Recording brass instruments is perhaps the hardest of all the recording tasks you might undertake at home.
Due to the physical nature of the instrument, and sometimes the foibles of human players, you may need to drop in and out of record many times during a session to get the results you are after.
Parts to be recorded could well consist of rather complicated strings of stabbed notes, often deployed in intricate rhythms, so patience helps if you have a tricky arrangement while the player gets used to the patterns and riffs. Alternatively, there may be long, tiring passages of legato notes that rarely pause. In both cases, the players can be very tired very quickly.
The DAW can grab ‘brass stabs’ and shift them to new locations, of course, but naturally it’s so much nicer to capture a real performance correctly executed with passion in real time. On the other hand, it’s a great way to look for ways to freshen up an arrangement, so store any cool stabs you record into a library of your own as part of your production collection of samples.
Don’t spend a long time rehearsing parts, or the players will be unlikely to deliver their parts well. There is an emotional content to a musician’s playing that is diminished by repetition in most cases. You want them to be comfortable with what they must play, familiar enough to do it well, but not already emotionally spent. Vibe is very important!
So, be prepared to punch in and out a lot, and set up a session workflow and DAW session template that suits the task.
Make certain that you wear the headphones the player will wear, so that you can see what they will hear while they play.
If you are recording a section rather than a single player, remember that they will tend to balance themselves acoustically in the room, and you should wander around, listening for a spot while they play (watching your hearing, of course!) where the sound is nicely balanced, and full, and there is no excessive reverberation adding to the sound.
Remember that each player will need headphones, and a mix to feed them, and they will also want a music stand, and a side table of some sort for mutes or glasses of room temperature water, and so on. There will be cables and sheet music and their personal methods of note-taking to contend with. Space may be at a premium.
If you do try to record more than four people at once, you should probably consider booking a professional studio for the relative ease of results and the far lower requirements for gear you need to supply yourself. Studio time is very good value these days, after all.
Virtually all brass instruments are capable of high Sound Pressure Levels – in other words, brass can get very loud. We are talking about 130 to 140 dB(SPL).
Use a pop shield at all times! Your microphones and bank manager will thank you.
A loud blast of air from the bell of a brass instrument can take out the diaphragm in your mic in a microsecond if you don’t use common sense.
Most dynamic microphones can handle very high SPLs, but they can also sound a little too hard or sterile on brass.
Ribbon microphones have been the first choice on brass for many years in most circles, although condensers also get great detail and airy highs. The ribbons have the advantage of having a nice, warm tone, due to a gentle roll-off at the high end.
The ribbon also offers bidirectional pickup, allowing for figure-8 patterns that ‘null’ at the sides, strongly rejecting sounds coming from right angles to the mic, and strongly picking up sounds from the front and rear of the mic. The rear side allows for more room sound to be included than one would expect from a cardioid pattern microphone such as the typical dynamic.
This is great, because the room is a huge part of the sound of any brass sound. The sheer power of a loud brass instrument can resonate in a space to great effect, building early reflections up, reverberating and causing sympathetic vibrations in other hollow or thin objects sharing the space.
The Shure SM7B and the ElectroVoice RE20 are great dynamic mic choices if you want the dynamics. A Shure SM57 is pretty good live, but in the studio, opting instead for the larger diaphragm types of dynamic does seem to work better on brass.
Condensers can be great too, especially if you want a breathy, detailed sound from a saxophone, and I’ve had great results with the the Neumann U87, TLM102 and TLM103 mics. At the other end of the scale, I’ve had a very good result (with careful placement) using an AKG C1000, which is a mic almost anyone can afford to own.
Ribbons such as the AEA R84 are excellent, with a warm, lush, mellow signature sound reminiscent of the forties and the great swing bands. Time-aligning two tracks of microphone recordings in your DAW (to correct phase differences due to mic distance differences) can provide you with huge tonal variety in the mix, whilst not causing any serious phase issues.
I usually use an R84 together with a U87, and I am normally very happy with the results. This works very well on trumpets, trombones and saxes.
Most players double on another instrument, so don’t forget to consider asking them about this.
Trombonists could have a bass trombone to hand, and trumpet players might have a cornet or a flugelhorn.
The sax player could show up with an alto, tenor, baritone, soprano and/or bass sax, and often has a clarinet and a flute with them too, due to the identical fingering on these instruments. Google tells me that there is a contrabass saxophone too, but, personally, I have never seen such a rare thing!
You might also wish to consider using microphones with two very helpful features – the HPF roll-off filter and the built-in pad.
Firstly, the HPF roll-off will discard the low frequencies and rumbles and footfalls that plague mic recordings. Brass does not contain much in the way of low frequencies, except of course for the baritone, bass and contra-bass saxophones. This also opens up the mix headroom, allowing for louder mastering and clearer sounds with less ‘masking’ of frequencies.
Secondly, the use of a Pad at the microphone itself can make it possible to record a very loud trumpet part without suffering from capsule distortion in a smaller space.
Distorting the signal as it enters the microphone is obviously a bad thing! The pad is there to help you prevent this, and may be a -10dB or even a -15dB or -20dB pad on some condensers. Alternatively, you can buy and use in-line pads in the form of “barrels” that can be inserted into the mic body between the cable and the mic, reducing the gain by the stated amount.
A good rule of thumb is to start out keeping at least six feet away and about 12 to 18 inches above the bell’s position. Use a pop shield, remember, even at these distances, to protect your microphone investments.
The sound is not coming from the bell as such; rather, it’s coming from the vibrating bell itself, resonating with the column of air expelled from within. This means miking the bell from a little above it’s line of sight rather than in the crosshairs in front of it is a good plan.
Brass players have their own opinions on all these considerations. They will chime in happily with suggestions for miking, based on the things that they feel worked well in the past when they have been recorded. Don’t forget to ask them for their input, since you can pick up great tips.
Here’s an example, and this is one I got from a veteran sax player. Record a solo saxophone from the side of the instrument too, to pick up the player’s action with fingering the keys, as well as miking from the standard position a few feet out and up a touch. This will give you a variable amount of the fingering sounds for the mix, if you capture both mics to two separate tracks in your DAW.
Generating very loud sounds at home can be a serious problem, but, assuming your neighbours are OK with it (or have gone elsewhere) you can get great results if you have a reasonable room.
Tiled rooms, hardwood floors, glass walls or large mirrors, all of these materials can be great for brass.
You don’t have to record directly into a microphone either, since you can get really nice results by having performers play towards a window, or a sheet of plywood resting against a wall. Simply position a dynamic microphone a few feet from the window or wood, facing it from maybe three or four feet, to record the instrument in a more indirect way.
The sound of a room excited by a brass instrument is a huge part of the result. It is very helpful to experiment, looking around your space for places you might record brass.
This has the added advantage of preventing blasts of air from being directly aimed into the mic. If you are using a ribbon mic, this is particularly helpful, since you can snap the ribbon and thus break the mic with a strong gust of air (door slams, trumpet solos, close drums, etc – ribbon killers, all of them). Repairs are costly and you will be without your mic for quite a while.
This works very well with brass, but, since most brass is mostly midrange frequencies by nature, microphone positioning makes a big difference.
Don’t forget to move the mic and the performer in pursuit of the best result you can find. Inches make a difference here, due to the wavelengths of most interest, and the complex web of early reflections that build up quickly in front of the mic.
Be careful with reverberation in the room (room sound). This can be easy to overlook at the time, but if there is too ‘wet’ a sound, you will be pretty much stuck with it.
Removing room sound is nigh on impossible, except with specialist tools, and even then the task of stripping off reverb from a sound is far from simple and never really works out too well.
DON’T EXHAUST THE PLAYERS !
Playing a brass instrument is very physical.and lungs are human-powered!
Notes that are very loud or very high or very sustained (or even all three of these things) will be the first things to capture if you want to successfully avoid exhausted players.
Plan ahead, thinking about what is required before the session begins. Figure out where the loudest and highest parts will occur, and assess the ‘exhaustion’ factor for the player. Who needs to hear which sounds in their headphones?
Once you do start to record, try to get the most exacting or energetic parts nailed first, then come back to the rest. They will need to breathe in hard and fast, then let out air in an even, controlled rhythmic pattern, depending on the parts to be played, and that will tire them out really quickly. Try it and see how you like it!
If the section is four or more players, try to mimic the way they set up for live concerts, since this will allow them to balance each other well and be as tight as possible when playing together.
Consider a professional recording studio with this many players – they take up an awful lot of room, with their cases, music stands, headphones, mics, micstands, cables, notebooks, glasses of water, and so on. Give them elbow room, and cut back on the number of simultaneous players.
If you can, try to keep the section small. Big sections are usually too loud for a home setting due to the proximity of walls and ceiling.
Three people is great, and two people is often even better to deal with in a home setting. Simply double or triple the takes instead of doubling or tripling the number of players.
You’ll find it much simpler to get tight, funky horn parts this way, fi that’s what you are after.
The player(s) will track more accurately with their already-recorded parts, and the overall result will be much more likely to swing and groove in a tight, tidy pocket.
Brass players have a unique sense of camaraderie, and a great sense of humour. Managing a smaller section is often a good way to control the session and prevent things getting too casual for too long. All that heavy breathing seems to make them even more prone to giggle fits than most musicians.
ISLAND FUNK AND REGGAE
It is also fun to capture a more sunny, slightly out of tune sound, typical of Caribbean climates and brass getting together!
Slightly looser playing, with a lazier feeling and a little sun-kissed tuning discrepancy here and there, can be create quite a dramatic feature when placed in the right song, especially in the reggae, funk or ska genres.
It’s a wonderful sound with a distinctive tropical island feel. It imparts a great flavour.
Relax your accuracy a little when doubling parts to achieve this sound, and realize that high temperatures and high humidity are the primary reasons that the sounds of the Caribbean islands have such distinctive vibes.
Simple parts also help, since these styles of arrangement are often rudimentary. This all contributes to the soulful vibe. Complex parts are not common in this relatively relaxed area of music, since simple pleasures are to the fore, and hummable melodies and riffs are much loved.
I like to imagine the tropical breeze is gracing my home when I record this sort of brass, even if the snow is thick outside the front door. Love those chill island vibes, man!
It’s pretty much essential to compress brass due to the sheer volume the instruments can generate.
Set up so your peaks are triggering the compression with a fairly low threshold, maybe around -15dB with a hard knee setting. You’ll usually need a relatively fast attack, say between 6 and 10 milliseconds. Set the release for a fast to medium release in most cases, say 25 to 35 milliseconds. Bear in mind the tempo, and the amount of sustained legato phrases relative to stabby, staccato parts, and adjust settings to taste.
Be cautious not to over-apply the compression and/or limiting. It’s better to be gentler and steadier with the levels, aiming for even playing volumes at the tracking stage. Use automation as necessary in the mix to enhance the naturally recorded dynamics of the playing, and try not to compress the life out of the brass.
If you are forced to work in a carpeted room, you will get better results from laying a piece of plywood on the floor ahead of the instruments, so that the reflections from the surface can enter the mic too in an appropriate balance with the direct sound. Carpets will suck all the life out of the sound, and combining this room sound with excessive compression is a recipe for total disaster.
Use common sense and listen carefully to your acoustic environments around the home for a place that works well with brass recordings, and you will probably opt for spaces that do not feature much upholstery or carpeting.
A limiter will prevent overshoots, but you should probably place one after a compressor such that the gentler ratio of the compression is applied first to smooth out the signal, and the limiting action follows, preventing overshoots from clipping the input meters of your DAW interface.
The next blogpost will be on recording string quartets (and modest classical sections generally) in your home, and exactly what you may be able to do in this setting. See you then!