Ella Fitzgerald direct to disc

How To

Ella Fitzgerald direct to disc

After the success of our last direct cut album featuring the Syd Lawrence orchestra, I had a problem. What should I record next? Chasing the Dragon is a small record label and we are completely self-funded. Therefore, we will not be recording Mahler’s 8th Symphony anytime soon! I did think of recording the Planet Suite, but the budget was coming in at over £70k for the hire of the orchestra alone and so that was another non starter. I then remembered that last year we had been on Clare Teal’s Radio 2 Big Band show with Chris Dean, leader of the Syd Lawrence orchestra, we chatted about making the album and went into some detail explaining what a direct cut record was.

Chris Dean, Clare Teal and Mike Valentine

After the show, Clare grabbed Chris and I and said, “Why don’t we all work on an album together?” Wow! Clare Teal asking me if I mind working with her. A dream came true. Chris looked at his dates availability of the band and Clare checked hers. Françoise, my wife and co-producer checked Air studios dates and the stars were aligned for Tuesday 28th June 2016.

OK, now the next problem was to decide what to record. After kicking some ideas around with Clare, we suddenly hit upon the realization that next year, 2017, was going to be Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary. It then became easy to chose a collection of songs, which we whittled down to the final eight that appear on the album. The pressure was now on. The great day dawned and with much trepidation we all turned up at Air studios at 9 AM. Remember, with a direct cut process, everything has to be recorded live in one take. There is no editing or mixing down or sweetening. You have only one day to rehearse, mix and cut both sides of the album.

With the orchestra set up, we then focused on placing Clare in the studio and choosing which microphone to use for her. I specifically wanted to use the old approach that Frank Sinatra and Ella herself usually used in the studio, which meant no vocal booth. My approach was to place a few screens in front of Clare, through which she could see the leader Chris and they would also give us a little separation between her microphone and the very loud orchestra.

The choice of microphone itself was obvious, for if you look at photographs of many of the old sessions recorded in the era, you will see a big fat sexy valve powered microphone, the ubiquitous Neumann U47. I have used this beautiful old mic on many sessions and even though its design is over fifty years old, I have really found nothing to touch its quality in the modern world. Our mixing desk was built by Neve over thirty years ago, which obviously also adds to the great warm sound. We opened Clare’s voice up a little by adding an EMT plate rather than a digital box of tricks.

No digital toys were used at all and the stereo signal from the desk was passed up two floors to John Webber, Air’s long-standing cutting engineer, who again used a Neumann VMS 80 lathe. Rupert Coulson created a fantastic mix and again I was looking for a “you are there” balance. Have we achieved it? Well, I loved the shuffling sound of the band turning the pages of the score and if you listen carefully, you can almost hear Chris the leader, counting everyone in.

John Webber cuts the wax

And the overall sound quality? Well, I think our new album has the “jump factor”, but this time I hope that you will feel that Clare is standing right in the centre of the speakers and if there was a knob on the desk, which was marked foot tapping, I have this time been able to turn it all the way up to ten. The album will be available at this year’s National Audio Show on the 17th and 18th of September, where I will take people behind the scenes of how we created our tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. It will also be a unique opportunity to hear a master tape which we recorded at the same time at 30 ips on 1⁄2 “ tape, which I may supply 15 ips on 1⁄4” tape copy masters if enough interest is shown by reel to reel enthusiasts at that event. Which will sound better? Come at hear for yourself

Mike Valentine