Sometimes audio engineering can seem like a pretty lousy job. If you’ve ever spent days away from sunlight, alone in a small room, dealing with repetitive and mundane tasks (quantizing drums, editing dialogue, tuning giant vocal stacks), then you know exactly what I’m talking about. A couple of weeks ago, I got to do a location job that reminded how fun and rewarding corralling sound waves can be.
It started what seems like a year ago when I first heard from Kojo Bey, the leader of an African drum and dance troupe, inquiring about doing a location recording. It took him quite a while to get educational funding from the state (if you’ve ever applied for an artistic or educational grant you know the sloth-like speed of government), but the project ultimately got endowed and we were on to record seven djembes, six doundouns and a shekere on location.
What I didn’t completely understand was the location. It turns out the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center in Concord, North Carolina is a juvenile detention facility, so I didn’t know quite what to expect … as far as room acoustics, about how welcome a recording rig might be and how friendly the kids, some of whom have been involved in some pretty rough stuff, might be.
I soon learned that the making of the drums, hand tensioning the heads, composing their two songs, recording them and finally putting out a CD is actually therapeutic for these young men. It looks like it was therapeutic for me too, as I had a wonderful and gratifying experience. The good folks at the SJYDC were warm and welcoming, their approximately 30 x 45-foot room (with adjoining interview rooms for the ideal “control room”) sounded just great, Kojo led the group with a gentleness and encouraging dignity, the group happily responded with energetic playing and a wide-eyed innocence that belied their surely difficult lives.
For budget and practicality reasons, we had to squeeze the whole recording onto 16 tracks, using only a single mic (mostly cardioid dynamics and a few condensers) on each drum, a ribbon mic on the shekere/vocal and a pair of small-diaphragm sE Electronics Rupert Neve RN17s on the overall room (used the omni caps and a spaced pair positioning). Mic pres were the linear Earthworks 1024, the quick Sytek MPX4A and an 8-channel True Systems Precision 8, which captured unprocessed, dynamic signals.
I can’t help but hope that maybe my little speech about “Make your own music and put it out on the internet — empower yourself!” might’ve given just one young soul some inspiration. And working with Kojo was a real treat; a client who is so positive, so focused, out there making a living and making a difference, reminded me of the power of music and inspired leadership. Yes, audio engineering is a great job to have.
Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording and a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.