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Brian Montgomery on Recording Brooklyn Babylon in Studio C

Brooklyn Babylon

Brooklyn Babylon by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, currently nominated for a 2014 Grammy Award for best large ensemble jazz album, was recorded at Avatar Studio C with engineer and co-producer Brian Montgomery, assisted by Tyler Hartman & Tim Marchiafava. The album is available on New Amsterdam Records.

1. Can you explain the concept of the project?

When composer Darcy James Argue first contacted me about recording and mixing the Secret Society Brooklyn Babylon project I thought, perhaps, it might be just like any other big band / large ensemble record.  What I quickly learned was that was definitely not to be the case.

First off, the album had a concept, complete with multimedia animation and live artwork by Croatian visual artist Danijel Zezelj, which dynamically accompanies the music during live performances.  The story of the record takes place in a larger than life, mythic Brooklyn, where past, present and future coexist.  In this town, plans are afoot to construct an immense tower – the tallest in the world – right in the heart of the city.  The master craftsman who is commissioned to build the carousel that will crown the tower finds himself torn between his personal ambitions and his allegiance to the community.

In addition to the story concept for the record, Darcy also had definite ideas about wanting to somehow incorporate the flavors of various other musical genres such as indie rock, disco punk, classical, 70’s jazz and even Balkan music to all help set the stage and paint a musical picture.  This project was far from ordinary and certainly not your dad’s Count Basie record.

2. How did you prepare for this recording, which involves 18 musicians in total?  Were there any special accommodations you had to come up with to make the session work?  How did Studio C aid in the recording process? 

After I had agreed to be involved in the project, Darcy sent me a few links to a few YouTube video clips of the debut performance of the Brooklyn Babylon piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see it in person or attend any rehearsals in advance.  When we initially began planning the project we started our dialog by discussing what studio venues would possibly work to suit the piece.  As I learned more information about the project I quickly realized that Studio C at Avatar was the absolute ideal location to pull it off.  Just having 18 musicians to contend with alone can often be enough to think about, but add in doubles and triples on almost every instrument and things can get out of hand pretty quickly.  In addition to the obvious considerations for the band, we would also need a studio with a console large enough to accommodate the eventually massive number of tracking inputs (preferably one with automation to make things more manageable with VCA grouping).  Studio C definitely checked off all the boxes.

My initial approach with any project is always to keep things as simple as possible.  My preliminary sketch for the session consisted of about 48 inputs where some of the inputs would be swapped out for some of the musician doubles, depending on what it was they were playing at the time.  This concept was short-lived though as I soon realized that not only were the musicians doubling or tripling instruments but they were doing so all within the same piece of music.  At any one given time the piano could be switching from acoustic to electric, ditto for the bass and guitar (both acoustic and electric as well).  The drums also shared doubling duties on percussion and the low brass had switching between trombones, tubas and euphoniums.  The woodwinds had the more commonly seen doubles and triples between saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  To cover it all, I soon realized that we’d need to have almost all of the inputs available “full time” so the setup quickly ballooned to over 60 inputs with microphones everywhere to cover and accommodate the additional instrument positions.

Secret Society-Final Room PlotHaving so many open microphones can sometimes be a phase nightmare so it was important to find a studio that not only sounded good but also had as much isolation as possible to allow as much flexibility as possible in doing punches / fixes and also to maximize control in mixing.  Studio C at Avatar has five isolation booths as well as a decent sized main room, all with excellent sight lines.  There is also a fairly large sound lock adjacent to the control room that can also double as an additional isolation booth as well, bringing the grand total to a whopping seven individual recording spaces (all of which where used).

The conductor and horns were arranged in a semi circle out in the large main room while each member of the rhythm section had his own separate iso-booth to contain their respective collections of instruments as well.  The guitar was actually split between two booths since there were to be screaming loud electric guitar sections in addition to quiet acoustic guitar in some of the pieces.  A through-wall link was able to safely connect the guitar player to his amplifier humming away loudly in the booth next door.

Darcy also indicated that he wanted to have some control over the soloists on some of the pieces to allow them to possibly do multiple takes so we used the sound lock to isolate them as well (at times up to two players at once).  I honestly don’t know of any other studio that has quite so much flexibility in recording spaces that could have come close to pulling this off.  Studio C at Avatar is truly a workhorse.  Plus, having been on staff there for years, it also gave me “home field advantage” that helped make an incredibly complex project run very smoothly.  Though it felt like I had spent almost as much time preparing and planning for the project than I did actually recording it, all of that prep work certainly paid off in spades.

3. The music is accompanied by a highly visual, multimedia presentation.  Did you do anything special during the recording or in the mix to complement the visual style? 

In addition to the multimedia visual element, the music is performed live in a unique horseshoe arrangement where the horn players encircle the centrally located rhythm section on a multi level ramp.  It was obvious from the start that we should try to stay faithful to this arrangement when it came to seating the horn players in the room so that they would be presented as such in the mix.  During the live show, the opening piece, “Prologue,” finds the various members of the band slowly entering the performance space from off stage.  Some of them even emerge from the audience as the piece develops until finally all of the members of the band convene on the stage risers.  From the beginning, Darcy wanted to try to replicate this for the opening of the record.  We even went so far as to record a few takes with the band walking into the room from the hallway while playing to try to get a sense of motion.  Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out as dramatic as we’d hoped so we wound up having to automate a lot of panning and reverbs to simulate this effect during the mix.

Darcy was helpful enough to make a field recording one day of one of the trumpet players walking the streets of Brooklyn playing the piece so that we could have a frame of reference as to what it might sound like with horns passing through the stereo field.  I can only imagine what some of the neighbors must have thought when they heard that and looked out their windows to see what was going on!!  During the mix, we also incorporated some additional field recordings that Darcy made by the Gowanus Canal along with some other sound effects that help “visualize” the scene at the albums opening.

4. As co-producer of the album, what additional considerations did you have to deal with? 

The co-producer credit caught me completely off guard.  Having invested so much time and energy from the preproduction planning stages all the way up to the end mastering I suppose Darcy felt I might have gone well above and beyond what most other engineers might have.  Knowing that he was looking for quite a different sound than anything that had come before, I did make some additional considerations towards my approach to EQ’ing and compressing the drums in particular that one might not do on a typical big band record but, other than that, I was just trying to help accommodate whatever ideas he wanted to try.  It wasn’t until we were knee deep into the mixing process that Darcy told me that he wanted to give me a co-production credit because of my efforts in bringing things to fruition.  It was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

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