Talking technique with one of the top jazz engineers in the businesslearning Todd Whitelock on Jazz Engineering
Though he has a Music Production and Engineering degree from Berklee, Todd Whitelock says it was on-the-job training that helped him become one of the top recording engineers in the jazz world. Whitelock, who also engineers classical and pop sessions as well as film scores and Broadway cast albums, got his professional start as an engineer at NYC’s legendary Power Station, a large commercial studio (now called Avatar).
“I found myself one of the few assistants at PowerStation who specifically wanted to be on the jazz projects,” he recalls. “The studio had been making a name for itself and it’s famous drum sound on chart-topping rock records. The other assistants wanted to work on the next Bon Jovi record, and I wanted to work on the next Pat Metheny record.”
After Power Station went out of business, Whitelock began assisting and editing at Sony Classical Productions NYC, which later merged with Sony Music Studios New York, and he stayed on to work there for 15 years, starting as an assistant he worked his way up to Senior Recording Engineer.
When Sony closed in 2007, he went freelance, and has been busy ever since. He's done sessions for greats like Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Jordan, Harry Connick Jr. and countless others. He recently engineered Live at the Village Vanguard for world-renowned bassist Christian McBride, an album that netted McBride a Grammy. Whitelock has himself been awarded six Grammys to date.
Audiofanzine recently had the opportunity to speak with Whitelock and we talked extensively about recording jazz sessions, both live and in the studio.
You recorded Christian McBride’s Grammy-winning performance?
He won for best instrumental solo in the jazz category for “Cherokee.” He played at the Vanguard for two weeks. We'd done a week with Inside Straight, his five-piece band, and we did a week with his trio. And from that latter week that performance emerged. The Vanguard is a room that I have recorded in with Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis among others. The space [for the recording gear] is extremely limited there, we’re literally relegated to a desktop, and the cable snakes are coming in over and down the pipes. It has to be one of the most challenging venues to get a good capture because it's such a confined space.
In a live situation like that, do you get splits (feeds) from the PA mics?
In this instance they got a split from my mics, because the house has a very modest P.A., and we had to split some critical mics that they need for house fill and monitors. On larger stages I have hung redundant mics so that the house gets what they want and I get to record what I want, being that both worlds require entirely different microphone characteristics.
Typically, in a remote recording, you have close mics on each instrument?
You have to because of all the stage leakage, and to mix more detail into the final sound picture. As for Christian, like a lot of legendary jazz artists, he reveres the Vanguard, where he's had a residency for two weeks every December for like six years. He told me he wanted it to sound exactly like the Vanguard—from a perspective of an audience member. It’s great down there for the reason that it's so intimate and tight and dry. It’s really the perfect space for trio jazz. The sound starts getting a little more dense the more instruments you put up there. But I wasn’t going to show up with just an ambient array, and say, "So this is what it sounds like from the middle of the room." I knew Christian actually would want it to sound like it feels for his audience and him. Ultimately you need the definition that the artists come to expect in any mix — call it studio-esque or record-like — not all ambient leakage.
In a live situation like that, what do you usually do for room mics?
In a hall, I'll get up there and hang Left, Center, and Right omnidirectional mics out in the house to make sure I've got as much of the room captured as possible. At the Vanguard I also put rear stereo cardioids facing back at the bar so it’s essentially a proper Surround array. Conversely, I still need to get up inside the piano as well as close-miking the toms, because I’ll need to have the right amount of detail from the instruments along with the overall ambience of the room in the final mix. That’s the thing about doing multitrack recording, it allows you to capture a lot of details and sort them out later. I’m spoiled in that regard, although I'm reminded that some of the greatest Vanguard recordings were done by Rudy Van Gelder with two mics mounted on the ceiling and a Wollensak 2-track reel-to-reel on his lap.
So you used a combination of room and close mics when you mixed?
Because the trio itself was so well balanced I really didn't have a lot of mixing to do. I chose the close mics that worked best with the least leakage, checked their phase relationships, and found a ratio of the spot mics to the omnis that opened up the room as much as we could get away with, since that was the perspective that Christian had asked for. The ambient giveaway was the drums and their reflections. Drums sound much more contained when you're actually in the room than they come off through the microphones. Your ear kind of time-aligns naturally based on your seating position in the room and how close you are to the stage. A microphone is very unforgiving to time arrival information in that regard.
When you’re doing a live recording, do you use the same mics for specific instruments that you use in the studio?
Not so much, because I need the patterns to be tighter. For sure, when I'm in the studio — and I've done Christian's records in the studio — I can put up a beautiful tube mic with a cardioid pattern and even an omni in some cases, depending on how good the isolation is. I would never get away with that onstage, because it would be nothing but drum and PA leakage.
So you have to use hypercardioid and supercardioid?
Well actually, I get the best results on bass using a figure-8 mic, like a ribbon. A ribbon's polar pattern has a tight front/rear pickup with serious off-axis rejection on the sides and a very warm midrange that compliments most acoustic instruments.
Where on the bass do you usually put it?
I’m listening for the sweet spot around the bridge area. I would say—depending on the style of ribbon — anywhere from just below the bridge to the bottom of the fingerboard. In a studio situation, I use two different mics. Usually one is a tube in cardioid picking up under the bridge. The other is a ribbon aimed at the bottom of fingerboard, because a ribbon has such a warm presence, and it does round off the plectoral finger noise that bass players hate. I need some of that attack in the final blend so it’s always a compromise.
Typically, how close to the bass is the mic in a live recording?
It's uncomfortably close, I promise you. [Laughs]. I would say about six inches from the strings. And if the bassist is bowing then you make the compromise. But if there’s only bowing on one piece, then I ask the bass player to make the compromise, and kind of lean back on the bow piece. That’s because I don't want to sacrifice the entire recording by moving this mic back three more inches.
In the studio you'd place the mics further back?
Yes. You do back off so that the instrument has that opportunity to resonate and do its natural thing, especially with a bass because it takes some of those low notes and their fundamentals so much longer to form.
How far back typically?
I would say, the bridge mic still stays close, somewhere in that six-inch range to get a more direct sound, but the upper mic gets pulled back about a foot, and gives more of a bigger picture of the bass. Of course every instrument is different and you should always spend time with the player and the instrument in the booth or room you’re in to hear how they’re interacting.
You're not pointing at the F-holes at all?.
In the studio – no, you're not getting the whole sound there. Now live, in the case of Christian, he uses a brand of microphone that I like a lot, by AMT (Applied Music Technology). It’s a nice clip-on with a hypercardiod capsule on a gooseneck. That one worked really well on this Vanguard recording, where it was a ribbon at the bridge and the AMT at the F-Hole which was also split to the house in lieu of a D.I. The pickup/ D.I. sound is generally the last option a jazz player wants you to reach for because they all sound so artificial. But they are a clean signal and sometimes there is so much volume onstage that trying to push a spot mic louder in the PA only makes it worse.
How do you typically record Christian’s bass in the studio?
We both usually like a beautiful-condition U47 for the bridge mic. And again, I still like the sound of a ribbon in the blend. I've had great luck with the AEA KU4 cardioid ribbon, I like that a lot on him and had that up at the Vanguard. There’s a new ribbon I like a lot by a company called Mesanovic out of Detroit, their M2 [Model 2]. That’s a very full range ribbon that I've been reaching for more and more. The ribbons now end up being a go-to for me in a way that they hadn’t for a long time. I'm realizing the presence that ribbons bring to these recordings. Even on drum overheads, they bring out a nice punch and midrange. They work for the toms and kind of attenuate the cymbals a little bit. Of course I’ll do that in the studio mainly. I wouldn't necessarily put ribbons on overheads in a live situation because of the P.A. leakage above the cymbals.
What’s your typical drum miking setup for a live recording?
Just one kick mic, and hat, snare, toms, and two overheads. As a matter of fact it was [Neumann] KM140’s as overheads and the [Neumann] KM84 as snare with some [Shure] SM98s clipped on the toms and a Soundelux U195 on the kick, for Christian’s live album. That's to be able to push the drums into the mix with clarity because I have to overcompensate for the amount of leakage that's happening in every other mic on stage, as well as the ambient mic delay, which I time align in the mix but still has a distant sound of the drums.
How many mics do you typically use on the kit in that kind of situation?
For Christian’s recording, I probably had eight tracks of drums including the clip-on mics for toms, to get the detail and attack of the drummer’s fills. I normally mute them in the mix until there’s a fill to grab because otherwise the majority of the time all you get is the under cymbal wash of sound.
Do you use the overheads as the basis for the sound and then add the other mics as necessary?
Yes, for the jazz kit you can get away with that, unless, you've got a lot of wedges, stage monitor volume, and/or PA to compensate for. A lot of these jazz kits are small, but tuned so well that they do speak very well to just a pair of overheads. For recordings of Wynton and The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra done live at Rose Hall, all I have is kick, snare, and overheads.
The Christian McBride live record was only piano, bass and drums, but what if you have a sax or trumpet that's really loud onstage, would that impact how you mic it?
Yes, it would. I'd probably have to get closer/ tighter. I might even have to change up the overhead mics for that reason. But bare in mind those things are up in the air and are really prominent in the mix so you have to be sure you like the leakage characteristic and can deal with it. There is such a thing as “good” leakage, afterall.
In the studio, do you use a similar number of mics on the drums?
I use a lot more. The isolation in the studio allows me to get a little more creative. But that does not mean I'm using all of them in the mix. It does mean that I would put ribbon overheads up too, depending on the material that was going to be recorded. If the music was really driving and bombastic, that I'd have the ribbons there to soften it up. Something with a lot of cymbal crashes and tom fills is going to be great in the ribbon. But if it's a ballad and the drummer is using brushes and you're looking for a crystalline ride sound, then the ribbon will be a little too dark. Whether recording in an iso booth or a big room, I like having an array of mics, and recording on a lot of tracks means that I can kind of plan to have two drum sounds. Even if it's one drummer and one kit, the dynamics they bring to the different songs on a record are going to be wildly different and as a mixer you can dial in whatever array feels right in the track.
Your ribbon overheads, are they a spaced pair configuration?
Yes they are. I'm always moving them around based on how many cymbals or how big the kit is. One of my favorite sounds for overhead mics are the Coles.
Exactly. And they kind of work best sort of aimed straight down. I find the Blumlein array on drums doesn’t get the best localization. I tried Blumlein configurations before, but it's harder to pan and make that ride cymbal live where it needs to live, or the hi-hat on the opposite side. So yeah, sort of pointing directly straight down is the way to aim those. The other thing, depending on what room I'm in, even if it's the drums in the main room, or drums in the iso room, I will use a stereo [AKG] C24 to be a room mic. Sometimes it’s behind the drummer's head to get his perspective. I'll put up two distant room mics as well.
Is it fair to say that for a jazz recording, you’re not trying to create a sound as much as capture a sound realistically?
It is. I would tell you that a lot of the artists — and it depends stylistically what they're going for — do want it to be a very straight ahead, “Rudy Van Gelder/Blue Note” sounding record. But there are artists who will say, "Show me something new," or "Let's make something different."
Let’s talk piano miking. How many mics do you use on a piano in the studio?
Two inside, two out. Often in an ORTF configuration inside with small diaphragm condensers. I love Shoeps MK4s and I love DPA 4011s, but the piano will dictate which ones to use based on how bright or dark it sounds. I usually place them in a way that capture a kind of close sound and perspective that's what most pianists want, and certainly want to hear in their headphones. And then I'll also put some mics outside the lid — at full stick — kind of up at that height, where you collect the overtones and also exaggerate the panning a little bit.
Also in a stereo configuration?
Yeah, but just spaced cards [cardioids] doing left and right. Sometimes, when I can, I use the [Sennheiser] MKH 800 Twin, which has two cardioid capsules glued together with separate outputs. You get a front and a rear capsule and you're recording two channels. What that allows for is almost like a fader pattern selector of how much rear ambience you want from your instrument, and/or the room.
I’m assuming you can't use the mics outside the piano on a live recording, because of leakage?
Those go inside instead, but it's not as full range a sound.
Do you use one mic on the bass notes of the piano and one on the high notes?
You'll miss a lot of the middle if you separate them. You kind of use them in conjunction with each other, and try to get them down the spine, down the middle, and do a high-low pickup where the high strings connect with the harp. In a live recording I'll do an XY [configuration] when the lid is on a short stick, the pickup is smaller and the frequency response is limited because of that short stick. I've also done ORTF on a stereo bar with KM84s in there, or 4011’s just inside the lid, and I like that a lot. That kind of depends again, on how close everybody onstage is, it depends on the instrument, and it depends on where the monitor wedges are.
What about miking a sax. What's the difference between live and studio?
Live could be the player’s clip-on because they always bring it. I've heard good ones, I've heard bad ones. But I would also use another mic. In the case of Steve Wilson, who played in Inside Straight with Christian, I brought a Neumann TLM67 up there and I had to get pretty tight on him from the side so he could block some of the drums off with his body.
And the mic is pointing where?
In that particular case, it's probably shooting at the lip of the top of his bell. Side micing worked really well, and blended with his clip-on whenever he sounded off axis. But in the studio, it depends on the sax player. I recorded an Aaron Diehl album where we had legendary saxophonists, it was Aaron’s tribute to the greats Joe Temperly and Benny Golson, who play on their respective tunes. We had alto, we had tenor, and we had bari. So I was changing it up. Being at Avatar, I was able to use a good tube 47 [Neumann U47] and start with that. If for some reason it sounded tubby, or the color wasn't right, I'd reach for a Telefunken 251, which I love, and Avatar has a great one. Again, the advantage of being at Avatar is I get to choose a Telefunken 251 or a beautiful Neumann U47, and if neither are right for the instrument then they have a great [AKG] C12 to reach for.
Rough choice. [Laughs] So a single mic in the studio?
Single is best, because then you don't have any phase issues. The sound is more open and you can capture as much mouthpiece detail as the player wants. Some don’t want any but some like a subtle sound of the reed attack.
And pointed where?
In that case, almost like a vocal mic, upside down. I would hang it from overhead, and I'd have it at a 45-degree angle to the horn. And probably back a few feet so that the guy has room to play to it. Not in a way that he would bump his head if he leans forward, but in a way that's capturing the top of the reed and the bottom of the capsule is getting the bell. It's a good picture. Sometimes to go the other way means that the guys can move out of range more easily. With most of those instruments and wind instruments. If you stay in line with their mouth, you're not going to lose them. If you try to set it right at the bell and they move left or right, they're off axis. Lining up is crucial
I understand you're using Dangerous Music gear for in-the-box mixing?
That could be a whole other article. When Sony closed in 2007, I lost my favorite mix rooms. At the same time, the production budgets were getting cut and couldn’t afford big console mixes. So out of necessity I started “mixing in the box” and I spoke to my friend and colleague Damon Whittemore (ValveTone Recording) who shares Fab DuPont’s room at Flux Studios, and had supplemented Fab's Dangerous setup (Dangerous Master/ 2-Bus Plus/ Mixer/ Monitor ST/ Compressors, Bax EQ and more) with some great vintage gear he owned, like a vintage Neve broadcast console as well as some great tube EQs and compressors and a collection of transformers. He urged me to come tryout their room for my next project, which at the time was Kenny Garret’s Seeds from the Underground. I was sold on the results, mixing in the box and then sort of blowing it out at Flux through Dangerous gear has given us a clearer sound, I’ve found that it opens up the stereo field by not going through the miles of routing on a big console. What I love about The Fabulous Room is that I can choose conversion between Lynx Auroras or the C8s or the UAD Apollo. Fab is with Dangerous, he is with other manufacturers, so I do get a chance to hear stuff. On any given mix, I love the Dangerous Compressor a lot. I have the luxury of having a compressor just dedicated to the drum chain. So I've got the drums summed down and through a chain including a Dangerous Bax EQ and a Dangerous Compressor. That works just as well for pianos or other dynamic sources that need transparency and some limiting without a lot of compression. Also, because the Dangerous Compressor is so fast, I can hardly ever hear its recovery.
Yeah, Fab DuPont. His Fabulous room is the main room I mix in. I've been working out of there probably going on eight or nine years. Besides incredible ears, he has great intuition about what’s around the corner for recording equipment and practices. His dialog with manufacturers like Dangerous, Focal, UAD, and Lauten Microphones has allowed me to participate in R&D trials at his invitation. I would never have found all this amazing gear on my own without his recommendations.
Were you using Dangerous converters?
I have been — the Convert-8s. I definitely got a peek at those early, in the R&D stage. I compared them and did some remixing through them and found what I loved about them. I've probably now mixed three entire records with that conversion. The clock is jitter free and the sonority of the conversion is the closest thing to hearing tape playback of all the converters I’ve ever heard. The low end is absolutely phenomenal and the soundfield is deeper and wider than most.
Are you talking about during mix or tracking?
During mix, the C8’s are D/A only. When I'm in town [NYC], I mostly track at Avatar, that has always felt like HQ since my PowerStation days. I do some editorial stuff and even some pre-mixing in my home studio. My home rig closely mirrors the ValveTone/ Fabulous Room setup so I can take mixes back and forth.
You use Pro Tools?
Yes, Pro Tools. And I also have a Sequoia system for mastering. I did happen to use a Sequoia system for the Christian McBride Live at the Village Vanguard. That was the primary multitrack with a Tascam X48 safety.
Thanks very much, Todd, for sharing so much information about your techniques.
You’re welcome! I'm glad to have had a chance to speak with Audiofanzine.
Check out Todd Whitelock’s full credit list