It All Starts With You
Experimenting in the recording studio can be a lot of fun with many
exciting things to do. When you get all the variables just right,
it can inspire your playing too. Of course, even if you have a great
mic in a great room and go through the best recording equipment,
you can’t sound too good if you have a terrible tone coming
out of your horn. That’s why it’s important to take
the time to get the fundamentals down before heading into the recording
With a good tone in place, time well spent with good gear in the
studio can make you sound even better, assuming you’re working
with an engineer who knows what a saxophone is… Don’t
laugh! I’ve done sound checks in large venues and had the
sound engineer ask me if I would be using a mic on my sax! Run,
don’t walk from those guys!
These days, some good engineers may not have that much experience
with a sax. Many may only have worked with bands that have the typical
line-up of drums, bass, guitar, keys, and a singer. No matter what
point of your career you’re at, learning a few things about
the recording process will help to make your efforts sound that
Early in my career, I didn’t pay much attention to mics, processing
gear, EQ frequency’s etc. Now I do. I am hands on in the studio
because I want to sound good. I hear stuff I played years ago, and
I don’t like the way a lot of it sounds. Not what I played,
but the actual sound… maybe it was the way the engineer EQ’ed
it or had it sitting in the mix.
So, it all starts with you… but it could all end with
The good news is that there are some very good engineers out there
who can make us sound better. The first thing in an engineer’s
bag of toys should be the microphone.
One of the first big recording projects I was involved with was
in 1988 with Canadian singer/guitarist Colin James,
who was signed with Virgin America at the time. We went to Criteria
Recording Studios in Miami to work with the famous Producer/Engineer
Tom Dowd, who recorded Eric Clapton
(Layla), The Allman Brothers, Leonard Skynard,
and Aretha Franklin to name a few. We saw all the
gold records of these artists hanging on the wall, plus others like
James Brown (I Feel Good), The Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever).
All these songs we had heard growing up; it was overwhelming being
there for the first time. But the best was yet to come!
After meeting Tom Dowd, I found out that he also had recorded King
Curtis and John Coltrane, two of the most
influential saxophonists in history, right there where we were standing!
Now being a sax player, I felt I was in good hands!
His mic preference was the Neumann U87. This model
came out in the 60’s; I know he recorded King Curtis during
the Coasters sessions of the late 50’s and would have used
the Neumann U47... for Coltrane as well.
These mics are still the industry standard, because they are a large
diaphram mic producing a big, warm sound. They can be found in any
major commercial studio, but not necessarily in the smaller project
studios because they cost several thousand dollars each. Still,
I wouldn’t put the brakes on a session or recording project
if these mics weren’t available.
Today, companies are making really good mics for under
$500. For the CD I just completed, Rock & Roll Saxophonist,
I used several different mics; two were under $500 and one was $3000.
The really good inexpensive ones are the Shure SM57
and the AKG C1000.
Directly in-line after the microphone is a pre-amp. This is just
an amplifier which can boost your signal to the recording machine,
computer etc. A pre-amp is the best way I’ve found to get
that really “hot” sax sound. Basically, it has a level
knob and an output knob. You crank the gain on the input knob until
it’s almost in the red, red being a no-no because that will
give your sound ugly distortion. Just before the distortion is a
fine line; you can experiment with it for the amount of boost you
want in your sound. I’ve used it on the low setting, somewhere
in the middle, and really hot. It all depends on the sound you want
for a particular recording.
not very hot
"Dancin' Is Not My Thing" from Johnny's CD "Rock
& Roll Saxophonist"
hot "The Stalker" from Johnny's CD "Sax
On The Beach"
The next toy to experiment with is the compressor. I’m not
a technical engineer (you may have noticed) but, basically, compression
on a sax will create a ceiling for your volume level and bring every
note up to that ceiling level, meaning that all your notes will
be even with each other in volume. If you go overboard with this
effect, you will hear it manipulating the tone, so again, you've
got to experiment. Personally, I sometimes like a little bit of
that in my sound; it all depends on the song. If you listen closely,
especially with headphones, you’ll hear how it magnifies things
in the sax tone like breath, spit on the reed, and even little clicking
sounds made by the note pads.
"Lady" from Johnny's CD "Rock & Roll Saxophonist"
Even after beefing up your sound with the pre-amp and compressor,
more body and sizzle can be added with the equalizer (eq).
For some extra sizzle or sparkle, I like to add some high end frequency,
around 10k but you need to experiment here. You may get the right
boost of the sparkle you want from 8k or 11k. If you use a good
mic the boosts in eq won’t need to be huge, just between 1
and 3 db’s (decibels).
I never felt that my sax needs any more from the mid
range frequencies, the midsas boosting them can give you an ugly
honky tone, but often a little low end eq will help to round out
the tone. Again, you need to experiment but I go in around 125 –
250 hz (killahertz).
Everyone wants to hear some reverb as soon as they hear themselves
in the studio headphones. That’s because, reverb gives an
immediate big, wet sound which can make your playing sound better
and so might help you feel more comfortable during the recording
I’ve noticed reverb has been like fashion over time…
different types and styles come into vogue; sometimes it’s
hip to use lots, sometimes you use almost none at all.
The original way to record reverb was to use the sound that occurred
naturally in the room, and the amount you had depended on the size
of that room. People still record like this today, and we still
hear stories how some band went into a big old church to record
or somebody's basement or bathroom to attain an amazing sound.
Plate reverb units are an artificial way to create reverb in studios.
Plate reverb is produced by vibrating big metal sheets. Obviously,
this way of producing reverb made good sense cause, creating different
room sizes without having to leave your own studio. These days there
are many kinds of reverb due to digital technology, and every size
studio will have a few good ones to plug into. The type and amount
of reverb you use will depend on your personal taste, personally
I use very little; if you can hear it, then it’s too much.
I like to set it so you can’t pick it out of the sound but
if you turn it off you notice that it’s missing.
Delay or echo is the effect of repeating notes after the original
tone is played. Like if you were to yell into a well, HELLO…
When using delay I find reverb isn’t needed and usually gets
in the way.
I love this effect on my saxophone. The amount always varies depending
on the music.
The short “slapback” delay is most identifiable in rockabilly
music especially on the vocals and guitar. All aspects of this effect
are controllable, from the overall level of the effect to the number
of repeats you want. Sometimes a nice delay setting is the perfect
thing on a sax, especially on a rockin’ tune or a ballad.
I used this quite a bit in my recent recording, here you can hear
my sax with just a little delay and then with a lot.
Sample 1 "If That
Ain't Love" from Johnny's CD "Rock & Roll Saxophonist"
"Five Long Years" from the Colin James self Tittled CD
Finally there’s the wah-wah pedal. This is usually heard on
a guitar. But did you know, that it was invented so the guitar could
sound like a trumpet? When a trumpet player uses a plunger to get
that wah-wah sound, that’s the sound guitarists wanted to
Back in the 70’s, I remember hearing some bands having a sax
player and using a wah pedal on their horns. Frank Zappa
and Steve Winwood’s band Traffic
come to mind.
Since those days, I hadn’t heard it being used on recordings
for a long time so I gave it a try on one of the tunes from my recent
Sample "Chompin' At The
Bit" from Johnny's CD "Rock & Roll Saxophonist"
To use this pedal with your sax, just connect the mic cable directly
into it and another cable comes out into whatever effect box you
may have in-line. The pedal is moved up and down to create the wah-wah.
This was my set-up while experimenting in my home studio, but once
in the mixing studio, we noticed some unpleasant intermittent “noises”
and I had to re-do the whole sax track. That was bad news since
I liked the existing one! The good thing that came out of this,
was the engineer suggested taking 2 lines out of the wah pedal,
one for just the effect, the other that only would have the normal
sax going through it. This worked out great. Now, we could mix and
blend the 2 channels and add or take away the wah-wah effect depending
on how it was working in the track. I found certain notes or phrases
sounded better with a little less of this effect and vice versa…
more control, better sound.
Have fun experimenting with your sound in the studio. Sometimes
using all these toys will help to get the sound you want, sometimes
it’s just one or two of them, and sometimes none of them are
needed. Let the music dictate to what extreme you should use these