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Three Days At The Barber Shop, Part 1

David A. Orthmann By

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Rehearsal | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Barber Shop Studios are located on the West Shore of Lake Hopatcong, a body of water spanning about four square miles, which makes it the largest freshwater body in New Jersey. The immediate neighborhood is a patchwork of bungalows, upscale homes, newly constructed townhouses, small businesses and restaurants. At one end of an extended parking lot lies a marina that is the home of several pleasure boats and offers a striking view of the lake's vast expanse. At the opposite end of the lot the Studios are housed in a converted four-story church overlooking River Styx Cove. The sight of the building, an amalgam of modern design and building materials that maintains the spiritual tenor of the site's original purpose, is as splendid as the natural wonder of the lake.

Inside the facility, a large space adjacent to the first floor stairwell is home to a virtual army of drums of all brands, shapes and sizes, each one silently waiting to be struck in the studios. Upstairs, Studio A is comprised of a live room, a control room, and a break room. The live room is where the musicians perform and record. It's at least a couple of stories high. A massive stained glass window sits near the top of the space's rear wall, offering a reminder of the sacred intent of the room's previous occupants. The live room includes a grand piano and a Hammond B-3 organ. An isolation booth is built into one side of the room. Equipped with thick glass doors in two places, the hallway leading from the control room to the live room doubles as another isolation booth.

A console that takes up nearly all of the room's width dominates the control room. Multiple speakers have been placed on the rim of the console adjacent to a window that allows a view of the live room. Larger speakers are built into the wall on either side of the window. Ergonomic chairs are placed next to the console. A comfortable leather sofa sits in the rear of the room. All manner of equipment and countertops crisscross the remainder of the area. The space is well organized and uncluttered. It's an ideal place for purposeful, time-sensitive work.

For the next three days, Studio A is the site of sessions for the second commercial recording by the fourteen-year-old keyboardist Leonieke Scheuble. Her father Nick, a drummer, composer, and bandleader, plans on showcasing Leonieke's talents in three formats—A piano trio, the trio with two separate vocalists, and a sextet that includes horns, guitar, and Leonieke playing the organ.

Upon arriving in Studio A on day one, I greet Nick, Leonieke, and bassist Tim Givens, a longtime associate of the drummer, who has often played with Leonieke and appeared on Debut, her first record. Nick introduces me to tenor saxophonist Andy Farber, another trusted colleague, and Jeremy Gillespie, the studio's engineer. Farber is producing the first day of the sessions, and has written arrangements for the sextet performing on the last day. While Nick sets up, Farber and Gillespie begin a discussion about how the drums will project in the live room. A proposed placement of the main drum mic inspires Farber's brief, informal seminar on the legendary Rudy Van Gelder's drum sound in his Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs recording studios. Perhaps, he says, returning to the topic at hand, one mic should pick up most of the kit, with a secondary mic employed for the snare drum. Before making a decision, Farber listens intently as Nick tests out each drum of the four-piece kit. He then wheels a large baffle between Nick's drums and Leonieke's piano, leaving just enough room so the two of them can make eye contact.

During the planning stages of the recording, Nick and Farber decided on a somewhat unusual strategy. By today's perfectionistic standards of sound quality and studio performance, the practice of recording all of the instruments in the same room at one time is an anachronism. Nick is looking for a warmer sound, not unlike many of the important jazz recordings of the 1950s and 60s, a sound that can't be attained by putting people in isolation booths with headsets, thereby minimizing real contact and genuine interaction between the musicians. However, recording with the musicians in one room necessitates complete takes of each song, and makes a cut and paste of different takes difficult, if not impossible. Only the selections with the vocalists will entail using an isolation booth—for the singer—and headsets for the instrumentalists in the live room.

At this point Dyahnah Wilson and her mother Kathy enter the room and greet Leonieke and Nick. Dyahnah, a young gospel-influenced singer, originally met Leonieke at a rehearsal for a performance at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. Their arrival inspires Farber to change direction. He begins to talk about potential set-ups for the vocal, and then pulls his tenor out of its case and starts to warm up. The final decision regarding miking the drum kit is still several minutes away. It's my first taste of the variable, non-linear aspects of the recording session, as well as the flexibility required of the musicians when the onset of a take is delayed because of necessary technical adjustments.

As the day goes on, it's obvious that Farber's strengths aren't limited to knowledge of studio technology, mic choice and placement, and a mastery of arcane musical details. In addition to these matters, Farber makes sure that the human element doesn't take a backseat. He's always positive, vocally supportive of the musicians and singers, seeking out and listening to questions and comments, as well as willing to try something new, or make spontaneous changes in the pursuit of making a performance sound better. Gillespie, too, is an essential member of the team. He's affable, efficient, makes alterations at a moment's notice, and is often able to anticipate changes of direction made by Farber or anyone in the band.

While all of these decisions are debated and tested, I'm sitting in the live room, about 10 feet away from all of the instruments. This is a prime piece of real estate, with no barriers between me and the musicians. It is ideal for listening, watching, and scribbling notes. After taking a vow of silence for the periods when they're recording, I'm allowed to stay there for the entire day.

Nick and Dyahnah discuss the form of "Mean To Me," the first of two vocals she'll record, while Leonieke plays parts of the song at Nick's request. They talk about Sarah Vaughan's recording of the song and the ending they've devised that differs from Vaughan's rendition. In order to make sure that the instrumental blend sounds right, the decision is made to record the trio in advance of Dyahnah's vocal selections. But before recording full takes of the planned selections, they play a series of tests, including two of the trio's selections, and a pair of Dyahnah's vocal features—without a vocal mic. Nick is thrilled with the sound of playing with the others in the live room, and relieved that none of the instruments are in the isolation booth. Farber announces that they're swapping out the mic for Givens' bass because there are no signals coming from the one installed just minutes before.

At this point I get a lesson in how important brief diversions are to the musicians in the long, sometimes tedious process of recording. While waiting for the mic change to be made, they play some of "St. James Infirmary" and "Rockit" as a means of passing the time and staying focused. When the issue of the bass mic is resolved, Farber turns his attention to Nick's drums, asking him to play some time that includes snare drum comping, and then asking for a whole chorus of the blues by the trio. Farber summons the trio to the control room for a playback, and asks Nick, "Is this what you had in mind?" He then precedes to playback the blues chorus, isolating the sound of each instrument, and offering individual perspectives from three different mics. Nick wants to do a complete take, because "it's hard for me to tell if the sound is right."

The heavy glass door to the live room closes tightly and the trio begins the first of three full takes of "Please Send Me Someone To Love." On each take, Leonieke impresses with her command of the melody, the ability to inject bluesy elements into the mix, and the dramatic effect of contrasting pronounced, darting single notes and thunderous chords. After the first take, Farber inquires if Nick is holding back a little, or playing as if on a live gig. After Nick answers "like on a gig," Farber briefly enters the live room, adjusts a drum mic, leaves, and then calls for another take. After they play it for the second time, Farber calls the trio into the control room for a listen. It strikes me how difficult it must be for the musicians to throw themselves into a performance for several minutes, and then immediately go into another space to pronounce judgment. No one wants to leave the studio after three days of work with any regrets or reservations. Furthermore, the take that appears on the record won't be selected until the record is mixed, a process that doesn't commence for several weeks. Although they'll eventually opt to record a third take, after the second Nick exclaims, "This is nice, man!" He hugs Leonieke and tells her, "You sound like Red Garland." This is the first of several touching father and daughter moments that spontaneously occur over three days.

Two of the three takes of the lively "You And the Night And The Music" elicit a variety of impressions from the trio and Farber. "The balance isn't good, to tell you the truth," he says about the first one, and calls for Nick's imput. Nick says, "It feels good," and asks Gillespie to fast forward to the ending. Leonieke wants to do one more take. After the second one, Farber declares, "They both have their ups; they both have their downs. The time is a little wonky when the solos begin." (Later on Nick admiringly comments on Farber's unique ability to hear subtle shifts—a little faster or a little slower—in tempo.) After Nick retunes his snare—necessitated by the effect of humidity on drumheads—they play the third take and are ready to move on.

Immediately before setting up to record Dyahnah Wilson's vocals, Theresa and Natasha Scheuble enter the studio, toting boxes of food for the break. Theresa, an engineer by profession, is Nick's spouse and the mother of Leonieke, Natasha, and Max. Natasha, who will record today and tomorrow, is a Vocal Performance/Opera Studies major at Purchase College, Conservatory of Music. Farber suggests placing Dyahnah in the hallway isolation booth adjacent to the live room, and starts to warm up his tenor. Gillespie puts a short baffle in front of Farber's mic. The room sounds as if it was tailor made for Farber and his instrument. Producing a rich, broad tone that encompasses bulk and nuance, he plays portions of Benny Golson's "Stablemates" and a couple of other jazz standards.
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