How To Record Jazz!
Recording engineer Frank Laico explains the methods he used to record classic jazz albums...

If you've read the About The Label  section on our website, you'll know that at Hard Bop Records we believe that the studio environment plays an important part in the success (or failure) of a jazz recording. In our view, the most crucial aspect of good recording practice is to make sure that the musicians are comfortable in the studio. In a recent interview for UK music technology magazine Sound On Sound, recording engineer Frank Laico vindicates this theory, and sheds an interesting light on the techniques he used to record such classic albums as Miles Davis' 'Round About Midnight during his stint as an in-house engineer for Columbia at the legendary 30th St. Studio in New York, the location of countless landmark jazz recordings, including perhaps the most important one of all - Kind Of Blue.

"I was a very inquisitive engineer, and I used to go out and introduce myself to the musicians, asking them how they felt about recording methods", Laico explains. "What I learned was that the most important thing to them was being able to hear each other instead of being so spread out that they couldn't hear, and so I always paid attention to that, even later on when we went to a lot of tracks and microphones. If I had to spread anything, it would never be the rhythm section. I'd spread the woodwinds or brass or strings, depending on the area and how large a space was necessary, and I found that to be the best possible approach when it came to recording. I never asked any musicians if they wanted earphones. I thought that was the worst thing in the world. I'd just keep them close so that they could all hear each other and even talk if they had to. That was the secret for me.

"I always felt that leakage was what made the sound worth listening to. I never wanted to isolate like most engineers unfortunately did, because they wanted things to sound like the kids were recording in their basement or garage. At 30th Street, after trying various places in the room, I settled on having everybody directly in front of the window, not only because that created a better rhythm sound for me but also because I could see everything. I'd use a small baffle about six to eight feet from the bass player, a small baffle in front of the bass drum, and that was all I used on the rhythm section.

"There would be a microphone on the bass drum, another on the hi-hat, one on the snare and then another mic for the overhead, catching everything, including the cymbals. I'd then put a bag filled with sand inside the bass drum, primarily so that, when the drummer kicked that thing, it wouldn't go all over the room on the wooden floor. It also kept the sound right there, because at 30th Street you could hear the bass drum all over the studio, and so [the bag of sand] made sure it wasn't overbearing."

While Laico invariably kept the musicians close to one another, he miked each of them from a greater distance than most engineers would do these days. "I never liked the close sound," he says, "and so even with Miles I would have the mic at least 12 inches away from the horn, and it was the same with the other instruments, like the bass and the sax. I just disliked tight sounds - the harshness wasn't normal - and that also applied to vocals. I never had the mic close to the singer: I had it placed over the music stand, so there was air between the voice and the microphone, and it was usually the same with the piano. If the pianist wanted it miked inside, I would do that, but normally I would have the lid open all the way and put the microphones - or microphone, if I was only using one because of the size of the group - about three-quarters of the way up there, a few feet from the keyboard, so that there, too, I would have an open sound rather than a tight sound.

"For me, it sounded so much better, and at times I would have to convince the pianist about this. If he or she wanted a tight sound, I'd say 'OK, let's start that way,' and then after a while I'd say, 'Now you've heard it in this room, let me set the mic up a little bit differently so that you can hear that.' Invariably, they liked the mic off the keys - often a Neumann 49 - better than the one outside.

"I still had a mono mentality even when we went to stereo, monitoring in mono so that I felt comfortable my stereo was as good as it could be."

Working With Miles

Nearly 55 years after his first recording session with Miles Davis ('Round About Midnight), Frank Laico still recalls the anticipation that he felt beforehand, as well as how the two of them bonded.

"I admired his playing and I basically admired Miles too," he states. "I know other people found him to be obnoxious and arrogant, but once he and I began working together we became very good friends. He didn't make any comments to me when I set him up with the band. He just looked around and talked to the guys, asking them if they were happy where they were, and when they said they could hear each other we just went from there.

"By the time I began working with Miles, we had the U49, and he had not seen that microphone before. I said 'I'd like to try this for you. It's got a nice full sound, whereas the 67s are very high-pitched mics.' He said, 'OK, let's go, we'll listen.' I was extremely nervous, but he was so agreeable, and after we tried the 49 he said, 'I like that very much, it's great,' and that was my start with Miles Davis.

"All of those musicians - Davis, Coltrane, Garland, Chambers, Jones - were great. They knew their instruments and they enjoyed playing together. They used to sit there and just go crazy, playing and playing and playing. After a while I realised they were having fun warming up, and once we were ready to record they were all set, both mentally and physically. That's why the sessions always proceeded very quickly and very easily. Miles never insisted on sheet music. He would just hand them some kind of music that had his own notations, they would figure out what the hell he meant, and then they'd just go ahead and play. That's how it was with 'Round Midnight' and the other tunes on that record.

"In fact, the first time I really saw Miles using arrangements was when he did the Porgy & Bess album (in 1958) with Gil Evans. That was a challenge, because it was a good-sized group, and even there I set up the strings and everybody else close to each other so that it was a real live sound. 'Round Midnight' on the other hand, was a great tune, and one that the musicians already knew.

George Avakian, Columbia's jazz man, was involved with the arrangements and also as a sounding board, and the musicians loved him. He was a very nice person and very talented, and whatever he suggested seemed to please them. They would always rehearse before we started to record, and we would just let them to do what they had to do, talking to each other while making their own corrections and suggestions. Then, once they thought they're ready, Miles would say, "OK, let's put one down", and we'd go. It was very easy.

"While they rehearsed, I sat at the console and listened to what they were doing and how they were doing it, deciding what would work for them with regard to the sound. I always put a little echo on Miles' trumpet, and sometimes maybe a little bit on the sax, the piano and the bass if I thought they needed some more atmosphere. First, however, I would always make a suggestion to the producer and ask if this was all right - I never tried to sneak something in."

(Extract from Sound On Sound April 2010, Article "Classic Tracks" Richard Buskin)