Historical info on Big Band Recording Techniques?

Discussion in 'Microphones (live or studio)' started by jazzbutcher, Jan 17, 2005.

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  1. jazzbutcher

    jazzbutcher Guest


    Nice forum going here - I'm enjoying the discussions and see some familiar folks here from other forums... Congrats on getting this one up and running!

    I'm hunting for historical info on how Jazz Big Band concerts used to be recorded. I'm sure things changed a bit after the 40's/50's - not to mention the eventual decline of the poularity of the Big Band sound. I guess all these wonderful high-tech tools we have now are all fine and well, but when listening to some of these old recordings from 40-50-60+ years back, many of them have a marvelous quality to them, which, while maybe not technically superb, the energy and excitement of the band in the room is definately captured.

    I'm curious if anyone has any good sources for reading about (or looking at photos) of Big Band recording sessions / live broadcasts. I've hit a few books and seen some random photos, but not much solid info on the details of the actual recording techniques.

    All the photos I've seen so far just show a few RCA 77's in front of the band and in and around the rhythm section and in front of the singer. I keep thinking surely they had to do something more than that... or did they?

    How about film scoring work with Big Bands? Was this done the same way as live recordings or totally different?

    The reason I'm curious about all this is that I have a Big Band recording to make shortly and I'm looking to better understand how these recordings *used* to be made and how they are *now* made these days. Any advice/suggestions you have would be great.


  2. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    Welcome Dave!

    I may be one of the older guys here, but I'm not old enough to go back THAT far....I too would like to know more about how it was done.

    I do have some jazz recording and live sound reinforcement under my belt from as far back as the 70's, although that hardly qualifies.
    I CAN relate a few stories about some of the greats and their attitude towards miking and playing live with mics.

    I do know that bandleaders like Count Basie and many of his sidemen didn't worry about overmiking, or "more of me" in the mix. Most of them just worked the "solo" mic at center stage for the live shows. We'd mic the band in a fairly straight forward manner, but the soloists would always get up and come around front to take a solo.

    One funny story I like to relate is how guitarist Freddie Green HATED a mic anywhere near him onstage. (Freddie was an amazingly talented rhythm guitarist - he often had a different chord inversion, subsitution or "change" on every beat, literally. Astounding.)

    First time I worked with Basie's band (outdoor summer live show) I managed to put a mic on him (SM56 on a stand) and got the show off without a hitch. Second year he was on to me, and moved the mic about 3 feet away. I caught him doing it, moved it back, and by the time I got back out to the house board position, he'd moved it again. d'oh! When I called him on it at intermission, he said: "Young man, I do NOT want a mic on me that close, I don't NEED a mic, and I don't WANT a mic. Keep that thing away from me!"

    Age before wisdom, or something like that, and I had to let it go. It was a shame, really, most of what he played that night got lost in the blend. He had an amazing sound and amazing talent, but there was no way the 10,000 people in the ampitheater hear him, or his hollow body acoustic guitar against the din of the rest of the band, even without the PA system.

    I understood where he was coming from. though, those guys probably suffered a lot at the hands of inexperienced sound guys in the past. Why should he have trusted me? ;-)

    Most Jazz bands I met in the 70's were still rooted in the traditional, minimally mic'd era. Most didn't tour with anything but their own instruments, and just had a contract that stated the house/venue would supply the mics & PA.

    But I too would like to know about how it was done in the studios, mainly, and what mics were used.
  3. LittleDogAudio

    LittleDogAudio Active Member

    Sep 24, 2004
    Hi Dave.

    Making a Big Band recording relies quite a bit on the acoustics of the room(s). I'll assume that you have a nice sounding space to track the band in.

    The idea of big band recording is to keep it sounding like you are simply standing in front of the band and everything is naturally balanced. The best way to achieve this is to start with a great pair of stereo condenser mics and the placement of the musicians in the room.

    I usually start with a pair of Neumann M149's in wide cardioid spaced about 5-6' apart, placed in front of the band where a conductor would stand.

    Whatever mics you use for your main stereo pair, take your time moving them around and always use your ears as the initial judgement as to a good starting point. Keep going back to your monitors and listen as the band warms up. It's best to have an assistant move the mics (per your direction) while you listen. This can save you a lot of time.

    Then, I will place "spot" mics on each section, ie: sax, trumpets, clarinet. I will usually use 4 mics on the drumset. (kick, snare and overs). Depending on what the bassist is playing (electric or upright) I'll either take a di (elect) or I'll place a condenser fairly close to the body (upright).

    I like to place gobo's around the drummer to get a bit of isolation and I'll build a small vocal enclave around the lead singer (assuming there is one).

    But again, the main idea is to try and capture the "composite" sound with the main stereo mics.

    I'm sure there are others here that can give you more advice. You should give us more detailed info on the equipment you have, how the room looks and how large the big band is.

    Hope this helps a bit,

  4. Ellegaard

    Ellegaard Active Member

    Feb 17, 2004
    Central Copenhagen
    I recently helped a guy out with his final project at the producer school at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music here in Copenhagen, playing violin on a couple of the tracks. His philosophy was to record the tracks in the classical big band style of the '30s/'40s/'50s, and he booked the second largest studio in the Danish Radio and an amateur orchestra specialized in movie and swing music. Haven't heard the results yet, but if you're interested, his name is Torsten Jessen, his website is http://www.micropascal.dk/index_ENGLISH.htm, and he might have some useful references to books, pictures, websites, etc.

    Good luck!
  5. bap

    bap Member

    Nov 22, 2003
    On the Benny Goodman Band recording live from Carnegie Hall didn't they suspend a single microphone overhead?

    It's nowhere close to a clear and defined sound but I love the cd [don't own the vinyl].
  6. uncruss

    uncruss Guest

    Try this: home.elp.rr.com/valdes/photos.htm

    It is a site devoted to Charlie Christian and has several photos of sextet recording sessions. Most sessions had a mic on the band and another on the piano. Big band sessions were similar.

    "Uncle Russ" Reinberg
  7. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    Feb 12, 2001
    Los Angeles, CA
    Home Page:
    Hey Russ-

    Looks like you found it... Nice to see you here...

    I'll introduce him (and yes, I'll embarass you... :p )- Russ is a first rate jazz clarinetist here in LA who I've been working with on some of his recordings for a year or two now. You should check out his CD- we recorded the 4 players with 4 mics in a very "old school" kind of recording setup. The sound is similar to what some of the older Wally Heiter records have (like the Bill Evans trio stuff) where each instrument was picked up with a mono mic and the instruments "live" in a very specific place in the image.

    Here is the website that has some samples of it: http://www.westlakerecords.com/new.html

  8. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    Feb 12, 2001
    Los Angeles, CA
    Home Page:
    This article has been up on the internet for years, but I finally found it again. It is one of the better written and one of the longer histories on big band recording out there. Several years ago when I first read it, I had a great email conversation with the author...


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