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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Once over, lightly. by John von Daler

               A musician from Brazil was staying for a while in Denmark. He had befriended some colleagues here and arrangements had been written: cool Brazilian piano jazz with strings, brass, bass and drums. Twelve musicians aching to record but without a cent to our names.
                I made a call to a friend, F, a well-known composer with a heart of gold and a well-equipped studio at home. He said, sure, come on next Wednesday, I'll give you eight hours in my studio, free of charge.
                What a great chance! The lucky dozen showed up as agreed in the great, old house in the staid part of Frederiksberg in Copenhagen.
                When a musician says he owns a private studio, he usually means that he has a mixer and a couple of microphones. F's place was much more well-equipped. There were rooms for the drummer, the pianist and the bassist in the studio itself. We put some microphones in the living room which F's wife kindly had donated to the string quartet for the day. She went upstairs to do her work. The brass ensemble got set up in their large kitchen around the dining table.
                No matter how good you are, this kind of day is tough what with a dozen idealistic musicians working hard, but also talking and laughing, and a composer/technician doing work that he otherwise only does sporadically. Things go slowly. Problems arise. The actual playing only takes a fraction of the time.
                We worked very hard for about six hours and we put F through a tough series of problems to solve: how to separate the sound of the drums from the sound of the piano so that they both could re-record sections, how to get a nice sound from the strings when for some reason a playful echo was bouncing around in the living room, and where to set up the microphones in the kitchen so that the brass could play their hearts out without holding back. We settled on one microphone each for the brass and one overhead microphone  on top of the cupboard above the stove to catch the whole group.
                At the end of the sixth hour we only lacked one number. We took a little break, F's wife came down and made some coffee, and then we went back to our places. We worked hard for an hour or so, but somebody kept having musical problems. We talked things through and with an hour left we decided to record.
                The recording of the last number went pretty well, so we all gathered around F's console to hear the unmixed track. In the middle of it F stopped.
                "What's that?" he said and rolled the recording back ten seconds or so. We listened one more time.
                We could hear a nice kind of sizzling, as if the drummer had rubbed a steel wool pad on his cymbal, but he hadn't.
                We listened again.
                "It's coming from the brass microphones", said F. "I'll have to switch microphones. One of them must be broken."
                He turned them off and on, one at a time from his mixer.
                "Hear", F said. "It sounds like all of them are broken." He looked like he had just lost a wallet full of big money.
                I picked up two hand fulls of microphones and followed F into the kitchen. His wife stood over by the stove.
                We switched all the microphones and went back in to listen.
                "Damn", said F. "Must be the electric cords."
                We switched all of them and went back to listen.
                Sizzle, sizzle said the loudspeakers. F was about to cry. Just at this moment F's wife called from the kitchen, "Anybody want a fried egg with bacon while you're taking a break?"
                F and I went back out into the kitchen. The sweet little lady was frying eggs on the stove underneath the overhead microphone. The eggs said sizzle, sizzle.
                We went in and played the number one last time and it turned out better this time, once over, not so lightly.

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