New JGC Feature--Recording Tips, Session Techniques, Engineer Features and more...
By Terrence Richburg © 2009

Overview: Jazz and Gospel offer incredibly diverse stylistic approaches and exceptionally broad dynamic ranges, setting them apart from other major categories of popular music. JGC's new feature, Now in Session, introduces listeners, musicians, artists, and producers [as well as those up-and-coming] to some valuable "behind the scenes" insight. By exploring recording techniques, session tips, and engineering wisdom from those in the business producing these valuable musical art forms, we hope this segment will be helpful to everyone who records and supports inspirationally based music for all to enjoy. We especially want to support those who are pulling for Gospel Jazz--a major unsung, growing force in the music industry today.

Making It Work With What You Know and Not Just With What You Have: Proponents of every musical genre are persistent in their mission to create a great sound--"their sound" -- that is not only rare and impressive, but also sonically stimulating. However, consumers these days have become very finicky about what they like and what sounds good to them. They're not always able to explain exactly what they hear, but they always know when there's a difference. It's that difference which influences what customers normally spend their hard-earned cash on--particularly in today's economy. The basis on which consumers make choices as they decide on whose music to include in their own personal library really matters. Even technology has made it so easy for consumers to create their own "a-la-carte" collections of songs from different artists and genres, now they can completely bypass the warm invitation to purchase entire projects--even from artists they really enjoy.

That same technology however has also opened up a whole new world of opportunity for unknown musicians and artists. As you probably know, it's now possible to record your own CD project in a small digital home studio for a relatively nominal investment. Independent artists are on the rise and now able to legitimately compete with the sound quality and product appeal of multi-million dollar studios. Traditional facilities though packed with the latest and greatest in outboard gear and underground system secrets [unavailable or unaffordable to the public] now have to rethink their business strategies in today's market. Still, it is these commercial audio standards that make their projects often sound superior on disc and on the radio.

But I had to ask myself, why is it that so many of the big hits from the 50's, 60's and 70's enjoy a strong market and enduring appeal even among today's large listening audiences internationally--when theoretically "they don't sound as good" as the music being produced currently? Also, why is it that these same recordings in some cases offer a purer, richer, fuller and more realistic sound in fundamental quality? The answers to these questions rests not so much in the equipment used to record [although that's actually a major component], but rather it's in the "human" factor. A major goal and focus of music recorded in the recent past has been to simply reach listeners and connect with their common human experiences and ideology (e.g., relationships, emotions, values, social principles, etc.). It was the extraordinary abilities of experienced artists and writers and those God-given devices known as "ears" that equipped engineers and gifted producers to listen, feel the live studio "un-touched" takes and know when they had something really special on their hands. Hearing the music while recording and mixing "on the fly" produced a sound that challenges the benefits of today's technology-driven, enhanced performances--and even the ease of computer automated mixes. But don't ignore the obvious. A sensitive set of ears are very cheap and if kept in good working condition they'll be the most valuable assets used in producing powerful recordings, no matter what new technology is on the horizon. In fact, don't let technology replace your commitment to spend the hours necessary to really hear what is going on in the mix.

Digital and automated recording has created a phenomenon of producing such perfectly crystal clear sound that the very thing that makes good projects sound good has been filtered out and all but completely removed. Ironically, human imperfections and low level harmonic distortion [or noise] are what makes recordings sound fuller and real--unlike totally digital recordings which are often thin and harsh sounding. This is not to say there aren't significant benefits to digital technology. But the actual goal is to have the best of both worlds--by harnessing the superior level of control and flexibility within the digital realm combined with raw talent, and live character or the "human feel" [the sound of old-fashion "noise" and minor mistakes]. This sound is natural and familiar to the ears of fans during live performances. Contrary to popular belief among some producers and engineers, it isn't total perfection fans really want--it's more important that what they hear moves them emotionally and touches them in ways no other experience can.

Both Jazz and Gospel are some of the most naturally human yet God-inspired genres of music on the market today. They invoke a level of emotional response from listeners unlike any other forms or styles. So it's important that when cutting and mixing tracks one maintains the innate characteristics and essential qualities of this music for it to remain true and accepted by the audiences that know it, buy it and love it best.

SESSION TECHNIQUES: So I'd like to offer a few suggestions:

1. Don't let technology use you. Rather, you use the devices of technology to assist in presenting truly artful performances delivered by artists and musicians who know their craft. In other words, don't seek "overkill" by removing every imperfect tone, pitch, pronunciation, rhythm, hum, or naturally human sound [such as every breath or mechanical, inner-working frequency of an instrument]--for if you do, the recording will sound and feel more like a computer-generated presentation than a heartfelt gift from the artist.

2. Get away from "start-stop" recording techniques. This method can sometimes generate frustration or make recording artists not perform as artists at all. They can grow lazy and expect technology to fix a bad performance or even conceal the lack of preparation. Allow artists to go through a complete song like they would if they had to perform in front of a live audience [if that isn't already the recording setting]. Only fix what is unacceptable for someone to hear over and over again, but seek to keep what is the real emotion captured from the artist's soul at that particular moment in time. It's very difficult, time consuming and costly to attempt to totally recreate what an artist or musician was feeling at a certain instance.

3. Be willing to let some stuff go. Still with technology, there are some things that you wish could be fixed that just can't, without redoing everything or at least a major part of a performance. The important thing is to get the music out to the people to hear. If the major part of what they hear on a project moves their emotions and captures their focus, they'll naturally be very forgiving of what isn't perfect. In some cases they won't even hear it unless it's pointed out to them.

4. Use your ears to mix and finalize the master. Don't allow technology to do the job of a producer or engineer--you may miss the occasional digital glitches, which do happen in the world of virtual programs. But also, your ears are the best gauge for experiencing what a listener will hear at the time they pop in a CD for the first time. You'll want to know that the intended experience for the consumer at that moment is likely to be achieved.

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