Recording and Mixing a Jazz Trio
Copyright 2013 by Bruce Bartlett
Recently I had the joy of recording a jazz trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums. The musicians wanted to improve their performances by hearing their band as an audience would. They also hoped to create a demo to get gigs.
Even a small group like a jazz trio can be a challenge to record effectively. The ensemble needs to play close together at the same time. That situation can create leakage (bleed or spill), which occurs when the drum mics also pick up the bass and guitar, the guitar mic also picks up the bass and drums, and so on.
At first, you might think it best to spread the players far apart in the studio and use goboes to reduce leakage. But that makes it difficult for the ensemble to play tightly together because of the long delays of sound from one player to another, and the lack of visual cues. Also, those long delays can make the leakage sound more muddy and distant.
So we grouped the players about 8 to 10 feet apart without headphones or isolation booths. Leakage was controlled by close miking, EQ and gating as you’ll see later on.
The following mic placements worked well in this session. Of course, other mic techniques could be used as well.
Guitar amp: Cascade Fat Head ribbon mic, 1 inch from the speaker, slightly off-center of the speaker cone.
Bass: Direct. One output of the DI box went to the audio interface; the other to the bass amp turned up just a little.
Kick: Shure SM57 at the hole in the front head. Inside the kick drum, some foam rubber was pressed against the beater head to tighten the beat.
Drum kit overheads: One Neumann KM140 cardioid condenser mic was 14 inches over the hi-hat and snare, and another KM140 was 14 inches over the ride cymbal and floor tom. We lowered the cymbal to a few inches above the floor-tom head.
All those mics plugged into an audio interface, which connected by FireWire to a computer running Sonar X1. We recorded five tracks:
After spending time with balancing, EQ, reverb and compression, we ended up with this finished mix:
To hear how this mix came together, let’s solo each track. This is the kick drum without EQ:
As you can hear, the kick drum sounded puffy and heavy. Also, there was leakage from the other instruments. To improve the kick’s definition, I cut around 400 Hz and rolled off the lows, and applied a gate to remove the leakage.
Here’s the kick drum with EQ and gating. Notice how the sound is more defined and tight:
The pencil condensers used as drum overheads rolled off in the low frequencies, resulting in a thin sound — especially on the floor tom:
To make the floor tom more beefy, I boosted 40 Hz about 9 dB. I also cut 200 Hz by 3 dB to prevent the snare drum from sounding too full.
The EQ curve for the overhead mics looked like this:
The bass needed no EQ. When we soloed the bass, it sounded sort of puffy. But when mixed with the guitar and drums it occupied its own sonic space without stepping on the kick drum or guitar. We also compressed the bass 4:1 to keep its level more constant.
Close-miking the guitar amp reduced leakage, but it also made the guitar too bassy. Listen to the guitar amp without EQ:
I applied a low-Q LF rolloff to remove the excess bass. This had a side benefit of softening the bass amp’s leakage into the guitar-amp mic.
Here is the guitar amp with EQ:
How do you pan a jazz trio? A left-center-right approach makes sense at first. That could be called an old-school style of panning where the instruments are widely separated. Here’s the mix with the guitar panned left, drums center, and bass right. Note: Listen on a good monitor system – not through a computer sound card, which might reduce the stereo separation.
Putting the bass on one side tends to sound “lopsided” in headphones. Here’s the same mix with the guitar panned left, bass center, and drums right:
That sounds better in headphones, but the mono-panned drums have lost their size or spaciousness.
A more contemporary style of panning might be called “Overlaid mono and stereo tracks”. With this style, the mono bass and guitar are nearly in the center (panned 15% left and right), while the drums are panned in stereo about 35% left and right. The stereo reverb is hard panned. Listening to the finished mix, it sounds like you are sitting near the drum set, guitar amp and bass all at the same time. This stereo effect is not an audience perspective, but it is common in modern recordings.
All three panning methods are legitimate; just use whatever sounds right for the music.
Let’s hear the finished mix once more, this time with no effects:
Here’s the finished mix with effects (EQ, gating, compression and reverb with a 1-second RT60):
There you have just one set of mixing choices and compromises; there’s no one right way to mix a jazz trio. Have fun trying it yourself.
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Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com), and audio journalist. His latest books are Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition and Recording Music On Location.