Studio Stories 4: I Fudged… Just a Little

A long long time ago, I had the privilege of recording a local group that played ‘big band’ orchestra style standards and the like.

Paul, the leader of the group was a local radio personality and musician. He contacted me about recording his group… To make an album.

There were eight or nine or of them I think, woodwinds, brass, electric grand and a drummer.

Paul called and scheduled a time to come over and see the studio. My studio at the time was a 100+ year old farm house with the whole upstairs converted into a recording studio/music offices. The house was originally a six bedroom affair.

There was the control room, and a main recording area with another small recording area/room connected to it. There was glass between the control room and the main recording area.

At that time I was using a one inch sixteen track recorder running at 30 inches per second. I had a Ramsa console and my trusty 4312 JBL monitors.

So Paul came and explained what he wanted to do. I was hesitant. Not only had I never recorded a group like this but the main recording room was about 12’ X 12’ and the small adjacent room was about 5’ X 6’.

And Paul was a well known area personality.

I voiced my concern about the size of the room (s), and he just said, ‘We’ve played on bandstands smaller than this’, Hmm I thought.

I played him some work I had done and he seemed pleased. He said something akin to ‘this will do just fine’ and then added, ‘well I’m sure you’ve done this kind of thing before’, referring to a big band / orchestra situation.

This is where it gets a bit gray.

I never said yes or no, but said something to the effect of ‘no worries Paul, I’ll make sure you have a dynamite sounding record when we’re done’.

We shook hands, made the deal and set the date.

To this day I am not sure if Paul read me and knew I had never done anything like this before and just took a chance or just was happy to find a studio with a good sound so close to home and with a good price. Either way it worked out.

When these guys came to record, they looked around and more than one hushed remark was made to Paul about the conditions. Small, hot, let’s just say that it wasn’t the studio situation they probably had in their minds eye.

I put the drummer in the small 5 X 6 room and the rest in the larger 12 X 12 room. The drummer actually had to move drums to get in and out. There would be no overdubs on the main recording of the songs. Get it right or do it over. I recall that I left the door between the two rooms open.

To this day, I’m not sure why I recorded this group like I did. I remember thinking with so many acoustic musicians in such a small confined space, I needed to somehow create ‘size’, but was unsure how to do this. I just knew that it required something more than just putting a single mic on each instrument.

So I grouped the woodwinds and brass in three groups, facing each other. I put a stereo (XY) pair of SM57’s on each group about 2 foot from the players. I had acoustic panels behind each group to cut down on the reflections.

I put one kick drum mic and one single overhead on the drum kit. That was all.

Paul played the electric grand and conducted. They were really stuffed in there.

Once they got warmed up and used to the sound, they banged off ten tracks in a couple maybe three hours. Rarely doing any of them more than twice. These were REAL musicians.

I found myself in a bowl of ‘ruh-roh, you’re in some deep doo-doo now’.

But I played it cool and was very focused on keeping the levels where they needed to be.

The dynamic range of this group was just astounding. They ebbed and flowed. Sped up and slowed down. Louder and softer.

It was magic for me.

When they got done, they came into the control room and listened to the recording. I think I may have possibly heard a few whispers of approval, and Paul seemed very pleased.

Paul came back (once or twice?) and did vocals and fixed a few of the piano tracks.

When it came time to mix, I was basically at that point a mere passenger just guiding the ship along the way. The band did all the work. Once I set the fader levels, I rarely ever moved them. These guys were that good. It was almost like a ‘live to two track’ affair. As a note, if my memory serves, I don’t remember using any eq on the instrument tracks, though I may have on the vocals. We added a small amount of reverb but not much.

And all in living stereo!

In hindsight, I’m not sure what would have happened if I told him I had never done a recording project like this before. But I was confident I could do it. And I really wanted to land this one. So I fudged… Just a little.

No harm, no foul.

The recording (in my estimation) has beautiful imaging. Though it is obvious it was not recorded in a large hall or great big room, it does have an intimacy that I think is representative of what the group probably sounded like in a smaller club.

There are few things I would do differently from a mix standpoint if I was to remix the album today, but all in all, it works.

You can Listen to a cut here:

Paul Hemmer Orchestra ‘Harlem Nocturne

When it was done, Paul was happy, I was happy and we each went on to our next thing.

Author: Chad