Making Michel Camilo’s Triangulo
“We talk in terms of half mute, quarter mute, three-quarters mute—that’s how picky we are.” Pianist Michel Camilo is speaking of conversations he has with bassist Anthony Jackson regarding the finer points of bass playing. When it comes to precision technique, whether on the fretboard, keyboard or mixing board, they are as picky as they come.
Triangulo, Camilo’s 11th album and first for the hi-fi-minded Telarc label, stands as a mind-bogglingly detailed record of three days spent at New York’s Avatar Studios with Jackson, drummer Horacio Hernandez and engineer Robert Friedrich committing 10 Latin-charged tunes to both tape and hard disk via Sony’s Direct Stream Digital (DSD) encoding technology.
After recording many albums with a highly produced sound, Camilo wanted to finally capture an accurate representation of the piano’s acoustic beauty, overtones and all. Friedrich knew that the way to grant Camilo his wish was to record the piano digitally. “Some people like the way a piano sounds on analog,” he explains. “For me, it clouds it up.” Sounds like heresy, but sure enough, DSD keeps the piano clear throughout every register. Even the low notes—frequencies often muddied on lower-fidelity recordings—remain defined and punchy. Of course, the rich, real sound isn’t solely the product of DSD. Six very accurate mikes covered the piano: pairs of Sennheiser MKH-20s, Schoeps MK-2s and AKG 414s. What you hear on the recording comes primarily from the Sennheisers with the Schoeps and sometimes the AKGs bleeding in slightly for a room sound.
A piano fit for a king, or a Duke or a Count, doesn’t hurt either. Knowing this, Camilo went to New York’s Pro Piano, ivory supplier to the classical elite and jazz’s upper crust, and rented a choice Hamburg Steinway. “I didn’t want the hammer to be too hard,” Camilo says. “This one was practically brand new, just used once. [The hammers] were totally soft and tender. But besides all that we had an advantage: Barbara.”
Barbara Pease Renner prepared the Triangulo Steinway—no, not in the same way John Cage prepares a piano. To a point, pianos are malleable to the artist’s taste and Renner regulated the Triangulo Steinway so that the registers responded evenly and so that no key was slower than another. She also voiced the instrument so that there were just enough overtones in every register.
With the instrument responding to Camilo’s slightest touch and with Friedrich’s ingenious engineering, Triangulo features the fullest, most dynamic and—I hate to say it because it sounds so cliché—warmest piano I’ve heard on record. Its glorious presence is without a doubt the focal point of the album, but Friedrich didn’t slack on the drums or bass, which were recorded in analog on a Studer A-800 MK3 24-track tape deck reeling at 15-inches per second and locked to the DSD stream to keep the instruments in sync.
Hernandez played drums and percussion simultaneously on Triangulo. There were no overdubs. The percussion sounds are so well separated in the mix from the kit that if the listener assumes they’re overdubbed it’s a forgivable mistake. To get them so discreet, Friedrich tested microphone positions until he heard perfection. “I get the majority of the sound from my drum overheads and it’s a matter of where you place them,” he reveals. “It varies from kit to kit and from player to player.” Hernandez’s textured brushwork on the slow “Afterthought” is so detailed you can nearly make out the sound of each wire striking and swirling across the snare head. Still, the miking was relatively standard and achieving that brush detail was primarily a process of listening hard during mixdown. Friedrich captured Hernandez’s Pearl kit, Zildjian cymbals and AfroPercussion with Schoeps CMC-6s bearing MK-41 capsules overhead and various condensers and dynamics on individual pieces of the set. In the mix Friedrich simply bled the tight mikes into the Schoeps, which resulted in an airy but strikingly separated sound.
Jackson’s six-string Fodera electric bass sits dead center throughout the disc—deep, cutting and expressive. The subtle differences of half-mutes, quarter-mutes and three-quarter mutes all transferred to tape through the miracle of a Millennia Media Origin STT-1 mike preamp/DI box/compressor/EQ plugged full of vintage Telefunken tubes. “I called [Millennia mastermind] John La Grou to tell him about the session and he says ‘Well you know, I have these old Telefunken tubes you can put inside of it….’”
Despite the world-class instruments, top-drawer microphones and modified rack gear, Triangulo wouldn’t sound nearly so divine if not for the Neve VRP-72 mixing console everything was fed into and the live sound of Avatar’s wood-lined Studio C. The room and console yielded early results Friedrich didn’t dare destroy with postmix tomfoolery. “There’s no compression, which is unusual for this style record,” he says. “If you turn it up you’ll hear the air moving around in the room.”