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How to Approach Mixing a Jazz Record

I’m sitting in my studio with a Jazz record pulled up in my DAW.

Everything is very well recorded and I’ve got two mics on the bass, spot mics on the drum kit, overheads, front-of-kit mic, room mics, four mics on the piano (two inside, two outside), and a mic’d up vocalist captured in an iso room. Where do I start?

Direction

The first real question going through my head is what direction am I going here?

Is this an au naturel kind of record where we just want to hear the musicians in the room? Is this a heavy blues influenced Jazz record that wants to be raw and dirty? Is this an experimental kind of record that might benefit from an effected approach? Is this a pop-jazz kind of record that might want a more “done-up” style of mix?

In this particular record I felt that we were going for a Rock influenced kind of sound. In other words, natural sounding, but with a bit of extra “hit” to it.

Clarity vs. ______

I think one of the biggest mistakes people who don’t regularly mix Jazz make is to assume Jazz has one singular sound. And it’s true, a lot of the Jazz aesthetic is simply going for realism. Every instrument with clarity as it sounds in the room, right?

The problem is that unless you have everyone in the same room and a brilliant room capture, that might not even be conceivably achievable. In actuality, we usually listen for very good spot captures on each instrument — which can create a vivid sound but not a particularly realistic one. So locking ourselves down to this rule of “honest” representation is already a bit questionable to begin with.

Anyway, as I discuss the mix, I’m going to frame everything in terms of what choices I would make based on style — because I think that it’ll be more accurate than “here’s how you mixify Jazz genre records.”

Kick and Bass

I start with the kick and upright bass. Unlike a Pop or Rock record, the kick drum isn’t as quintessential to the groove most times. It’s more often a coloring instrument used to compliment the bass.

However, because they both live in the same end of the spectrum I still like to figure them out together.

Standards

The lower midrange in the kick is important. The standard for Rock is to use a drum with a cutaway, and to notch out whatever midrange resonance might be left over in the mix.

In Jazz, the standard is a smaller double-headed kick with no cutaway — and all that stuff in the low-mids that you’d pull out in a Rock record — that’s the stuff we keep in Jazz.

The upright bass is essentially our groove, so I tend to play up the percussive elements of the bass, and often find myself adding a bit of sub tone as well. I usually don’t aim for separation between the kick and bass. I aim for the kick and bass to compliment each other tonally and generally run together a little bit.

In this record however, because it has a Rock-ish flavor to it, I separated the kick and bass a bit more, and gave the kick a bit more punch and weight than I normally would. If this were a Pop kind of Jazz record, I’d probably be looking to give both the kick and bass a sense of “gloss” or “shine” which I’d achieve through some kind of harmonic saturation mixed with high frequency boosting, and possibly even a tight ambience (like a very short plate reverb) on a return channel with the low end filtered out.

If I decided to go Bluesy, I’d probably use a grungy bit of harmonic saturation, and take the high-end down as much as possible without ruining the sound.

Drums

For the rest of the drums, I’m using the overheads as my main source and using the spot mics just to augment them. There’s a good amount of room tone in the overhead capture (which is fairly common). I resist the temptation to attenuate those tones that are cropping up around 700 Hz. Yes, if I remove them I can get a cleaner sound, but I also lose a lot of the body of the kit as well the naturalness of the room. So I’ll re-evaluate that later.

My main focus is on the ride cymbal: how much bell I want vs how much “shimmer” I want, and also how much attack I want. My personal aesthetic is to go for a “round” sound — a lot of bell with a “clanky” kind of attack, but that’s more of a me thing and less of a Jazz thing.

In regards to the drum room mic, there’s a good amount of piano and some bass in the pick up as well. Whenever possible, I like to take on the room mic as a capture of the entire ensemble (rather than just the drums). And I actually treat the room heavily. Not necessarily with compression like a Rock record, but with EQ. My goal is to make the room mics sound like they could be the entire mix.

I even out the tone, and use EQ and a bit of compression to balance all the elements within the capture. Eventually, I’ll tuck the room in subtly under the main mix to create a sense of “enhanced realism.”

If I don’t have some kind of capture of everything in the room together, I’ll oftentimes fake it with a convolution reverb of some sort.

Piano

With the piano, I focus more on the outside mics. I don’t particularly love the capture from right above the sound holes in a Jazz record. I’m not morally opposed to it, I just don’t like feeling like I’m listening with my head inside a piano. It really defeats any sense of realism for me, and often we lose the sound of everything coming together.

But again, if we want a Pop or Rock kind of sound, the inside mics might be a good choice because the capture is very vivid and clean.

In this record, the Rock influence wasn’t enough to convince me that I’d want the inside mics, so I focus on the outside capture and use the inside mics just to beef that sound up. I do roll off a bit of low end on the piano, just to let the bass have its own zone. I don’t use a high-pass filter though. I opt for a wide shelf starting at 35 Hz because it allows me to ease off the low-end transparently and without totally losing some of the sub-harmonics and pedal noises that are indicative of an acoustic piano.

Vocals

With vocals, even in a traditional Jazz style recording I tend to do a bit more doctoring than most people. A nice, polished, crisp, shiny vocal goes a long way to selling a record. And I can get all of those characteristics while still making the voice sound earthy and natural.

In this record I pull up a plate reverb and a delay. I want the plate to be fairly bright without exacerbating any “S” sounds, and to also be relatively noticeable in the mix. The delay is there to ride in and out under the vocal, but in this particular record I find very little use for it.

If I wanted something Bluesy, I might simply not treat the vocal at all. Just let it live how it was recorded, unless there’s anything frequency-wise that really bugs me. I tend not to add noticeable distortion even if I want a dirty sound, simply because that feels a bit hackneyed to me. And ultimately for a Blues influenced Jazz sound my main goal isn’t to have a distorted sounding record, but rather to have a record where all of the elements run together with a very unified sound.

Anyway, in regards to compression on the vocal, I do opt to use a little bit, but most of my dynamics are controlled through automation and clip gain. I tend to focus on the tails of words and phrases. A lot of interesting stuff happens at the tails, and I want to make sure that stuff gets heard.

The End

Toward the end of the mix I do pull a bit of those room tones out of the overheads because it allows me to push the overheads up in the mix a bit more without cluttering everything. And I also add a touch of plate reverb to the snare spot mic.

Triggered

Lastly, and this is very rare that I do this on any style of Jazz record, I trigger another snare and tuck it under the main snare to add a bit of body to it.

To date, I believe this is actually the only time I have ever done this on a Jazz record. I simply felt it was absolutely necessary to get the drum sound right for this record (and so far, all of the feedback has been that the snare sounds excellent) — so I feel like I’ve done it in good taste.

Cautionary Reverb Tails

A word of caution though: getting too “mixy” with any record where the default cultural aesthetic is for a natural and realistic sound is generally a no-no.

But again, it all depends on the artist. For some artists, pull out the delays, flangers, phasers, whatevers … just do it with good judgement.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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  • Josh Richens

    With the way you’ve described it so far, I bet it sound great! when can we hear it and who’s the artist? Also on getting the vocals polished, crisp and shiny but still earthy, is it the clip gain and automation that gets it to the point of forward, clean and modern sounding (I guess you could say), and keeping it earthy is about minimal processing, like only compression and eq, and the reverb you choose?

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