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In previous articles, we’ve covered tips for mixing live records, good ol’ fashioned rock and roll, and EDM. Today, we’re putting jazz on the docket.
What follows are my philosophical guidelines for mixing jazz records—and I’ve worked on a few, including Eliot Cardinaux’s No Dreams Here (a solo piano record), and Jayme Silverstein’s Gift (you might remember him from an article I wrote on the state of music production in 2017).
Indeed, jazz is some of my favorite music to mix. Without further preamble, let’s get into it!
1. Try to Suss Out How The Session Was Recorded
This isn’t always the case, but jazz is often organically created: instruments are frequently played live and simultaneously. How this is achieved in the studio can vary. The musicians can all occupy the same room, with clever miking techniques used to localize and separate elements. Alternatively, some instruments can be siloed in their own chambers—drums and pianos most often, though it’s not unheard of for all the players to be walled off, interfacing with each other over headphone mixes. Sometimes a few electronic elements could have their own direct feeds (bass, keys, anything supplying MIDI information); more often, combinations of practices are used throughout a record, as production in the modern sense of the word increasingly touches upon the artform.
I would advise you to learn all you can about how the sessions were recorded. It benefits you to know the intricacies of the audio capture, because in many instances you will be hemmed in by the constraints of the session.
Here’s an example: If the dull side of a cardioid mic on a stand-up bass holds the bleed from the drums, that dictates how, in panning and in frequency, the two elements will complement each other within the mix. Such attributes influence your decisions regarding these two instruments going forward—for instance, severe compression on the bass might wind up emphasizing unnecessary aspects of the hi-hat, while boosting the high end of the bass might have the beneficial side effect of bringing out the air in the cymbals.
You have options at your disposal for securing this knowledge. You can ask the clients how they remember the session going, or you can ask the recording engineer directly; if you’re friendly with the people involved, you can request to see input lists. Of course, you could be in the position of mixing a project you also recorded, in which case you have your own notes.
Failing any of the above, you can also use your ears, which leads us to our next tip:
2. Audition Every Track in Solo
Notice I did not say, “process every track in solo”—we all know that’s a no-go. But at the beginning of the mixing phase, the act of listening to each track in solo will help you get through grunt-work tasks and start your brain salivating over creative opportunities.
Let’s start off by properly finishing the previous tip: when you listen to each track individually, you’ll hear its corresponding bleed, which will help you determine how an element needs to be mixed. I usually keep a notepad or a text document handy to jot down notes about bleed and possible positioning. Then I can move everything about accordingly.
Moving on to other benefits of auditioning in solo: every instrument in jazz is unique—even two alto saxophones played side by side. This has to due with the player, who has devoted years to the craft. In spending eons locked in a woodshed, an instrumentalist has honed and defined a sound unfailingly unique, even when it’s heavily inspired by someone else; that’s just how human beings work.
Auditioning material in solo, you’ll not only glean a deeper understanding of the soloist’s perspective, you’ll also immediately hear any issues/virtues within the recording itself. Clocking problems during recording will rear their ugly heads (I once had a trumpet track from a venerable NYC studio plagued with clicks and pops), as will deleterious frequency buildups.
Don’t spend hours doing this, just enough to get a sense of each tracks foibles. This will help your left brain formulate any technical solutions that might need implementing, and will fan the flames of your creative side, so that you can move on to the next step, which is...
3. Carve Your Space Early
The most important task now becomes carving out and defining space for all the individual elements. This is arguably true for any mix, but with jazz, it’s doubly important on account of the recording restrictions listed above, as well as the larger size of many live ensembles. Sure, pop tunes often boast hundreds of separated tracks, but these sounds have been painstakingly arranged to complement and reinforce each other. With a jazz record, you might have two separate drummers, a five piece horn section, a bass, piano, guitars, and more—all improvising at the same time! With such a spontaneous arrangement, the balance becomes very important.
If the tune has a defined arrangement for the head (that’s hip-cat lingo for “the melody”), it pays to give the tune a couple of listens and imagine how the panning and level best suits the arrangement. This may be another case for the solo button: I recommend first listening to the static mix to get the feel of the tune, followed by zeroing in on the melodic instruments, usually underpinned by the bass part; if the melody features a hard bop, tenor sax/trumpet arrangement, perhaps some slight panning to the right and left of center will beef up the mix. But how does that affect the all important bass, which often keeps the time (even more so than the drums)?
This invariably influences my next decision: if the bass carries spill from both horns in equal measure, up the middle it goes. If not, some compromise must be made, though personally I tend to favor a centered bass, with exceptions made if a secondary instrument is doubling/complementing the bass part; then, my internal sense of symmetry will let me position these two elements in spatial juxtaposition.
Introducing the other elements back into the mix, I’ll pan and level-balance the tune, always keeping signal bleed in mind.
Next comes equalization—but here I don’t get heavy handed. Again, the primal rule is still to carve out space, so I have my eye on subtlety curtailing any frequencies taking up unwarranted room. I address issues such as unwanted resonances in snare drums, or frequency masking between two simultaneous instruments. The game consists of pruning out that which is not essential. It’s quite fun: if you have a mind inclined toward solving puzzles, you’ll find this stage most gratifying.
As a general yet breakable rule, I don’t use equalization to create new sonic textures, at least, not without the consent or advisement of the primary producer. I am here to preserve the organic, not to wreak havoc upon it!
4. Let the Drums Dictate Your Mix
This is more of a philosophical tenet than a technical tip, but I find it works nearly every time a tune has percussive elements. In my experience listening to jazz records, I’ve come to believe that the drums often dictate the character of the mix.
Think about the modern crop of jazz recordings, where you’re often dropped into the middle of the band as it’s playing: the shininess and polished quality of the drums amplifies this effect; indeed, the high frequency emphasis brings you closer to all the instruments.
In albums going for a more vintage flair, you might notice the midrange-heavy and often monaural treatment of the drums. Looking back on the classics, I’ll further submit that the quality of the kit determines the overall timbre. Kind of Blue exhibits a sparse, clean, and cool atmosphere; it is no accident that the drums here are rather crisp. Contrast this with Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and you’ll note more midrange in the splash of the crash cymbals as Freddie and Wayne swing over Elvin’s bombastic playing. The beefy power of the kick and snare are more than contributors—they are signifiers. To hear what I mean, search no further than the classic drum fill introducing Wayne’s solo on “Witch Hunt.”