Steel Sensations session in Avatar's Studio A
It isn't every day that a steel drum ensemble will book a recording session in your studio. But searching the Internet for steel drums, steel pans and related terms reveals that a number of musicians, manufacturers and schools in the U.S. and abroad are actively cultivating these Caribbean instruments and style of music. And accurately recording steel drums poses some unusual challenges, as engineer Roy Hendrickson of Avatar Studios in New York City found when he recorded the steel drum band Steel Sensation, which performs songs arranged by Amrit Samaroo of Trinidad.
Hendrickson explains those technical challenges and describes his solutions to them in Avatar’s first-ever video tutorial, “Capturing the Sound of Steel Drums,” which was produced entirely in-house at Avatar, directed by Conor Zorn with audio mixing by Hendrickson. The video documents the Steel Sensations sessions and features commentary by Hendrickson, Avatar Studios president Kirk Imamura and Steel Sensations leader Ian Japsi. (You can watch the video on Mix TV.)
“[The video is] kind of like business school,” Imamura says. “Why not have case studies where you look at why people did what they did, discuss why they used certain kinds of mics, [and] did they have an alternative. That kind of discussion, I think, is very useful.”
Following Avatar's recent introduction of its Session Tips blog, the video further demonstrates the studio's interest in sharing its insights with the recording community. “There's a lot that goes on inside a studio, and ultimately we want to provide some hints on how to have a good session,” Imamura says. “We want people to have a good experience and get a recording out of it.”
The project came about when Japsi approached Imamura about recording his band. “As I mention in the video, the leader of the steel drum band knew that I work at a recording studio. He was telling me that he was having trouble getting a good sound-especially [for the] the bass steel drums. And before this, I didn't know what a bass steel drum looks like, but I could see why he was having problems.”
Imamura welcomed the challenge. “That's what recording engineers do, right? It gets everybody's blood pumping. We should practice our craft, so to speak. I think that you can apply things that you learn to other [projects] that may come through the door. So I asked the guys to come in and see what we could do.”
The project began in Studio C and then moved into Studio A, which Imamura describes as Avatar's “bread and butter” room. “We've recorded Japanese Taiko drums in Studio C [for more information on that session, read “Capturing Taiko Drums for Ubisoft's Red Steel” from the March 2007 issue]. Our rooms are known for great live sound, so we wanted to see what it sounded like in our room. [Hendrickson is] really good at figuring out what needs to be done. He's got enough experience to be able to do that.
“While we were recording we took a lot of photos and video footage,” Imamura continues. “We wanted to maybe write an article about it. But then we looked at the footage and said, 'Well, we have a lot of nice material here.' To make it interesting, we wrote up a narrative and we enhanced it with the interviews. It was a learning experience for us, too, because we didn't plan everything out in advance. We learned a lot.”
Is Avatar planning to produce other tutorials? “I'm not going to promise we're going to be doing three shorts every year [laughs],” Imamura says. “If something interesting comes along, we'll probably try to document it.
“I think it's important,” Imamura says of undertaking the video, “maybe now more than ever, just because studios are kind of disappearing. So if people understood the value of what goes on in a studio, certainly that would be good for us. It would appeal to people.”
Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at Mix.