Rock'n Roll Saxophone, Part 13
SAXOPHONE RECORDING TECHNIQUES
It All Starts With You
Experimenting in the recording studio can be a lot of fun with many exciting things to do. When you get all the variables just right, it can inspire your playing too.
Of course, even if you have a great mic in a great room and go through the best recording equipment, you can’t sound too good if you have a terrible tone coming out of your horn. That’s why it’s important to take the time to get the fundamentals down before heading into the recording studio.
With a good tone in place, time well spent with good gear in the studio can make you sound even better, assuming you’re working with an engineer who knows what a saxophone is… Don’t laugh! I’ve done sound checks in large venues and had the sound engineer ask me if I would be using a mic on my sax! Run, don’t walk from those guys!
These days, some good engineers may not have that much experience with a sax. Many may only have worked with bands that have the typical line-up of drums, bass, guitar, keys, and a singer. No matter what point of your career you’re at, learning a few things about the recording process will help to make your efforts sound that much better.
Early in my career, I didn’t pay much attention to mics, processing gear, EQ frequency’s etc. Now I do. I am hands on in the studio because I want to sound good. I hear stuff I played years ago, and I don’t like the way a lot of it sounds. Not what I played, but the actual sound… maybe it was the way the engineer EQ’ed it or had it sitting in the mix.
So, it all starts with you… but it could all end with the engineer!
The good news is that there are some very good engineers out there who can make us sound better. The first thing in an engineer’s bag of toys should be the microphone.
One of the first big recording projects I was involved with was in 1988 with Canadian singer/guitarist Colin James, who was signed with Virgin America at the time. We went to Criteria Recording Studios in Miami to work with the famous Producer/Engineer Tom Dowd, who recorded Eric Clapton (Layla), The Allman Brothers, Leonard Skynard, and Aretha Franklin to name a few. We saw all the gold records of these artists hanging on the wall, plus others like James Brown (I Feel Good), The Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever). All these songs we had heard growing up; it was overwhelming being there for the first time. Especially, when I found out that he also had recorded King Curtis and John Coltrane, two of the most influential saxophonists in history, right there where we were standing! Now being a sax player, I felt I was in good hands!
His preference for me was the Neumann U87, which first came out in the 60's. For King Curtis and John Coltrane, which Dowd did in the 50's, he would have used the Neumann U47. Both these mics are still very popular in the studio today.
These mics are still the industry standard, because they are a large diaphram mic producing a big, warm sound. They can be found in any major commercial studio, but not necessarily in the smaller project studios because they cost several thousand dollars each. Still, I wouldn’t put the brakes on a session or recording project if these mics weren’t available. Today, companies are making really good mics for under $500. For the CD I just completed, Rock & Roll Saxophonist, I used several different mics; two were under $500 and one was $3000. The really good inexpensive ones are the Shure SM7 and the AKG C1000.
Directly in-line after the microphone is a pre-amp. This is just an amplifier which can boost your signal to the recording machine, computer etc. A pre-amp is the best way I’ve found to get that really “hot” sax sound. Basically, it has a level knob and an output knob. You crank the gain on the input knob until it’s almost in the red, red being a no-no because that will give your sound ugly distortion. Just before the distortion is a fine line; you can experiment with it for the amount of boost you want in your sound. I’ve used it on the low setting, somewhere in the middle, and really hot. It all depends ON the sound you want for a particular recording.
The next toy to experiment with is the compressor. I’m not a technical engineer (you may have noticed) but, basically, compression on a sax will create a ceiling for your volume level and bring every note up to that ceiling level, meaning that all your notes will be even with each other in volume. If you go overboard with this effect, you will hear it manipulating the tone, so again, you gotta experiment. Personally, I sometimes like a little bit of that in my sound; it all depends on the song. If you listen closely, especially with headphones, you’ll hear how it magnifies things in the sax tone like breath, spit on the reed, and even little clicking sounds made by the note pads.
Even after beefing up your sound with the pre-amp and compressor, more body and sizzle can be added with the equalizer (eq).
For some extra sizzle or sparkle, I like to add some high end frequency, around 10k but you need to experiment here. You may get the right boost of the sparkle you want from 8k or 11k. If you use a good mic the boosts in eq won’t need to be huge, just between 1 and 3 db’s.
I never felt that my sax needs any more mid range, but often a little low end eq will help to round out the tone. Again, you need to experiment but I go in around 125 – 250 hz.
Everyone wants to hear some reverb as soon as they hear themselves in the studio headphones. That’s because, reverb gives an immediate big, wet sound which can make your playing sound better, and so help you feel more comfortable during the recording session.
I’ve noticed reverb has been like fashion over time… different types and styles come into vogue; sometimes it’s hip to use lots, sometimes you use almost none at all.
The original way to record reverb was to use the sound that occurred naturally in the room, and the amount you had depended on the size of that room. People still record like this today, and we still hear stories how some band went into a big old church to record or somebody's basement or bathroom to attain an amazing sound.
An artificial way to create reverb is the plate reverb unit used in studios. Plate reverb is produced by vibrating big metal sheets [e.g. Steve Douglas’s tenor used a plate echo on Duane Eddy’s version of Peter Gunn]. Obviously, this way of producing reverb made good sense cause, creating different room sizes without having to leave your own studio.
These days there are many kinds of reverb due to digital technology, and every size studio will have a few good ones to plug into. The type and amount of reverb you use will depend on your personal taste, personally I use very little; if you can hear it, then it’s too much. I like to set it so you can’t pick it out of the sound but if you turn it off you notice that it’s missing.
Delay or echo is the effect of repeating notes after the original tone is played. Like if you were to yell into a well, HELLO… HELLO… HELLO. When using delay I find reverb isn’t needed and usually gets in the way.
I love this effect on my saxophone. The amount always varies depending on the music.
The short “slapback” delay is most identifiable in rockabilly music especially on the vocals and guitar. All aspects of this effect are controllable from the overall level of the effect to the number of repeats you want. Sometimes a nice delay setting is the perfect thing on a sax, especially on a rockin’ tune or a ballad. I used this quite a bit in my recent recording, here you can hear the sax with just a little delay and then with a lot.
Finally there’s the wah-wah pedal. This is usually heard on a guitar. But did you know, that it was invented so the guitar could sound like a trumpet? When a trumpet player uses a plunger to get that wah-wah sound, that’s the sound guitarists wanted to imitate.
Back in the 70’s, I remember hearing some bands having a sax player and using a wah pedal on their horns. Frank Zappa and Steve Winwood’s band Traffic come to mind.
Since those days, I hadn’t heard it being used on recordings for a long time so I gave it a try on one of the tunes from my recent recording;
To use this pedal with your sax, just connect the mic cable directly into it and another cable comes out into whatever effect box you may have in-line. The pedal is moved up and down to create the wah-wah.
This was my set-up when I was experimenting with this in my home studio, but once in the mixing studio, we noticed some unpleasant intermittent “noises” and I had to re-do the whole sax track. That was bad news since I liked the existing one! The good thing that came out of this, was the engineer suggested taking 2 lines out of the wah pedal, one for just the effect, the other that only would have the normal sax going through it. This worked out great. Now, we could mix and blend the 2 channels and add or take away the wah-wah effect depending on how it was working in the track. I found certain notes or phrases sounded better with a little less of this effect and vice versa… more control, better sound.
Have fun experimenting with your sound in the studio. Sometimes using all these toys will help to get the sound you want, sometimes it’s just one or two of them, and sometimes none of them are needed. Let the music dictate your choices.
Resources:Sax Recording Tips and Techniques - Sax on the Web Forum discussion
Johnny Ferreira: Rock n' Roll Saxophonist An Interview by Neil Sharpe
Sax Book Reviews
Rock & Roll Sheet Music
Rock n' Roll Saxophone 12
Fingernails, chalkboards, and the flat five
Rock n' Roll Saxophone 14
Classic Solos- Transcripts
Johnny Ferreira is an award winning, international touring and recording artist who enjoyed Top Ten success with the Colin James Band and has performed, recorded, and toured with many top acts, including The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, Steve Winwood, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Keith Richards. Since 1998, "Canada's Wildman of the sax" , has led his own band, writing, performing his own music that blends jump, swing, and rock & roll. Johnny's latest CD is Rock n' Roll Saxophonist.