Originally published to Recording Magazine
Record great brass sounds in your personal studio
Whether you use Protools, Digital Performer, Cubase or Logic, you most often deal with the sonic elements of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and vocals in your studio, but what if you were faced with the task of recording a trumpet player, a trombone player, or maybe even an entire brass section? This task is easier than one thinks and can produce amazing results for your project.
Whether you are recording your reggae album or trying to produce a bad Punk album you need to consider getting great musicians that know what they are doing. This will cut back on studio time, and produce what you are looking for. On the other hand if it's your studio maybe having a few friends over isn't such a bad idea, as you will be able to experiment. There are even trumpets on Ebay that go for $89 you can experiment with. Some cheap Chinese horns are of exceptional quality!
Choosing the room
First of all the good news - horn sections, trombones, trumpets and saxophones are loud! You dont have to be worried about cars going by, people walking upstairs, explosions, kids screaming and bathroom flushing noises. They will all dissapear in the mix.
Remember that a brass instrument's sound comes solely from the vibration of its bell, which is unlike woodwind instruments (such as sax, flute, oboe, and bassoon), where the sound comes from the keyholes and the bell (or from the “foot” in the case of a flute). Notice that I didn't say the sound comes from the end of the bell, but rather from the vibration of the bell. That is an important distinction. The bell is so important to the character of the sound that a player buying a professional, custom-made brass instrument will usually be given a choice of bell material and shapes, which imbue the horn with a variety of sonic characteristics.
A brass instrument's sound is affected greatly by the room in which it's played. One of the most important considerations when placing a mic to record a brass instrument is how much room sound you will capture. If you close-mic the bell, you'll miss out on much of the room reflections, which, in a good-sounding space, can add character and openness to the sound. A small room will tend to sound boxy and will call for closer micing.
Every room is different, so it helps to experiment with mic placement. Before you set up any mics, have the musician move around until you find the spot where the horn sounds best in the room. Then set up the mic, put on your headphones, and move the mic around until you find the most favorable placement. You'll get different reflections depending on the mic's position, and they can have a big impact on the sound. If you want a completely different sound, record the player with his or her back to the mic, or better still have him stand on his head.
Acoustically speaking, a cramped home studio is often not a good place for brass recording, because of the boxy sound. It's preferable to record in a large space that has hard surfaces to take advantage of the natural ambiance. If your gear is mobile, consider using a larger and more reflective venue. An unfinished basement — one that has not been furnished or carpeted — can be a good recording space for brass, because it produces a nice open sound. If you're going for a classical sound, you can record the session in a church. A large, stone church can yield a beautiful, round, natural brass sound.
Micing the horns
Protools or Cubase do not care about the type of wave fed into them. This is the job of the Pre-Amp and the Microphone. Trombones, Trumpets and Saxes can be really loud in excess of 110db, but can also be soft below 50-60 db. The Pre-Amp is 60-70% of the input sound - more than the microphone! Some like the Neve 1073 or similar vintage sound and some like the focusrite or other Op Amp base preamps like Quad-Eight Pre amps or Jensen 990 based Pres. Another popular choice of mic preamp is the Avalon Pre-Amps. Whatever your choice, make sure you are using good equipment - you don't want to throw your money out the window.
Placing the microphone is critical in defining the final sound of the recording. For any music other than classical I would suggest putting the microphone 1-2 feet from the bell, to give it a "bigger than life" sound. In classical music, where one is looking for a more real like sound you would want to place the microphone 4-8 feet away. This goes for both trombones and trumpets.
A suggested mic position for a trumpet features a mic that is placed below the line of sight of the bell, rotated at about 40 degrees, and tilted upward.
A suggested mic setup for a trombone features a mic that is placed below the line of sight of the bell, rotated at about 30 degrees, and tilted upward.
Playing Horns is hard work!
When recording brass, keep in mind that the act of playing is physically demanding on the musicians. It requires a tremendous amount of air and is taxing on the lips. Imagine holding a piece of metal against your lips for a few hours, taking in as much air as possible with every breath, and blowing while intentionally making a buzzing sound. Brass players often jog, swim, or workout with weights to keep up with the physical demands of their instruments.
Brass musicians know that as their physical stamina diminishes with age, they'll lose some of their ability to play. Part of their practice routine is therefore directed toward building endurance. This is true for all brass players, particularly trumpeters. Be cognizant of the endurance factor when planning your session, especially if the musicians are not pros.
Allow some time for "warm up" especially if you are recording a section. Consider doing the inner phrases before recording that bombastic intro, or really nice lick. It takes a few minutes for the guys to wake up and focus, and the horns to warm up and start tuning into each other. After a few minutes of adjusting the players get the horns to vibrate in tandem producing that rich brass sound
Consider recording the more demanding sections of your tunes first, while the musicians are fresh. You may need to consult with the players to identify these sections, but generally they are the parts that are the loudest and contain the highest notes. During the session, use your ears to tell you when the musicians are becoming tired; they may not want to admit it. Schedule more breaks than you would with musicians who play other types of music.
If you are recording horns you need to be an expert "puncher". This is because hard licks and high notes will most often entail "cracked" notes and need constant fixing. If you flub up that one take that was tight and good, you will eat yourself up, because that great take may not come again...
A discussion of brass harmonics is beyond the scope of this article, but it's important to understand that there are many different notes that can be played on a brass instrument using the same valve combination or, in the case of the trombone, slide position. Brass players must use their lips, tongue, and jaw to hit their intended notes. Occasionally their aim will be off.
Chances for missed notes increase when playing in the upper register where the harmonics are closer together. In addition to missed notes, the brass player, like the woodwind player and vocalist, faces the possibility of a “cracked” note. A cracked note is one that is not attacked correctly.
Occasionally these missed or cracked notes are left in recordings, especially in jazz, where the overall emotion displayed in the performance may be considered more important than an errant note or two. In most situations, though, you'll want to punch in to correct the mistakes.
To double or not to double
Achieving a full and realistic brass sound can be particularly challenging in a home- or small-studio environment. In a non-classical recording, you can build a fuller sound by having the musicians double their parts, and then use both recordings in the mix, panned to either side. For an even thicker sound, record the parts a third time and use that pass in the center of the mix, although the change won't be as dramatic as going from a single part to a doubled part.
A good rule of thumb: Usually Brass is tripled when there are 1-2 musicians and doubled when there are 3 people. Also try to keep the highest part and lowest part closest to the center of the track. When doubling keep track of what part goes where, so for instance if you have 4 trumpet parts and 2 players remember to put part 1-2 on track 1-2 and 3-4 on 3-4 otherwise you will have a nightmare at the mix with inconsistent sound coming from all over the place.
When considering doubling orchestration becomes an issue here are common groups vs. orchestration and doubling:
- Single musician: Mostly doubling is done, for unisons, solos and perhaps chords
- 2 horns (usually trumpet+sax or trumpet+trombone): Best sound is with doubling or tripling the parts. This allows for 4-6 part harmony
- 3 horns - trumpet+trombone+sax: Double - do not triple when using this configuration. allows for 6 part harmony at 2/3rds of the time, can sound tighter than the 2 horn configuration, but not always. Can cover more songs at a time, so it may be cost effective if studio time is expensive.
- 3 horns - 1 trumpet+1 trombone or trumpet+trombone+sax: Like the 2 trumpets+ 1 trombone configuration just with more sound possibilites, you can cover more songs at a time, so it may be cost effective if studio time is expensive. You can also avoid doubling and add brass synth instead.
- 4 horns - 2 trumpets, 2 trombones or 2trumpets+trombone+sax: Double it to get 8 part harmony and bright unisons, although many prefer the 3 horn configuration. Doubling might sound a little on the heavy side, but nothing that canat be repaired with eq
- 5 horns - 3 trumpets, 2 trombones: Do not double a 5 part harmony when saxes are added on separately. This is beneficial for extremely fast recording times, and is probably very cost effective if you use it in a project with a lot of brass, or when several projects are consolidated into one project