Miking Traditional Jazz Combos Live, Pt. 2: The Rhythm Section

New York-based traditionalist jazz/big-band leader Glenn Crytzer continues his in-depth discussion of how, in his experience, traditional 1920/30s-style jazz combos should be miked in order to best capture and convey an authentic vintage sound. For explanations and examples of the aesthetic Crytzer is aiming for, and the reasoning behind his methodology, make sure to read Part 1 first.
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The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, with Crytzer on guitar.

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New York-based traditionalist jazz/big-band leader Glenn Crytzer continues his in-depth discussion of how, in his experience, traditional 1920/30s-style jazz combos should be miked in order to best capture and convey an authentic vintage sound. For explanations and examples of the aesthetic Crytzer is aiming for, and the reasoning behind his methodology, make sure to read Part 1 first.

Traditional jazz bands can come in various shapes and sizes—from duo or trio up to a big band, but the basic roles of “rhythm section” and “lead voices” must be fulfilled in every band. In Parts 2 and 3, we’ll look at the function of the instruments within these sections and how they can best be reinforced.

THE RHYTHM SECTION

The Rhythm Section supplies the rhythmic pulse and the harmonies on top of which melody, solos, vocals and ensemble passages sit. The rhythmic feel, sometimes called the “pocket,” is extremely important in traditional jazz—it detracts from the music if an instrumentalist is playing in a way which doesn’t fit the style, is out of balance with the other instruments, or has an instrumental timbre that doesn’t fit the genre. On the other hand, when everything is right, a good rhythm section is one of the artistic high-points of Western Civilization.

The four instruments traditionally found in the rhythm section are: piano; string bass or brass bass; trap set; and guitar or banjo, though you will sometimes see bands with incomplete rhythm sections or some less common instruments. Let’s take a look at the role of each and how those roles can best be supported.

BASS
The role of the string bass is, obviously, to play the bass notes that provide harmonic support for the band. However the bass player’s job as timekeeper is equally important. In traditional jazz and swing, even when taking a solo, bassists rarely deviate from providing a constant pulse. It is only in more modern forms of jazz where bass solos play lines with lots of “space” as would a horn player.

Milt Hinton talks about the role of the bass.

When reinforcing the bass, avoid amps and DIs at all costs. Using an electronic pick up un-naturally emphasizes and sustains the instrument’s pitch content while de-emphasizing (or sometimes altering the sound of) the attack of the notes. The constant, punchy quarter-note pulse is a key feature of swing music, so when the bass loses attack or gains pitch sustain, it sucks all the swing out of the band.

Instead, use a good microphone placed about 12 to 18 inches from the bass. Aim the mic between the bridge and the sound hole. The sound of the string being plucked is what helps create rhythmic drive and that occurs at a higher pitch than the resultant note. Good traditional jazz bassists play very loudly acoustically, so you won’t have to worry about not getting enough sound in the mic at this distance. Don’t get any closer with the mic or you’ll start to get too much of a “close mic” sound.

NOTE: Avoid bridge mics. Bassists often swear by their bridge mic, but they are used to hearing the sound of the bass “up-close” as they stand over the instrument. The bridge mic gives the audience that same “up-close” sound though and does not reproduce to the audience what they’d hear naturally from an acoustic bass in an ensemble setting; it instead reproduces the sound of what a bass would sound like if they put their head right up next to it.

DRUMS
The best way to mic the drums is to not mic the drums. I have personally played concerts for upwards of 1,600 people in outdoor venues without miking the drums and have never had an issue hearing them—they bleed perfectly through the other mics.

Sometimes I’ll hear an engineer say “I just want to put a mic on the drums for presence.” When I hear this, it instantly lets me know that I am working with an engineer who is not familiar with vintage jazz. Other (worse) times, engineers will want to do things like mic the snare or the kick drum. Never, ever, ever, ever, should you mic the kick drum—this is the fastest, most efficient way to make a swing band sound terrible!

In a good rhythm section, our goal is to create a blended “rhythm section” sound where the hi-hat or snare, piano chords and guitar become one sound, and where the kick drum and bass and left hand of the piano blend seamlessly together. Nothing should stick out until the player consciously makes a choice to play a fill or lick that will be heard to compliment the music’s flow. This is the great joy of good rhythm section playing; if you’ve ever wondered why someone would really enjoy playing acoustic rhythm guitar all night, never taking a solo, while the horns get to be star soloists, it’s because creating a good rhythm section groove and blend is the reason we show up to work every day.

Creating presence in the drums negates our ability to do this. Just as with the bass, we don’t want the audience to hear the timbre of the drums from the drummer’s perspective; we need the distance to achieve the proper perspective. The most famous rhythm section of all-time, Count Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section (Basie, Freddie Green, Walt Page and Jo Jones) was not famous for its uncanny technical ability, but its unparalleled groove and blend.

The Count Basie Orchestra’s all American Rhythm Section swinging on “Honeysuckle Rose”—check out the blend.

Because bands playing in a traditional way don’t use monitors, we tend to sit pretty close together so that there is as little delay as possible as sound travels between us, allowing us to create a better rhythmic pulse. Because of this, just the right amount of drums will come through the other mics on stage to reinforce them in a great blend through the speakers. In very rare circumstances for an outdoor show with a loud audience, I will put an overhead on the drums. By rare, I mean I’ve needed to do this once in the last nine years and we ended up using just the tiniest amount of that mic.

NOTE: If you’re in charge of backline in addition to sound at a venue, it’s important to be aware that most modern drums are very different from vintage drums in terms of their sound. In many cases, drummers will bring their own cymbals and hi-hat and expect the venue to provide the rest of the kit, so it is important that you provide the correct gear! For vintage jazz, the bass drum should be as large as possible (24-28 inches), as smaller bass drums that come with more modern jazz sets produce a higher, more cutting sound which enables drummers to use the kick drum for “bombs” or accented rhythms. In traditional jazz, the bass drum shouldn’t cut through and instead should blend seamlessly with the string bass, which can’t be accomplished with a small drum. For the floor tom, around 18” is a good size. Calf or synthetic calf heads are recommended on all drums.

PIANO
In the earliest New Orleans style jazz bands, pianos were not commonly included. Late into the 1920s and early 30s, pianos became indispensable in jazz and were seen as the most important part of any band (The 1935 book, “Secrets of Danceband Success,” indicates that core elements of a dance band are piano, drums and a horn of some kind, and you must have at least these three instruments to have a dance band).

Today, as fewer venues than ever own a piano, many bands choose to make a sacrifice in leaving the piano out as traditional jazz fans’ opinions of even top-of-the-line electronic keyboards can generally be measured on a scale ranging from cheesy to downright sacrilegious. Most musicians think even less of them, and the fastest way to make good musicians “phone it in” is to put a keyboard on the bandstand—it’s a clear indication that nobody really cares how the music sounds on the gig. If you work at a venue that doesn’t have a piano, get a piano!

The role of the piano in the band is to provide rhythmic and harmonic support. In earlier styles of playing, you’ll find the pianist doubling the bass with his left hand while the right hand doubles the banjo. Moving into the late 1930s and 1940s, the piano took on a more sparse role, led by Basie and Ellington. The left hand will often not double the bass, and the pianist will play tasteful occasional chords to compliment the ensemble or support a soloist. Here’s a short tutorial by renowned pianist Dick Hyman on the role of the piano in the rhythm section.

[Copyright issues prevent us from embedding the videos on this page, but you can still check out Part One and Part Two online.]

In miking a piano, never use more than one mic. While a pair of mics will provide a more even coverage of the piano for sure, this is the wrong sound for traditional jazz. As a mic for the piano became available in the late 30s and 40s, pianists changed the way that they played to the aforementioned, lighter, more sparse style—no longer did they have to play loud and hard to be heard! However, the “miked piano sound” is distinctive to the earlier era of music and by adding more than a single mic, it creates a different balance of highs vs. lows than what is appropriate for the era (additionally, it creates a close-miked situation which is, as mentioned above, not appropriate for traditional jazz).

A grand piano should always be at full stick or with the top off, and the mic should be placed on a stand in the crook of the piano. Don’t use a boom to try and put the mic inside as we don’t want the audience to hear a representation of what it sounds like to stick their heads inside the piano—we need that space to create the proper sound! The same goes for miking the piano from underneath; it’s the wrong sound for the style.

Uprights can be a bit more challenging as there are a variety of constructions. If the top opens, sometimes that is the best place to mic the instrument with the mic about 6 inches above the center. If the top doesn’t open, I’ll usually mic the back, which is less ideal. Always make sure to remove the kick plate from the front of an upright piano; this will open up the sound.

When balancing the piano with the band, the rule to follow is this: Set the piano’s volume such that when the pianist plays a solo, he can be heard, and when he is not playing a solo, you have to really strain to hear him unless he plays a deliberate fill that he wants to have stand out. Good pianists (and rhythm sections supporting them) will adjust their own volumes appropriately. Do not turn the piano mic up when the pianist takes a solo!!

NOTE: This should go without saying, but please don’t use mics/pickups built into a piano. It may as well be a keyboard at that point!

GUITAR
The guitar player can have one of two different roles, depending on whether or not the band has a piano.

If the rhythm section includes both guitar and piano, the guitarist should play acoustically, comping a short chord on every beat, the low end of which should blend with the bass and the high end of which should blend with the hi-hat and piano chords.

I find the best way to mic my acoustic guitar is with a good 12-18 inches of space between the guitar and the mic, aimed between the bridge and the F-Hole. You should note that if you can listen to the mix and easily pick out the guitar, either the guitarist is lousy or he is too loud! Rhythm guitar is an art of subtlety and a common mistake is to try to use a mic to bring the volume of the acoustic guitar up to the level of the other instruments of the band. If the guitarist wants to take an acoustic solo, he will lean into the mic to do so and the rhythm section will bring its volume down to accommodate.

Can you hear the guitar? I can...but even despite being the one playing it, I have to strain to pick it out as it’s at just the right volume and blended very well with the hi-hat (if I do say so myself).

If the guitarist also takes electric solos, it is recommended, in all but a few situations, that they comp with the amp off and bring in their pick-ups only for electric style solos. Comping with the amp on can get in the way of the piano. In most halls, the amplified guitar will be plenty loud on its own, but in an enormous space, should you need to mic it, don’t hang the mic over the top of the guitar; leave a foot of space between guitar and mic for a more natural sound. I’ll often share one good condenser between my acoustic rhythm sound and amp.

When there is no piano, the guitar must take on additional duties in the piano’s absence. Typically guitarists in this situation will play rhythm with their amp on low to add more “pitch” content to their sound in order to make up for the lost pitch content of the piano. Again, you won’t need to mic this in most spaces, but if you do, it’s recommended that you split a mic between the amp and the guitar with the mic favoring the guitar’s sound. This allows the guitar’s more natural rhythmic comping sound to still be in the mix while you’ll get the added pitch content from the amp. Just putting the mic on the amp will decrease the rhythmic drive of the band.

NOTE: Again, avoid clip-on mics, stick on mics, etc. for the guitar. Like with the bass, guitarists often think they sound great, but this is because they produce a sound similar to what they’re hearing up close; that’s a far cry from what an audience member would hear from 10 feet away!


OTHER RHYTHM SECTION INSTRUMENTS

BASS SUBSTITUTES: TUBA, SOUSAPHONE, BASS SAXOPHONE, WASHTUB BASS
Sometimes a different instrument will substitute for the string bass. The tuba and sousaphone (also known as “brass bass”) are popular in New Orleans and Dixieland music, as is the washtub bass. The bass saxophone was the bass instrument of choice in the late 1920s as bands transitioned from brass bass to string bass.

The Washtub bass should be miked similarly to a string bass. The brass and reed bass instruments are very loud and you won’t need to mic them at all unless you’re in a huge space. For info on miking practices for these instruments, refer to brass and reed miking practices covered in the next section on horns.

WASHBOARD
In some New Orleans style bands, the Washboard will be used instead of drums. Err on the side of not miking them and letting them, instead, bleed through the other mics. In the event it is absolutely necessary to mic the washboard, they are fairly easy to mic. Like the other instruments, just don’t put the mic too close—let the instrument reverberate in the air before capturing its sound.

ACCORDION, CELESTE, HARPSICHORD
A variety of other keyboard instruments may be used in place of a piano. The same rules apply to these as for piano—don’t get too close, use only one mic and everything will sound great!

BANJO
Though guitar was popular from the start of jazz through into be-bop, the bandleaders of the 1920s often preferred the sound of the louder tenor banjo. This can be miked similarly to the guitar, but since the banjo has percussiveness to spare, I recommend miking closer to the edge of the instrument where most banjos have a resonator to increase their tone. Leave even more space between the mic and the instrument than you would for the guitar.

Many modern banjo players often play with plastic heads instead of original calf-skin ones; these make the banjo louder while making its tone comparable to repeatedly ramming a knitting needle into your ear. Should the banjo player on a gig have such an instrument, it’s recommended that you roll off the treble in their EQ as a means of damage control. Failing that, you may want to consider passing out earplugs at the door.

• • • • •

This concludes Part 2. Remember that our goal is to create a natural acoustic sound with all of these instruments and to reproduce the sound that an audience, sitting a few feet in front of a band without mics, would hear, not the sound the individual players would hear standing next to their instruments!

In Part 3, we’ll explore the horns and other “lead” voices.