Brass Tactics

Record great brass sounds in your personal studio.
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You most often deal with the sonic elements of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and vocals in your studio, but what if you were faced with the task of recording a trumpet player, a trombone player, or maybe even an entire brass ensemble? Would you be ready for that kind of a session? If your answer is “no” or “well, I'm not sure,” then read on. In this article I'll outline some successful strategies for recording brass. I'll also discuss important information about brass instruments and how they're played that will better prepare you for recording them.

The focus of this column will be on brass instruments specifically rather than on horn sections, which frequently consist of a mix of brass and woodwind instruments. Although there are many instruments in the brass family — including trumpet, cornet, trombone, French horn, euphonium, and tuba — I'll concentrate on trumpet and trombone because they're the ones you'll most frequently encounter. Many of the concepts described here also apply, however, to other brass instruments.

BLUE RIBBONS

There's a reason why armies have used buglers for centuries. The sound of the bugle — which is essentially a trumpet without valves — carries in a way that few other instruments do. A trumpet can not only be loud, but it can also be piercing. To keep those highs in check while still capturing the most full and natural trumpet sound (see Web Clip 1), I recommend using a ribbon mic.

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FIG. 1: A suggested mic position for a trumpet features a mic that is placed below the line of sight of the bell, rotated at about 40 degrees, and tilted upward.

In addition to controlling the highs, a ribbon mic's bidirectional polar pattern picks up more room sound than a directional mic does, and room sound is generally desirable when miking a trumpet. You have to be cautious, though, because some ribbon mics are fragile and can be damaged by the high sound-pressure levels that trumpets produce.

A dynamic mic yields a natural trumpet sound, although the sound is a bit more colored than a ribbon mic's (see Web Clip 2). You can get good results miking a trumpet with a condenser; you have to be careful, however, because those mics are often designed with a slight presence boost (for recording vocals) that can accentuate a trumpet's brittle highs (see Web Clip 3).

I've also had success using two mics on a trumpet in a spaced-pair configuration, with a ribbon mic feeding one track and a condenser mic feeding the other. (If you try this, make sure to listen for phase problems after you've positioned the mics.) When it's time to mix, I like to pan the two tracks to about ten o'clock and two o'clock, and make the ribbon track a bit hotter than the condenser. That combination allows for the natural sound of the ribbon mic to come through, with the brightness of the condenser mic adding a bit of spice to the sound.

Ribbon mics also work well in capturing the natural sound of a trombone. For a slightly grittier trombone tone, I sometimes opt to use a dynamic mic.

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FIG. 2: A suggested mic setup for a trombone features a mic that is placed below the line of sight of the bell, rotated at about 30 degrees, and tilted upward.

When recording a brass ensemble, ribbon mics are my first choice. They capture a nicely blended section sound when used as stereo overheads. I don't recommend miking an ensemble or section with individual mics for each instrument. You'll get a more cohesive sound by recording them all into one mic pair. I've had success using a spaced-pair configuration, but you can experiment with other stereo-miking techniques. (For more on stereo-miking, see the article “More than the Sum” in the June, 2003, issue of EM, available at www.emusician.com.)

Whether you're recording a pop section or a classical ensemble, set up the players in a semicircular arrangement so that they can see each other for visual cues. (See the sidebar “Classical Brass” for more about classical brass ensemble configurations.)

SPACE AND PLACEMENT

When considering mic-placement options, remember that a brass instrument's sound comes solely from the vibration of its bell, which is unlike woodwind instruments (such as sax, flute, oboe, and bassoon), where the sound comes from the keyholes and the bell (or from the “foot” in the case of a flute). Notice that I didn't say the sound comes from the end of the bell, but rather from the vibration of the bell. That is an important distinction. The bell is so important to the character of the sound that a player buying a professional, custom-made brass instrument will usually be given a choice of bell material and shapes, which imbue the horn with a variety of sonic characteristics.

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FIG. 3: Mutes offer brass players a variety of tonal options. Pictured from left to right are Straight, Cup, Bucket, Harmon, and Plunger mutes.

A brass instrument's sound is affected greatly by the room in which it's played. One of the most important considerations when placing a mic to record a brass instrument is how much room sound you will capture. If you close-mic the bell, you'll miss out on much of the room reflections, which, in a good-sounding space, can add character and openness to the sound.

There are varied opinions about how far back to place the mic when recording a trumpet. Although some people advocate a much closer placement, I have had the most success putting the mic about four to six feet in front of and a few inches above or below the line of sight of the bell. I point the mic about 40 degrees off-axis to help cut down on air sound as well as capture more of the room sound (see Fig. 1). For trombone and other low-brass instruments (see Fig. 2), the microphone can be closer (about two to four feet) and a bit more on-axis (about 30 degrees).

Every room is different, so it helps to experiment with mic placement. Before you set up any mics, have the musician move around until you find the spot where the horn sounds best in the room. Then set up the mic, put on your headphones, and move the mic around until you find the most favorable placement. You'll get different reflections depending on the mic's position, and they can have a big impact on the sound. If you want a completely different sound, record the player with his or her back to the mic.

Acoustically speaking, a cramped home studio is often not a good place for brass recording. It's preferable to record in a large space that has hard surfaces to take advantage of the natural ambience. If your gear is mobile, consider using a larger and more reflective venue. An unfinished basement — one that has not been furnished or carpeted — can be a good recording space for brass, because it produces a nice open sound. If you're going for a classical sound, you can record the session in a church. A large, stone church can yield a beautiful, round, natural brass sound.

You can also capture natural ambience by recording a brass instrument in a tiled bathroom. In addition, you can get a focused sound in a bathroom by placing a mic one or two feet in front of and above the instrument and one or two inches from the wall. Have the musician face the wall and blow into the instrument a bit more softly than normal.

One of the best classical brass recordings I've made at home was done using the ribbon-plus-condenser technique described earlier. I placed the ribbon in the bedroom where I was playing and the condenser in a hallway with a stairwell. I panned the tracks and captured great, natural-sounding trumpet tracks without having to use any EQ effects.

MUSICAL WORKOUT

When recording brass, keep in mind that the act of playing is physically demanding on the musicians. It requires a tremendous amount of air and is taxing on the lips. Imagine holding a piece of metal against your lips for a few hours, taking in as much air as possible with every breath, and blowing while intentionally making a buzzing sound. Brass players often jog, swim, or workout with weights to keep up with the physical demands of their instruments.

Brass musicians know that as their physical stamina diminishes with age, they'll lose some of their ability to play. Part of their practice routine is therefore directed toward building endurance. This is true for all brass players, particularly trumpeters. Be cognizant of the endurance factor when planning your session, especially if the musicians are not pros.

Consider recording the more demanding sections of your tunes first, while the musicians are fresh. You may need to consult with the players to identify these sections, but generally they are the parts that are the loudest and contain the highest notes. During the session, use your ears to tell you when the musicians are becoming tired; they may not want to admit it. Schedule more breaks than you would with musicians who play other types of music.

PUNCH DRUNK

When recording brass, expect to do a lot of punch-ins. A discussion of brass harmonics is beyond the scope of this column, but it's important to understand that there are many different notes that can be played on a brass instrument using the same valve combination or, in the case of the trombone, slide position. Brass players must use their lips, tongue, and jaw to hit their intended notes. Occasionally their aim will be off.

Chances for missed notes increase when playing in the upper register where the harmonics are closer together. In addition to missed notes, the brass player, like the woodwind player and vocalist, faces the possibility of a “cracked” note. A cracked note is one that is not attacked correctly.

Sometimes these missed or cracked notes are left in recordings, especially in jazz, where the overall emotion displayed in the performance may be considered more important than an errant note or two. In most situations, though, you'll want to punch in to correct the mistakes.

STICK A MUTE IN IT

During a brass-recording session, you are likely to encounter a player using a mute. Mutes, which are used most often in jazz, provide variations to the standard brass tone colors. There are many types, but the most popular are the Straight, Cup, and Harmon mutes. You will also come across Plunger and Bucket mutes (see Fig. 3).

Using a Straight mute will change the sound the least among all the available mutes. It produces a stuffy brass sound (see Web Clip 4). The Cup mute gives the instrument a softer sound than the Straight mute (see Web Clip 5). Harmon mutes (see Web Clip 6), which are often favored by jazz trumpeters, are two-piece mutes with a bottom piece that's referred to as the stem. The Harmon mute can also be played with the stem removed, resulting in a more sophisticated brass sound. (A good example of that is the song “All Blues” on Miles Davis's classic album Kind of Blue.)

A mute will reduce the volume level of a brass instrument. For parts that are muted throughout, I typically position the mic one or two feet closer than I would for an open part.

DO A DOUBLE TAKE

Achieving a full and realistic brass sound can be particularly challenging in a home- or small-studio environment. In a nonclassical recording, you can build a fuller sound by having the musicians double their parts, and then use both recordings in the mix, panned to either side. For an even thicker sound, record the parts a third time and use that pass in the center of the mix, although the change won't be as dramatic as going from a single part to a doubled part (see Web Clips 7, 8, and 9).

As is true with any type of instrument or vocal part, making a digital copy of a part and panning it opposite to the original is less effective than doubling it. The infinite variations of the human air stream through the instrument and the minute differences in performance are what make that layering technique so effective — especially with a horn. If one recording of a part is all you have to work with, however, your best bet in achieving a doubled sound is to copy it and offset it slightly from the original.

DSP BRASS

Although it is tempting to polish a mediocre brass sound using corrective effects processing during the mix, it is not a productive strategy. Instead, spend the time setting up to record the best sound you can to tape or disk so that there is less need for processing at mixdown — except, of course, for the creative kind of processing.

That said, even a brass sound with naturally recorded ambience will often need additional reverb. Be careful not to overdo it, though. You may also need to apply EQ (often to temper the trumpet's natural brightness), but again, be a minimalist. If the part sounds good without any EQ at all, feel free to leave it as is.

Although I do not like to use compression on brass instruments as I'm recording them, I am not against applying it in the mix. I try to keep the compression minimal so it doesn't interfere with the instrument's natural attack. I use ratios between 1.5:1 and 2:1 and dial in short attack and release times.

TO CODA

Recording brass is often challenging, but the results can be rewarding. The sound of real brass can help make your music stand out, adding sparkle and fire or smoothness and sophistication in a way that sampled or synth brass cannot. As is true in all recording applications, experimentation and patience are the keys to a successful result.

David Summerlives in Groton, Massachusetts, where he works as a software engineer and musician. You can find him on the Web atwww.summersong.net.

CLASSICAL BRASS

Brass ensembles are popular in the classical music world. If you're ever in a position to record one, you should know the standard configurations. The most common is the brass quintet, which consists of two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba. This ensemble is designed to produce a sound that can fully cover the range of all brass instruments.

Another common group is the brass quartet. This group usually has the same instrumentation as the quintet minus the tuba. However, a quartet will often have two trumpets and two trombones instead.

When recording these ensembles, many of the same rules apply as when tracking a pop “horn” section. Use two overhead mics rather than miking each instrument, and make sure that the musicians are set up so that they can see each other as they play. (In a classical brass ensemble, the first trumpet player gives the cues.)

10 TIPS FOR RECORDING AND MIXING BRASS

  1. Use a ribbon microphone to capture natural brass tones.
  2. Don't close-mic the instrument. You want to pick up the room sound.
  3. Try using two mic types (such as ribbon and dynamic) in a spaced-pair configuration for added sonic flexibility.
  4. Position mics below the player's line of sight.
  5. Point mics off-axis from the bell.
  6. Move the musician to different parts of the room to find the best sound.
  7. Expect numerous punch-ins.
  8. Schedule sessions with the “fatigue factor” in mind; tackle the difficult-to-play sections first.
  9. Double or triple (nonclassical) parts for a fuller sound.
  10. Use reverb and other effects only if you need to.