo for the close mics with the API Unison emulation. The room mics went through outboard ART preamps, as did my talkback mic and the listen-back mic.
My plan was to record all seven songs in under three hours. That way, if I received complaints from the neighbours, I could say we would be finished “in about an hour”! I had the players warm up with practice mutes so as not to cut into the ‘loud time’ that I estimated we could get away with.
I don’t know if it’s just with me or if everyone experiences this: the first song takes forever to record. So much so that, no matter how many times it happens, I worry that we’re never going to finish. But that’s just the players getting used to sound in the room, in their headphones, and waking/warming up.
One thing that will definitely slow a session like this down is badly copied parts. Make sure your parts are easy to read, clearly marked, proof-read, and have the measures numbered, if you want the session to go smoothly and keep the players in a good mood. (I actually forgot to do the last one.) Also, always keep the score handy to let the players know where you’re going next, and, more importantly, to mark the little changes you make on the fly. The players in my band seem to know what I’m going for even if it’s not on the page, so I take all their input to heart. We also clear up anything that’s ambiguous in their parts, such as accents and note length. It’s important to keep track of these changes as they will need to be updated in the sessions for the other sections.
If you’re attempting a recording like this for the first time, keep in mind that your tracks are not going to sound good at this point. In fact, the tracks are not going to start to sound like a band until after the drums are recorded, so be patient. If you need instant gratification, go to a big studio with the whole band.
The day after recording the trumpets, I repeated the whole procedure with the trombones. The day after that, I recorded the sax section. The only time I got complaints from my neighbours was when I recorded a full five-member sax section. So now I record no more than four saxes at a time and overdub the baritone sax.
I used the AKG C414s this time on two of the saxes, plus an MXL ribbon and a Rode capacitor mic on the other two. I forewent the room mics on the saxes because I tend to not use them in the mix, preferring to use the Ocean Way room emulator plug-in from Universal Audio to give the horns some space.
At this point, I could have gone to a studio to record the drums. But that makes too much sense. We hadn’t really had complaints yet during our 10am-to-2pm midweek recording sessions, I was starting to get the hang of this, and besides, my living room had turned out to be a great-sounding live room. So, knowing that this would be the last day of making noise, I was prepared to deal with irate neighbours by saying that we were almost completely done. Luckily, nobody was around that day and we were able to get the drum tracks down without incident.
Not wanting to have to fix anything in the mix, my assistant and I spent a fair amount of time getting everything set up for the drums session. We used the C414s as overheads, an Audix i5 on the snare and an Audix D6 in the kick. I love the sound we got with just these four mics, which is surprising, since the Audix mics are not a typical go-to for jazz drums. Under the snare we put a Shure Beta 57, and a few other dynamic mics were used on the toms. We ended up using the MXL ribbons as room mics.
The day after we recorded the drums, my piano player stopped by to put his parts down. This was a very simple setup: my Casio Privia went into Logic via USB. We used mostly the Synthogy Ivory plug-in for acoustic pianos and the Rhodes patch came from Redtape Samples.
For percussion, it made sense to give the tracks to my percussionist to record on his own schedule. He has a his own studio that’s already set up to track his congas, bongos, vibraphone and all the other (literal) bells and whistles. The acoustic guitar and banjo were also remotely recorded, mostly because I wanted the guitarist to have time to experiment with the parts and different instruments.
In the time between getting the tracks back from the guitarist and percussionist and tracking vocals, I recorded myself playing electric bass and started getting a rough mix together.It’s only at this point that the tracks started to sound like a professional recording.
The next step was to set up my bedroom studio (the former control room) for the vocal sessions. Some well-placed sound panels allowed me to get rid of any room reflections. I’ve recorded Lucy through the C414 before and it sounded fantastic, but I believed we could find a better match for her voice. I was thinking a Neumann U47 FET might be a good fit and Lucy confirmed that it was a great choice, so I spent $4000 on a new microphone. Not really — I rented the U47 for the week.
Lucy is an esteemed and seasoned session singer, so I knew things would go smoothly. However, I had gotten used to hearing the melodies and phrasing the way I put them into Sibelius, so I had to loosen up and let Lucy interpret the songs. In the end, it was the little changes we made in the studio and Lucy’s ad libs that made the songs come alive.
After the vocals were in the can, it was time to clean up the tracks and get them ready for mixing. Listening to the files was a relief. Everything sounded great, in spite of the fact that we had done the whole thing in my apartment for a fraction of a big studio budget. All told, we recorded seven holiday songs, all with completely different feels and sounds. Our ‘Winter Wonderland’ was reminiscent of a ’60s Billy May tune, ‘White Christmas’ had a laid-back Tex-Mex flavour complete with Mariachi horns, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ developed a Count Basie feel, and we even included a version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with updated lyrics.
There were some serious moments of doubt along the way, but I’m happy to say that these recordings pass the sniff test. When I A/B my mixes with my favourite recent big-band tracks, I have to admit that the better rooms, mics, preamps and engineers that pro studios provide would have definitely made a difference — but not to the point where they sound like night and day compared to each other.
I hope this article encourages other composers and arrangers to record larger ensembles in their limited studios. Long gone are the days when you’d need to go to a professional studio to record a large ensemble. You can pull it off in your home with a little bit of homework and ingenuity. Unfamiliar recording techniques, rented equipment, players on the clock, and the fear of being shut down by complaints can make such an endeavour intimidating and stressful. But in reality, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll lose a lot of money and get kicked out of your house!
Many home studios aren’t set up with all the gear for an ensemble recording, but you don’t necessarily need to rush out and spend thousands. Here are a few ways to save a little cash.
- Buy: I was able to find a bundle of 10 off-brand microphone stands on sale online for almost nothing. They aren’t as sturdy as the more expensive ones, and they do break now and again. But, if you’re not a full-time recording studio, these will last long enough and get the job done.
- Borrow: You probably already have a nice little collection of all-purpose microphones. But do you have enough to record eight brass players, along with room mics? I didn’t. Fortunately, many brass players have their own microphones that they can be talked into bringing to the session. In my case, four players brought ribbon mics that were substantially better than mine. It’s not uncommon for drummers to have great mics too.
- Buy: My only extravagant piece of gear is a matched pair of AKG C414s, which proved to be invaluable. For room mics on the brass sections, spot mics on the saxophones or overheads on the drums, these mics were an asset I wouldn’t want to be without.
- Rent: I’ve only recently become aware of the prospect of renting gear. In Los Angeles, Audio Rents (and most music store chains) has every mic you can imagine at very reasonable daily rates and fantastic weekly rates. For one rental, I was able to keep the mic for four days due to a long holiday weekend. If your band is available at a time like that, you may be able to rent a full studio’s worth of gear for a steal.
- Buy: My snake cable definitely earned its keep on these sessions. Don’t skimp on quality for this workhorse. In the same family, I would include a heavy-duty power strip, which kept the room tidy and eliminated the need for extension cords.
- Borrow: By the end of the recording, I had enough music stands for everyone, but it’s no problem to ask the players to bring their own stands and lights.
- Buy: If you plan on doing ensemble recording more than a few times, buy some good closed-back headphones. They don’t need to be as high-end as your studio headphones, but don’t get the cheapest ones you can find. Remember: buy nice, buy twice. If your ensemble recording session is a one-off, ask the players to bring their own headphones.
When endeavouring to record a project of this size within such strict parameters, you have to consider arranging the music as part of the recording process. Knowing that I would be recording these arrangements without any rehearsals, I made a decision to avoid any woodwind doublings unless it was crucial. I wanted the recording sessions to move quickly and didn’t need the added disruption of changing mic positions in the middle of tunes.
Another trick I stumbled upon was to write at least one full-band stop for each song. That way, if we needed to use different drum takes, I’d have a clean spot to comp from. At the recording, these also proved to be great spots for punch-ins. Whether in a solo break or during the singer’s pick-up to the final chorus, stops abound in big-band music, so it’s not unnatural to write in a few extra!
Surf to this month’s media homepage at https://sosm.ag/dec15media to hear how the various elements of a big-band track came together in the author’s apartment!