13 Horns, 2 microphones

It is pretty hard to write a blog in the current climate that is positive. To cheerily write about recording/making music as if the huge strain on our industry and the people who work in it (or currently don’t work) is not going on seems rather glib to me. On the other hand it is important to recognise that even in such depressing and difficult circumstances music can still make a very positive contribution. So we want to hang in there and accentuate the positive. On that note, we want to acknowledge the contribution of our fans. We are so grateful for your continued support which encourages and enables us to continue to make music in these challenging times. Thank you! However the support comes, whether it is liking or sharing a post to buying one of our records, it all helps. So again, Thank you.

It has definitely become harder for us to make music as the studio is currently a very poorly ventilated and small place and therefore a slightly risky endeavour in  the Covid 19 climate. We are finding ways round it though and pushing on with getting new music made. One of the ways round it is a bit of a studio refurb in the next few months which will include windows and air vents so that there is decent air flow. Before we get to that though a couple of releases have to be finished off! 

Recently we released a 45 which included two very early recordings that over the years people had been asking if they would ever be put on vinyl. We had a little gap in our release schedule due to ‘you know what’ and thought that it was the appropriate time to get these two tracks squashed onto hot wax. 

I want to mention side A in this blog, a cover of Georgie Fame’s classic ‘Somebody Stole My Thunder’ by The Yorkshire Film And Television Orchestra.

The name ‘The Yorkshire Film And Television Orchestra’ came before any recording. As you might know we like film and library music here at ATA and this seemed like the perfect name if we were ever to do something with a large scale ensemble. What helped make the transition from idea to action was meeting musician/arranger Steve Parry. To date Steve is responsible for all the horn arrangements for The Yorkshire Film And Television Orchestra which is a crucial element of that sound.

I first met Steve working in a Pink Floyd tribute band that made many an interesting trip touring round Russia. I had heard of Steve often over the years but had never met him. The fact that he is a fellow studio obsessive meant that we got on very well from the off. 

I do feel very lucky to have met Steve as his experience fills in gaps in ours which would take us years to acquire. Having started arranging when he must have still been in short trousers, writing horn arrangements is second nature for him. I also always learn something from our interactions. For example, the piano chord from “Pinch of the Death Nerve” came from a discussion about why a minor 6th chord sounds so much better than a minor 7th. I love talking about this kind of stuff and after spending time with Steve thought I should start up a monthly meet up in a quiet pub with a piano for like minded types to talk about music and harmony whilst in the back of my mind gleefully thinking “think about all the stuff I’ll learn”.

I remember phoning Steve and talking to him about doing a small horn arrangement for this track. He was up for it and said he would get back to me which he did in a  few days - with an arrangement for 13 horns! Within a further few days he got back to me to tell me he had organised 13 people to play the arrangement. He doesn’t mess around. It is an amazing thing to observe how much respect he commands from people. Now I know that this might wear thin on folks very quickly and is not our practice now but these were the days when the label did not make any money and the reason that these people were there was because Steve asked them to be.

So to get to the recording bit. I have always thought that this is one of the best horn recordings that I’ve done on the label. When it pops up I always find myself thinking how full and punchy it sounds and every time I have that thought it makes me laugh because for those 13 horns I used 2 microphones. I don’t know if it has been through laziness or lack of equipment but I have always thought that the fewer microphones you can get away with the better. Part of this does come from the ethos of getting it right before you commit to tape. I don’t want to mix 13 horns - I want to get them balanced and sounding right in the room and then don’t have to worry about it later.

How did we set it up? So both mics were ribbon mics, the benefit being the use of the natural  rejection points of the figure of 8 pick up pattern so that there was very little bleed between the saxes and the brass even  though they were all in the same room with no separation. With the brass we had 4 trombones sitting down and 4 trumpets standing up in a row behind them. If the trumpets were too punchy we could move them back. With the saxophones we went for a slightly different approach with two on one side of the figure of 8 and three on the other. Again, if the balance sounded off you can move the section around until it sounds balanced. If, for example, the alto sax was too loud I would get them to take a step back from the mic. I have found this approach works very well. 

That’s it, that’s all we did. Why does it sound so full? One possible reason is that from a recording point of view, with only having a couple of mikes, there are very few phase issues which can make a composite of microphones sound weak as a whole. With everyone blowing towards one point at the same time its a bit like hitting the perfect swing at rounders; loads of energy but you barely feel the bat connect with the ball. 

In truth it is something more than that. I think the real reason that I managed to get such a great sound was that when Steve is running a horn section everyones bum’s clenched and nobody wants to get it wrong. He commands a level of respect that make people play their best and execute their parts like one player. That is where the phase relationship started.  There were no stragglers in the first place. He understandably has the nickname Sergeant Parry.

We have had plans to record a full Yorkshire Film and Television album for quite a while and it really excites me to try to capture this energy on a larger scale but right now the days of squeezing 13 horn players into a poorly ventilated studio are gone. We’ll find a way round it. Until then Steve plays most brass instruments really well and on many occasions, fuelled only by a Biscuit and Raisin Yorkie Bar, we have layered up a full 12 piece brass section with great success (best example being Black Tiger by The Magnificent Tape Band): https://themagnificenttapeband.bandcamp.com/track/black-tiger.

Until I get a bigger studio here is a clip of that session:https://www.facebook.com/679432932077683/videos/970961936258113

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