Mention “cutting edge” and “recording” in the same breath, and big band music doesn't automatically come to mind. However, the market for very lively styles like jazz and big band remains healthy, which is precisely why the sizable live rooms of New York City continue to push the technical envelope for these classic styles.
George Petit (left) and Yvan Bing in Legacy’s A room
One recent project that attests to the vitality of jazz recording in New York is the new album from big band leader Gary Morgan's 20-piece Latin jazz orchestra Pan Americana! called Felicidade. For noted New York City-based producer/engineer George Petit, the intensive project was an opportunity to apply his considerable experience to nontraditional record/mix procedures.
Petit selected Studio A at Legacy Recording Studios. “People generally associate traditional big band recordings with a very live, plate-y, splashy sound,” explains Petit. “All of the horns are stacked, as opposed to recording with a lot more attention to placements of individual instruments throughout the panorama of the speaker. Because of Gary's writing style, we were trying to approach it so you could hear the counterpoint and intricacies happening between each section.”
Pan Americana!'s style reflects Morgan's diverse influences, with high-energy songwriting and a heavy dose of Brazilian music. The band included irregularities like two French horns, forcing Petit to approach the sessions — which would see the recording of 70 minutes of music at 88.2 kHz in just a day and a half — with an open mind. “Studio A at Legacy has been one of the best jazz rooms in New York City for 25 years,” Petit says. “It's a big, warm room and it has a magnificent sound for acoustic music and rock. It's also got a not-very-bright Yamaha 9-foot piano and four nice-sounding iso booths looking out into the live space. Plus, there's the SSL 9000 J console and 24 channels of Neve 1081 preamps and EQs, so you can track with Neve and mix with the SSL if you choose.”
Petit was aided by the expertise of engineer Yvan Bing in drawing up and executing an involved setup for Studio A. In the main room, an assortment of 28 microphones — including Neumann FET 47s and U67s, Cole and Royer ribbon mics, and Schoeps models — handled close-miking situations for saxophones, French horns, trumpets and flutes. A pair of DPA 4006 omni mics captured the overall room, while RCA 77 microphones served as overheads for each section. Bass went direct, as well as being miked through an Ampeg B15 amp.
Isolation was achieved by using the iso rooms to the hilt: Piano, drums and each of the percussionists received their own sealed space. In the main room, gobos were placed between the reeds and the trumpets; trombones and French horns were similarly separated. “It was like a big ‘u,’ with short gobos and large standing separators,” Petit says.
Once in place, the setup played to the hybrid live/tight sound that Morgan and Petit were seeking. “The RCA 77s were selected because we wanted a ribbon-y, warm sound for each section,” recalls Petit. “We were looking for a room sound that would be traditional, but with a close-mike sound that's more modern. With this method, when we mixed we could choose between close and room depending on Gary's druthers. We ended up capturing 47 tracks simultaneously into Pro Tools. Not all of the tracks were used, but we had to have them so we could make decisions later.”
In addition to the technical elements, Petit was prepared for the challenges inherent in keeping a big band on its toes. “You have to keep up with the energy of the group because you don't want to have a lot of people hanging around for long,” he says. “Once you get 20 people in a room ready to roll, you have to be ready to roll, too. If you're just doing a quartet, there are lots of issues to address, so all the possible complexities of a 20-piece band just go up exponentially.”
With tracking complete, the team moved to the Cutting Room (also in New York City) to mix on an SSL 9000 J. “The mix would eventually work out the way we wanted it, but it was still the most challenging mix that I've ever done,” says Petit. “We went for a sound that would be very representative of this 20-piece band live in that studio, instead of having to enhance the ambience with digital reverb. What we got was something that was very exciting — I don't want to say aggressive, but a punchy, live sound.”
This was one case where having a highly trained musician like Petit in the engineer's seat was essential. “A lot of time was given to following the arrangement, keeping track of Gary's music on paper to ‘follow the ball,’” Petit states.
The need for effects and outboard gear was minimal on the Felicidade mix. Instead, Petit focused on every aspect of level and positioning within the stereo soundfield. “Basically, what we were doing was balancing our sections by balancing close mics with the ambiances of the individual overheads or room mics, trying to really make each section distinct from the next,” he says. “In most cases, we decided that the center of the mix would be occupied by the drum kit, acoustic bass and piano. With such a punchy rhythm section, Gary wanted that anchor in the middle of the speakers.
“We knew we would have overlapping sections because there's just not enough room in the speakers to place 20 people. What we did was paint or create in the mix the actual visual of what was going on in the room, so listening from the conductor's perspective we ended up having the reeds mostly on the left, French horns on the right, and trumpets and trombones verging on the center of the mix. When flutes were present, we tried to paint across the panorama. There were a few EQ details, but most of the issues were in balancing and panning, and that's where most of the time was spent.”
“Gary was depending on his engineering staff to take what was in his head and translate it to a recording,” Petit concludes. “It takes a lot of time, energy and emotion for musicians to put down personal statements — for them not to worry about whether or not it's working is a lovely thing.”
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