During the Summer of 1998, Audio Ideas Recordings had an extraordinary opportunity: the chance to make a jazz recording with a great player, and his superbly talented and creative quartet. Chuck Israels was bassist with the Bill Evans Trio in the 60s, after earning a music degree at Brandeis University. However, after six years of gigs and recording, he tired of the insecurity and travel, ending up in recent years as a professor of music (specifically, jazz) at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, just south of Vancouver. Chuck is also an AIG reader, who E-mailed me his pleasure at my comments about his playing on Bill Evans Trio at Shelley’s Manne-Hole in its XRCD re-release (Smr 97), this correspondence ultimately developing into the recording sessions the last week of July.
VOL. 1 Track List
1] Johnny Come Lately (MP3 Sample) (Ellington/Strayhorn)
2] Chaconne à Son Goût (Chuck Israels)
3] Shenandoah (Trad., arr. Israels)
4] Peekin’ Round The Corner (MP3 Sample) (Miles Black)
5] One More Kiss(MP3 Sample) (Stephen Sondheim, arr. Israels)
6] I Concentrate On You (Cole Porter, arr. Israels)
7] Blood Count (Billy Strayhorn, arr. Israels)
8] Margot’s Mood (Israels)
9] Dacapolypso (MP3 Sample) (Israels)
TOTAL TIME: [52:48]
The other musicians comprising the quartet were all from the west coast (not surprisingly), guitarist Dan Faehnle from Portland, Oregon, drummer Donald Bailey from Oakland, California, and pianist Miles Black (named after guess who?) from Surrey, B.C., the “Canadian content” in the group and the recording. Donald doesn’t play often with the others, but is a marvellously instinctive and adaptive drummer. The trio has done a number of CBC radio shows, as well as live gigs up and down the coast, so they’re a pretty tight band, playing arrangements and originals by Chuck.
Bits & Hertz In “Washington dCS”
It was just a long shot, but I tried it anyway. In May I called Steve Lee, who now lives in Minneapolis, and wondered if he might want to bring along his Nagra D digital recorders and some of his leading edge dCS digital conversion gear to document these historic performances in state-of-the-art digital audio. Steve’s been a pretty good friend of mine for years; he lived in Toronto until just over a year ago, and was Canadian Meridian distributor, selling both Clive Allen and I our 518 digital processors. In July, after we were all finished recording, he was glad he came along, and I was more than glad to have him there.
That’s partly because the first day we ran into some serious RF problems. In retrospect, I think it was the campus FM radio station, but at the time, it was just buzz, and we just did all we could to suppress it, succeeding by using Steve’s superb Canorus protoype tube condenser microphones on guitar and piano, and a Shure VP-88 mid/side stereo microphone on bass and drums. Actually the Canorus and Shure mikes were also picking up the drums, giving the kit a very naturally wide spread. I could not use my workhorse AKG 460 ULS mikes because of the RF, something I’d not encountered before in years of location recording around Toronto in the shadow of the CN Tower and all its TV and FM broadcast signals. Always expect the unexpected. I’ll be eternally grateful to Steve for bringing his superb (and superbly shielded) microphones.
The recording was done in the choral rehearsal hall at WWU, the adjacent choral library serving as control room. To damp the room somewhat, drapes were hung around 2 1/2 sides of the group, but the high ceiling above was open, giving a nice ambient glow to the drum kit in particular.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. The whole project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Paradigm Electronics’ Audiostream division, who not only underwrote recording costs, but also donated a pair of Reference Active 20 speakers (Spr 97) and a PW-2200 subwoofer (Smr 98) for monitoring. These went into Chuck’s home system after the sessions, and were invaluable for listening to playbacks during recording.
The speakers were set up at either end of a long table on which the recording hardware, worth in excess of $100,000, was arrayed. At left were Steve and the Nagra and dCS gear (see below), while I was set up at right (see next page), with a sight line to the players over my Meridian 607 analog-to-digital converter and a pair of portable DAT machines containing data-grade tapes. We started out listening to playbacks from the DATs, but soon found that the open-reel Nagra Ds with their computer control (as Steve programmed cue points into his laptop) were much easier and more precise in winding back to the beginnings of takes. Of course, this also gave us a chance to start with 44.1-kHz/16-bit monitoring, and then go to 96-kHz/24-bit playbacks. And on the second day, we used both Nagra Ds in lock (one per stereo channel) to record at 192-kHz/24-bit. After this experience, I can confidently say that any fool who can’t hear the difference between 44.1 and 96/24 should look for opportunities outside the high fidelity field; and these differences become even more pronounced when going to 192/24, which is the current state of the digital art. The bass tightens and becomes much more pitch specific, the midrange opens up, as does the soundstage, and the top end, well…the cymbals and any percussion transients take on a whole new clarity, shimmer, and naturalness; it seems as if we’ve just upgraded the whole reproduction chain.
If you wonder why, consider this: regardless of its significantly improved sound quality, a sampling rate of 96 kHz is still not enough to pass a 10-kHz square wave unaltered. To do this you need 192. We don’t listen to square waves, as a rule, but we do listen to transients and textures, which are natural parts of music, its starts, stops, tonal qualities and subtleties. These are what are enhanced by higher sampling rates.
It’s mid-September as I write, having just returned from the CEDIA show in New Orleans, where I had a discussion with Theta’s Neil Sinclair about the bit side of things. 24-bit audio implies a noise floor of 144 dB, something almost impossible to achieve electronically (he suggested you’d have to super-cool the circuits considerably to achieve it), and it’s most certainly impossible to even think about it acoustically. Consider Bryston’s achievement of managing a mere 115 dB in an amplifier circuit, and add another 30 dB or so. Even with a new generation of 96/24 chips appearing in CD and DVD players, true 24-bit performance is a bit of a chimera, but just 20 bits gets us well below 100 dB, and if we really do have an extra 4 bits lurking back there in the noise floor, it may provide better resolution, if not lower noise.
Getting back to music and away from bits, the quality of the playbacks from the Active 20s (with the PW-2200 subwoofer under the table between Steve’s and my seating positions), was just great, and made all of us really excited about what we were doing. The recording chain, with superb microphones, 4 channels of the new, and extraordinarily good Wireworld Meteor microphone cable, the Bryston BMP-2 mike preamps, and dCS analog-to-digital conversion into the Nagra Ds, was as ideal a recording setup as I’ve ever seen or heard. Even in a less than ideal control room, with no acoustic treatment whatsoever (it was enough work to get all the recording equipment there, without dragging in a bunch of RoomTunes and Tube Traps), we could hear that something very special was happening. And what we heard contributed very much to the overall atmosphere of the sessions.
Harmony & FreeFlowing Music
I’ve listened to a lot of music-making for microphones over my years of making recordings, but I’ve never heard it in so relaxed and genial an atmosphere. This was helped by the fact that the musicians were all old friends as well as creative partners, but the particular synergy of playing and unanimity of purpose were further underlined by the fact that, even with the initial setup difficulties, which consumed much of the first day, we all got along really well, having some great lunches at various Bellingham restaurants, after which we’d work into the evening laying down tracks with the feeling that every day we were building something significant. And I think we were. All four musicians had done recent studio recordings, and had commented on the sterility of the isolation booths, the dryness of the sound, and the ultimate artificiality of the result. Here we had a chance to avoid all that, and have fun!
Jazz Recordings & Soundstaging
With the flurry of reissues of great jazz recordings from the late 50s and early 60s, I’ve been paying more attention to how the players are arrayed between the speakers by the recording producers and engineers. Extremes were the norm in the early years of stereo, saxes, brass, and pianos appearing at hard left and right, as well as in between. Generally, soundstaging seems more natural in live recordings, those done in clubs or halls, but even then, as in some of the great Bill Evans Trio live dates, his piano or the drums seemed to end up way over on one side or the other. How much of this is the natural stage setup as picked by the mikes, or is pan-potted in a mixer, is often hard to tell, though the live dates always have a more plausible acoustic, with greater sense of space around the players. I’ve been increasingly disappointed by today’s jazz recordings, which use all the mixing techniques noted above to create clinically sterile acoustic environments overlaid with digital reverb…not my kind of sound.
I thought quite a lot about this before going out to Bellingham, and decided that I would not do any pan-potting or other spatial manipulation, nor would I use a mixer at all. It seemed to me that there would inevitably be a natural spatial relationship among the musicians that could be captured with the right microphone complement and their proper placement. With 4 channels of Bryston BMP-2 microphone preamplifiers I thought I could manage this, combining to 2 channels using a resistive network wired up for me by Stuart Taylor (Mr. ST), who also custom modified the preamplifiers themselves for use in live recording situations.
Though it took a while to get the sound we wanted, my anticipatory hopes were realized to everyone’s satisfaction, though it took several hours of experimenting with both player and microphone placement. Ultimately, the players gave up on the musical chairs, and arranged themselves the way they would in performance. By this time I had developed the appropriate microphone complement, so then simply fine-tuned their soundstage positions.
As noted above, Steve’s Canorus condensers were aimed at piano at left and guitar at right, while the Shure VP-88 stereo mike (which actually was donated to the project by Paradigm honcho Bill VanderMarel, who is an amateur recordist for his wife’s choir) was in front of the bass at centre, drums being directly behind Chuck. If I may be a little immodest, I think we ended up with a spectacular soundstage (and everyone who has heard it has said so), with a natural spread at left on the piano in towards the middle, a nice big, deep bass sound, and a great drum kit spread across the back with depth and focus.
But the part I’m especially proud of is the way the guitar is miked to capture both the amplifier and the natural acoustic sound: Dan sat on a stool to Chuck’s right, and in front of the right side of the drums; we put the amplifier/speaker box just in front of the kit, 3 or 4 feet behind Dan, but set the mike up physically close enough to his guitar so that it would pick up acoustically anything played too soft to be amplified. This worked very well to pick up his soft “comping” (as jazz guys say; it’s short for “accompanying”) strums during the bass solos in, for example, I Concentrate On You. Getting this detail right was, I admit, partly luck, but adds nicely to the realism of the guitar sound.
All in all it was a very exciting 4 days.