Brubeck Works on New Projects At Unity Gain

Pianist, composer and jazz icon Dave Brubeck worked on his two most recent album projects at Unity Gain Recording Studio
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Pianist, composer and jazz icon Dave Brubeck worked on his two most recent album projects at Unity Gain Recording Studio

Dave Brubeck (left) with Unity Gain Recording Studio chief engineer Anthony Iannucci

Pianist, composer and jazz icon Dave Brubeck worked on his two most recent album projects at Unity Gain Recording Studio (Fort Myers, Fla.) with producer Russell Gloyd and chief engineer Anthony Iannucci. In January, New York–based jazz vocalist Hilary Kole recorded two songs with Brubeck in Studio A for Kole’s new album, You Are There. Brubeck and Gloyd then returned to Studio A in early March to work on a solo piano project, recording more than 30 songs for a potential new release.

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Brubeck (left) with vocalist Hilary Kole during the January 26 session for Kole’s album

For both projects, Brubeck played a C. Bechstein grand piano. Iannucci recorded the Bechstein using eight mics, “implementing variations of Blumlein and spaced-pair techniques,” he says, and using a Soundtracs console’s preamps with a Manley SLAM! mic pre/limiter. “I recorded it direct to disk [using] no EQ. I believe the room contributed to my success. I used a Mac Pro 8-core 2.93[GHz] running Digital Performer Version 7.1.” In mixing the eight mic sources, Iannucci “found a blend that worked consistently for a majority of the songs. For mastering, I used the Waves Mercury Pack.”

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Iannucci miked Brubeck’s C. Bechstein piano using eight mics, “implementing variations of Blumlein and spaced-pair techniques,” he says.

As for Brubeck, Iannucci says, “He is absolutely the most amazing piano player I ever recorded. I asked him how long he’s been playing; he said, ‘Since I was 4 [years old],’ and then realized out loud, ‘That’s 85 years I’ve been playing!’”

In the following Q&A, Iannucci details his piano recording techniques and his approach to mixing and mastering the Brubeck sessions.

How did these sessions with Dave come about?
I first met him in January. [Arranger/producer] Russell Gloyd came to see if [Unity Gain] would be suitable for what Dave wanted to do. Dave was here in southwest Florida and Russell scoped the place out. We brought in a Bechstein piano, we rehearsed on [January] 25th and on the 26th we cut two songs for [vocalist] Hilary Kole’s release. That was the objective of the session and that was how we met. At that point, I think Dave felt really comfortable with the place and mentioned that he’d like to do a solo project here, and I said, “Well, I’d be honored.” And then sure enough, about two weeks later, I got a call saying, “Hey, what are you doing the first week in March? I’d like to record my solo record.” [From March 2 to 4,] he cut about 30 songs. It’s still in the working stages. I mixed and mastered [the tracks] in the second or third week of March. It was amazing to see him play. He was just incredible.

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Under the piano lid, Iannucci placed an Audio-Technica AT4033 (left) next to an Electro-Voice PL-20 as part of a mic configuration in a 3-foot triangle.

Could you expand on how you miked his piano and what worked?
Each piano is unique. The Bechstein is kind of in between a Boesendorfer and a Steinway: It has the fullness, grandness and softness of a Boesendorfer, but it’s also kind of clear and cut strong like a Steinway would be.

Basically, it was an eight-mic procedure: three of them close up with the strings, two of them in [an] X/Y [configuration positioned] thre feet out, another mic that was nine feet away from the curve of the box, and then two more mics that were directly above the keyboard.

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A stereo pair of Neumann KM 85i small-diaphragm mics in an X/Y configuration

I used three mics in the interior, under the hood. I put the lid up [in the] second position about eight to 12 inches away [on] the upper-string area. I used a C 414. In the low-string area, I used an Electro-Voice PL-20—again, about 12 inches up. In between the C 414 and the PL-20, I measured three feet, so I basically used a 3:1 procedure. Then it was an AT4033 condenser at the center of them both, and my objective was to check phase between all three, but I didn’t want to exclude the [middle] strings because the box is pretty big—the piano box is 7-foot-2, so I wanted to capture enough area. I angled the patterns a bit in cardioid so they wouldn’t [face] directly toward the hammers as I didn’t want to get excessive hammer noise. With Dave, the diversity [in his dynamic range] is quite intense. I chose to route the C 414 and the PL-20 through a Manley SLAM! and I started with a vocal setting, which [involved] a medium release of about one second and a pretty decent attack time. Both of those [mics] were treated similarly, but they weren’t stereo-locked; they were actually [processed individually]. The AT4033 was not treated; I used the preamps on my European [Soundtracs] console. Where the piano curves, at about three feet, I used a stereo pair of Neumann KM 85i small-diaphragm mics in X/Y. I measured a triangulation between the C 414 and the KM 85i at about three feet, as well as the KM 85i to the PL-20. So, imagine a 3-foot triangle to maintain phase with the AT4033 in the middle.

I positioned the piano in the room so that when the lid was opened it spilled into a corner section of the studio room that I custom-built, which has a “rockscape.” That design would excite the piano in that area of the room when he played loudly. I placed the new Neumann [BCM] 705 [dynamic mic] in that rock corner nine feet from the piano opening so, again, that would maintain the phase integrity. The last two mics I used were approximately six feet over the keyboard and in direct line with the lip of the piano. Imagine looking at the piano from the side—that ridge at which the strings start; go up exactly six feet and I did an X/Y [pattern] with two AKG C 451 EBs.

The mics over the keyboard allowed me to regulate the amount of finger noise hitting the keys, as well as ambience vertically—from the high strings, especially. The rock-wall mic allowed me to really capture some natural reverb. I used no artificial reverb whatsoever. The X/Y [pattern] also added to that in-between direct sound and room sound. The rock-wall miking procedure played a major role. Of course, the three direct mics allowed me a lot more control of some of the real pianissimo passages that required real delicate recording.

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The corner “rock wall” in Unity Gain’s Studio A

It was interesting because after measuring those mics with a phase scope—to see if I was changing anything with [regard to] phasing—I was quite surprised and also happy that the majority of the combinations of mics showed an amazingly intact in-phase relationship. With the piano being such a diverse animal and the lid creating so many oddball reflections, it’s usually pretty hard to nail it. But every single piano is different. That same piano in a different room would act differently.

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Two AKG C 451 EB mics are positioned in an X/Y configuration at six feet over the Bechstein’s keyboard.

I had my arranger come in and play prior to Dave coming so that I could listen to some experimental captures and readjust things the way I thought would be best for tweaking because there are definitely sweet spots. I use my ear for finalization. You can use all the tools in the world to really scope things out. and say, “Oh, that’s perfect,” but if it doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t sound right. I just placed my head in [the same] positions [as] all these mics and really dug my head into the box and honed in on placement because sounds really spill out all over. There’s sound off to the left of the piano and off the right of the pianist. Obviously, most of it travels to the right, linear, up and out, but there is some spillage on the other side, as well. The room has a major effect on the overall sound.

What did the mixing and mastering entail?
Being that it was a solo piano, I primarily [mixed] the eight piano mic sources. Once I found a blend that worked consistently for a majority of the songs, I stuck with that blend. So it [entailed] carefully experimenting with the proportion of distant to close-[miking], certainly leaning a bit on the close-[miking] for clarity, but also mixing in a certain amount of distance source so that I’d have that nice combination of the ambience around the piano, as well as the room, which will affect the piano sounds. Once I found that blend, mixing was really very easy because I established a neutral setting and pretty much used it consistently through the entire process. There were a couple of [passages] that Dave played a little bit harder than others, which meant adjusting the mics a little bit differently. When he became stronger on the piano, I would back off on the directs and use some more indirect mics to try to capture the same ambience [that] I would if he was playing lightly.

For mastering, I used the Waves Mercury Pack. I very much like the Waves plug-ins for mastering and I used about five plug-ins—different than the lineup of plug-ins that I normally use depending upon what was necessary from equalization to multiband compression, to de-noising and image control. It really depends on the job. They have such a great toolbox of linear EQs and compressors. I tend to master using linear plug-ins because they’re very true, very specific and very surgical, although the nonlinear ones do, in fact, come into play, depending on what you’re looking for. My objective with this was to make sound natural, like you were really there, so I didn’t do any type of over-compression or over-equalization whatsoever. I just set some limits, some parameters that I wanted to maintain, and it just worked out.

Which monitors did you use?
The monitors we used are UREI 809-A TimeAligns with a 1,200-watt Crown Micro-Tech Series amplifier, along with Yamaha NS10-Ms for an alternate perspective [in] monitoring, as they are also important to me.

What was it like to work with Dave Brubeck?
He was just an unbelievable player, and I truly feel honored to have recorded with him. Dave really knew what he wanted. He didn’t do things exactly the same. I think he had a general idea as to what he wanted in a song, but jazz pianists will certainly explore a couple of different ways to play it, and he executes that with all of these tunes. It was great. He was a real gentleman and certainly an unforgettable experience and a pleasure to work with.

Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at