FEATURE/ADVICE: Sound Reasoning Part 1 – the set-up

Mark Wingfield at his Heron Island Studio desk

Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great.

Introduction

In my work at Heron Island Studio I get some amazing recordings to mix and master, but I also get many sessions which could have been recorded a lot better and that prompted me to write this series of articles. I’ve been specialising in mixing and mastering jazz for over 20 years. In that time technology has changed beyond recognition. Styles of music have changed. The way we listen to music has changed. But one thing hasn't changed. I still hear the same recording mistakes being made in the way things are recorded. These are the kinds of problems that mean the album is never going to sound great. The good news is that most of these mistakes can easily be avoided with a little knowledge, which I aim to provide in this series.

Of course part of what we do as mixing and mastering engineers, is work our studio magic, and it is possible to greatly improve lacklustre recordings. However, it’s important to know, if you’re a young jazz musician (or even not so young), that even the best mixing or mastering engineer can’t ever make a recording with problems, sound as good as a recording without them.

Most jazz these days is recorded in small studios. It is possible to get a great recording, even a world class recording, in a small studio. But it’s also easy in small rooms to get it quite badly wrong and mar your recording with sonic problems. The result of such mistakes means that mixing becomes about fixing problems, whereas, if you avoid the mistakes, mixing can be about making your recording sound amazing.

You've put all that time and effort into developing your art and your skill as a musician, why skimp when it comes to recording? Especially when it doesn't actually cost you any more to get it right.

These articles are aimed at musicians who may not know much at all about the recording process, but there will also be some tips that even those with a lot of studio experience might find useful. I will look at all the common mistakes I hear people make when recording and and mixing jazz, starting with the set-up stage.


Set-up: getting the sounds you really want

The first main activity in the studio is of course setting up the microphones and getting the sound for each instrument. This set-up time is the single most important element in achieving a great sound for your recording. As long as there are no actual problems with the studio itself (which we’ll cover later), getting this stage right is by far the biggest step in achieving a great sound. The majority of problems that keep a recording from sounding great happen during this phase. So it cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to put extra time and effort into the set-up phase.

Get involved

You can of course just leave it all up to the engineer. However, unless they have a long track record of engineering great sounding jazz records, my advice is not to leave it up to them to decide on how each instrument ends up sounding. You may not have much experience or knowledge of recording studios, but if you’re a jazz musician you have good ears, so use your ears to guide the engineer. Get involved in deciding on the sound of every instrument and the sound of each drum in the drum kit. Use your ears to guide your engineer every step of the way.  Don’t make the mistake of chatting in the studio lounge while the engineer does everything. Each musician should take in personal interest in helping the engineer get the sound they are after.

There is sometimes an attitude amongst some jazz musicians that the technical side of recording is not their domain, so they just keep out of it and let “the professionals” do their work. That approach is fine if you’re working in a high-end studio with an engineer who has recorded many great sounding jazz albums. In any other situation, it really pays to be actively involved.

Even if the engineer is very good, unless they specialise in jazz, they are unlikely to know what sort of sound you’re really after. Unless you are actively involved when they are setting up the sound of each instrument, you’ll be leaving it up to the engineer to guess your tastes. Chances are you won’t end up with a sound which is as good as it could have been, even if the engineer is experienced with jazz as a genre. If they are not very experienced at recording jazz, they are likely to apply the techniques they use for recording other styles of music, many of which will not be appropriate for a jazz recording. Such an approach can ruin a jazz recording. This is why it’s so important to be actively involved in listening to the sounds the engineer gets for each instrument. For example, if the sound they have set up for the drums is not picking up the intricate ride work the drummer is playing, any competent engineer should be able to adjust the microphones accordingly. But unless you are there listening and commenting, they won’t know that’s what you are after.
Listen to the sounds the engineer gets for each instrument - and
don't be afraid to comment.

Avoid last minute changes

There is one caveat here however. Don’t be tempted to make any last minute changes to the sound of your instrument. Retuning the kick drum in a way which you don’t normally tune it, or trying out a new effects pedal on the guitar or bass is to be avoided. Stick to what you know works with your instrument in the context of the tunes you are playing. Last-minute changes to instruments or effects often end in disaster when it comes to the mix. It seems to sound pretty cool while you’re recording, but in the mix you realise it’s not quite what the track needs, or it sounds too much of a good thing and now it’s too late to do anything about it. Any change in an instrument’s sound which has not been tried and tested with the tunes and arrangements should be avoided. If you are planning to buy a new effects box, a new snare, or a new anything for the purpose of using on your record, I strongly recommend you try it out in more than one gig or rehearsal before the recording dates.

Reference tracks

When you are working with the engineer to get the sound of each instrument, don't be afraid to use reference tracks to help. It's useful to come prepared with a selection of tracks from albums you think sound great. Then you can A/B between your reference tracks and what you're hearing when the engineer is setting up the mics. You can ask the engineer to play your tracks through the control room speakers to get a good comparison. Of course, you won't be able to get the same sound as on your reference tracks because the instruments, players, studio and mics will all be different. But it will give you and the engineer a target to aim at.

Give yourself some time

In these days of streaming, budgets are tight. However, if you can find a way to pay for an extra studio day or even an extra half-day, where you can set up and get all your sounds, it can make an enormous difference to the end result. Trying to do it all on your first recording day means you’ll feel under a lot of time pressure, watching the clock and worrying that you’re still trying to get the right bass sound when you should be tracking. What tends to happen is that the set-up stage is rushed through and the result is almost always a less than ideal sound. What makes sense, if you want a great sounding record, is to think of a day for set-up (or at least half a day) as part and parcel of recording an album, rather than an add-on or a luxury. You’ve put in all that time working on your art, practising, writing and rehearsing, why skimp at the most important stage of recording your album?

I can't emphasise enough how important the set-up stage is. Apart from choosing a good sounding studio, it's the most important part of getting a great sounding record. Get this part right and all you'll need is a good mix engineer to end up with a great sounding album. Get it wrong and no mix engineer in the world can make it sound as good as it could have done if you'd spent a bit more time and effort at this stage.

Over this series of articles we will look at all the common problems you need to listen out for and avoid in the studio. You’ll also gain enough understanding of how the recording process works, to help you guide your engineer in achieving the sound you’re after for your recording.

In the next article we’ll begin with monitoring (how loudly you listen in the control room, etc) and why this is so important to getting a great recording.


Mark Wingfield, Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio
contact@heronislandstudio.co.uk
heronislandstudio.co.uk

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