Reference recordings: [Jazz] Ella Fitzgerald – The Intimate Ella (1960)

27 Dec

Hi everyone again! I hope you are enjoying a great and well deserved Christmas break with your relatives and friends. Some people hate Christmas, some people love it; you know, to each one his taste. But what’s undeniable is that, consumerism apart, this time of the year is great to recap on what we have done in the past months and set our goals for improving ourselves and the life of those who surround us.

Off to work now. I am writing today to introduce a new series that I’ll be updating in the blog regularly: a compilation of albums that I feel that somehow excel in sonic quality because of the techniques and care used at the recording, mixing and mastering stages. These albums, under my point of view, would make solid references for audio engineers when recording or mixing artists that work in a similar music genre to those that I am going to present. As you can imagine, this won’t be useful for already skilled and experienced audio engineers that know the tricks of the trade and make their living by producing different kinds of music genres and artists. But for all of us who don’t have many years of experience, it’s always good to have milestones that illustrate masterpieces of different genres to compare our work against them. When we are starting (or acquiring experience), we can never go wrong by first learning from the masters who went through it all before us. Once when we have mastered that sound, we will keep improving our skills by adding our own personal touch to each work we produce.

With this, I am not saying “If you don’t know how to record this kind of music/artist, copy what you’ll hear and you’ll produce a perfect record”. Nothing further from the truth: experimenting is always key if we want to improve or learn. But sometimes it’s good to know where the North is in case we get lost in the way.

The first genre to start with this series of sonic masterpieces is Jazz, with an Ella Fitzgerald album from 1960 (no less) called “Intimate Ella”. This record is quite particular, as its instrumentation is very sparse: just her vocals and a piano.

Ella Fitzgerald - The Intimate Ella (1960)

Ella Fitzgerald – The Intimate Ella (1960). Photo taken from Amazon.com

  • Technicalities: Unfortunately, I don’t have any details or info about the recording of this album, apart from that it is a stereo recording done in 1960 at some studio in New York. No mics, console or engineer details here. I suppose that the gear used were probably Neumann microphones for the piano and Ella’s vocals, going into a tube console and then into a tape recorder. Which is as good as it could get, by the way.
  • Music: This album was recorded in 1960, when Ella Fitzgerald and her voice were at top form, and it was supposed to be the soundtrack for a movie called “Let No Man Write My Epitaph” in which Ella appeared onscreen too. It went unnoticed at that time, until it was digitised in 1990 and released as “The Intimate Ella”. Here, she sings some slow-paced, well-known American jazz standards along with the accompaniment of a piano which beautiful and never obtrusive, just the perfect partner to her voice. This is the perfect “late night” album, sometimes sad, sometimes quiet, sometimes hopeful: just you and Ella in a room with a piano by her side, telling stories of love and despair.
  • Why should it be a reference?: This album showcases absolute mastery in conveying an intimate performance: Ella’s vocals are so clear and closely miked that you can hear every breath,every gasp in her throat, every parting in her lips, along with the perfect amount of room sound not to appear unnatural. The same goes for the piano: the sound is clear, not brittle, not too bassy; not too near but not too far and with a tiny bit more ambience to it than the vocals. Just right, behind the vocals, giving a clear spatial impression of being behind but near Ella. Having listened to it in headphones and loudspeakers, I am astonished of the sound reproduction in both but I’ve noticed some tape hiss on it. Bearing in mind that this recording was made in the 1960s, and that we don’t know how many generations of master tape have been used, this is understandable and admissible. It seems like a judicious decision for this 1990s remaster not to cut too much of the top-end as it’s better to have some tape hiss than to harshly cut high frequencies in order to reduce “noise”.
  • Equipment used in the judgement: FLAC file -> Alesis Multimix 16 USB 2.0 (audio interface) -> AKG K171 Studio headphones

If you are recording some vocal performer (jazz-style) accompanied by another instrument, this is a key recording for your reference collection. Ah, and extremely enjoyable, too!

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