Perhaps the first question should be, Why not put either the piano or the drums in a different room? To answer it, first realize that Baylor breaks the mold on the standard jazz-fusion drummer. He plays two rack toms, two floor toms, a cloud of cymbals, and three (yes, three) snares. Baylor simply wouldn't fit into any of BiCoastal's isolation booths. Not surprisingly, neither would the studio's nine-foot Steinway.
The obvious solution, of course, was to record someplace else, but equally obvious was BiCoastal Music's owner Hal Winer's aesthetic and, yes, economic distaste for such a banal solution. "I panicked," he confessed. "This was a really important gig for me and I wanted to make it happen. What could I do?
After discarding a bunch of more esoteric fixes, I decided to simply build a box around the piano. I thought about all the principles I had used to build the room [which , incidentally, Breen praised as one of the finest he's ever worked in] and made a modular box that interlocked around the piano without any gaps." Every panel of cabinet-grade plywood interlocked tightly to the others with neoprene, leaving just enough room for some microphones on top.
Auralex sound absorption panels lined the inside and a "dozen or so" heavy furniture pads were placed on top of the box before recording.
"I spoke with Hal before he had the idea to build the box and told him I didn't like to work with a lot of bleed and that a piano and drums in the same room would definitely be an issue," said Breen, revealing the source of Winer's distress. "I was curious to try the box, but no one, not even Hal, knew how well it would work until we actually had Marcus on the kit."
Miking the boxed piano presented its own problems because the headroom was as marginal as Winer could get away with. "We needed a microphone that was side-addressed," explained Breen. "Since I normally use a pair of Sennheiser MKH 80s on piano, I spoke with Dave Missall, Sennheiser's northeast market development representative to see if there was something similar we could borrow." Missall sent him two new Sennheiser MKH 800 Twins, which boast the same 50kHz-plus frequency response as the MKH 800, but output each of their two capsules separately, allowing infinite control of polar pattern and the ability to process each capsule separately. After some experimentation, Breen settled on a spaced cardioid setup using only the front capsule of each microphone into a Jensen-990-topology JMK Preamp from JMK Audio.
"I really like the sound of the Sennheiser MKH 80s, 800s, and the Twins,"
said Breen. "They're not too hyped on the top and not too colored like a lot of contemporary mics. They give me the sense that I'm right there - very immediate and natural. They capture the whole thing for me!"
With the MKH 800 Twins, Breen was able to use his MKH 80s as drum overheads in a spaced cardioid pair with a 3dB treble lift into a Millennia Media preamp. He used Sennheiser e 914 small diaphragm condensers in combination with other mics for snares, kicks and toms, while a Neumann KM 84 grabbed the snap of the hi-hats.
The rest of the instruments were simple. Jimmy Halslip's bass went direct through a Little Labs Direct Box, and saxophonist Bob Mintzer was mic'd with either a Neumann M 49 or a Neumann TLM 170. He explained, "I find the M 49 is 'creamier' sounding whereas the TLM 170 is more immediate. I went with one or the other depending on the role of the saxophone in the song."
Tensions ran high once the microphones and musicians were in place. Would Winer's solution work? Would Breen be left to "mix" the unmixable? Breen recalled, "Marcus went at it, full tilt, not five feet from Russ. The separation was amazing! And there was no coloration on the MKH 800 Twins! It was as if we had tracked them in nearby rooms using optimal mic placement."
"It was even better than that," Winer added, "because all the musicians were within clear and immediate sight of one another. They were really playing together, like a band in a rehearsal space or on stage. I think the recording benefited from that as much as it did from the acoustic isolation of the box. BiCoastal will be using the box in the future even in situations where we could put a drummer in an isolation booth! I do owe thanks to Russ Berger and the Russ Berger design group who designed BiCoastal and taught me the principles necessary to make the box work."
The album, "Life Cycle," is due out in Spring 2008 on Heads Up Records, a division of Telarc. The release will feature hybrid CDs, with both normal and SACD functionality, allowing listeners with the right equipment to enjoy the recordings in high-resolution. Breen noted that there was zero processing on the mics while recording and virtually no equalization during mix, making the Yellowjackets' new album an excellent place to hear Sennheiser's new MKH 800 Twin unadorned.
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