29 October 2013

Driving The bus (ii)

Is it me or has the pitch of the jazz drum set, like concert pitch itself, been steadily rising over the years? Some of these snare drums the Nextboppy people are playing seem straight out of a college football broadcast. I often wonder about acoustics, and whether anyone will (or can; is it too late?) undertake a thorough study and/or reconstruction of the acoustical properties of the rooms where bebop was born. It would seem to me given the small dimensions and relatively large number of people that most of these spaces (that's right, they were not just "rooms") must have been exceptionally dead, and thus that the advent of the ride cymbal as we now know it could not have happened quite the same way in even a moderately reverberant space, where it would have been too washy (you know, like it is virtually everywhere this kind of music is still played today). A similar (and possibly more feasible) study of recording studios and engineering techniques would be equally valuable.

Compared to the music we're making now, the classic Blue Note stuff seems to me to have a certain darkness and richness of tone that I often miss elsewhere. Did I just out myself as an audiophile? I'm not so sure this is purely a question of production, though that's undoubtedly a significant question unto itself. Of course, physics tells us that the most basic way to get more, higher frequencies out of the same sounding body is to excite ever higher overtones by applying ever greater force; to wit, this bit from Ellery Eskelin caught my attention:

EE: And he [Gerald Cleaver] doesn’t play too loud, which unfortunately... I don’t even say that to criticize any other musicians. I’ve played with loud bands and I’ve played loud myself most of my life. It’s just the way we play today. I wasn’t around in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but I’m sure that we play two to three times louder than guys played then in terms of decibel levels. Sonic quality and resonance is another issue. Those cats could fill a room in a way that few people today can. But that’s not volume, that’s something else, that’s another quality.

Either way, the contemporary paradigm strikes me as higher and buzzier at all dynamic levels. Happily, this "other quality" has not been completely lost either: Jamire Williams, Nextboppy drummer about town whom I recently caught in person with the Walter Smith III quartet, has just about the lightest touch I think I've ever heard. Together with utterly fearsome chops and an unusually tasteful sense of when to bang and when to rustle, he makes magic with the high frequencies.

6 comments:

Nick Z said...

I don't think think the pitch of drums has steadily increased over the years... if you listen to the early bebop drummers (Max Roach, for example) , you hear drums (especially toms) tuned very high. The timbre has changed a lot, however. Largely due to the switch from calfskin to mylar heads. Calfskin has a warmer timbre (even when tuned very high). Another consideration, is the size of jazz drums got smaller over the course of the 20th century. Some believe this is due to the fact that smaller drums were more conducive to creating the high pitched sounds which jazz drummers preferred... Others (such as Elvin Jones, as the legend goes) say that it was the practical matter of being able to fit your drums into the back seat of a cab... Recording technology has a lot to do with it also... drummers in the early era of recording had to tune their drums to higher pitches just to be heard on the recording... the limitations of the recording equipment actually helped to create a better sounding recording (especially in the 50s and 60s). The recording techniques also went a long way toward creating a great sound. Instead of mixing each sound digitally and adding effects to give it ambience, they relied on the performers to create the mix and used the sound of the room to add ambience... Compared to how the recording studio operates in this day and age... it doesn't make too much sense for a drummer to tune his drums too high... there are a lot of drummers who tune their drums higher in an effort to recreate that sound from the 50s and 60s and it just doesn't work when every drum is close-miked and on a separate track. If they really wanted to recreate that sound, they would also recreated the process of recording. I’ve always believed there is a disconnect with many jazz musicians and the ability to get the most out of a recording studio. This is something that rock music figured out a long time ago (because it HAD to, the quality of rock musicianship compared to jazz was (and usually is) much lower). However, bands like the Beatles saw the opportunities that the modern recording studio afforded them and learned to use it as a powerful tool to craft a sound that was otherwise impossible. The rock folks (not the folk folks, mind you, or the polka folkas (I claim that as the name of my new polka jam band) realized that the recording studio and the processes of creating a recording had a massive effect on the aesthetic experience of the listener. The inability to understand how much these processes and the choices made therein effect the experience of the audience has always been one of the one of jazz’s biggest failings. Admittedly, there are considerations that jazz musicians must observe that rock musicians don’t need to worry about. Overdubbing, for instance, is something that is widely accepted and exploited in the rock realm that is big no-no for the jazz recording artist. This is, however, only one opportunity afforded to the modern recording musician. There are many other options available, and one can also make the conscious decision to limit their options. There just needs to be some evidence that a choice has been made... any choice. A distinct lack of of aesthetic agency, which seems to stem from an antipathy (or maybe apathy) toward familiarizing oneself with the recording process, is something I hear on many (too many) jazz recordings made since the 1980s. There is not enough thought given to how the studio could be used (or not used) to craft a sound. Instead, the engineers and producers are allowed to apply rock and pop recording techniques (which for them is the status quo and thus the easiest route to take) to the jazz method of operation. The end result is decades of recordings that just don’t sound quite right...

Stefan Kac said...

Thanks for schooling me on all of this, Nick. I actually was thinking least of all of the toms, but the calfskin/mylar thing does explain some of it. I think. Does this apply to the snare too? I swear I hear drum and bugle core sometimes...

The room vs. digital effects issue is huge for me, actually, with my own instrument. It was never designed (the concert tuba, at least) to be played in dry rooms, and though it can, given exceptional tone production by the player, have a compelling quality in that setting, recording in a small studio and adding effects later leaves a ton to be desired. I'm one of those people who should know more about recording (I'll tell you off the record sometime why I refused to take the Digital Recording Studio class that everyone [tries] to take at CalArts), but I know this much. For me, the room issue is basic, all-encompassing, and, conveniently, the most difficult and expensive studio feature to secure. Matthew of course is a master engineer, and everything I/we did at Wild Sound sounds great, but hand to heart, the recordings which I feel best capture my sound concept are all from academic/institutional performances in warm "concert" spaces, often recorded with absurdly simple (but still, strictly speaking, digital) setups. Incredibly, the old Acadia was, somehow, without a doubt the best tuba room, for me at least, that I ever set foot in. One time after a set where I played somewhat into the side wall, a random guy there asked me incredulously if was using an amp (I wasn't). So, there is indeed a lot to learn about the studio, but anytime I can get into a university recital hall with a Zoom and a couple of decent mics, I feel like I can do better (i.e. truer to my own aesthetic). That's the non-choice make when I can. Too bad I can't "choose" to have Rudy Van Gelder on call as well...

Nick Z said...

Yeah, the snare tone of mylar is also notably different with calf.. but as I think about it, snare drums with calf heads are (by virtue of the natural limit of the material) not able to be tuned as high as a plastic head. So, the "drum corps" sound to which you refer is definitely a product of synthetic heads... drum corps even take it a step further and use kevlar(!) heads on their drums, which actually have to be specially reinforced to prevent the shell of the drum from collapsing in on itself when they are tensioned (I bet some of the battlefield drummers from the civil and revolutionary wars wish they had one of those kevlar heads to hide behind when the bullets started flying).

Next time we record, I will try to play a kit that has all natural skin heads and we can compare how it blends with your sound... I bet you'd like it better... the only drawback is the cost and upkeep on natural skin is considerably more to bear than with plastic heads.

I hear what you're saying about the virtues of a simple recording in a good room... that's all you really need (if you have a good ensemble who can listen and adjust as needed). It really comes down to a question of the overall temperament of the group... if everyone in the group thinks they need their own microphone and track, they are probably thinking more about themselves than the overall sound of the group... I understand that might be easier for me to say as someone who is rarely lost in the mix due to the nature and immediacy of the sounds my instrument makes... but whatever, I'm sticking to it. I guess what I'm really saying is that kids these days are just no good! They're selfish! They all think they deserve to be superstars and grumble grumble etc. and so forth...

Stefan Kac said...

Hmmm...now that you put it that way, I realize we have a veganism issue here. In any case, I guess I wasn't thinking so much about the blend of my sound with the drums, just general personal taste, though I suppose balance could potentially be impacted by tuning as well, i.e. higher frequencies in the ear's money range dominating those at the less sensitive extremes (the real tuba killers are, of course, the cymbals, which I suspect falls more on the player than the gear).

Mark Hodges said...

Speaking of Blue Note, I think a lot of that classic sound has to do with Rudy Van Gelder and his genius as a producer/engineer. All of his records sound glorious - which proves to me that he was a true artist. There's more to it than just setting up instruments and microphones - it's even more than the space itself.
http://pianosheetmusiconline.com/

Stefan Kac said...

You spammers sure are getting more informed and articulate with time.