Tech

Why do you need all those microphones?

“Why do you need all of those microphones?”

I’ve been asked this question more than once, by musicians you may have heard of. I’m not going to name names, but if you press me I might. Let’s see where this goes.

It’s a reasonable question, sometimes. Still.

I’ve had serious conservatory musical training, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician—not anymore. At one time, I would have. Now, I would say that I’m a recording engineer and music producer. So, why would a musician with no technical training or professional technical experience consider themselves a proficient, competent recording engineer? Why would a musician question my technical decisions?

A friend of mine, Zoë Thrall, once said, when addressing the audience at the opening ceremony of an Audio Engineering Society convention, “Just because you can press the Red Button doesn’t mean that you’re a recording engineer.” Zoë has pressed the Red Button for many albums and can rightfully call herself a recording engineer, by training and experience (footnote 1).

I’ve sometimes found myself surrounded in the studio by musicians who, collectively, have been involved in hundreds of recordings, yet somehow the process of making a recording has eluded them. That can be a good and a bad thing. Good in that it encourages them to stay out of the engineer’s way, and bad in that all the experience they’ve accrued hasn’t taught them how to work toward the best possible result in the studio. I’ve seen many bands talk themselves out of a great mix because they thought they knew better. Then they wondered why they were disappointed with the final result.

There will always be bands that want to record with all the musicians in the same room, with no headphones for hearing each other. This is a fine idea, and classical musicians do it all the time, but the method has limitations, and in other (nonclassical) genres, there are compromises. When recording, everyone in the band will have to play in balance with the rest of the ensemble—everyone, including the drummer!

If you go back and listen to some of the recordings from the early days of stereo, you can hear the drummer “tipping”—playing relatively lightly during the session, only playing out when necessary. Another problem is that sometimes little fixes must be made: a wrong note in the bassline or an early entrance by a sideman. If everyone is playing in the same room, these fixes, which musicians have gotten accustomed to making, are quite difficult to do.

The only alternative is to use booths or go-bo’s (go-betweens, or baffles) for separation and isolation and have the musicians listen to each other through headphones.

I once had a saxophonist ask me, before he’d even said “Hello”: “What microphone are you using for me today?” Before I’d given it a moment’s thought, I heard myself answer, “What mouthpiece are you using today?” Fortunately for me, the sax player took my hint, realized what a useless question he’d asked, and relented. He was a sideman, not the leader of the date, so he wasn’t involved in technical decisions about the recording.

A wonderful, older pianist with whom I had a long relationship (see, I haven’t named a name, yet, but I have left some clues) asked me if we could set up with the bass player off to his left (which makes sense, since bass players sometimes like to see what the pianist’s left hand is doing) and the drummer behind him (similar to how the trio would set up on stage). I was to inform the drummer and the bassist that the headphone system was down and wouldn’t be repaired in time for our use. Why? Because the leader wanted the musicians to listen to each other—to hear each other naturally—as they would in a live show. I happily complied with this request, knowing from experience that the setup would result in a perfectly balanced group that would be relatively easy to record.

This pianist was a veteran of many sessions, both good and less good, so he knew his plan would succeed. And it did! However, the drummer, who was the main reason the pianist wanted to work this way, spent a fair amount of time grumbling “Why do we have to record in a studio where things don’t work?”

Before recording at the Village Vanguard one evening, Paul Motian—okay, so I dropped a name—asked me why I had to use all of those microphones on the drums when they hadn’t used nearly that many when recording the Bill Evans Trio at the same venue years before.

I motioned toward Geri Allen’s piano and asked, “Did Bill Evans have a monitor speaker mounted on the piano to hear you and Scott?”

“No,” Paul replied.

“Did Scott LaFaro play with an amplifier?” I asked, pointing to Charlie Haden’s bass amp.

“No,” Paul replied again.

“Did you use such a large drum kit, have a monitor speaker, and was a PA used in the Vanguard, back then?”

“No,” replied Paul, yet again.

Well, that’s why I need all of these microphones, for you, and Geri, and Charlie. It’s to counteract all of these differences in performance since then.” I knew that, when it came to mixing Live at the Village Vanguardfor Japan’s DIW label (footnote 2), all three of them, Allen, Haden, and Motian, would each have a different perspective on how the recording should sound. If I didn’t have all those aural perspectives, provided by all those well-placed microphones, I wouldn’t be able to shape the sound they were all expecting.

That’s why I need all of those microphones.


Footnote 1: Thrall is an engineer and music-studio manager who started out at the Power Station and is now at the Hideout in Las Vegas.

Footnote 2: See bit.ly/3LNuBeY. Volume 2—titled Unissued Tracks—is just out on the Somethin’ Cool label. It’s available on all the major streaming services. The original album is much harder to find.

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