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Stompin' Ground

by Aaron Neville
feat. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

The first thing to say about this recent Grammy winner is just “go listen to it” – it’s so much fun! Not only is the playing by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band first-class, and a reminder of how infectious a great live rhythm section can sound, but the song also reminds us how powerfully yet nimbly a Sousaphone can deliver the goods in the bass department. There’s no bass guitar here, so whatever you think you’re hearing down there, it’s almost certainly the Sousaphone, albeit with occasional support from the baritone sax.

But the other thing that’s interesting from a production perspective is how the band created such a thick, beefy sound in the studio, and in this respect there’s an illuminating ‘behind the scenes’ video of the recording session that I think reveals part of the secret: the bulk of the band (the drums and all the horns) were miked up together in the same room. Now, it stands to reason that a band like this would have wanted to perform together, rather than developing an arrangement piecemeal from overdubs – close visual contact and communication is pretty much essential if you’re going to keep your rhythm so deep in the pocket. But there are plenty of engineers who’d have boothed off the drums, for instance, or tried to put gobos up between all the musicians, and there are no such measures on display here. And because of this, I’d expect that it’s the spill between the mics that’s simultaneously enriching the tone of all those instruments and causing them to cohere naturally into a believably blended ensemble sound, rather than much in the way of mix processing. That’s the beauty of using spill to your advantage.

My only query, though, is whether the drums might be a touch too ambient. On the one hand, I love the way they sit naturally behind the horns and fill out the overall texture, but on the other hand I think there’s a limit to how tight and funky the kit can feel with that much room reverb. Referring to that video again, it looks like the drummer’s set up perhaps 12 feet from the horns, which means that the majority of the inevitable drum spill into the horn mics would have sounded pretty reverberant, and I wonder whether moving the drummer closer to the horns might have appreciably tightened up the drum sound in this respect. Yes, you’d have had more spill overall, but that spill would have been less like reverb and more like just another part of the kit sound (like the overheads, say). On the downside, it might have limited the degree of balance control provided by the individual horn mics, but would that have been such an issue with an ensemble that’s clearly as naturally well-balanced as this one?