Question about recording quality in older jazz recordings

Discussion in 'Musical Goodness' started by LiveJazz, Sep 5, 2013.

  1. LiveJazz Junior Audioholic

    LiveJazz
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    As a jazz fan, I've had this nagging question about the recording quality of older bop and combo performances for a long time.

    Why do older recordings - particularly bop and combo performances from the '40's-'60's - accentuate soloists at the expense of the drummer and bassist to such an extreme degree? Was this a stylistic choice, to place extra focus on the soloists? Or were they using sub-par recording facilities with inept recording engineers? I know the technology existed to do it right.

    It hit home last night when I was listening to Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder. He and Joe Henderson sounded appropriately clear and detailed, but the bassist and drummer seemed muffled, as if they were behind a partition and/or playing far, far in the background, whereas the wind soloists were right in front of me. It seems that supporting musicians are very often heavily under-recorded in this era and in this genre.

    For me, it really dilutes my enjoyment of these recordings. As awesome as greats are - Rollins, Stitt, Davis, Coltrane - the sound of the group needs to be intact and filled in, and the soloists need to be a little less right-in-my-face. I love a good bassist and drummer, who are so often an under-appreciated as the foundation of solo-oriented jazz. Also, this is simply not how "the real thing" would have sounded.

    Modern jazz records seem to have addressed this and sound much more "filled in" and realistic, which makes me wonder if it would be possible to remaster some of the greats to bulk up and clarify the rhythm/bass without ruining them (or would this be considered sacrilegious?). I would love to hear a more realistic presentation of many classic jazz albums, even if the "original" recording is altered.
  2. Irvrobinson Audioholic Ninja

    Irvrobinson
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    Accentuating vocalists is a time-honored bad practice in professional recording. The problem is that there isn't an acoustic reference for vocals with other instruments. Even in a jazz trio in a medium-sized venue a vocalist needs a mic and sound reinforcement, so how the vocalist is perceived is a matter of someone's preference with a mixer. Adding to the problem is the reality that the vocalists are often the most well-known and visible members of the ensemble and the lead name selling the albums, so voices get put out front. Big-name vocals often like that style too, and influence the mix, as does the producer trying to make a product they think will sell. It may not be the choice of the recording engineer. For example, Diana Krall recordings sound awesome, but they are nowhere near to scale. She's ten feet tall, and the so is the acoustic bass.

    Drums and horns are naturally loud compared to pianos, voices, and acoustic basses, so drums and horns, drums especially, get pushed deeper into the mix. Since my wife is a drummer we're pretty sensitive to that, and we still hear it a lot. I agree that with modern jazz albums things have improved some since the 60s, when bad mixes really exploded, but you still hear silly mixes, sometimes with the cymbals out front and the snare and toms recessed. If you know what to listen for commercial recordings can be frustrating.
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  3. slipperybidness Audioholic Ninja

    slipperybidness
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    I have a slightly different take on it.

    In my experience, even live Jazz shows tend to emphasize the soloist more than bass and drums (until the bass or drummer takes the solo).

    In most Jazz, it seems to me that the drummer isn't ever really at the front of the sound stage. Sure, it is there, but not too powerful and a lot of use of brushes, so it is somewhat subdued. Nothing like the drumming on Rock and Roll tracks. Same for the acoustic bass. Unless it is a really powerful bassist, it seems to be more of keeping the beat and is undertones to the main soloist.

    I will also say that on most jazz recordings, I tend to turn it up pretty loud to get those minute details out of the drummer.

    I suppose some of my opinion could be coming from the type of Jazz that I prefer as well.
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  4. LiveJazz Junior Audioholic

    LiveJazz
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    Thanks for your thoughts, slippery and Irv. I agree that soloist-based music necessarily brings the soloist to the forefront, and I'm totally OK with that. I guess it is just a personal preference. Bring the soloist to the front, but don't bury the rhythm and bass. Really it's the bass that bothers me more than the drums, in most cases. Drums, even recessed and far back in the soundstage, are sharp enough to get most of the detail - quality and evenness aside. But when the bass is underrecorded and recessed, sometimes I have trouble even making out the chord progressions, which is obviously an integral part of jazz improv. That's what really drives me crazy.

    As a (less than talented) jazz trumpeter myself, hearing how a soloist responds to, juxtaposes against, and otherwise creatively uses chord progressions to influence riff selection is very interesting to me. Without that audible bass precision, sometimes it just sounds like a soloist with drums and little more than a vaguely tuneful low background hum. :mad:
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2013
  5. slipperybidness Audioholic Ninja

    slipperybidness
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    Yup, I agree. Sometimes you just gotta crank up the volume to get that out of recordings
  6. Irvrobinson Audioholic Ninja

    Irvrobinson
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    An acoustic bass is a pretty subtle instrument when plucked, which is so common in jazz. The acoustic bass players I know always use an amp when performing live. I experience a different problem with modern recordings, the acoustic basses are mic'd and made to sound far louder than they are in reality. Many early recordings were made with relatively simply microphone set-ups, and the bass didn't get a clip-on mic. Perhaps modern amps and clip-on piezo mics have spoiled you. :)

    I have found that instrumental jazz is recorded far more realistically than jazz with a lead vocal, perhaps because there's no lead vocal ego to appease. Since you're a trumpeter, I assume that you've heard Herb Alpert's albums that he recorded several years ago for his ALMO label. Awesome playing and awesome sound.
  7. slipperybidness Audioholic Ninja

    slipperybidness
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    Yup, this is what I was saying earlier too. I have seen maybe 1-2 jazz bands that had a bassist that must have had an iron-grip because their sound was more powerful than I am used to hearing.
  8. Hobbit Full Audioholic

    Hobbit
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    I believe the problem was with the microphones. Bass was to low a freq. and drums to loud for them, look at the low end roll off on old mics. Add in they couldn't hands large volume changes. From what I understand that's also why the drum brush (and the 2x4 bass drum "replacement") were used on a lot of these old recording in lieu of sticks. It really wasn't until the 60's where mic's started coming of age. Also keep in mind multi-track recordings didn't come into play until the mid 50's....
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2013
  9. Irvrobinson Audioholic Ninja

    Irvrobinson
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    I've never heard of any of this before. The RCA Type 77DX microphone, for example, set for music (it had switchable positions for voice which rolled off low frequencies) was nearly flat to 30Hz. The Mercury Living Presence recordings, made to 35mm film in the 1950s and early 1960s, used Telefuken mics, and they have sub 40Hz sound on them.

    Since the 33 1/3 rpm LP wasn't introduced until 1948 most of the recordings in the 1940s were mixed for 78 rpm discs, which had very poor bass response, I suspect the recordings made for 78s are all rolled off in the bass, regardless of the native mic feeds contained.

    Multi-track recording doesn't seem relevant. Recordings were still mixed live to mono or live to two-track, and mixers have faders on them. Many modern jazz recordings are mixed live to two-track.

    There are good drum recordings from the 1950s, and many drummers of the day did not use brushes in place of sticks, like Buddy Rich. He was pretty bombastic. Brushes are used for jazz as a stylistic choice, and still are, for songs that need subtle percussion.
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  10. Hobbit Full Audioholic

    Hobbit
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    Hi Irv, Been wrong before, but somewhere in the back of my mind I recall the information I wrote. Of course brushes today are for stylistic purposes, but they were originally used to keep the volume down. I know jazz drummers that will resort to them (more) for that reason in small venues. I did pull up a couple of microphone from the 40-50s which had a 3db roll off by 100hz, which is what I was referencing to. Are these the exception, rule, or studio dependent? I also did a quick google search and found reference to issues recording low frequencies early on, but nothing specific (may be a resonance issue blurring notes with old mics, there's also bouncing the needle in pre mic recordings). Again, I could be overlapping technologies from different eras.

    The reason I brought up multi-track recording is a lot, if not all, of older/earlier recording were done live in the studio - with louder instruments further back. There is going to be spill and the drummers are often the biggest problems. This is still an issue today. I believe this is why the bass drum was often muffled or replaced with something else(2x4) and brushes used in early recordings (though I have heard of loud drums over driving mics - I could still be off an era). The double bass is often at the receiving end of this being it is a quite instrument. If you move the bass closer to the mic you then have issues with uneven note playing. I often listen to a live-only jazz station and am surprised how often an errant bass note grabs my attention...

    Having tracks recorded separately and over dubbed later alleviate these issues. Modern electronics (compressors, faders) help too.
  11. Irvrobinson Audioholic Ninja

    Irvrobinson
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    Hobbit, potentiometers existed in the 1940s too, and there were mixers, and there mic amps, and studio microphones did indeed have reasonable bass response. You must be thinking of the specially limited microphones used for voice on radio, intended to reduce the overly chesty character of male voices in isolation booths.

    As I mentioned earlier, drums were often padded down in the mix, and sometimes kick drums were (are) literally padded to reduce their volume, but this all about the sound the producer wants, and it is usually about calling attention to a soloist.

    Many studios still use vintage mics. Musicians are sometimes weird and have a preference for them. On most recordings you probably can't tell what's been recorded with an old mic versus a new one.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2013
  12. Hobbit Full Audioholic

    Hobbit
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    Potentiometer existed, now that's funny... and I'm may be wrong about the mic's (though I have to believe the technology has vastly improved over the last 70+ years and that we can hear the difference), but I'll humbly disagree (or agree with different wording) with you on the rest. Of course the producer has his input. That's analogous to instrument placement vs. calling attention to the soloist. Both can have the same effect whatever it's called. Spill to someone's else's mic is not a good thing either and distracts from the other instrument. Maybe the drummer/band/producer don't want the drums to sound padded? I've read of old jazz recordings where a drummer would be playing just the snare drum close to a mic to make it more pronounced. I'm sure all kinds of different techniques were used back in the day, and still today. Even using vintage equipment for effect. Bonham was known to play very loud and Page was known to use amps like the 5 watt Fender Champ (I have one and love it) in the studio. That's extreme, but mic'ing them for a live studio recording could be problematic.

    I just found this site: - Welcome : Recording Magazine - There are articles talking about the problems of "live" recordings in the studio with drums and bass. Which is what was basically done before the multitrack recording.

    Now I'm curious about why you don't need big amps to play live anymore? I've heard this from a lot of musicians. I thought it was mic's and the sound systems. Not true, or true for different reasons?

    As an aside, did you see that Foo Fighters documentary where they used old analog equipment to make an album? The musicians developed greater respect for the studio musicians of yore because those guys were able to just nail it in one sitting. Whereas they were used to post recording fixing...

    Mike
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  13. Stanton Audioholics Contributing Writer

    Stanton
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    I don't know if this thread came along because of my "Kind of Blue" CD review or in spite of it, but that particular recording was an excellent example of the transition period to what we now consider "good" jazz recordings. That is, many old jazz (small band/big band/whatever) recordings were a victim of inferior technology and/or technique; sessions were done with one or two mics and the soloist would often step to the microphone during solos, destroying the balance of the rhythm section--to where remixing/remastering wouldn't help (I too am a drummer). "Kind of Blue" (recorded in 1959) came AFTER this period, and the CD version I reviewed is actually considered reference quality by some. The Count Basie big band recordings of the 70's (of which I have many) are of outstanding quality compared to their 40's and 50's counterparts--solos and all (maybe I should do an album review of one of these).
  14. Irvrobinson Audioholic Ninja

    Irvrobinson
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    I think we have to remember what the majority of the jazz-buying population was listening to in the 1950s - a table-top phonograph of some sort with a built-in speaker. By the late 1950s and 1960s "hi-fi" was getting a lot more popular, and I suspect that recording producers were looking to target that market. For example, I'm pretty sure the RCA Living Stereo brand was introduced in about 1960, or around then, as I remember. I also remember that Columbia started to record in stereo in 1956, the year I was born, which is why the date has stuck in my mind. I think Ampex was building professional tape recorders in the early 1950s. (Yup - wiki says 1953.) So I think all that happened was a convergence of market forces made recordings better in the late 1950s. I don't think it was that a particular technology transition happened in 1959.
  15. Fuego Enthusiast

    Fuego
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    50's recording Technic inspires modern audiophile

    :DLots of the recordings in that era was done very quickly.3 hours for a whole album was common.
    The microphones used were not very different or even the same as used today.Sennheiser u47 is still a very common mic in recording studios.
    see :Neumann U47 tube microphones
    What has changed is the quality of mic.preamps cables and mix consoles,and the possibillty of using compression which especially works well on double bass.
    But there are lots of recordings from the mid 50's and on, which sound excellent;
    Sonny Rollins trio ''Way out West''
    Dave Brubeck'' Time out''
    Miles Davis''Kind of Blue''(has just been re-released for the xxxxtime as an audiophile download)
    and actually many of the new audiophile record companies take inspiration from the old recordings with excellent results.
    check these from Sound Liaison;Music Store
    The Carmen Gomes inc.'s ''Thousand Shades of Blue'' is the ''famous'' album from that label.
    0r Doug Macleod;''There is a Time'' on Reference Recordings.
    These two recordings are being hailed as a revelation in several audiophile music magazines and forums and I recommend them warmly.
    [​IMG][​IMG]
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2013

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