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Recording the Great Horn Section
Approaches to recording horns
By Jon Bare

We were putting together a giant show for someone’s daughter’s wedding last year. It was going to be a big production with the usual guitars, bass, and drums—plus piano, B3, Hawaiian steel guitar, percussion, several featured vocalists, and a full horn section. I suggested calling it “Jon Bare and the Killer Whales Orcastra.” Get it?

Unfortunately, the groom got cold feet. But so as not to disappoint Whale watchers too heavily, I decided to put all these musicians together on tape and record a CD entitled “Orcastra.” That way we could all find out what it would have sounded like.

I spent the next few months putting the final touches on some partially written tunes, after which I made 4-track demos of them all. Gotta give the band something. When selecting material for the album, I made sure that at least half of the songs seemed like good candidates for a horn section.

First contact

A friend (Vicki McClure of Vicki & the Vipers) referred me to Larry Williams, her “first-call” horn session arranger/trumpet player. That was good enough for me. I called him, and he suggested that maybe he could do the horn arrangements in exchange for some free studio time. Perfect!

I sent him a cassette copy of the rough mixes I had, and he digested them for about a week. Then I got a call—he wanted to come over to the studio and show me what he had written. He’d created charts for five of the songs on his computer, which guarantees that the charts are legible and changes are easy to make.

He came over, and we rolled tape as he sung the horn parts. Happily, I agreed with 99% of his ideas. As I recall, we removed an extra note in a couple of places that conflicted with the vocals. Also, I liked what he was doing in one spot and suggested he come in with it four bars earlier. Minor changes.

We also made some mutual decisions about what would sound best during the fade-outs on a couple of the tunes. I had specific ideas about exactly where the fade would be, which Larry could not have known by listening to the rough mixes. On these songs I preferred the sound of the rhythm instruments playing something consistent behind the solo riff during the fade. We generally took two or four bars from earlier in the outro and looped them. Larry made the changes on his printout.

The next week Larry came back to review his modifications and show me his ideas for one of the songs that we hadn’t discussed during the first meeting. Again, it was easy to agree on the final arrangements. By this point I could fully imagine what the CD was going to sound like, and I was excited. Larry had thought the songs were very “horn friendly”; it was no problem getting the horn parts to work with the guitar tracks, because a lot of them were really horn lines.

After going through the tunes, we both agreed that horns would be an essential ingredient on seven of the eleven songs. Larry would bring over a sax player and a trombonist, both of whom were excellent sight readers, so it was important for the charts to be in order before the session.

The setup

The next week we set up to record the horn section: Larry Williams on trumpet, Zane Musa on tenor sax, and Tim Keehn on trombone. This was a new experience, and that always gets the blood going.

I arranged the three players in a semi-circle in my tracking room, each about five feet apart. We put Larry in the center, with Tim (bone) on his left and Zane (sax) on his right.

When I told Larry I had a Royer R-121 ribbon mic, his eyes lit up. He immediately reserved it for use on his trumpet. The Royer has a very smooth top end that doesn’t get harsh even under the onslaught of a horn. We placed it about three feet from the bell of his trumpet; this mic likes to be at a distance.

The Royer mic was routed into a JoeMeek VC6Q British Channel mic preamp. This box has an aggressive opto-compressor that sounds great, but I switched it out—all the horns were going to be compressed together on their way to tape, and I didn’t want to double-compress the trumpet.

The British Channel also has a pretty aggressive eq section. I found that a 5 dB boost of the top and bottom bands (both shelving—the user manual does not say at which frequencies) with a 1 dB cut at 1.2 kHz really made the trumpet shine. That Royer never gets shrill when you boost the top end.

The trumpet signal was then routed through an input channel of the board with no additional eq, then bussed to group 1. Group 1 was sent through a dbx 165A compressor on the way to tape. Peaks were knocked down about 5 dB at a 5:1 ratio. We all know that it’s important not to lose all the dynamics in the performance by too much squashing.

On playback everyone agreed the trumpet sounded Great—loud and bright, yet still warm and natural. Larry was happy with the sound. It’s my feeling that when a player knows his sound is working coming back off tape, he plays better.


Next it was Tim’s turn to go out there and blast, which he did with great fortissimo into a poor, helpless Neumann U 87 at about six inches. After turning everything else in the control room down and still hearing clipping, I engaged the mic’s -10 dB pad and that solved the problem. It’s very rare that you have to turn on that mic’s pad. After that, every step in the signal path had to be adjusted by ear to avoid the clipping sound.

The U 87 on the trombone was routed through one channel of a Presonus MP-20 mic preamp. This preamp is pure class-A with plenty of headroom. So I was surprised to hear that it was audibly distorting the trombone signal even when the LED’s were showing -16 dB. This thing goes to +28!

Setting the gain of the mic pre had to be done by ear. A level that looked “right” on the meters sounded horribly distorted, which was weird. The trombone’s waveform probably has a huge spike associated with the sputtery attacks—which causes mic preamps to clip even when the average level (as shown by the meters) is relatively low.

From the mic pre, the signal was sent to a channel of the board (my obscure but trusty and personalized British Dynamix D3000) and given some eq sweetening: a 5 dB boost at 10kHz, a 2 dB boost at 2 kHz, and a 4 dB boost at 300 Hz. It was then bussed to group 1 along with the trumpet.

At one point I started to hear clipping on some of Tim’s low notes that I couldn’t make go away. I had to walk out into the room to hear what was coming out of his trombone. It sounded just like clipping! That’s his sound. Reassured that what was coming out of the control room monitors was in fact coming out of his instrument, we were ready to proceed.

After listening to his sound off tape in the control room, Tim gave me the thumbs-up. At the end of the session he surprised me by saying that he’d never heard his trombone coming back off tape sounding so good! I concluded that everyone recording Tim’s trombone in the past probably had some kind of distortion thing going on.

He also said that most of his recent recording experience has been with modular digital 8-tracks, so you analog fans can factor that into the equation. We’re recording on 2-inch 24-track, an MCI JH-16—but personally, I don’t think the equipment is always to blame. Usually it’s somebody’s ears.

Safe sax

Zane on sax was the easiest to set up. l used another U 87 at six inches, but didn’t need the pad. It was routed through the other channel of the Presonus to the board using the same eq that worked on the trombone. This wasn’t intentional, it just happened to sound best that way. It was then bussed to group 1 along with the trumpet and trombone.

Group 1, again, was compressed and sent to one channel of the 24-track tape deck and returned to provide a send to their headphone mix. With three mics on three faders it was easy to find a balance that worked to make a fat track. I ended up with the sax fader at 0 dB, the trombone down 11/2 dB, and the trumpet down 3 dB. Of course, your results may vary depending on how you set the input trims on your channels.

Now, you might be thinking ‘Why print one track of three horns when you can print them to two tracks and have the horns in stereo?’ Good question. The answer is that if the players are sufficiently talented you can do something even better: they can double their parts on a second track and you can pan the two tracks in stereo. That gives you six horns on two tracks, and it sounds awesome.

True, they have to be able to duplicate their first performance for this to work, but the results are worth it. And the addition of a few harmony lines on the second track can make it sound extra huge.

I’d finished setting up at 1:00, Larry and the boys had arrived at 2:00, we’d finished eating pizza at 3:00, by 3:30 we had a good sound on each of the horns and a rough blend of the three going to tape. The level never peaked above 0 dB, which is quite conservative for me. I run guitars well into the red, but learned from the trombone experience that leaving some headroom is probably a good thing.

Happily, everyone was comfy with the same headphone mix. At one point Larry had suggested to one of the other players that he remove one side of the headphones from his ear slightly to get “more me” if that was what he wanted.

We recorded horns on five songs that day, finishing up around 11:00 pm. As we went from song to song, everyone had the rewarding feeling that all the parts worked and that they nailed them. Looking back on it, it was one of the most enjoyable recording sessions I’ve done in recent years—due in no small part to the professionalism of the players involved.

The role of the horn arranger is not to be taken lightly. He must communicate well with the other players, resolving any confusion they may have about the phrasing of the notes. It’s his job to show them how to play it and make sure that they play it right. So he must be firm, yet patient.

At the same time he must also take direction from the producer/engineer/principal artist (me) regarding what sounds good and what needs to be changed. Making changes to charts during a session is to be avoided, but it still happens. A good arranger can make the necessary changes without getting flustered.

The Killer Horns

It’s been over a year since my initial inspiration for Orcastra, and now the album is ready to mix. The process of recording all the different instruments, including sitar, tabla, distant thunder, squeaky doors, and lots of unusual percussion has been enjoyable. I’m almost a little sorry to see the party come to an end.

A good horn section can really give rock ’n’ roll a boost. It certainly didn’t hurt the Rolling Stones any. These horn tracks came out so well that I told Larry that if he wants he can call his section The Killer Horns. I think he liked the idea.

Jon Bare is the author of “Recording The Electric Guitar."


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