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Recording Jazz Instruments


In the previous tutorial we looked at recording instruments at the more classical end of the spectrum. Looked at from one point of view, recording a jazz session player is not dissimilar—choosing a suitable location with the right microphone correctly placed will get the job done in exactly the same way. 

But as we noted, classical musicians are usually highly trained at reading music, so they will most likely be looking for a notated part when they arrive for the session. Jazz musicians are, almost by definition, improvisers. This is what they do best. They may not even be able to read a notated part that well, if at all. 

But if a talented jazz session player can connect to your track and the vibe is right for them, then watch out. You could be about to hear something awesome!

A confident session musician can give you what you’re looking for...
– David Sylvian

Know Your Player

For this reason, it really is worth choosing your player with care for the track you have in mind. Ask yourself; does the style of the piece you have in mind really suit the session player you are about to invite? Is the range right for the instrument, or will he or she struggle in that key? 

Certain instruments are limited in that way; some harmonicas are keyed in C (for example) rather than fully chromatic; likewise certain types of whistles improvise better in some keys than others. Best to find out before they arrive, so check with your player or send them an MP3 of the track before you tie up the session details. 

Here’s an example of a whistle improvising over a track in B major. Note the pitch bends towards the end of the piece; these can work well but depend on the whistle either being in the same key of the piece or a closely related key, since many are not fully chromatic. 

For the saxophone there is a whole family of instruments to consider. The tenor, the alto and the soprano sax are all beautiful instruments to work with—I also recorded a baritone sax one time—but they differ quite a bit in the kinds of thing they do well. Many sax session players will own and play several, but some are known specialists in a particular instrument.

The soprano sax is the highest pitched of the family and has a smooth, sweet clear sound. It can be extremely agile when well played, but needs particularly careful intonation to keep perfect tuning. Here’s an MP3 of a soprano sax playing in a particularly laid back, chilled way that works well for the instrument:

The tenor has a darker, throatier and more aggressive sound that can create a more ‘full on’ vibe. Here’s the same backing track, but this time fronted with a tenor sax to give you an idea: 

Using Samples to Suggest a Part

For jazz players, we know we’re not going to have to provide a notated part. And we’ve established that (a) they are generally good at improvising, and (b) we want to use their creativity to give a touch of class to our track. But what if you actually have a pretty clear idea in your mind what you want them to play? 

One solution is to prepare a MIDI part using samples for them to hear. A well programmed part certainly can give a clear lead to the session player trying to understand what it is you want from them; it can point them in the right direction. 

But here a word of caution might be in order: don’t fall too much in love with your own MIDI creation! After all; you asked someone into your studio to play for real, which is going to be light years more authentic sounding than anything you previously programmed. So just play your part once for guidance, remember to apologise for it, and then switch it off! We musicians are sensitive creatures and easily offended...

How Does It Sound in the Headphones?

OK. So now we’ll assume the session’s been set up and the talent has just arrived at your studio. To get the best out of your player, they absolutely have to be hearing the track through their headphones at its best. So do make sure you check their headphone mix to see that it sounds just right. 

This can be a little tricky if they are in another room and their mix is coming from the AUX send of a mixing desk. With this kind of set-up, the control room sound you are hearing through the studio monitors won’t be the same as what they are hearing; you’ll need to take time to set up their mix separately. 

Try soloing the AUX send on the desk while you build their mix; then go through and actually check their headphones as well for mix and volume until you’re satisfied they are hearing the right things. 

Tip:  If your mixer has this capability, send the headphone mix out on an AUX send that has a pre-fade option, and make sure all the pre-fade buttons are pressed on every channel. This way, you can change your own control room monitor mix any way you want without it affecting what the player is hearing.

They might not actually need all of the mix. A strong sense of groove (drums and bass) plus pitched information (keyboards or guitars) will probably be enough. You can leave the pads, string arrangement, or ‘icing on the cake stuff’ out for now. They may also need to hear more (or less) of their own instrument in the headphones. Ask for their opinion on this if they don’t volunteer this information themselves. 

I have on rare occasions set the player up in the same room as me, in which case they will hear what I am hearing from my control room monitors. That makes things a whole lot easier, but the trade-off is a lot of track spill will get picked up through their microphone which can make mixing a bit tricky later. It can work if the volume is really low, but is definitely not my preferred option! 

Quick, Hit the Record Button!

Your whole aim is to get the player comfortable and relaxed in the studio, so try to get all the technical stuff sorted out with the minimum of time and fuss—some of it preferably ahead of time. I know things don’t always go to plan. Mysterious hums and buzzes can suddenly appear from nowhere; or worse, the headphone amp goes down at precisely the wrong moment. But thankfully these are rare exceptions rather than the norm. 

There’s a lot to think about aside from the headphone mix, of course. There are recording and compression levels to set, maybe a little EQing to do, and certainly your own monitor mix levels to sort out. 

One thing I have learned to my cost though; it’s possible to be too fussy about these details and risk either tiring the player out, or worse, missing the best take which was the first time through! 

As I write this I can hear myself saying, as I have done many times through the talkback button of my own studio mixer, ‘Can you just play it through one more time, while I get the technical stuff sorted?’ Moments later I am then asking myself why on earth I hadn’t pressed record straight away. 

So get that record button pressed! These days, as soon as the player starts playing, I’m already recording so I don’t miss a thing. 

After the Session Is Over

If it all went well and the session player has left for their next gig, then it’s time to congratulate yourself and take a break. (Did you pay them a decent amount for their time?) Hopefully you got a few different takes, so there are options on sections that could be cut together when you mix. 

Live instruments can mix well with programmed samples, but there are a couple of very common issues that come up:

  • Volume. Live instrument playing is often very dynamic so there’s a real contrast between the softer sections and more full on playing. Hopefully you used a little compression as you recorded just to try to contain the levels a bit, but there’s almost bound to be more required at the mix, which might need to be applied either generally or a section at a time. 

  • Tuning. If the headphone mix was good and the player warmed up thoroughly, then the tuning ought to be pretty spot on for most of it. But there might be the odd spot to fix; perhaps you couldn’t quite decide at the time whether to go for a re-take on a particular section? Both Melodyne and Auto-tune have instrument options; either is perfectly capable of ‘rescuing’ a section that didn’t quite come off at the time. I personally don’t like to overuse tuning correction software though; if it was great at the time then how will processing it more improve it later? 

Finally, a quick word about click tracks. The presence of a click track keeping a steady tempo throughout the track can be of enormous help to the player, enabling them to keep time and count in their cue. But it’s surprising what the instinct of a talented player can conjure up without one! 

Here’s an mp3 that features a drifting piano part in no particular tempo and with no click track given. The flute player in question came back at me with this beautiful part. 

Happy recording! 

Note: All the music excerpts cited in this article form part of the authors portfolio on AudioJungle. Feel free to check them out and leave a rating!

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