Miking & Mixing Jazz in a Small Venue – Part One
by Greg Simmons.
The following pragmatic advice is based on mixing live gigs in an inner-city jazz club in Sydney, five nights per week, every week, for two years.
The venue, Foundry 616, is a dinner club with relatively low ceilings and a maximum capacity of 160 people. The stage measures approximately 6m x 3m and stands about 40cm above the floor, with heavy drapes and absorption on the rear and side walls.
The off-stage sound is a major part of what the audience hears throughout the room, so the mixing approach is one of working with the off-stage sound rather than against it. I’ve done sound reinforcement for many things, but I found this gig to be one of the most challenging and satisfying.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty, it’s worth describing the types of ensembles this information applies to. The Modern Jazz ensemble consists of piano, double bass and drums, typically with one or two horn or sax players out front.
From the audience perspective, the stage set up is always piano on the left, double bass in the centre and drums on the right. The Trad Jazz ensemble consists of a back line rhythm section (drums, double bass, piano, guitar and/or banjo) with a front line of clarinet, trumpet, trombone and, in contemporary interpretations, saxophone.
The Big Band typically consists of 15 to 18 musicians with a rhythm section (piano, drums, double bass and guitar) along with sections of trumpets, trombones and saxophones. The Organ Trio consists of drums, electric guitar and organ, and the Guitar Trio consists of guitar, double bass and drums.
I’m going to start with miking the drums, double bass and piano, because they exist in most of the common jazz ensembles and each of them requires considerable explanation with perspectives unique to jazz.
Experienced jazz musicians will often have valid and useful suggestions for miking their particular instrument, so a cooperative ‘willing to try’ attitude goes a long way – especially in situations where the musicians need to ‘work’ the microphone.
And finally, mixing jazz is like mixing theatre; leave your ego in the bathroom because it’s not about you or your sound.
Jazz drummers are always wary of sound engineers, and that’s probably because at some point in their career they’ve had to deal with control-addict engineers who insist on sticking a mic on every drum and processing it as if they’re mixing metal.
Jazz drummers consider their entire kit as a single instrument and expect it to be miked that way; putting a mic on each drum is as disrespectful as putting a mic on each note of a piano on the assumption that you, the engineer, can create a better balance of the notes than the pianist can.
Many jazz drummers (especially those in Modern Jazz ensembles) prefer no mics on their kit in a small venue. Explaining that the mics are not there to make the drums louder but to help tie them in tonally and spatially with the other instruments, which are all miked and/or DI’d, usually does the trick.
The term ‘recreating a sense of ensemble’ always worked wonders for me…
For a Modern Jazz ensemble, where the drums play more of a nuanced instrumental role rather than a driving force, I never needed more than two mics.
A small single-diaphragm cardioid condenser about 60cm to a metre above the centre of the snare but angled towards the ride cymbal and floor tom delivered an excellent balance of the kit with good capture of brushes and any hand-held percussion. Choose one that is not too bright or ‘splashy’ on cymbals; I got consistently stellar results from Milab’s VM44, but Neumann’s KM184 sounded best when unplugged and returned to its box.
Being a cardioid, the overhead mic will lack the bottom end of the kick at that distance so a kick mic was always placed as a safety precaution. Any of the numerous dynamics made for kick did the trick, typically placed about 15cm off-centre and about 4cm away from the resonant skin (the skin facing the audience).
Note that the resonant skin rarely has a hole in it, so get used to it: if a kick drum has a woolly sound it’s because that’s the sound the drummer likes and you’d better reproduce it like that.
For Big Bands, where the drums provide more of a driving force, I’d start with three mics – kick, snare and a single overhead placed a metre or so above the centre of the kit. I’d add tom mics only if the overhead mic couldn’t capture the toms in a good balance with the cymbals.
Miking double bass
The double bass was never an issue as long as I was prepared in advance with two channels, two XLR leads and a short mic stand with boom arm.
Some players carry surprisingly good little amps from boutique manufacturers who make amps specifically for double bass. These amps have useful direct outputs on XLRs; some players will insist that you use it because it is post-EQ and they are using the amp’s EQ to tame the sound of their pickups.
Some have Gallien-Krueger’s classic MBX series amps which have direct outputs but sometimes require a bit of fiddling with pre/post switches to get a decent sound.
At the other extreme are those who will only use a microphone. The mic of choice here is EV’s RE20 due to its low proximity effect. This is typically placed about 20cm in front of the right-side F-hole (audience perspective); experienced players will show you exactly the right spot and angle to place it so they can ‘work it’ – pivoting their instrument on its pin and moving it towards and around the mic to suit whatever they’re playing at the time.
Take their advice and they’ll make it work for you. Some players will bring their own mics, typically an RE20 or the clip-on DPA 4099; give it a try before foisting your own preference on them.
For Modern Jazz, where the drums are located on one side of the double bass and the piano is located on the other, Neumann’s TLM170 in bidirectional mode provides good capture while minimising spill, but with greater proximity issues as the player pivots the instrument around the mic.
No matter what mic you’re using, be sure to check polarities if you’re combining it with a direct feed from an amp.
Miking grand piano
The grand piano is one of the most difficult instruments to reinforce when sharing a small stage with a drum kit. There are many ways to mic it, and yet pianists are often the least fussy about how it is miked as long as they can hear it in the monitors and it sounds acceptable.
They’ll let you know if they don’t like it.
There are two goals here. One is to sit the piano appropriately against the other instruments in the mix for the audience, the other is to provide on-stage monitoring to the pianist and other musicians. The opportunities for feedback are considerable, and maximum GBF (Gain Before Feedback) is the goal.
You may find this hard to believe, but placing a Shure SM57 under the piano’s soundboard can provide a remarkably useful and acceptable sound with far more GBF than any other technique I’ve tried on a small stage shared with a drum kit.
The very idea of an SM57 under a piano still irks the purist in me, but the reality is that it became my ‘go to’ approach for all gigs that included a piano on stage with a drum kit. This miking technique is a wonderful piece of audio symbiosis – it takes advantage of the SM57’s excellent feedback rejection, and trades off its unique vocal-tailored frequency response (read: huge midrange peak) against the dullness expected from the underside of the soundboard and the bass boost due to being placed so close.
I never got usable results from other mics in the same spot.
Place the SM57 on a short stand, facing directly up, with the diaphragm about 3cm from the soundboard and directly beneath the centre of the area where the strings overlap. Take it back to 4cm or 5cm if you’re getting too much bass boost.
It’s not the best piano sound I’ve ever heard straight off the mic, certainly not as pretty as a pair of condensers over the strings, but with a bit of EQ it is a far more usable sound when you need to balance a grand piano against a drum kit and amplified double bass on a small stage.
Trust me, nobody cares about your beautifully-crafted condenser-miked stereo piano sound if they can’t hear it properly without feedback!
With the SM57 under the soundboard of the mid-sized Yamaha grand on the stage at Foundry 616, I found that cutting 2kHz and 4kHz between -3dB to -6dB each (depending on how heavy-handed the pianist was), along with a dB or so of HF shelving and a touch of an appropriate ‘jazz club’ reverb resulted in a very acceptable sound with the right kind of feedback; i.e. the kind you get from performers and audience members when they can hear the piano clearly.
Leave the lid open on full stick for the typical Modern Jazz layouts, and close it if necessary for the Big Bands where the drum kit is often set up very close to the piano and spill is a major issue. Placing a baffle alongside the piano mic helped enormously in these situations.
Here’s a final point in support of miking the grand piano from underneath. The best gigs take place when the musicians are happy, and pianists are happiest when the piano lid is at full stick.
Apart from producing the best piano sound and allowing the pianist to hear the piano better, the lid is a wonderful reflector that helps to direct the piano sound across the stage to the musicians and also out to the audience. In the standard Modern Jazz stage configuration, however, a piano lid at full stick also does a great job of reflecting spill from the drum kit into any mics placed over the piano strings – especially cymbals!
This can be disastrous when you need to turn the piano up to balance it against louder drums; louder drums means louder spill reflected into the piano mics, so turning up the piano mics also makes the drums louder and roomier, with no benefit in making the piano more audible against them.
Engineers with a recording background will quickly recognise that in this situation the piano mics over the strings are essentially drum room mics placed in a corner, with a bit of piano in them!
Next issue… more about miking, then on to soundcheck, monitors and mixing…
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Further reading from the CX archive:
The Grand Piano (and the sound engineer) by Alan Mourant, CX Magazine March/April 2005 (CX13) pp.36-41.
And a snippet from CX13 the same year:
Tip 43 GETTING THE BEST PIANO SOUND IN THE WORLD:
Start with two U87s and go through the Neve pre amps on the board. Put each mic through an 1176 and a Pultec EOPlA. Run back and forth to move the mics around the various holes in the piano to see what kind of sound’s coming out of the top and bottom. I get the optimum sound near one of the holes. This is my roll n’ roll sound that I really like. I use the 1176s and just do basic compression going in.
For the ED I use something I picked up from the British guys a while ago … on the top mic I add a little bottom, at around 60 to 100 cycles. On the bottom mic I cut the low end and add a little top end … about 7 to 10k. This gives me a psycho acoustic illusion because the low end is now bright and present whereas the high mic is now a little warmer and richer, not brittle. so it smoothes the high lo. left right thing. I play with the compression on both sides to see which one I need. And that’s what I do if I have time to really play around with the piano and get an amazing sound. I would also set up two U47s in the room. Place them far away left and right room, and then super compress those as well. When possible put them on separate tracks. and blend them later to taste at the mix.
Extract from the CX studio feature 100 Tips (3.2MB – originally published in EQ Magazine)
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