OIART Student Blog - Basil - recording a jazz band

Jun.01 / 2015
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The first big task of semester three: recording a jazz band. The concept was simple, but its execution required thoughtful planning, strong teamwork, and attention to detail. Specifically, our job was to run a professional studio session and capture the band’s sound waves to the best of our ability, all under the watchful (and wise…) eyes of our Recording Technology instructor, Mark McDonald. Crews of 3-4 students were each assigned a different band to work with, many coming down from Toronto’s Humber College.

For my crew, the day started at 11:00am. The first order of business was to set up all the mics we would need on the floor – all 20 of them. From warm tube condenser mics to punchy dynamics, each was carefully chosen for the instrument it was to capture, and was placed in the general area it would end up. This initial time was critical, because it allowed us to troubleshoot problems we encountered before the band arrived! After testing all of our mics, making sure our cable runs were tidy, and having the control room resemble the cockpit of a space shuttle, we were ready for the band to arrive.

My crew had the pleasure of working with the talented Ben McCarroll-Butler and his group of extraordinary jazz musicians. The band featured a full drum kit, vocals, electric guitar, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, and vibraphone. It was our first time recording some of these instruments, and that was part of the challenge. Theory would only take us so far; we had to put our ear training to the test! We listened for sweet spots around the instruments, and combined that with our knowledge of mic placement technique to find ideal homes for each of our terrific transducers.

Another big challenge of the session was capturing the band’s performance with as little leakage as possible. The band was recorded “live off the floor” – meaning all instruments were playing at once in the same space – and with 20 mics active, each one wanted to pick up every sound in the room! This was where theory came back to help us, and we were able to use microphone polar patterns and baffles in order to capture each instrument with the desired mics.

During the entire process, each crew member swapped roles every hour. The engineer became the runner, the runner became the Pro Tools operator, the Pro Tools operator became the assistant engineer, and the assistant engineer became the engineer. This required good communication on the part of each crew member in order to educate the new position-inheritor of any changes or quirks that may have happened in the previous hour. It gave us all a chance to experience each position, and also to see how effectively we could adapt to new circumstances under pressure.

Dials were being turned, knobs were being switched, and outboard gear was being patched in, but when it was time for the band to begin, the control room became still. Record. All ears were on the sound waves being pumped through the room. The Pro Tools operator watched their meters. The assistant engineer watched the engineer. The engineer carefully tweaked the control room mix, listening to the subtleties of each instrument. A dynamic artwork was unfolding before us, and we were there to capture it.

By 9:00pm that night, our work was done. We normalized all of the equipment, wrapped up the cables, and packed away the microphones – all smiles. Immediately after, we returned to the control room to discuss how the session went with Mark. We talked about our strengths, weaknesses, and how we functioned as a team. The experience was fun, meaningful, and tested us in many ways. The band left with three recorded songs, and we left with valuable experience under our belts – a great introduction to our final semester.