I N  T H E    S T U D I O

                                                                                                 JACK & JOE  NAPOLI

RECORDING AERIAL ACOUSTICS AND THE CHINERY COLLECTION: PART 1

 

Any engineer or producer will tell you that there are some recording sessions that can either be a total pleasure to be a part of or a terrible nightmare. We've had our share of both. For the most part, the artists we've worked with have been great and helping them realize their full musical potential is a very rewarding experience. But every once and a while we get a session that's so unique that it makes us very happy we decided to pick the recording business as our profession.

In May of 1996 we attended the Classic American Guitar Show on Long Island, as we do every year. We are always looking to add to our collection of guitars and amps and the show is a great place to see it all under one roof. You also get to see some of the finest musicians performing their music in a relaxed atmosphere; you just can't beat it.

One of the guitar show's biggest highlights that year was the Scott Chinery Collection. This collection includes some of the finest stringed instruments ever built. We were anxious to see the collection this year because we heard that the famous Blue Guitars would be on display there. Our good friend and master luthier Tom Ribbecke built one of the Blue Guitars. Tom said that we could get the chance to play the guitar if we stopped by the booth-hey how can you pass up an offer like that?

When we arrived at the area where the Chinery Collection was being displayed there were two guitarists at the booth getting ready to perform. After they both tuned up and settled into their seats, one of them leaned into a microphone and said,"Hi folks, we're Aerial Acoustics-hope you like what you're about to hear." With that, they broke into the first song of the day; an original composition titled "White Picket Fence." As they began to play, Joe and I were amazed at the sound that was being produced by these two gifted players. We weren't the only ones who were impressed. Within minutes there was a crowd around these two that was so dense, if you weren't one of the lucky ones who got there first, you had to wait in the back and guess who was making this music. Aerial Acoustics gave a total of four performances and by the end of the day they were the talk of the show.

For those of you who have never seen or heard them, Aerial Acoustics are Dennis Smith on acoustic 6 string and Dorothy Wagner on classical guitar. Although their individual playing styles differ greatly, when these two get together the result is pure musical magic.

Joe and I were so blown away by their musicianship that we decided to approach them during one of their intermissions to see if they would be interested in recording with us. While Dennis was attending to the PA system we spoke to Dorothy about the possibility of getting them in the studio for a recording session. Dorothy told us that they had just completed their CD. We gave them a business card and asked them to keep us in mind when it came time to record their next one. She said they would and with that, Joe and I went off to enjoy the rest of the show.

Two years passed, almost to the day, when we got a call from Dorothy. She told us that she and Dennis wanted to stop by the studio to discuss the recording of their next CD. We set up a date and time and also asked them to bring their instruments so we could do some recording. This would help give them a good idea of the sound quality they would get during the actual recording sessions.

The following week they stopped by with guitars in hand. After giving both of them a tour of Cloud 9 we sat down for a pre­production meeting. They told us that the sound they were looking for should be natural and open. They wanted the listener feel that they were right in the same room with them. After much discussion we decided to try recording them onto analog tape first, using our MCIJH-24.

When the two guitarists came into the control room for a listen, they both loved what they heard. They had never heard the sound of a high-end analog recording before and they were both impressed. They described the sound as being full, warm, clear and very musical. Dorothy and Dennis both decided that analog tape gave their music the sound quality they were looking for and that recording analog was the way to go. But those of you who have been reading "In The Studio" know that there's more to the story then that. We wanted to give digital a chance, as well. So we recorded them again using a ProTools 24 Mix Plus system.

Joe and I love the sound of analog tape but we love working in ProTools too. The complex arraignments that Dorothy and Dennis incorporate into their music ment that recording them digitally would give us greater control and flexibility in the mix. We found ourselves in the middle of the proverbial recording cross roads - you know, should I record my music on analog tape or use digital technology? Can anyone out there, besides the engineer with the Eddie Kramer ears, tell the difference? Many artists find themselves confronted with this same issue. We're sure you've already guessed how this one ends, but just to be on the safe side, we'll tell you anyway. We recorded analog and then transferred to ProTools for the editing, mixing and mastering. This gave us the best of both worlds. Does this scenario sound familiar to you'? The recording studio has really become a playground. Recording technology is such that today it is possible to have your cake and eat too, and that's Just what we did.

It was also at this first meeting that Dorothy and Dennis told us that Scott Chinery offered them the use of his large collection of vintage stringed instruments. We knew recording Aerial Acoustics was going to be a great experience but we didn't know that we were about to record some of the finest instruments in the world; ones that have literally made history. Recording these instruments, being played by two great players, was going to be one for the books.

At the end of the meeting we finalized the first recording dates for what would become the Myriad CD. We also discussed which of the instruments would be used in the sessions. Among them were the Dyer Symphony Harp Guitar, Orville Gibson, two Martian Parlor guitars, a D'Angelico Type A and last but not least, a Houser 7-string. They would also record using their standard guitars; a Buscarino Cabaret and several guitars made by the Taylor guitar company - including models W-14c, 450, and 514c.

As we mentioned earlier, Dorothy and Dennis have two totally different approaches to playing the guitar. Dorothy is classically trained and plays a classical guitar in the traditional way. Dennis has a style that is derived from jazz and the blues - although, from time to time, he manages to throw in everything else but the kitchen sink; especially when it comes to soloing. Because Dennis plays a steel string and uses a pick, the sound he produces is a lot louder then Dorothy's. The steel string is louder by nature, capable of a much higher sound pressure level (SPL) then a nylon string classical guitar. When both guitarists are in the same room this makes recording them very difficult.

The standard guitars they play on stage come equipped with built-in pickups. When performing live they plug into their PA system and adjust their individual volumes to blend evenly. This is fine for a live performance, but doesn't work so well when you're in the recording studio. For one thing, Joe and I both hate the sound of those pickups. No matter what we try to do, they all sound the same harsh, brittle and very unnatural. Because we were going for a natural sounding recording, these pickups could not be used. Also, many of the guitar parts would be performed using guitars from the Chinery Collection. These guitars were very old and were obviously not equipped with internal pickups.

All the overdubs for the sessions would be performed separately, so mic bleed and individual guitar volume would not be an issue. But all of the basic tracks were cut live with the two guitarists playing at the same time. It was here that we met with our first recording challenge. To help get around this situation we tried placing Dorothy & Dennis into two separate rooms. This way, their playing dynamics and mic bleed wouldn't be an issue. Dorothy would be in the control room, with Joe and myself and Dennis would be in the studio area. They both used headphones and were able to make visual contact through the control room window. We recorded a few of their songs using this method and even though we were getting good results something was still missing.

Like all great groups there's that element of magic that occurs when the whole band is in the same room, or on the same stage, that really makes the music happen. They feed off of each other and this interaction is very important to the final outcome of the finished recording. We quickly realized that Aerial Acoustics was no different. Part of what Joe and I liked about their music was the interaction between the two players. It also became clear that this interaction was essential and had to take place in the studio in order to get the performance we were looking for. We had to come up with a way that would enable us to record them in the same room, taking advantage of the room's natural acoustics while getting around the challenges that their individual playing styles were creating. After some thought and planning, we came up with an idea. At the studio we use a device called a Tube Trap made by Acoustic Science Inc. Tube Traps are cylinders that are about 4' in height and 10" around. They are mounted on stands allowing them to be either raised or lowered. One side of the Tube Trap absorbs sound; the other diffuses it. You can spin the Tube Traps around to allow either side to face the musician. The great thing about Tube Traps is that, unlike conventional studio gobos (large panels usually 4'x4'made of absorptive material, used to isolate sound sources from one another), Tube Traps can be placed close together or far apart. This allows you to precisely control the amount of isolation you need depending on the music being recorded. We had to keep most of Dennis' guitar sound out of Dorothy's mics. But some mic bleed can be a good thing. If used right, it can help add space and depth, which can make the recording sound more natural. We started by placing the two guitarists at the far ends of the studio area facing each other. Facing them toward each other allowed them to make eye contact, which was very important. Next we started placing Tube Traps around both of them, so they each had their own acoustical space. We aimed the diffusive side in so it would be pointing at each of the players. This way, the sound would have more of a live feel. By arranging the Tube Traps around Dennis in a tighter pattern and incorporating some packing blankets, we were able to prevent most of his sound from bleeding into Dorothy's mics. The Tube Traps around Dorothy were spaced further apart, allowing for more of her sound to escape into the room.

We used an AKG c24 stereo mic to capture the room. The top capsule of the mic can swivel, allowing us to aim one side toward Dennis and the other toward Dorothy. After careful listening we decided on a placement for the mic that would allow us to capture both guitars at an even volume. The polar pattern of the top mic capsule, which was aimed at Dennis, was set to a wide cardioid pattern. The bottom mic capsule, which was aimed at Dorothy, was set to a narrow cardioid pattern. The wider pattern on Dennis's mic would allow more of Dorothy's guitar to bleed in. The narrower pattern on Dorothy's mic would help to reject the sound of Dennis' guitar. This setting gave us the best results. We recorded each of the capsules onto two separate tracks so that we would have total control over the ambient sound of both guitars in the mix. The preamp we used with the c24 was one of our all time favorites - the teleftinken v72s tube mic pre by Funkenwerk. Other close mics were used as well. We'll talk more about them and their placement in the next few issues of TCG.

After we recorded a few takes, Dorothy and Dennis came into the control room for a listen. They were pleased with what they heard and so were Joe and I. All that remained was to record the basic tracks. Once these were recorded, we could start with the overdubs and then move onto the mixing and mastering stage.

The right guitars from the Chinery Collection had to be selected in order to give each song the sound and feel the players were looking for. We test recorded each guitar to hear how they sounded which helped us decide which ones were right for each song. Dorothy and Dennis are both perfectionists. At the sessions end they would take copies of the recordings home with them. They would go over their performance again and again, until they felt that they played each song to the best of their ability. Because of this level of perfectionism Myriad took one year to complete. But if it were not for this perfectionism, the true character of their individual playing styles and the nature of their music would not have been realized. You can use the best mics in the world, record in world class rooms with the best sounding equipment money can by, but in the end, it always comes down to the players and their performance.

Sadly, Scott Chinery passed away during the final recording sessions so he never did get the chance to hear how the CD turned out. We would like to thank him for his kindness and generosity. Dorothy and Dennis are very fine players but without Scott's generous contribution, Myriad would not sound as wonderful as it does.

When Myriad was completed we all felt we made a recording that we could all be proud of. If you'd like to hear it for yourself, stop by the Aerial Acoustics web site at: www.aerialweb.com, and down load a few mp3s from the CD. The CD can also be purchased form their site.

 

Next month -recording AA and the Chinery Collection part two and the Dyer Symphony Harp Guitar.

 

Jack & Joe Napoli own and operate Cloud 9 Recording; Long Island, NY They have recorded with such artists as AERIAL ACOUSTICS, Nine Days, Patti Russo, Kasim Sulton, John Miceli and Alan St. Jon. Web site: www.cloud9recording.com. Email: cloud09@optonline.net.

 

 

20th CENTURY GUITAR MAGAZINE / September 2002