Can you record a big band in a garage? Yes. All live? Yes. Is that not a lot of people in quite a small space? Yes, 3 trumpets/flugels, 4 trombones, 4 saxophones/flutes, bass, drums and keyboards. What about separation? F*%k separation.
Ok, I am not being strictly truthful about the garage bit, it is actually three single car garages. Am I being truthful about the separation bit? Kind of, but I will get to that bit a little later on.
ATA Records has its own studio for the production of our music. After many years of looking for the right sounding analog learning environment in which to make music I figured it was better to just make my own. I had experience of recording in the only running analog studio in Leeds but at £200 a day back in the early 2000’s it was not something I could imagine affording on a regular basis. So I slowly set out to build my own. This was very gradual and evolved over the next 15 years from a humble fostex r8 to the top of the range 1960s 2 inch 16 Track 3m I use now. I have been in my current studio for around 12 years which makes me shudder slightly as I wasn't lying about it being built in a garage. 12 years in a freezing garage with no windows is quite a sentence I'm serving. Who needs sunlight and people though eh?
I guess the garage bit paints a grim picture but it is acoustically treated, heavily insulated and recently we even put down laminate flooring with a life saving space age liner of insulation underneath to tame the cold energy of the concrete floor.
The live room is essentially the size of 3 single car garages, approximately 40m2, which is a nice sized room without the 7’ 6” grand piano, C3 hammond organ and leslie, collection of amplifiers, vibraphone, drum kit, yada yada yada. I have frequently squeezed quite a few bodies in that space to do a recording but doing the Abstract Orchestra album sessions was definitely next level tight space.
So far every Abstract Orchestra recording has been short intensive live sessions which is more to do with trying to get the full band in one room at the same time as it is about a recording aesthetic. As I recall Madvillain vol1 and vol2 were recorded over two days, both sessions were 6 hours long and I think we managed to record 21 tracks which became the two albums and also 3 bonus tracks. I don't think any of the tunes were played more than twice in those 2 days. The band were at the end of a tour and the material was about as tight as it could get.
The lay out for the session was the most challenging part for me. Just getting from one side of the room to the other to move a mic once everyone was in felt like a beginners course in Parkour. I was definitely glad for my policy of setting up and testing all lines and mics the night before any recording session I do. It really takes the stress out of the beginning of any recording day and enables the band to hit the ground running rather than drinking coffee for 2-3 hours while an engineer sets up and gets a sound. One of the best studio tools I have ever bought has been a cable tester and I habitually test all my mic leads before I plug them in. It has saved me on many occasions as there is nothing worse than trying to trace a fault in a room full of people.
My saving grace in this over crowded session was my love of ribbon mics. I think I pretty much exclusively use ribbon mics on everything now and my collection has grown over the years. It hasn’t helped my bank balance that I live 40mins away from one of the leading ribbon mic restorers this side of the atlantic. If you haven't already check out www.Xaudia.com but be warned you might not leave empty handed.
All ribbon mics are naturally bi-directional giving them a figure of 8 polar pattern which means that any sound source coming at them from the side is completely rejected. This characteristic was incredibly useful in this situation as it was how I managed to have so many instruments in one room but not have unwanted sources dominating the designated sound source of the assigned mic. I am unsure how often people make use of this to be honest. I have some really good examples of it that I show people to demonstrate and they are often shocked at the amount of rejection of other sound sources (I am avoiding saying separation btw because F*%k separation right?).
With the set up for the madvillain session I put the brass in the middle of the room, first a row of trombones who were sitting down and then behind them standing up were the trumpets. My thinking here was that the trumpets would be blowing over the trombone mics instead of directly into them and that if there is spill it inhabits a different frequency range and could be filtered out if it was unwanted. Instead of mic-ing up each horn (way too many mics for my liking) I chose to put two horns to a mic. The mic sat in-between the two players music stands quite nicely. Trombone players often seem to drop the bell of their horn towards the floor when they play so those mics were pretty low down. With brass mics in place the gig was now to try and position everyone else so that they were directed at the rejection points of these mics.
The saxes I put to the right hand side of the trombones, in a line facing the rejection point of the trombone mics meaning that although they were close to the trombones their sound was pretty much rejected. On the saxes I used a couple of ribbon mics that were also cardioid which means that they reject most things that aren't pointed at them. The saxes also had a chest high screen in-front of them to help to keep sounds travelling out from them and in from the rest of the room but still allowing the room to be open for people to hear each other.
The drums were to the right hand side of the trumpets I had floor to ceiling screen to stop too much of the drums spilling into the room to help stop the cymbals pinging around. We left these screens partially open so that everyone could hear the kit. There is also a permanent wall at that end of the studio about 6’ long with was in between the saxes and the kit. I put it in so that I could create more closed off spaces if I needed. With the screens open there was still very little spill from the kit onto the brass mics placed closest because of the correct use of the rejection points.
The Bass and keyboard amps were sat on the opposite side of the brass to saxes and kit pointing into the other rejection point of the brass mics. Same effect, bada bing bada boom very little spill, every mic got what it should have in it no problems.
Next, press record and sit back and watch the sound roll in? No such luck. One thing I definitely wish I had done is asked for a score as I spend a lot of the session with my eyes peeled on the meters and frantically jumping around faders as I didn’t know whether the trumpets were going full blast or had mutes in. Luckily they often played everything twice so I got a little feel for what the track was doing.
What about all the big man talk about separation? Separation, having no bleed, putting people in separate isolated spaces although might seem like a good idea for the individual instrument but does it benefit the entire recording? There always seems like a lot of backtracking to me in modern recording. Isolate all the instruments then add artificial atmosphere after in the form of a simulated space etc. You can’t add vibe it has to be created at the beginning. Nothing beats the feeling of playing in a room together. It is how most of us learnt to play together. Whenever possible we try to set up so that we don't have to use headphones I think you get a better vibe. Your ears are in the room rather than the headphones. People listen harder and will balance themselves in the performance better rather than relying on the headphone sends to adjust their volume. So whenever possible I try not to isolate people and instead try to use the rejection points to act as the screens if you like. I still have screens of course but they are only chest height. Also let the spill be good spill. Don't place things together that are going to impact negatively on each other sonically. It doesn't always work out the way you want it but it is a good place to start, adds a little natural glue your recording.
Madvillain Vol. 2 was released on the 24th of May on LP, CD and DL and has since garnered praise from the likes of BBC6 Music’s Gilles Peterson and Huey Morgan who made it his “Meat Of The Week”.
By Neil Innes