Production with the Monstein Ensemble Pt. 1

Hey Folks,

as you might know, I'm not only sitting in front of a computer screen turning knobs all day, I'm also playing several instruments in several ensembles, one of which is the "Dimitri Monstein Ensemble".
This very unique band, consisting of a jazz trio and a string quartet is quite special to me and not only did I play on the recordings, I also had the pleasure of producing them. In this blog, I want to give you an insight into the production process, which is not necessarily mastering related, but I think that it's very important to get a grasp of every aspect of production, from the songwriting and preproduction to recording, mixing and mastering.

The recording process was done in two parts. First part was getting the rhythm section recorded. That meant a large drum kit, grand piano, bass, marimba, bells and synths. We played drums, bass and keyboard (as a placeholder for the grand piano later) together and then added grand piano, marimba and miscellaneous instruments.
What was important to me right from the beginning was a concept of sound. Something I observed with quite a few newer engineers is that they take everything "as it comes", meaning they aren't thinking too much about the bigger picture in the beginning.
You can't plan everything ahead of time, but it's incredibly helpful to know where you want to go. I wanted to make the ensemble sound big, warm, comfortable and still powerful and clear. Knowing that, my choice of all the technical things like microphones, positioning, preamps etc. was very easy.
I used ribbon microphones for the drum overheads and rooms, supplemented by dynamic and condenser close mics, as can be seen in this picture.
 

Never forget that most of the magic happens before sound even hits a microphone. We spent a good while changing heads and tuning (during which we unfortunately broke a snare drum...).
The dry recorded sound was big, powerful and smooth at the same time and the natural ambience of the room brought everything together nicely.
Bass was recorded through a Tube preamp into a nice tube compressor, giving a lot of body and sweetness.

Grand piano was next. I decided to use a pair of good condenser mics as the main source and a stereo ribbon mic as an ambient effect to add to the quite dry main sound. The result was an incredibly detailed and natural piano sound with the capacity to sit on top of the band without being super loud. Here's a shot of what that looked like.

A new one for me was recording marimba. I've played quite a bit of marimba when I was younger, but never got to record one.
The challenge of a marimba is that the lower notes do ring quite a bit and there's no way of dampening them while playing. That means you're gonna have a lot of low frequency build up. The instrument is also unusually large, which might be an issue.
In the pieces that we recorded, I didn't use the upper register of the instrument very much, so I decided to just forget about the upper third of the instrument and treat the rest as my stereo image. I used the same pair of condensers as I did on the piano and set them up in a way that would get me a broad stereo image from low to high. One of the songs has an interesting rhythmical duet between marimba and piano and the patterns from both jump around quite a bit in the stereo image, making for a great sense of busyness.
Here's a shot of that.

The rest of the rhythm section was a simple matter of "put a mic on it and go", which worked very well. :)

That's it for part 1, I hope you got a glimpse of what went on in my mind while recording this ensemble and stay tuned for part 2.

-Rob