I love mixing jazz. No genre is more fun in its constraints. Mixing jazz is a perfect balance of honoring the recording you’re given and injecting creativity whenever possible. What follows are my guidelines for mixing jazz records that can help you get a clean, full sounding mix that serves the recording’s integrity while making space for the variety of instruments present in jazz arrangements.
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Frequently, jazz is played and recorded live, without overdubs, often in the same room. How this is achieved can vary: I’ve mixed records that came from basements, midsized studios, and top-of-the-line rooms like the old, now-gone Avatar studios; no two sessions have been the same, even when they come from the same studio.
Sometimes the recording engineer makes use of leakage and spill between microphones to bolster the liveliness. Other times, players are siloed into iso-rooms to give the mixing engineer more freedom later on. Modern jazz also includes electronic, produced elements—bass synths, keys, pre-produced loops, etc.
I would advise you to learn all you can about how the sessions were recorded. Such knowledge is power, as you will often be hamstrung by the constraints of the session: knowing how far the double bass was from the kick drum will keep you from going down roads that terminate in dead ends; you’ll know to avoid certain panning, EQ, or polarity decisions right from jump.
If possible, communicate with the recording engineer about the session. They can tell you details, allowing you to make better informed decisions about the tools you’ll use, such as the noise gate found in Neutron (pictured below) or the millisecond delay in Relay (also pictured below).
The gate can help you isolate an instrument or a microphone—but context is key: don’t use a gate if instrument bleed is an intentional part of the sound.
Relay’s delay is quite effective for solving the phase issues caused by multi-miking in a single space. If you know the bass player was ten feet away from the drummer, and something is off when all the mics are off, delaying the drum bus 10 ms forward might solve the issue.
Then again, it might not—it might throw the groove off entirely, or make the blend worse. Trust your ears (and your reference tracks).
You know you should never mix in solo. But listening to each track in solo for a few moments will help you at the beginning of any mix, especially in a jazz context.
When you listen to each track individually, you’ll hear the corresponding bleed, which will help you determine how an element needs to be handled. I usually keep a notepad or a text document handy to jot down notes about bleed and possible positioning. Then I can move everything about accordingly.
Observe this double bass, soloed here:
Auditioning Bass in Solo in a Mix
The track shows us how close the bassist is to the pianist. Listening to it, we learn how we should treat both bass and piano in the track.
Auditioning material in solo, you’ll not only glean a deeper understanding of the player’s unique sound, you’ll also hear any issues or virtues within the recording itself. Clocking problems during recording will rear their ugly heads (I once had audio from Avatar rife with clicks and pops), as will unpleasant frequency buildups.
Don’t spend hours doing this—maybe spend twenty seconds on each track. This practice will help your left brain formulate any technical solutions that might need implementing, all while fanning the flames of your creative side, so that you can move on to the next step.
You must create space for all the individual elements so that they make a cohesive picture. This is arguably true for any mix, but pop productions give you more options at the outset. In jazz, you’re likely restricted by the recording itself.
Pop tunes may boast hundreds of tracks, but these tracks have been painstakingly arranged to complement and reinforce each other. With a jazz record, you might have two separate drummers, a five piece horn section, a bass, piano, guitars, and more—all improvising at the same time, and in the same place! With such a spontaneous arrangement, the balance becomes very important.
ndeed, the panning and the levels are arguably more important than your EQ decisions, as drastic EQ can really mess with the integrity of acoustic instruments in naturalistic music.
Here’s an example of how panning decisions might be made in a pop mix:
“Hey, I like this MIDI synth part more on the right!”
…And that’s it.
On a jazz tune, it’s a bit different: say you’ve got tenor sax and trumpet playing down the melody of the tune. The whole balance of the tune feels a bit thin when they’re panned up the middle. Some slight panning to the right and left beefs things up nicely.
But how does that affect the all important bass, which carries more spill from the tenor than the trumpet? Ideally, I’d like to keep the bass centered—but panning the bass up the middle might actually yield a sound favoring the right: the sax is on the right, and it has a strong bass bleed that it’s pulling the bass out of alignment. Gating won’t work, because when the sax plays, the bass drifts.
This situation could result in a bass part panned to the left that nevertheless sounds centered. See how that works?
Of course we do use equalization—but don’t get heavy-handed here. Again, the primal rule is to create space without harming the integrity. Subtlety is the name of the game. Its rules consist of pruning out only the most egregious offenders, and finding subtle ways of gluing spaces together. Often your EQ can be as subtle as this:
It’s quite fun: if you have a mind inclined toward solving puzzles, you’ll find this stage most gratifying.
This is more philosophical than technical, but I find it true of nearly any tune with percussive elements. In my experience listening to jazz records, I’ve come to believe that the drums dictate the character of the mix.
Think about our modern crop of jazz recordings, where you’re often dropped into the middle of the band as it’s playing: the shininess and polished quality of the drums amplifies this effect; indeed, the high frequency emphasis brings you closer to all the instruments. In albums going for a more vintage flair, you might notice a midrange-heavy, often monaural approach to the drums.
The classics of jazz recordings also seemed defined by their drums, at least to my ear: Kind of Blue exhibits a sparse, clean, and cool atmosphere; it is no accident that the drums here are rather crisp. Contrast this with Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and you’ll note more midrange in the splash of the crash cymbals, as Freddie and Wayne swing over Elvin’s bombastic playing.
If you decide on this approach for your mix, how should you determine the right character for the drums? Two factors will help you right off the bat, the first being the quality of the recording itself.
Expensive drums recorded in relative isolation give you a lot more flexibility. But if the drums were recorded with tons of tonal or phase issues, you’re a bit hamstrung…
…Until you realize you’re not, if you know how to use the recording to your advantage.
Take the EP Hippo House by the jazz outfit Ginger’s Palace.
These drums were recorded reasonably well in a living room. In fact, the whole recording took place in a residential house in Baltimore. Yet I’m just as proud of this mix as I am of things I’ve done for mainstream jazz records—moreso, for its DIY ethic. I started by honoring what the drums were giving me, naturally, without massaging, and pulling the recording in that direction.
If you want to learn more about how this particular sound came to be, feel free to reach out; I love walking people through a session, but if I did it here, it would take like five thousand words.
Another way to approach your drums is to use reference tracks. Track referencing in Ozone and Tonal Balance Control can come in handy. The latter is particularly useful in this regard: find a suitable reference, locate a drum solo (usually not hard to find in a jazz context), export that sample, and load it up. From here you’ll be able to more closely align your drum sound with the drum sound you’re referencing.
Naturalistic recordings limit our direct possibilities. When it comes to compression, expansion, reverberation, or delay, an indirect approach can work better: try bussing these effects for parallel augmentation.
Remember, all your instruments are playing together as one cohesive piece. Direct manipulation of a track might very well upset the balance of the bleed, pull the element itself into an unnatural space separated from its surroundings, or futz with the groove.
As a general (though breakable) rule, think of compression here not as a means of curtailing dynamic range, but as an envelope control on the transients or ambiance of a specific sound. Perhaps the drums could use more snap to them; the inclination to reach for an 1176-style compressor with a medium attack and a fast release is not necessarily incorrect. Just do it in parallel!
By bussing the drums out to an aux and emphasizing the snap in parallel, you can exert more control. You’ll be surprised at how little you’ll need to give the drums your desired edge.
A plug-in might have a mix knob for this express purpose, but I’d still avoid it, because you’re not really in control of how the blend works there. The manufacturer is. Separated controls for dry signal and affected signal work much better at achieving balance.
Take a sax. Say you want to hear more air, spit, and sizzle around the sound. Compression will bring it out, but it also brings up unwanted spill from other instruments. Again, the send is your friend:
You can gate out the signal you don’t want, then use a compressor to emphasize the things you do.
As for processes like delay and reverb, the potential to obfuscate your image is enormous. This, again, is why these effects benefit from the mix bus treatment.
Do you think the jazz-fusion musicians of the 70s and 80s intentionally set out to make records that would sound dated in twenty years? Probably not. To be fair, it’s also not likely that the people behind Blue Train set out to make an album that sounded timeless (they just wanted to blow over some changes).
Yet both of these examples are indisputable examples of the above concept: Esoteric effects and flavors du jour have a way of coming back to bite you years later. Yet, like the jazz musicians in the recording, you also want to experiment; it’s part of the medium, and part of the fun.
How do we combat the problem of dating ourselves? I’d say the answer lies in listening to the music and letting it dictate the decisions. If a sax player is using breathy techniques to mimic the sound of a flanger within an already esoteric tune, it’s not unreasonable to augment or complement that effect with studio trickery. It certainly doesn’t hurt to try it out. Just sit with the results of creative implementation for a while before sending the track back to the band: you want to make sure it helps.
Yes, the loudness wars have had an effect on jazz records too. Compression, used in its most aggressive forms—particularly on the drum bus—contributes to audible distortion on many modern jazz records.
Borrowing from popular genres is nothing new: Jazz has always drawn from other musical wellsprings. Unfortunately, much of today’s mainstream music has moved into an undeniably aggressive sound, which leads to problems when incorporating this music in a jazz context, especially over streaming.
Here’s the thing: in today’s pop songs, I’d wager you don’t hear as many real ride or crash cymbals as you used to. The percussion tends to be electronic and distorted—and what’s a little lossy distortion piled on top of an already grungy sound?
A hallmark of most jazz records, however, continues to be the cymbals, often made extra-atmospheric with the addition of rivets. These cymbals are some of the first sounds to suffer when pushed hard into a codec’s algorithm. Other acoustic instruments also bang their head against a codec’s ceiling; the horns, in particular, are quite susceptible.
As you might be called upon not only to mix but master the final product, I’d advise you to keep all this in mind throughout the process. Many consumers will be streaming the resulting record, and even at 320 KBps there can be audible distortion (particularly noticeable in the cymbals and brass) when elements are pushed too hard.
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Using the Codec Preview in Ozone, you can actually audition the mix through the codec and see how badly it’ll sound. This can help you make decisions, such as backing off the overall level or curtailing some unnecessary brightness. You can even solo codec artifacts to train your ear to their sound.
Remember, you don’t need to be super duper loud! Sure, some jazz records go to -9 LU or higher on CD, but no one really tends to get mad if a master comes in a bit lower, so long as it sounds professionally handled. Most artists you work for will want a dynamic sound over an unceasingly loud one.
Working with musicians is always a trip; creative people tend to have creative ways of expressing themselves. In my experience, jazz musicians are especially creative in their vocabulary. There’s no way around it: You’re going to get clients who speak in esoteric adjectives, telling you they want the ride cymbal to be “smoky,” and the guitar to sound “really out, man. Like, out!” I once had a client tell me he wanted the kick drum to sound “purple.”
You’re going to need tools to translate this language into actual mixing terms.
This is a hard area to navigate. The best tips I can advise are references, patience, and copious notes. Mix references help you establish what the adjective might mean (“can you give me an example of a tune where the kick sounded ‘purple?’”). Patience helps you keep your cool as the artist sits over your shoulder and responds to you tweaking the sound over and over again. The notes are equally handy: for my “purple” client, I have a sentence that reads “purple = boost 300 and 2 kHz; purple = flubby and papery.” It has since come in handy.
Politics exists across all musical genres, but it’s perhaps more daunting in jazz, because the world is so rarified. You must be aware of the dynamics that exist between members of the band, artists and producers, and even relationships with certain studios. The problem could rear its head if you have multiple people pulling your mix in different directions. You must delicately impose boundaries to get the band to agree.
Likewise, if the record features a producer you don’t like, or goes out to a mastering engineer you don’t care for, bite your tongue; there is, in my experience, a reason people use specific practitioners, even if they’re terrible. They might have recognizable names, and in many cases, connections to promotional outlets, record labels, or touring opportunities. These are things the client would like to make use of. It always pays to keep your cards close to the vest when it comes to criticizing your peers, but never have I found this to be more true than when working within the often insular world of jazz and free-improvised music.
Start mixing jazz music
As is the case with live projects, the biggest thing to remember about mixing a jazz record is that you are not there to stamp your sound onto the proceedings, but to interpret the music of the artists as best you can. The best jazz records aren’t remembered for the mixing moves; indeed, some of the worst jazz records actually are remembered for this.
Instead, look at mixing jazz as an opportunity to serve music in a pure, egoless way. You are utterly beholden to every note presented to you; unless directed by the client, there is no editing or reshaping the arrangement through muting channels.
There is only you, and the night, and the music.