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High-End Recording Engineers

Jazz-recording engineer Jim Anderson surrounded by some of his favorite microphones
Producer Joe Harley (left) listens to the playback of a session by Mighty Sam McClain (seated)
Mapleshade's Pierre Sprey monitoring his totally rebuilt Sony TC880 tape machine at a session in his Maryland home studio

Woody Allen, though a professed jazz hound and player of sorts, is primarily known for his filmmaking. And as any cineaste can tell you, one of the aspects of his craft Allen pays closest attention to, in addition to some pretty cool music, is the selection of his cinematographers, including Sven Nykvist (whose work also sparked up countless Ingmar Bergman classics), Gordon Willis and Carlo Di Palma, all of whom were chosen because their artful use of equipment and technique imbues Woody’s films with a stunning visual clarity and a distinctive feel.

But Allen could have just as easily selected a mediocre cinematographer who might have made the images of New York in Manhattan flat and insipid instead of spectacular and multidimensional, or the portrait of Hannah and Her Sisters brash and uninviting instead of engaging, intimate and compellingly lit.

Well, the same sorts of things can happen when recording music, and though commercial pop stuff seems to suffer far more than jazz, there are plenty of one-dimensional recordings on the Billboard jazz chart as you read this. Just because an engineer has the best tools at his or her disposal doesn’t mean the final product will be anything more than a cheap photocopy of what went on in the studio instead of the pleasingly lush-yet punchy-and accurate Kodachrome sound that could have been.

So what is it that the jazz-world equivalents of these cinematographers do to get those broad, sweeping images, replete with the minute details that make listening as fun as CinemaScope?

Recently I spoke with two recording engineers and a producer who are renowned for the quality of the sound they coax out of a recording session. These three audio artists work in very different ways to get very different results, which, nonetheless, consistently offer listeners a better-than-average glimpse inside the recording venue and of the music in question:

Jim Anderson’s name might not be familiar to you, but his sound probably is. A 30-year vet of the studio, he has left his mark on hundreds of notable sessions since getting started doing live broadcast recordings for NPR. Though there is hardly a label or artist he has not worked with, lately his fame has grown as a result of the fantastic sound of Patricia Barber’s Companion, Modern Cool and Cafe Blue CDs. “Those have sort of become my calling card,” Anderson glows. A listen to Barber’s Companion reveals one of the most startlingly real live recordings I’ve ever heard: upfront, packed with nuance and a first-row perspective that sets the standard for modern live recordings.

If you’ve listened to any of Charles Lloyd or Bennie Wallace’s last few discs, the smokin’ Anthony Wilson Our Gang CD or anything from the last 10 years by Mighty Sam McClain or Terry Evans (with Ry Cooder), you’ve experienced the superlative production skills of Joe Harley, whose reputation among audiophiles ranks him somewhere near the moon.

On the outer fringe, and even Pierre Sprey himself would admit to hovering there, is the owner, founder and chief engineer of Mapleshade Records, whose ultrasimple recordings are about as pure as they get. Sprey, whose Pentagon-consulting background includes being on the design team of the F10 and F16 fighters, has dedicated himself to reinventing the recording studio in his isolated Maryland home. Now, those who know about jazz recording history know that even Rudy Van Gelder did some of his most legendary sessions in his mother’s living room, so Sprey may not be as strange as he sounds. Regardless, the recordings he produces are some of the most natural sounding in the industry and feature such artists as Larry Willis, Walter Davis Jr., Hamiet Bluiett, Clifford Jordan, John Hicks and Frank Foster’s Big Band. But the effort he expends to get his particular sound would drive the average studio drones up an acoustically treated wall.

What is their goal when these guys take on the task of making a record?

Says Harley, “In the end, what you’re trying to do is create a very convincing illusion and it’s the human element that is most important. Who’s making the decisions about what sounds right? How much EQ [equalization, the use of tone controls on individual instruments] to use, if any? How are things presented and how convincing is that illusion? Those are all human decisions totally independent of all the equipment per se.”

“I like to aim for something over the top,” Anderson says. “I go for a super-high fidelity with a certain punch that at the same time exhibits that fat sound an LP might have. I don’t like to hear too much processing, too much compression, too much EQ. You have to exercise restraint and use only the technology that’s appropriate for the session.”

Sprey takes it a bit further in blaming the misuse of too much electronic fudging for the bad sound we so often hear: “The experience of live music is more profound than the experience of recorded music. The deeper into the nuances of the music you can hear on a recording, the more you hear of those individual touches all great musicians add to the music, most of which you’ll totally miss in a standard studio recording. But if you wipe out the electronic haze that’s blurring those details, you can catch those subtle pearls that tend to be masked by excessive processing.”

In his studio, Sprey has created a Mister Wizard-style environment of constant experimentation, designed to reduce the interference of what he deems unnecessary electronic manipulation. “What do I do that’s different?” Sprey says. “It’s easier to tell you what I do that’s like any other studio, and the answer would be almost nothing. We record with the least amount of electronics and the shortest signal paths for cables of any studio I know.”

Sprey has his dogmatic reasons for following the simple road. “The really big differences in sound recordings are in capturing the attack portion of the note,” he insists. “The way a bass player’s finger addresses the string is different from one player to another, and the less you do to slow down or blur the attack, the more distinctive will be the final recorded output of that bass note.

“Every electronic stage you put a signal through slows down that attack and makes it a little more like any other. And the same is true with a piano. It’s amazing how few recordings convey the idea that the piano is a percussion instrument; on many it’s just a sustained note-making instrument, and you totally miss that felt-hammer hitting that string-too bad because so much of the individuality of a pianist lies in that attack. What made Walter Davis Jr. so purely bebop was how hard his attack was, while it’s obvious that Larry Willis’ sound is influenced by impressionist music because of how delicate he can make his attack. The ear is most sensitive to the two ends of the note-the attack and the decay into silence-and that’s where you really hear the differences and the subtleties. But those are exactly the two areas most damaged by standard studio processing.”

Harley and Anderson concur to a degree, but they each will use whatever it takes to get the desired result.

Harley, who has had a lifetime of experience with heavy-hitting blues, wants his CDs to get you up dancing. “With rhythmically driven music like jazz or blues,” he says, “I want to clearly hear the rhythm section, the foundation Ry Cooder calls the crankcase. And though I want to capture the space around the instruments, the ambience, I want to get enough texture to make it interesting, and I can’t get that with ultrasimple miking. Now, Pierre at Mapleshade does this better than most because he will often use more mikes to help you get in closer.

“If a recording sounds small or compressed I find it irritating. And sometimes I’ll hear an average or a poor recording and I’ll try to figure out how they did that. I mean, short of using crummy mikes and compressing the hell out of it, how did they get it so small? Compression is squeezing a signal to eliminate all the peaks and valleys in dynamic contrasts to create a more consistent volume level. There are times when it’s useful, like recording a vocalist with poor mike technique whose volume can vary dramatically in front of the mike-compression helps keep their vocal up in the track at a proper level. But, only a few compressors are worth using, and some are really quite bad.”

And as Harley said earlier, so much of the end product relies on human ears and a vast catalog of experience.

Anderson addresses his own experience and how he honed his obviously amazing ears. “The best engineers I know come out of a music background. If you spend the first 20 years of your life in the middle of musicians, I think you’ll have a sense of what a proper musical balance is and what an instrument or a band should sound like.

“I started working for NPR in the mid-1970s, and my first jazz recording was Ella Fitzgerald for the old Jazz Alive series,” Anderson says. “All those recordings were live to two-track tape, and you had to get it right from the first note which helped me develop my skills very quickly. You have to think fast knowing there will not be a second chance. You have to really learn mike placement and mike technique and to back off the EQ so you don’t paint yourself into a corner. You learn to listen more carefully.”

Harley elaborates on that theme: “Because of shrinking budgets I see more people recording live to two track, something I’ve done for years. But that places a lot of demands on your ability to make level adjustments very quickly. Unfortunately, many engineers who lack experience in this technique use a lot of compression so that, no matter what happens, nothing will get too far out of whack-they want to keep all the levels safe so they don’t overload, making the engineer’s job easier.

“The way we do it requires more attention. We try to keep levels as wide open as we can so the true dynamics of the music are in place. Live to two track can give you exceptional transparency and dynamics-it can really be something because you’re eliminating a lot of electronics. But when you have to rely on compression for safety, much of the advantage of this technique is thrown out the window.”

Not to be outdone, Mapleshade’s Sprey takes the minimalist approach to its zenith. “We record everything to two-track analog tape,” he says. “It’s cleaner, more accurate, offers better definition in the bass and better dynamics. And I never use a mixing board, which can add layers of electronic-signal degradation for each knob on the console. And of course, we only use custom wire in everything, most of which is very thin, about half the thickness of a human hair, plus we use special silver-plated copper foil for the AC power lines.”

But perhaps the most important element of any recording studio’s arsenal of equipment is the microphone selection, and Harley attests that a studio’s mike locker has to be properly outfitted if he is going to have a successful session.

Anderson explains that mike selection is what shapes everything that comes afterward in the chain. “You need a range of mikes, and you learn which mikes work with which instruments and which voices. Then you have a pretty good idea of what the final sound will be. The mike I use for Patricia’s vocals is a wonderful tube mike that is very friendly to her voice. It adds something to her middle range which wasn’t there with the transistorized condenser mike we first used-it just couldn’t fill out the full range of her voice.”

Anderson elaborates on selecting the correct mike: “If you have a player who is on the bright side, you might use a ribbon mike, which can’t reproduce that sound and, though what you get isn’t totally accurate and natural, it will be more pleasing to the listener’s ear. If you used a B&K omnidirectional, which is incredibly accurate, it’s going to show all the nasty brightness that’s there. Though you might want to use that same B&K on a bongo that has a nice sharp attack that you want to capture.

“The more you match the mikes to the instrument,” Anderson says, “the less EQ you have to use and the more natural the sound will be. I use fairly little EQ in the studio; I like to paint with a pretty light touch. You really need to be aware of what all these colors are as you add them in layer by layer. How they all work together is very important.”

Harley and Anderson each agree with Sprey about the importance of using the best cabling possible, though neither can take it to the degree of the Mapleshade guru. “I take a case of cables with me to every session,” Harley admits. “They really make a difference.”

Anderson echoes, “I do take care with cables as much as humanly possible but I can only go so far. I use a few other tweaks in the studio and have discovered that switching out AC power cords can make a tremendous difference.”

One of the latest advances in recording is Sony’s development of the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording process, available for public consumption in the SACD format, which uses a sampling rate of 2.8 million bytes per second instead of the standard CD’s 44,100 samples per second. Most engineers, including Anderson and Harley, who have used this radical system swear by its enhanced fidelity. Says Anderson, “Human response to recordings is a very real thing, and the SACD is much more involving than standard CDs. That higher sampling rate just conveys more emotion.”

Harley stops just short of raving about it. “Almost everything I’ve done in the last three years has been in DSD. The advantage is that the playback is 99.999 percent of the direct live mike feed and with the latest improvements in mastering and SACD production, the end product is nearly identical to the original sound from the studio.”

Sounds good to me. And, in fact, so do all the studio efforts of these three aces. Of course there are others out there who employ similar measures, but they all pursue one end: to provide us with the most lifelike, most detailed, most moving music they can, bathing our living rooms with the magic of their widescreen sound.

Originally Published