Recording Large Ensembles for Fun and Easy Profit (May-November 2004)

Nathan Hubbard Skeleton Key Orchestra was formed in 2001 with the goal to form an ensemble able to integrate notation and improvisation. In addition to this, I was striving to bring together different parts of the San Diego creative music community. My large-scale ensemble output at this point was only a handful of pieces, most notably the pieces a search for truth (for wind ensemble and extended percussion), shards of memory (remembering Morton Feldman) (for orchestra), as well as several pieces for traditional big band. At its inception, I saw the SKO project as a chance to extend much of the music I was currently working on, most importantly the music of the quartets Return To One and Cosmologic, the percussion trio NOD and various ad hoc ensembles surrounding the Trummerflora Collective. The first two performances of the (at that time) twenty-two-member group went well, and my efforts to record the concerts resulted in two very nice gig tapes. I soon realized much more work was ahead of me, and I began presenting smaller (10-15 member) versions of the group, as well as starting the "splinter group" project, smaller groups based around the large group. All of this rehearsing and performing allowed the musicians to work together more, and it also caused many more compositions to be written. So at some point I realized I needed to document the large ensemble music I was writing and record this group. Almost all of my projects have been self-produced, and it was an (almost) unspoken requirement that I record this project myself. I was also excited to bring some of the different recording ideas I had been working with in small formats to this larger palette. As I researched more and more large ensemble recordings, I found myself becoming disenchanted with the recording quality of many of these products. Clearly, many of the inherent problems of presentation and organization often force such issues to become null and void. Bay Area based alto saxophonist/composer Marco Eneidi's liner notes to his recording Marco Eneidi & The American Jungle Orchestra (Botticelli Records 1012/13) give a poignant demonstration of much of what I'm talking about. My thought was to have a production level CD, using many concepts used in pop and rock but rarely found in improvisation recordings. I have always loved the idea of many improvisation recordings - minimal miking, with the pieces recorded live in the order performed. However, as time goes on, I find myself equally excited in the possibilities of the studio as an instrument. This interest has been influenced by everyone from Myles Boisen to Tchad Blake, Robert Wyatt to John Zorn. In addition to the ideas of overdubbing and editing, I added my interest in home recording, lo-fi recording techniques, sound processing units, extended miking techniques and the use of different rooms/environments to the sonic palette I was working with.

Several earlier projects had an influence on the direction this recording took. The Return To One album Firecliffs (Circumvention Music CD 033A-B), recorded summer 2001, was a changing point in my thinking and writing, as I found myself orchestrating more, using the studio as an instrument and overdubbing parts, allowing the music to breath in a different way. I began to realize that my interest in the large ensemble medium lies in the bringing together of varying forces and different instrumentations. You can hear these ideas translated into the SKO project in the use of pipe organ, harp, contra-bass saxophone, flute quartet, homemade instruments, electronics, field recordings, etc. After Firecliffs, I began working on the solo recording Born On Tuesday (Circumvention SA-81), recorded summer 2002, a recording that allowed me to (re)define a production ethic and find my own solutions to the inherent difficulties in any such project. For me, this was accomplished by dealing with the music and the time period it was recorded - for this project, focusing on the acoustics of the room, extended miking techniques and the changing grains of sound between low and high fidelity. Certainly my interest in lo-fi pop, electronica and dub music allowed me to rethink my production values on such a project. Born On Tuesday made me realize that every project should have its own unique production aesthetic, building on past experiences while finding new solutions in the music and the moment.

So first, finding a room big enough to comfortably house 22-26 musicians, and the equipment to record them, outside of the very costly professional studio. Over the period of the previous several years I had been accumulating the necessary equipment to record my own projects. With the help of group members we were able to collect the missing equipment needed to complete the recording. The smaller group compositions were recorded a choir room at San Diego State University, which I felt had the right "room sound" I was looking for, along with ample space for performers. Most of the small group pieces were recorded with no editing and only a few overdubs (usually percussion). The larger compositions were recorded several weeks later in a large warehouse in San Marcos, which had the necessary space for the large group, a layout perfectly situated for a control room and other important additions (a popcorn machine and a soda fountain). Due to the enormous scope of the larger pieces, different sections of these compositions were recorded and later edited together. This allowed me to put together the needed ensembles, insure that all the instruments were miked to my liking and to allow for multiple takes. Depending on availability and practicality, some parts were overdubbed at later sessions. This mostly consisted of percussion and strings.

The use of editing and overdubbing allowed me to layer parts and add any missing elements, process instruments and use different locations and production aesthetics to define the tracks.
Examples -
1. The opening section of Sleeping Against Other Warnings features a flute quartet with percussion. This section was recorded live with Ellen Weller and Lee Elderton playing C flutes, Ward Baxter playing alto flute, Jason Robinson playing bass flute, Isaac Tubb playing the Tibetan bell part and myself playing the lower frame drum part. Later, I overdubbed the maraca part and the high frame drum part and double each drum part several times to thicken the track. This section of the piece was written around an ostinato played on several tuned lobster pots and mixing bowls, and due to scheduling conflicts with the percussionists in the group, these parts were overdubbed later. When these instruments did not record to my liking, I substituted tuned Simmons drums doubled with piano strings played with mallets. The Simmons drums gave the attack and timbre and the piano added sustain and a more mellow sound. I also double-tracked the Tibetan bell parts several times, allowing me to pan the tracks for a wider sound.
2. In section Z of Sleeping Against Other Warnings, the two guitar interlocking line (played by Al Scholl and Jon Garner) was recorded, sampled and looped. I then overdubbed the two interlocking pipeophones, sampled and looped the parts, and then overdubbed the two interlocking vibraphone tracks. These vibraphone tracks were sampled, looped and then pitch-shifted them down an octave in the computer. After this was accomplished, Shannon Perkins recorded her poetry solo and later Stephanie Robinson added an improvised chordal accompaniment on pipe organ.
3. In section C of A Murder Of Crows, Justin Grinnell and myself recorded the double rhythm section groove canon (two trios of drum kit, electric bass and marimba) in two takes, using a click to clearly line up the difficult 37/16 meter. The overdubbing allowed us to tweak bass sounds and change drum kits (we were trying to avoid muddiness on the track by focusing on different registers and timbres for similar instruments). The two rhythm sections were then panned, EQ'd and compressed. In general I was interested in a "rock drum" production, with as much punch and meat as possible. Later, Michael Dessen overdubbed his solo and I added the rubato orchestra backgrounds, which were recorded at an earlier session and sampled. After this I dub mixed the double rhythm section tracks, using one section as the focal point and bringing both sections in only at key moments. This gave the track much more breathing room. Finally, I added several samples as a "middle ground" texture and Al Scholl overdubbed several tracks of guitar as accompaniment to the trombone solo.
3. The studio sections of East on 53rd Street were loosely based around several production methods from my work with Joscha Oetz's group Perfektomat. For the main groove section, I programmed the two different interlocking drum parts into a drum machine, recorded it, and then recorded two different drumkits doubling the parts, allowing sampled versus live sounds to be mixed and matched. Early in the piece, processed acoustic bass and lo-fi percussion were added to these drumkit tracks as background layers for Ward Baxter's processed tenor saxophone solo. Later in the pieces live handclaps and bells interact with drum machine hihat and kick drum parts behind Jay Easton's contrabass saxophone solo, and as that section progresses, processed loops from members of the ensemble add to the groove played behind solos by trombonist Steve Vertigan and trumpeter Isaac Tubb. Finally, Marcelo Radulovich sampled various sections of the piece for his processed ending coda, giving the piece a complete transformation from beginning (an acoustic group recorded outside) to end (processed samples of material that has been put through several cycles of recording, sampling and processing).
4. Several sections of different pieces called for organ sounds from the keyboard/electronic section. Stephanie Robinson informed me that her job as organist and choir director gave her access to a pipe organ, and that we could use this pipe organ to overdub the parts. We arranged a time to meet at the church, where Stephanie added the organ pedal section to the opening of raincastle and added a chordal accompaniment to the poetry solo on sleeping against other warnings.

The concept of real time and postproduction processing of tracks was used in several different ways. Examples-
5. Don't Look Says The Crow opens with an improvised trio of piano, vibraphone and synthesizer. This trio melds into Damon Holzborn's processed version of the improvisation using Max MSP. These two sections are overlapped by a notated brass section, which was recorded earlier, allowing the performers to react to the pitch, rhythmic and density information from the brass and how that informs the improvisation.
6. On the track Sleeping Against Other Warnings, the use of reverberation and delay added to the overall vibe of the track. The tracks opens with several Tibetan bells overdubbed, panned and run through a digital plate reverb, smoothing and shaping the multiple tracks into a unified whole. Later in the piece, overdubbed pipeophones were run through an Echoplex tape delay and then amplified into my bathroom heater. The miked springs in this heater caused a real life spring reverb sound, and the combination of these two processes gave the pipeophones a unique sound space, adding to the track without sonically taking away the focus from the voice and sampled guitars.
7. In the piece A Murder of Crows, much of the source material given to performers for sampling was from previously recorded improvisations by SKO. I sorted through gig tapes, edited improvisation sections out of larger pieces and made CDs of this material for performers to sample as needed. After my selection and editing, different performers decide how much material they want to sample, from small bits of sound to using the entire recording. Once these decisions were made, the sampled material was processed in real time in different notated and improvised area with the large group. For me this process continues the never ending cycle of material being played and performers reacting to this material, constantly using new material as well as renewing material from the past.
8. The overdubbed percussion on East On 53rd Street was recording using various lo-fi concepts, often using cheap Radio Shack microphones. These microphones were generally used as room mics, usually run through amplifier modeling pedals and/or an overdriven Pignose amplifier to "dirty up" the sound. In several cases, the microphones were placed inside the instruments (most notably a metal guiro) for a super close-miked sound with many sound reflections coming from the inside of the instrument. Often the tracks were recorded with several different microphones to mix and match in the final mix, but I often found myself using only one microphone, depending on its unique character and the focus of the track. In addition to this, I also used several digital "lo-fi" computer plug-ins to add more character to the final outcome.
9. The transition between the pieces Making my Way Thru It and Waiting In Vain was produced by running the octet recording through an Echoplex tape delay several times. This segue ways directly into Waiting In Vain, allowing my original intention for the trajectory of the piece - notation to repetition structures to open improvisation to processed material, directly into the second piece.

Several different pieces used the idea of production by recording in different locations, often allowing the acoustics to define the sound and/or affect the performance. Examples -
10. East On 53rd Street opens with a West African inspired hand drum ensemble + brass band playing in an alcove outside the DHCC warehouse. Using binaural microphones and a minidisk recorder, Justin Grinnell recorded this section by walking towards the group from a distance of half a mile. This section was edited to the rest of the piece (which was recorded in the studio), giving a shift of perception and expectancy.
11. The poetry section at the heart of East On 53rd Street was recorded in my backyard late at night, with a backdrop of crickets and other background sounds adding an eerie ambience to the mix. Wayne Shorter's recording of the composition Dindi on the album Supernova influenced this section, which for me allowed a moment of pause and reflection within the bluster and activity of the surrounding sections.
12. Don't Look Says The Crow ends with an ensemble improvisation recorded in the yard of DHCC. This section was recorded with two engineers moving about the space with handheld recorders, while most of the ensemble used homemade instruments (dopplerophones and wobble boards) and the brass section improvised with the reverb effect of playing their horns thru several long (30') metal sewer pipes in the area. The two recordings were later synced up in the computer and panned appropriately.

I would like to dedicate this article to the now defunct Seattle based ensemble New Art Orchestra, who's group aesthetic, beautiful playing and amazing music continues to inspire me-NMH

(May-November 2004)