By Geoff Gillette, Recording Engineer
I was very excited when the producer of Zephyr Media Group, called to invite me to engineer a Jazz recording project called In Tone Nation for a very talented young female artist from Tokyo named Yuko Maruyama. This project would also be the premiere recording of the new flagship Shigeru Kawai piano for both stereo CD and DVD Audio, 5.1 surround.
We decided to cut the tracks at my favorite recording studio, Entourage, in the North Hollywood arts district. We selected Entourage because, apart from it having a really nice sounding room, there is a nifty Neve Melbourne console that sounds great… and, of course, you can’t beat a Studer A827 24-track tape machine. I love that analog! (It also happens to be 3 minutes from my house and in LA that counts!)
What a pleasant surprise it was when I walked into the studio on the first day and laid my eyes on this gorgeous, brand new, Shigeru Kawai piano, just sitting there right in the middle of the room. I have never seen any better craftsmanship. This piano was truly a work of art! What was even more of a pleasant surprise was when I heard Yuko Maruyama play it for the first time! Wow! Yuko has a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from USC and now works as both a performance and recording artist in the musical styles of jazz, fusion, salsa, R&B and Latin Jazz, touring with her band in the United States and Japan.
The remarkable thing I discovered about the Shigeru piano as Yuko played it was just how even the sound was. It had an extremely lush, warm tone that didn’t allow harmonics to jump out, as is so often the case with many pianos. This was partly due to the careful voicing that was done by Kawai under the direction of Yuko who spent several weeks at Kawai’s Southern California headquarters working with Hiroya Ishikawa, a Master Piano Artisan from Japan. Yuko has perfect pitch and she’s such a perfectionist that she actually overheard a resonance frequency in a light fixture in Kawai’s room. They even dampened that fixture during their piano voicing session!
Mr. Shigeru Kawai, Chairman of the Kawai Global Group is the head of a prestigious family business. Shigeru’s father, Koichi Kawai, founded the Kawai piano company in 1927 and Shigeru’s son, Hirotaka, serves as the current president of the company. This family has a real vision to achieve excellence in their craft. Shigeru decided that during his lifetime, he wanted to build the finest piano possible, one that would ultimately bear his own name. With that dream in mind, he assembled a team of technicians who are the very top artisans in their profession to build the instruments… and cultivated special forests in the mountains of Hokkaido, where the rare Ezo Spruce is grown, to produce the soundboards for this unique piano.
I think Shigeru Kawai definitely accomplished what he set out to do. And since Yuko would be the very first person to record on the Chairman’s “legacy,” I planned for a fitting studio session.
Yuko is not only a very accomplished player, but she wrote a beautiful body of work for this recording and, along with her producer, pulled together a great team of musicians to contribute to this project. Aaron Serfaty, from Venezuela, played great drums, and Dan Lutz really swung on bass. We also had Andy Suzuki, who contributed some beautiful and soulful sax lines, and Casio Duarte, from Brazil, who rounded out the cast with some nice rich percussion work. I call his stuff “ear candy”. Producer Marty and I both knew we would have some fun with that percussion in 5.1!
When I thought about miking the piano, I had to think ahead because of the mixing possibilities in 5.1. I used two AKG 414’s inside the piano, one up near the hammers towards the high strings, and the other near the low strings where they are connected at the bottom of the instrument. Then I placed two Neuman U87’s just outside the lid opening around the middle about a human head’s width apart, to capture the sound I was hearing standing right there. Just like I anticipated, these mics proved to be very useful later on in the mix.
The Mixing Session
After three fun days of recording, which went very smoothly, we had to wait a few weeks to get into my favorite mixing studio, Sunset Sound Factory, because they are always so booked. I love this place for the great sounding, customized API consoles they have that are outfitted with Neve “flying fader” automation, plus they have all the outboard equipment you could ever want, but most importantly, they have a great selection of EMT reverb plates. I never want to mix a record without them! Also, they have a top-notch staff of house engineers, and in our case, we were fortunate enough to have Steven Rhodes, who already had experience in surround mixing.
We hired Advanced Audio to bring in all the gear for the 5.1 mix. I decided to go with the THX M&K monitoring system with the Lexicon 996 signal processor, which has a variety of algorithms especially designed for surround mixing. They came in and set the whole thing up in a few hours. It was a matter of careful measuring: equal distances from each speaker and 85 db SPL per speaker. They even had this nifty laser tool that attached to the front of the speaker to ensure that the angles of the speakers were precisely focused on the center listening position. Now we were definitely ready to go!
I set things up to do the stereo mix first, so I could then easily switch to 5.1 mode directly following for each piece. I had the console configured so that I could send individual elements into either rear speaker. I decided not to use the center speaker discreetly (which mainly applies to film dialogue track control), and stayed with the traditional stereo phantom center. We auditioned all the Lexicon presets; you can go as large or as small as you like. The size we chose was called “small ambience,” and I basically put the entire stereo mix into it. It seemed appropriate for the jazz-based material at hand, and added a very nice three-dimensional feeling that, if you closed your eyes, really made you feel like you were sitting in a jazz club.
I experimented with the four piano mics and found a nice balance by panning the inside mics at nine o’clock and three o’clock in front, and then I very subtly put the outside mics about halfway back to the rear. It was as simple as that. On a couple of songs, Marty let me have a little fun with the percussion. We moved a few rainsticks and bell trees around the room; it’s tempting to get gimmicky. However, we were fairly subtle in the way we used this three-dimensional effect. It’s a piano record and we wanted that to be the main focus. I do have to say that after listening to the 5.1 version for a while, it’s awfully boring to go back to stereo! I think surround music mixes are here to stay, especially now that more and more people have this playback capability at home.
Deduction? I guess “quad” was way ahead of its time!
The Mastering Session
The only thing left to do now was the mastering process. There are only a few rooms in the world set up to master in 5.1, due to the newness of this format for music only, so a room was not so easily found. However, a mastering engineer that I’ve worked with over the years referred me to Marcussen Mastering, which turned out to be the perfect facility for us.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the studio to see a beautiful B&W speaker system (I am very familiar with this system because I’ve done several projects for B&W, using their speakers to mix on, and I also own a pair of “Silver Signature” speakers the company gave me as a bonus for the work I’d done!). Mastering Engineer, Dave Collins, did a great job, and I was so pleased that the mixes translated so well. We only made a few low frequency adjustments and added a little broad 16k overall to add some air/sparkle.
The Final Stop, DVD Land
After our mastering was done the encoding, graphics and authoring crew took over. Finishing off this DVD disk was really a group effort. The In Tone Nation DVD has both DVD Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital surround as well as a 96kHZ/24-bit Advanced Resolution Stereo version. So, for encoding and authoring we turned to DVD labs in Cambridge Massachusetts. They did the MLP and AC-3 processing as well as the authoring that combined their encoded audio files with the beautiful DVD screen art that was created by Zephyr Media Group in L.A. Finally, Panasonic Disk Services replicated the completed DVD Audio disks.
I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with Yuko and Marty, and I’m very proud of the work we did. I hope you enjoy Yuko Maruyama’s In Tone Nation recording as much as we enjoyed making it. In the meantime, GO SURROUND!
Author Geoff Gillette is an LA based recording engineer. His credits include albums for: Flora Purim, Lee Ritenour, Bob James, The Yellow Jackets and Sergio Mendes.