Monday, February 20, 2006

Blinkin' Lights, episode ii


a recording memoir by Leo McClusky and Gordon’s Gin

* * * * *

Back to the garage. Help yourself to a Parliament. And a beer if you can find one. The questions multiply quickly and run away from you in all directions.

Stereo pair or multitrack? Ideally, a recording like this would be done with two quality microphones selected carefully for the application. They would be placed in any one of several “textbook” configurations to allow for the best imaging, the least amount of phasing problems, and of course optimal sound quality. The ensemble would control and balance its sound levels naturally, and the mics would capture a pleasing blend of ambient and direct sound. One would be able to play a CD of this recording over one’s home stereo, sit between the speakers, and be made to feel as if they were at the show.

That’s all well and good, but we don’t have two high quality mics. We have some decent stuff, but nothing big-ticket. Yeah yeah yeah it’s not the gear it’s the engineer. I believe that to be true- I have heard solid, magical things done on very cheap equipment, but I couldn’t imagine any pair of mics in our collection – on their own – yielding anything better than “hey, good bootleg!” results. Not only that, but I actually employed forethought. I knew there would come a time during mixdown when a horn part might be too low, or the drums might get lost under a sea of brass. I’d be kicking myself in the head. Literally, I would FIND a way to inflict grievous injury upon myself if I couldn’t control the elements of a mix simply because I was too lazy to set up a multitrack system.

How many tracks, then? Eight? We’ll never get it with eight. Sixteen? For a while I was convinced we could get it with sixteen. Two out front, two overheads, kick, snare, bass, vocal, vocal, piano, horns. And then I started to obsess over the drums. Via email I peppered Andy with ridiculous questions that he probably had no time for in the midst of preparing for the tour: Which drummer are you bringing? How big a set? What is his average velocity per tom hit?

You see, having heard a good deal of the IJG’s stuff, I knew that a traditional jazz sound was not necessarily the objective. It would be tempting to just “hang a mic over the drumkit” and maybe stick a mic on the bass drum and be done with it, but there is usually some really wild drum shit going on in their music. The tom work in “El Grupo de Jazz Industriale” is especially exciting. I would hate to not hear the detail. Or not have access to that detail in mixdown. In a studio environment, or any situation where your drums are isolated from the other instruments – even partially, you can maybe get away with not micing the toms. Hope that your drummer is sensitive to dynamics (and arrangement!), crank your overhead mics, and blammo there’s your toms.

When faced with The Unknown, however, the tendency is to err on the side of “more more more.” We have to mic the toms and there’s just no way around it, so we really need twenty-one tracks.

Scary. The more mics the greater your coverage, yes, but you’re also getting into dangerous country. Phase problems you can’t fix, unusable leakage that blurs your total image into an indistinct pile of crap; and of course the more wires you have running all over the stage/venue, the more shit you have to clean up at the end of the night. But I had decided – with much pretense and melodrama - that overkill was the right way to go.

So, at eight tracks per deck that’s three DA38s, we might as well use all twenty four. Why not borrow another DA38 and make it thirty two? We’ll have ambient mics pointing at the stage and ambient mics pointing AWAY from the stage, it’ll be great! We’ll mic every fucking horn they got. We’ll mic their goddamn CAR horns. Spare tracks for guest musicians, dedicated “snare copy” tracks for lining up groups of eight after we transfer into ProTools, maybe some wireless mics to get audience chatter in the lobby before and after the show… oh yeah baby I’m a RECORDING ENGINEER, right?

Ron doesn’t say too much anymore when I get like this.

We have access to maybe nineteen good preamps – we’re gonna need adapters. Shit we gotta come up with a baffle system. Carpet tiles on mic stands? Perfect!

And so it goes. I’m designing recording schemes at home, at my day job (using Excel. Is there anything that says “hey, I’m working here!” better than a spreadsheet?), on napkins, Post-Its - my life is littered with hundreds of scraps of paper that all start with “AmbL, AmbR, OH1, OH2, KK, SN, T1, T2, Bass, PianoL, PianoR, AndyVoc, JillVoc..”

Then of course there’s reconnaissance. Gotta check out the theater in advance, lest we really hang ourselves with The Unknown.

Recon day went well. It was good to see Bob Carr after so many years. It also warmed my black little heart to see the love that is being poured into restoring the theater. I don’t want to botch their story – check out

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