It is common to encounter multiple reed instruments in jazz, classic R&B, reggae/ska, and classical ensembles. Sax quartets and other all-woodwind groupings provide additional levels of challenge for the engineer. It has been my pleasure to be associated with the Bay Area''s Rova Sax Quartet for more than 20 years, and to have worked on recording projects with them ranging from quartet to octet settings.
There are many things I have learned from working with Rova and other sax-intensive groups, such as the Club Foot Orchestra. One issue is that saxophone players tend to be multi-instrumental in these situations, switching between two or more members of the sax family, as well as doubling on other woodwinds. Such switching often requires a multimic setup, a break in the session to move mics, or a generalized mic placement designed to suit the instrument choices.
And with any ensemble—be it an avant-garde sax quartet or the reed section in a swing band—it is important to remember the 3:1 rule. This engineering rule of thumb states that the distance between each microphone should be greater than three times the distance from any mic to its assigned instrument. Adhering to this rule will minimize the effects of phase cancellation and comb filtering from leakage.
For example, in a group where saxes are miked from 1 foot away, the sax mics should be 3 feet or more apart from each other. In a sax quartet, where physical proximity is important for eye contact and acoustic balance, the 3:1 rule may be at odds with the performer''s needs. In that case, it is up to the engineer to move mics closer to the source and to keep an ear on the effects of leakage when mixing.
Mounted mic and pickup systems are gaining popularity among touring woodwind musicians. These performers may be utilizing some additional electronics, or may simply yearn for a better live-miking alternative than the typical $100 dynamic mic shoved in the bell.
I find most portable systems to be too bright or otherwise compromised for studio recording. But recently I was surprised to find that SD Systems'' (www.sdsystems.com) dual-mic LCM 82 with its Double Mike Preamp brought in by bass clarinetist Sheldon Brown outperformed the studio mic I had set up for a jazz quintet session.
RECORDING REEDS: PETER PFISTER
Peter Pfister has been a professional audio engineer since 1964. He started his career as an engineer for Swiss broadcast television, and since 1971 has operated his Mobiles Tonstudio for mobile recording. Pfister has worked with some of the world''s best-known saxophonists, including Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, David Liebman, and John Zorn.
“Recording saxophones and other reeds is not complicated,” says Pfister. “The dynamic range is relatively moderate, so most of the time I''ll record without a compressor/limiter. I position the microphone about 30 to 50 cm (12 to 20 inches) over the bell. The closer to the bell you are with the microphone, the thinner and smaller the instrument sounds.
“For large ensembles, I normally use an Electro-Voice RE 20,” Pfister explains. “In a chamber music situation—duo, trio, or quartet—I often use a condenser microphone. I normally prefer to work with two microphones which have different pickup patterns. An excellent and practical way to do this is with a stereo microphone like the Neumann SM 69 or the AKG C 24. The musicians see only one microphone, and I can use one channel in cardioid and the other channel in omnidirectional. Sometimes the final mix is a blend of both patterns. Recordings with a cardioid microphone generate a full, fat, and present sound, while omnidirectional tracks sound more authentic. For EQ, most of the time I''ll add 2 to 4 dB of shelving at 10 kHz to give more air with saxes and clarinets.
“Some musicians bring in their own microphone. I use it whenever possible, as this eliminates the need to have any discussions about the sound. For example, one day I had to record Sonny Rollins with his group for TV and live radio broadcast. We had no stage plot and there was no time for a sound check. So I set up three or four microphones on stands and asked him before the concert which model he preferred. He looked at me and said, ‘I need only an XLR with a long cable.'' He used a built-in microphone.”
Pfister offers some general advice to engineers: “Listen to all the instruments in the room before you record the band. Sometimes in a live situation, the separation of the instruments is more important than [getting] a super sound.”