Getting Better Sounds from Brass Recordings
Brass bands and soloists keep on producing CDs year on year. The graphics we see on the cover combined with the reputation of the artists with slick targeted marketing entice us to spend our hard earned cash. Just look at the current releases and its obvious there is a demand for brass recordings like never before.
With falling audiences numbers at live concerts and most band contests maybe we prefer to get our brass music ‘fix’ from CDs , to be listened to in the comfort of our cars, at home or on the move. This way we can listen when we want, turn it up, or down and play our favourite bits over again, so much unlike the live situation.
Advances in sound technology have affected our lives in so many ways, especially in the last five years. You can put your entire CD collection into an MP3 player and take it everywhere, discreetly listening while travelling or just relaxing.
All very well, but what about the finished product, how good is it really?
Sonically, does it make you want to go back to it time and time again? Are many of our brass CDs truly revelatory in their nature, giving us fresh insights into the piece, the intricacies of the scoring, the range of tone colours available and the full dynamic spectrum?
Sometimes you sense you are listening to a band from the conductors perspective, at times the 10th row of the hall , often the back row or occasionally, a nearby room! When you listen to your favourite band does it sound as good as your last ‘live’ recollection?
My feeling is that many of our brass bands and the CD buying public are not getting what they deserve, both in terms of the sound quality or editing. Too many CDs are being produced without the full attention to sonic detail, and one of the reasons is the lack of true mixing that should go on in the studio.
Technology has allowed us to multitrack record direct onto computer hard disc so that in the studio we can achieve perfect balance and ensemble. Add to that the wonders of stereo imaging and sound enhancement, we should be enticed to listen to our favourite recordings many times over and be proud to lend them to any music enthusiast to enjoy. Why isn’t every recording company using these advances, as the cost of this technology has fallen dramatically in recent years? Some of the CD producers in the market still record direct into a stereo mix that is impossible to improve on later.
Many bands and soloists are just pleased to make a CD, for the dual reason that it’s good PR and hopefully a good source of revenue if sales are good. CD companies like to make CDs, because it makes money and enhances their catalogue so that more recording come their way, and so more money. Genuine artistic considerations are no doubt there too, recording for posterity this or that repertoire, introducing exciting new or old music for a curious public.
What has made me so interested in these concepts is that I have experienced all facets of the recording industry during my life, starting from being an avid collector of brass band LPs in my youth. I was inspired by the landmark recording by the top bands of that era.
From 1990 I started to make CDs as a performer and now have over 40 CDs, until the last three years always for another company. I then took the step to take full artistic control of all my recordings by forming Bocchino Music and since then my passion for recorded sound has deepened. My concern always is to get the best results possible, and that means having a passion for what you do and dependable people around you.
With a band CD you are dependent on the band and conductor doing their ‘homework’; really there is nothing worse than rehearsing in the recording studio. The musicians also have to be physically and mentally prepared as the pressure of ‘red light’ and giving of your very best for each ‘take’ is draining.
The relationship between the conductor and producer (the one with the headphones and woolly jumper) is so important as they need to work together to get the best from the musicians. If the producer is to be effective he or she must have a sense of what will be the best version of each phrase in the score, and therefore some homework on the score is required. How would you feel if your band was adjudicated by a adjudicator who was sight reading the score? With a lot of light music CDs it’s not so important and an experienced producer can sense a lot, but with more complex works, capturing a great performance in the studio needs vision and foresight.
In terms of this article the critical point of discussion is how a band is to be recorded so that mixing and editing can draw out the most wonderful sounds.
As a band member, you arrive at the studio with microphones, sometimes many and sometimes only a couple, and miles of cabling, around the room. You glance at them and get ready to play. You trust the people with ‘the knowledge’; you have to. Your job is to play and theirs to record. You may get the chance to hear a snippet during a break in the session as you carefully listen out for any self-made ‘clangers’ and get only a general impression. Once the sessions are over you wait usually a couple of months until the first boxes of CDs arrive, and then you listen again.
Whatever the extent of your general listening tastes, if you listen very carefully you should be able to ascertain whether what you are hearing is the very best possible. Did every best ‘take’ make it onto the CD? Does the band sound good, can you hear detail at ‘p’, does it sound great at ‘f’ or just loud, and how is the balance?
For the last few years I’ve been on the receiving end of grumbles from fellow brass musicians about many of the CDs that they have been involved with.
The three most common complaints being that
- after the edit they were told it wasn’t possible to change the balance as it was made on the day of the recording and recorded as a stereo mix
- the CD didn’t always feature the best takes
- the sound of the band is distant and cold
Without ‘the knowledge’ you can’t tell a plumber or an electrician, or worse still a builder what to do. You trust them.
But how can any sound engineer and producer ever say “We won’t need to re-mix anything, it sounds fine”? That’s what is happening when do don’t multitrack record a band. That’s why you will frequently hear recordings where balance, general sound perspective and detail are ‘issues’. Only rarely do such matters get discussed in reviews. Why not? Why is it that the majority of brass bands CDs are never remixed in the studio? It seems like it’s become a taboo subject.
In a typical brass band recording a stereo pair of very high quality microphones is used, capturing something like 70% of the total sound of the band (mics1/2). This gives the overall sound picture. These are positioned usually just behind the conductors head and about 3-4 meters off the ground. Often two ‘hall’ mikes are used, to give some perspective to the sound (mics3/4) and to get a sound of the room, particularly when that sound adds some quality to the overall effect. Then for the close miking: solo cornets (5/6) sop/rep (7) 2nd /3rd cornets (8), flugel (9) horns (10), Euphs (11) baritones (12) trombones (13/14), basses (15/16), percussion (17-21 depending on scoring) with a one or two available for any soloist (22-23). The positioning of these in terms of height and angle is also important, maximizing tone colour and detail without capturing too much breath or valve noise. Recording the euphoniums and baritones whilst not capturing the full force of the trombones behind is a challenge as is recording bass sounds without all the percussion section there too. In the studio the engineer and producer should work to get a good basic balance, with each close microphone doing its job to allow for fine mixing later. The level of each track should reflect the potential power that its nominated instrument is expected to play, for example the decibel level of the solo cornet and marimba will be different.
If there is a solo piece, ideally this player will be placed away from the band, often as far as 3 metres from the principal cornet with their own microphone ( I use the CROWN GLM 100 for all my solo recordings, attached to the bell, to allow for real detail and controllability in the mixing studio). There really is nothing worse that listening to a soloist getting ‘buried’ by the band and is inexcusable given today’s technology.
The beauty of multitracking is that once the basic note editing is done the beautification process can begin: stereo imaging (left/right in the your speakers or headphones) corresponding to the normal situation in the band but enabling the listener to feel either close of distant to the band depending of the amount of sound captured by the ‘close’ mikes and extent of left, centre and right imaging. Bass sounds can be enriched by enhancing low frequencies on these mikes. Great percussion balance can be achieved by not having this section too close to the back of the tubas. Correct placement of mikes to all the percussion instruments is essential and is one factor that can make the colour of a band recording really special.
The amount of control with multitrack recording is virtually without limits (except time and money) as I discovered with the two Euphonium Magic projects, using the industry standard ProTools software and AppleMac computer. My sound engineer Mike Moor is a genius with this piece of kit, it’s like watching him fly a plane. Working 100% digitally it is possible to re-tune individual notes, soften the beginnings of end of notes, transpose, speed up music, add octaves above and below, add different kinds of reverberation, cut , paste, duplicate as if you are editing a WORD document. This is only about 5% of the possibilities. Remixing individual tracks is very simple indeed. Need a bit more bass trombone (unlikely but you never know !!) then simply slide the fader in re-mix mode at the right moment and you get the desired effect. Need more Glock at letter B, need less tuba sound during the cornet solo, need more euph in the cadenza…no problem. With multitrack recording the creative process continues after the performing musicians have long since packed away their instruments and it is this aspect that has fascinated me in the last few years. Even before Bocchino I edited three of my CDs for Polyphonic having learned my apprenticeship from the brilliant Philip Sparke while he was there.
The question for the editor/producer is a simple one: how much do you care about how good this can be? Of the people I’ve had working at my house over the years, two stand out; a painter/decorator and a carpenter. Both showed attention for detail that was simply terrific, whilst others did the job but didn’t really finish off properly or who tried to cut corners in terms of what they’d originally promised.
Post recording, when you listen to every take and look at all the notes you made in the sessions (so long as everything is ‘covered’) you have the chance to make a great CD for the band but you need to find the best bits of everything, not just moments that were OK or error -free.
As I said before though, time is money and if you are paying someone to listen and select edits, how long are they going to take: 3 hours, 12 hours or 20 hours? This could be the problem. As budgets for CDs are lowered this expensive studio time is something that can be eroded gently away, until someone notices.
Once the initial editing work is done, the band and conductor should get the chance to hear the ‘1st edit’ and be able to make comments to which the producer must respond. I’ve heard of true story of a well known conductor making copious notes of points that he felt could and should be improved only to find the CD released without one single change being made.
After the recent recordings I made with Boscombe SA (Locomotion), Brassin’Mozart 2006 (released now), for the Eikanger Bjorsvik Band and Howard Snell (20 Supreme Years, released beginning of Feb. 06) and Euphonium Virtuoso with Brass Band Buizingen (released Feb. 06) I lived with all recording sessions on my iPod (transferring a basic mix from the hard disc data) for a few weeks, going over and over to find moments I want to be on the CD. When you are passionate about something you do find the time. When you then mark up the scores with edit points you have to be sure there is not a better bar anywhere. It’s like an adjudicator making a perfect performance of a test piece from 15 bands and nowadays micro-editing allows you to edit down to a single semiquaver in a run.
A live recording however should be just that, warts and all and have that ‘live’ feel about it. Some of my favourite all-time recordings are live and have less than perfect moments in them, but you sense that this was really happening, from start to finish.
Studio recordings have to be more perfect and more detailed; revelatory one could say.
Why? Because they can be !
With the amount of brass recordings hitting the market these days I think we need to constantly think about the quality of what we are listening to. We should be more demanding in what has become a fairly small market for band recordings. If it means higher quality in the future then I’m prepared to stand up and be counted on this one.