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In the Studio

In the Belly of the Beast: The Story of a Recording Session

By Published: May 14, 2007
Tom Swift, a gentle bear of a man, was seated at the controls checking the setup well before the musicians arrived. I introduced myself, and Tom said he would be available to answer my questions between recording episodes. I seized these opportunities like a curious kid in a toy store. I have a passion for sound equipment that I have never quite fulfilled in my life, other than a brief stint at a radio station and the six-speaker high power stereo that I've rigged up in my apartment. I had a hard time keeping my hands off the zillions of dials, mixers, preamps, computer parts, and digital software whose sole purpose was to provide a digital multitrack feed of 20-60 gigabytes of the best quality and well-configured sound to a hard disk that would on the next day (Sunday) be mixed down to two channels. Subsequently, at another studio (JWS Studios in the Denver area), the song layout would be decided and a master created that in turn would be used in production. I felt it was my duty not to interfere with what I soon realized was a very sensitive process both technically and psychologically, such that even the slightest electronic maladjustment or human emotional tension could throw off the entire course of action.

The "trick to making all this come off well is that the engineer must fine tune every detail at the beginning, and then continue to "tweak it throughout the day, while at the same time there must be a relaxed and unobtrusive ambience within which the musicians can maintain rapport and engage in spontaneous and mutually inspiring music making. Evidence of Swift's acute sound sensitivity occurred early on, when he heard some unusual overtones from the piano coming over the control room loudspeakers. He called over Manfred Koop, and the two decided the overtones would not affect the quality of the recording and could safely be ignored. In the meantime, Friedman was woodshedding some phrases on the piano, while Wind, Jefferson, and Bernstein filed in and began setting up, each in a small acoustically sheltered room, with windows through which they were visible to each other and sound openings as well as earphones through which they could hear each other play. As Swift assured himself that all twelve microphones were strategically placed for optimal "pickup near the piano, bass, drums, and guitar, the musicians tuned up and started jamming informally, affording Swift an opportunity to do a final sound check. Then, without so much as a pause, they began playing a Friedman original, "Autumn Colors. Swift thought it was going so well that he decided, with a smile of satisfaction, to use it as a "take. He obviously dug the group, and to his credit, somewhat in the manner of the great van Gelder, he managed to do his complex technical maneuvers without interfering with the musicians. At the conclusion of the tune, they came into the control room and listened to the playback with evident pleasure. They congratulated each other, made some off-color jokes, as musicians often do, bounced back into their cubicles, and continued with the recording.

At this point, the group of us in the control room were loosening up and making informal conversation while the music came through the loudspeakers. I picked Sutton's brain and found him to be an old school jazz-o-phile, having been, among other things, a disc jockey in his younger days. His self-employment as founder and executive producer of Jazz Excursion Records, fronting new recordings by saxophonists Richie Cole and Jim Saltzman, the Dan Loomis Quartet, and the Nathan Eklund Group, among others, is obviously a labor of love. Again the comparison with the early days of the Blue Note label came to my mind, as I recalled the dedication of Blue Note co-founders Alfred Lions and Francis Wolff. It was gratifying to meet a producer like Sutton who is more interested in the music than the dollar sign. Sutton is a genuine idealist who wants nothing more than to promote jazz as a legitimate musical form. He expressed great respect for professionals like Friedman, who can come into a studio or a nightclub, and spontaneously create pieces approaching masterpiece status. He contrasted this with young rock 'n roll musicians, who may take weeks or months of repetition to get a couple of tracks recorded properly. Soon, Ricci and Schlesinger joined us, and we were all reminiscing about our peak jazz experiences. We were also multi-tasking, aware of the music in the background.

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