Mixing jazz often puzzles the beginner audio engineer. There’s mystery and there’s also a good amount of fear about it. Fear of failure, because of having to work with the unknown the first time. But if you know the true spirit of jazz, you already know how to go about mixing it. Any way you want it! Okay, so there are a couple of “rule of thumbs”, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. Why? Because part of it is history and tradition. Screw those, right?
Natural and organic – your ass
Most pros choose the safest way and go for an unaltered sound as much as possible. The more traditional jazz it is, the more unaltered the sound. It means rarely touching an EQ, and if you must, use generous shelves, gently. That of course requires a perfect recording, with properly miked instruments, so that all the “equalization” is done acoustically. It’s not unheard of to capture the whole band with some kind of stereo pair, then adding spot mics to strengthen the sound of the individual instruments.
Big bands – the surprise
You might thing this is the go to technique for big bands, but you would be surprised how many big band recordings are strictly spot mics. For a stereo sound, that means you have to pan things apart. “Fanning” the woodwinds apart on the left and the horns on the right side is pretty old school. Don’t forget to add reverb to move them backwards a bit. Not unusual to use plates or even spring reverbs to do this. The drums can go on hard right and the piano hard left as well, with bass in the center. Unless the drummer would be really pissed, in which case, you can put the fucker in the center as well. The larger the band, the less you want a wide stereo image on both the drums and the piano; at least with a more traditional approach.
Jazz trios – smooth and beautiful – not unlike my farts
The trio setting is where this whole “less is more” and organic stuff can shine. Of course that upright – if there is one – will be a nightmare to record without unbearable bleed. The poor thing was not designed for extensive pizzicato usage, and the drumkits, loud horns and electric guitars weren’t around when they first came out. So you’ll have to separate it acoustically for a reasonably good miked recording. Or just use a pickup and call it a day. Or a bass guitar.
Anyway, pan the drums in the center. You can go wider this time. On the piano, too, and pan it to one side (right), and the bass to the other one (left). If it’s a guitar or a sax, put them on the right side as well, with the reasonably wide drums sort of holding them together.
That fusion sound – let’s rock
Yeah, so the modern jazz/rock/fusion sound is pretty much just an organic rock sound, with little or no overdubs (but don’t be surprised if there are a fair amount of them). And if I say rock, it means a well miked drum kit that can have a lot of microphones involved in stereo; with kick and snare in the center. Bass goes in the center as well. You can use more EQ on this kind of stuff, but they usually don’t, just to differentiate it from the general pop/rock thing. In the case of compression however, you can actually dig just a tiny bit deeper with it. And no one’s going to complain. With the close spot mics and the electric/electronic instruments dominating the music, there will be a good reason to take out your reverbs and delays. There are some wild attempts in the modern jazz mixing, with crazy amounts of compression and panning keyboard pretty wide from left to right. If it’s done with taste, you’re not gonna hit that stop button. It might be going against the anti-canned spirit of jazz, but hey. If the producer and the musicians are not concerned, it’s gonna be somebody else’s problem. Hello, jazz police.