One of the most interesting and exciting challenges of being a sound engineer in this modern day and age is making sure that there is a healthy balance between the technology and the music. Whether on the live sound or recording side of things, the listener’s experience is determined by the synergy between artists performing their art and engineers capturing the moment. The tools we use to help us achieve that synergy are of course extremely important—they help us to capture the magic moments and share them with the audience. I have been using Digidesign and Avid products for nearly 20 years now, and they are key components in helping me deliver my part in the process as engineer. Both as a customer and now as an application specialist working for Avid, I continue to be excited about the new products and technologies that make the entire artistic experience even better. To me, Avid S3L is one of those products. Although I initially started using it as a live sound system (it’s primary function after all), I soon realized after mixing a couple of live sound gigs that it really is much more. I’ve been a long time user of VENUE’s comprehensive recording and playback options for things like Virtual Soundcheck and archiving, and with Avid S3L we’ve taken that Pro Tools integration to another level.
Although I initially started using it as a live sound system, I soon realized after mixing a couple of live sound gigs that [Avid S3L] really is much more.
When Bas Bulteel, one of Belgium’s rising jazz pianists, contacted me several months ago to talk about a recording a new album project for his trio, I had no idea that I was going to use the S3L—in fact, I hadn’t even seen it yet! The project itself was what interested me at that point, not only because Bas is an extremely talented pianist, but also because the other members of his trio, drummer Bruno Castellucci and bassist Bart Denolf, have both been renowned names in the jazz scene for the last decades, acknowledged for their work with the likes of Toots Thielemans, Philip Catherine, and others.
I had worked with Bas over the years on numerous projects where he was a session musician, and about a year ago he was in my studio for one of those sessions. At some point while we were listening to the takes he said “Hey, did you change something? It sounds different, better, more open—I love the sound of the piano!” At first I was thinking “Really? I haven’t changed anything—same piano, room, mics, pre’s—the setup I usually use,” but then at some point it struck me: HDX. I had just recently upgraded my trusted HD Accel Pro Tools rig to the HDX system!
Throughout my career as an engineer I have worked with all kinds of artists and in all kinds of musical genres. Many engineers will say that classical musicians are amongst the most challenging when it comes down to the concept of “sound.” I say it is Jazz musicians! For musicians like Bas Bulteel, the most important thing at the end of the day is “how does it sound?” They intimately know the sound they create with their instruments, and that is exactly what they expect to hear translated on playback. So when Bas called me to talk about recording his trio, I knew that the sound of my HDX system had helped me get the job.
For musicians like Bas Bulteel, the most important thing at the end of the day is “how does it sound?”
The location for the recording was decided upfront: De Werf in Bruges, and the Bosendorfer piano they have was the instrument Bas wanted to use for the recording. Originally my idea was to bring my HDX studio rig and pre-amps onsite. But in the weeks leading up to the recording, having used the S3L system and listened back to the Pro Tools recordings I had done with my laptop, I started thinking “Why don’t I use the S3L system?” One of the key components of the S3L sound is the HDX card inside the E3 engine, with the same floating point processing as the Pro Tools HDX system. I had used the S3L system a couple of weeks earlier at the Gent Jazz Festival for some live gigs and was already convinced that the S3L’s Stage 16 mic pre’s would give me exactly what I needed—a clean and natural sounding signal path with fast transient responses more than capable of capturing the high dynamic range this type of music demands. The floating point HDX-based mixer would assure that all the detail and softest notes on Bart’s double bass and the soft brush strokes on Bruno’s snare would come across as intended, so I took the challenge and brought the S3L onsite.
Day 1: Soundcheck and Setup
Yes, we were going to spend a full day for soundcheck and recording setup. Bas, Bruno, and Bart care as much about “sound” as I do, and spending a full day on soundcheck and setup was a no brainer from the start. Where I normally would go onsite the day before (or at least have 4 to 5 hours to prepare everything from a technical POV), I started setup at 9 AM and it only took me 2 hours to set everything up—that included unloading the car and wiring everything up. It’s a jazz trio: piano, drums, and double bass. Two Stage 16 remote boxes (each with 32 ins and 16 outs) are plenty, so I go completely over the top! Five mic’s on the piano (2 x stereo and 1 mono ribbon mic). I know that I will only end up using one of the stereo omni’s in the end but hey… choice is good. Same for the double bass. The trusted U87 in figure 8 and a R122 ribbon for safety. DI? Um, no way on Bart’s double bass! Drums: Bruno plays a typical jazz kit with an 18 inch kick drum—closed skins so the 52 on the kick, snare top and bottom with a MD 442 and a Calrec condenser, 421’s on the tom’s and Schoeps for the overheads and a 414 in figure 8 between snare and hi hat—plus some room mics out in the hall. 19 inputs and plenty of choices come mixing time. I’ll probably ditch about half of them anyways! By the time Bas came in at 11 AM to play the piano for warm up, I was actually ready to start the soundcheck. So while he was warming up, I was already recording everything and had him come listen to the first takes. Bart and Bruno showed up after lunch, and once everything was set up, we started the “real” soundcheck.
I have 16 outputs between those Stage 16’s, so decided to give each of them their own headphone mix as well. Because of the way S3L allows you to solo AFL Aux’s from the global controls, this works like a charm. This enables me to monitor their mixes independently from the S3 control surface while recording, which is actually an extremely important phase of this process. You want to make sure that what they hear in their headphones is in balance with their performance. In the end, the whole point of having everyone in the same room playing at the same time is to capture a performance and vibe that can only happen when three great performers become one awesome jazz trio. A bad headphones mix can easily spoil that.
The moment you have them come to listen to those first takes is always going to be a very crucial point in the entire process, from which point on your job as engineer is either going to be heaven or hell.
Once the headphone mixes were set the three of them started jamming and I started recording. During the jam I do my usual going back and forth—reposition some mics, etc.— and then have them come in to listen to the result. Now remember that these are jazz musicians, and what they want to hear translated through those speakers is their performance, their instruments and above all, their sound. So the moment you have them come to listen to those first takes is always going to be a very crucial point in the entire process, from which point on your job as engineer is either going to be heaven or hell. Bas sits in the sweet spot first and almost immediately goes “great, thanks.” Bart asks me to listen to some of the double bass solo’s he did during the jam and gives his go ahead as well. And then comes Bruno, with nearly 40 years of studio experience recording all over the world with the greatest names in jazz history. He looked at the S3 control surface and asked me, “Is that a mixing desk? OK, let me listen to that part where I play brushes… Can you lower the overheads a bit and give me more snare? OK, we need to move the mics on the toms up a bit—let me go in and play a bit on my own, just record it, will you?”
“OK, let’s listen to how it sounds now” and this goes on for a while. So at some point I ask him “Hey Bruno, you seem unhappy about something. If you let me know what it is I can look at what needs to be done to make it sound the way you want it to.” He then turns around and says “Oh no, sorry, it sounds great—it’s the kit. I think I will bring a different snare drum tomorrow because I don’t like the sound of this one, and I’ll bring some different cymbals as well, but thanks—great sound on everything. We’re all set to start the tracking tomorrow.” At that point I knew it was going to go well.
Day 2: Recording Day 1
I had taken the S3L session home with me and used the offline editor (VENUE standalone software) to modify some of the channel names and create snapshots that would easily allow me to go back and forth between stage and Pro Tools inputs, enabling me to just load the session into the S3L the next day and be ready for tracking. The way these jazz sessions usually go is that the trio will do two or three takes and then come in to listen back. S3L’s audio communication is Ethernet AVB, so everything sits on a time-synchronized network—not only the S3L’s engine, control surface, and stage boxes, but also the Pro Tools laptop. So switching back and forth between stage inputs and Pro Tools inputs is instant and on the fly. With the guys frequently going back and forth between the hall and the control room, the benefit of doing this without having to restart the system all the time is huge, and VENUE Link makes it easy to start a new session for every new song. Track names and inputs are auto-assigned—all you have to do is record enable the tracks and off you go. At the last minute I decide to create a matrix mixer that included the Left and Right outputs, as well as some additional processing and reverb on the Matrix outs. Thank you S3L! I now have 4 band parametric and comp/limiter on all my outputs, so I do a quick reference mix and add a stereo recording track to the Pro Tools session as well. I know these guys will ask for a CD overnight, and the new Pro Tools 11 offline bounce will allow me to bounce those stereo reference tracks within seconds once they have decided which take they want.
Day 3: Recording Day 2
I like it when things go smoothly on the technical side. It means you can fully concentrate on the music and enjoy listening to great performers. All I have to do at this point is create a new playlist in Pro Tools when the trio wants to do a new take, or create a session from VENUE in Pro Tools when they want to start a new song. Jazz musicians always go for the one take that captured the vibe they were looking for. No surgical edits or copy/pasting—just pure performance. “Hey Chris, take 3 was perfect except for 1 note in the second chorus on the double bass. Do you think we can punch in?” Not a problem. S3L supports per-channel virtual soundcheck, letting me mix and match live tracks with recorded tracks. So let’s see – everything except the double bass in Pro Tools input mode, with double bass coming in through the Stage IO’s. “Sure, we’ll punch in and out.” Pre roll > Bart you ready? > go > job done. S3L a live system? Sure! A remote recording system? Absolutely!
We should have had a Day 4 but everything went so smooth, and everybody was so happy with the results, that we did not it. And that’s how technology should work IMO. It needs to be a tool that allows you to focus on what matters: The MUSIC!