After a two-year break due to the pandemic, we had the pleasure to record again with great musicians as part of the of My Reel Club™ project. This time we also participated as a label.
The My Reel Club™ recording events were launched 3 years ago with ambitious plans. The Club members and founders were determined to introduce audiophiles and music lovers, who were also engaged in the technical background, the work in a recording studios, and thus to open a unique opportunity for them to understand and appreciate how music is recorded. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it temporarily impossible to realise some of our ideas. Hopefully, the situation is improving, and we are still determined to expand our special recordings, although with a limited audience for the time being.
This time, we worked with Gábor Juhász’s Trio, featuring Julia Karosi and Tony Lakatos on the recording of the album Planets at Digital Pro recording studio. Gabor is a Gramophone and Artisjus award-winning jazz guitarist and composer, and Aegon co-award-winning jazz guitarist and composer. He taught jazz guitar at the Béla Bartók Music Secondary School and the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and was named Jazz Guitarist of the Year 2021 in Hungary. My relationship with Gábor goes back a long way, even our musical careers met once, I was happy to welcome him after many years.
The trio, founded in 2006, features Zoltán Kovács on double bass and György Jeszenszky on drums. They are highly skilled musicians with a masterly command of their instruments, who have also brought much joy to the crew with their exciting playing and humility in the course of our work. I highly regard musicians who do not consider themselves, but the whole production is essential in such situations (too). They are like that. The trio has been completed with two new members this time, according to Gábor’s musical plans. Julia Karosi added an impressive colour to the material and the male group with her truly unique vocal technique. Tony Lakatos has been living abroad for some time. He is a saxophonist well-known to all jazz lovers in Hungary and worldwide with a highly considerable international reputation. Now he has returned home for a few days to record this album. His skilful routine combined with his musical and human authority made an outstanding contribution to the success of the project.
István Matók, the head of the Digital Pro Studio, where the recording took place, is a leading figure in the Hungarian sound engineering community and is well-known to My Reel Club™ members, having hosted our first studio meetings in 2018.
He confidently managed the technical crew and equipment from the planning stage of the recording. We recorded the main points of reference based on the musical ideas, time and technical equipment available::
- The recording is completed “live”. We call it Live-To-Tape™ and Live-To-Disk™ process. All the musicians were playing simultaneously, in a shared space, to see and hear each other live. They can react to each other in real-time by this method. It is essential in this improvisational musical style.
- Sound processing and effects are kept to a minimum.
- We record what is happening in the studio with carefully chosen microphones.
- We use various recording technologies, producing 192kHz/24bit PCM material in ProTools, stereo DXD/DSD material with Merging Audio’s Anubis and analogue tape stereo recording. The three versions will be targeted at different audiences, formats and produced differently.
- As we stick to the original sound, there will be no mastering and post-production on the DXD and analogue tape recording. However, the 192k/24-bit PCM multi-track recording will be produced with usual post-production and mastering to fulfil commercial expectations and provide an Atmos version.
The high-resolution PCM recording was done on the AVID ProTools system installed in the Digital Pro studio. Each microphone signal is on a separate channel, allowing for post- production sound mixing required by the future CD, Atmos release and streaming service provider’s requirements.
Gábor Juhász brought two instruments to the recording. He played track “Copernicus in Tartu” on a Collings C10 Deluxe acoustic guitar. He picked a legendary Gibson ES 175 Herb Ellis Model Plus electric guitar with Thomastik Jazz Swing JS13 strings for the other tracks, the thickest set of which he used for a full sound. The electric guitar was played through a tube/FET hybrid amp built by András Nyerges, and a 30 cm Fane speaker, miked with Sennheiser MD 421 and Shure SM 76 microphones. The guitar sound was a mix of the two mic feeds.
Everyone played in the same studio space in the recording room but separated by screens to reduce unwanted acoustic leakage between instruments. The isolation is not perfect, the sound still got in where it shouldn’t have, but that’s inevitable in a live recording. If the musicians had been completely separated, the sound would have been technically better, but the musical content would probably have been compromised. The signals of the microphones, selected based on the lessons learned from legendary jazz recordings, were fed into Trident, Warm Audio and Bricasti preamps, where they underwent some light analogue dynamics processing. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable. It would be virtually impossible to record the events in the right quality without it. Finally, the amplified signals were fed into a 16-channel APB-DynaSonics analogue (!) console used for live mixing and programme output distribution.
The tape recorder and DXD/DSD recordings were made using the console PGM outputs without any digital processing, and the two stereo recorders received the same mix from the console’s L-R main output. The signals were digitised from the analogue desk’s channel-by-channel Direct Outputs for the ProTools multi-track recording, with each microphone on a separate track.
This is the working environment in the studio control room with the three recording systems installed:
I have lived in various studios for 25 years. I have ‘retired’ from such ordeals, but I still occasionally enjoy to participate in more serious activities, such as the My Reel Club™ recordings. Living among so many knobs, switches and reels for long time teach you to respect the technique and your colleagues. It’s an exhilarating feeling when you get to work with like-minded and like-mannered people, as was the case with this recording. Due to the musicians’ busy schedules, we had a limited time of only one-half day for rehearsals and another half day to record. This can only be achieved if there are no technical problems to slow down the process and if everyone is in control and maintains their own level to a high standard, including the technical crew and the musicians. The one day installation and set-up went smoothly, the technical staff did their job with confidence. Let it remain between us that many musicians would feel uncomfortable in this “live” situation because they are typically used to the fact that everything can be corrected in recording and post-production. That was deliberately not available this time, so great discipline and concentration were required.
The signal gaining is an essential parameter for live recordings. Since there is no room for a correction here in a “live” recording, the recording signal levels must be adjusted to achieve the highest possible signal-to- noise ratio and dynamics without overdriving. In the case of My Reel Club™, recordings, limiters and compressors are not used for this function, so levelling is a bit stressful, and there is a constant fear of recording. Fortunately, I managed to adjust everything so that the peaks on the digital material dropped to around -5 dB FS, which is still a safe distance from the deadly 0 dB level, but already results in excellent dynamics. And speaking of dynamics… When listening to music at home, a recurring question is what volume reproduces what is actually happens in the live music. This time, we continuously monitored the loudness in the studio, as shown in the graph below. We will also give you a little help for the listening process in that the album will feature a sustained saxophone sound as a reference. If you set the volume of this sound at home to between 75–80 dB SPL (yes, unfortunately, an instrument is required for this), you can enjoy the whole material at roughly the same dynamics and volume as it was played live in the studio. Of course, this won’t work for many people due to the limitations of playback systems and rooms, but I think it’s worth a try. Below you can see the original (C weighting, slow av.) sound pressure curve of the track “Saturn”, measured in the studio at a distance of 3–5 m from the musicians. Peak values were 98–100 dB SPL, with an average of 85–90 dB SPL(C).
The technology performed flawlessly during the recording, and I didn’t have to constantly juggle it (despite many beliefs, this is one of the main characteristics of pro audio over commercial equipment). So I had time to listen to music while I worked. In concerts and studios, I’m always competing with the musician and the sound engineer in myself; sometimes I am focusing on musical details, sometimes on technical parameters. Fortunately, they tend to support each other; there is no fierce battle between them. While recording, I was sometimes able to contemplate the technical beauty of the Nagra tape recorder and the musicians’ playing too. As a bass player I particularly enjoyed listening to Zoltan Kovács. The miracle of music being made just a few metres away from us, with attuned minds and equipment, is still a thrill for me.
We listened to the recorded material together. Some requests were made by the musicians and some lessons were learned by us. At the end of the process, we will need all the creators’ blessing to produce a recording approved by all the participants. This also reflects that the sound engineer(s) is/are not the final decision maker(s) in the studio. They cannot make decisions solely on all matters. Still, they/he/she will respond to the technical, aesthetic and artistic requests in a chosen way based on their experience and professional knowledge. The question has also arisen about which recordings represent a higher quality or are closer to a “live” sound. “Live” is in quotes here because we in the control room are not hearing the original sound of the instruments, but the sound of the microphones, and we can compare the recordings to that. It was agreed that the DXD and the analogue tape recording were very close to the live sound, with only a tiny difference in taste. For my part, I would put the digital DXD version first. My analogue tape operator friend Tamás Perczel, of course, voted for tape. Obviously, our ears are tuned differently, but that’s okay It is worth noting that the enormous differences between the recordings, which are mentioned by audiophiles way too often, of which we only perceived a fraction, each containing much more information than most home HiFi systems can show.
The recordings are done, processing, uploading, publishing and all the associated paperwork is next, and with a bit of luck, the production will be released to the public in a few weeks. After that, we plan to make it available on major streaming providers, high-res file download portals and as an audio CD and possibly as vinyl too. My Reel Club™ members will get them first. So, I have selected the versions that the musicians have voted, making some basic corrections (editing, tracking, making fade in/out runs, signal level correction, converting to multiple file formats, uploading metadata, etc.), all done in the privacy of my own home.
Kovács Zoltán - double bass
Juhász Gábor - guitars
Karosi Julia - vocal
Tony Lakatos - saxophone
Jeszenszky György - drums