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Recording the Steelpan Instrument 101

A Basement Perspective

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  1. Footprints - Garvin Blake - Belle Eau Road Blues
  2. Pump Me Up - Liam Teague - Teague and Tappin
  3. Song for Jujee - Gary Gibson - Counter Melodies
  4. Punch - Andy Narell - Smooth Africa, Vol. 2
  5. tarn - BIMA - TAPAS
  6. Pan in ‘A’ Minor  - Garvin Blake - Belle Eau Road Blues
  7. Pan On The Move - Reid, Wright and be Happy
  8. Mango Island - Ralph MacDonald - Trippin’
  9. On a Vibe - Ken Greene - Dancers in a Dream
  10. Dish Boy - Jonathan Scales - Plot/Scheme
  11. Stardust - Robert Greenidge - From The Heart
  12. Just Talkin’ - Jonathan Scales - Plot/Scheme

When the folks at When Steel Talks (WST) asked me to do something on pan and pan recording productions, I said ‘why not, sure.’  Of course, later, the brain kicked in and asked my mouth “who told you to agree to this without thinking it through?”  Mouth responded - “I did my job, now, you do yours.”  So here we are.  I have decided (after consulting with my brain this time) to approach this in two parts - first recordings and productions by soloists, and then the recordings of steelbands and orchestras.  These two situations are radically different.

The human ear is an astounding and marvelous machine.  Its ability to discern even the most minute changes is amazing.  Now I said the “ear” has this ability.  I never said “everyone’s ear” is necessarily conscious of these changes.  But subconsciously - everyone has it working overtime.  Remember that.

I guess everyone has a different opinion on what is “good” or doesn’t work for them, and that’s cool.  However, there are some things that most humans will agree to from a sonic perspective.  Let’s call them things that make you go “yuk” or “I can’t listen to that.”

Different engineers and producers have different approaches and philosophies as to how to record the steelpan instrument.  Most of their philosophies and practices are radically different to the approach we use at Basement.  Their methods are not necessarily wrong or bad - just different in  their understanding of what they are trying to achieve.  Our philosophy at Basement is one that takes advantage of the power of the human ear - not necessarily the equipment. 

Composer, Arranger, Recording & Performing Artist - Robert Greenidge
- at Basement Recordings Studios

From a production standpoint we believe the listener must be part of the experience - sometimes this means being part of the band.  We don’t believe in or subscribe to, the “fix it in the mix” mentality; “EQ” is a two-letter curse word that should be avoided wherever and whenever possible.  And moreover, we don’t believe in trying to create what you didn’t capture or have in the first place.  Of course, mathematically speaking, there can be circumstances that might force compromises in these Basement postulates (Never, LOL!)

A firm understanding of the three-dimensional spatial canvass (maybe four if you count things you can feel but can’t hear) that you are painting on, is a must.  Left, right and center thinking is woefully inadequate.  Front, back, top, bottom, middle, baseline, sideline, slanted, floor, ceiling, around the corner - are terms a competent audio engineer or producer thinks in terms of and must take into consideration.  And, yes, this is also true for a simple two-track mix.  Instead of reaching for the volume faders and EQ knobs like they were salt and pepper, exploiting the human ears’ acute ability to sense depth perception, time delay and harmonics within the audio spectrum, is far more of a healthy methodology toward delivering a clean and uncluttered product, where everything is heard or felt, without nonsensical use of the allotted dynamic range allowed by your equipment - just because you have it, or because you can - which ultimately leads to fatigued ears and unpleasant grimaces on the face of the listening human.

The steelpan instrument has a lot of very complex overtones that are crucial to the character of the entire family of instruments.  In addition, depending on how each instrument is played, it has a very large dynamic range (the area between the ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ of your recording).  Artificially curtailing or needlessly manipulating (excessive compressing, expanding and other “ing’s” I can’t spell or want to remember) any of these two vital areas, could leave you with one of those situations I talk about earlier where one goes “Yuk.”  Furthermore, the pan won’t sound like pan - well not to anyone who really knows what a pan sounds like...

Once you view the family of pan instruments in terms of the colors they bring to the table, timbre and the areas within which they are most pronounced in the audio spectrum, you are well on your way towards creating a worthwhile product, and conveying a respectfully accurate reproduction of this unique instrument, to the listener.

Always use placement as opposed to volume or EQ where plausible.  Remember you can still (see) or hear the six-foot guy who is blocking the two-foot guy, if you change the vantage point of either (the viewer), or listener - or alter the shape of the room.  It is not always the performing voice that has to be moved around to achieve clarity and to receive a phenomenal audio experience.  Hanging the listener from the rafters works real well!  Just ask any two-year old who has had the fortune of being able to sit atop the shoulders of someone taller, to take in a live musical performance.  It’s much better up there usually, than from his or her normal vantage point.  Why do you think the kid up there is always the first to yell  “look the band coming!” with a monster smile on their face?

The moments of capturing are the most important links in the chain.  There never really is a ‘redo’ in this stage, because every performance is different.  Moreover, what you leave with in this phase is what you will have to work with going into the production and mastering stages.  As said earlier, I don’t believe in trying to create what you didn’t have from the beginning, or failed to capture!

The steelpan is an acoustical instrument and in regards to capturing the steelpan instrument, the microphone you use is critical.  Microphones have different personalities and idiosyncrasies which make them ideal, or horrible, for capturing different steelpan instruments under certain conditions.  Using the wrong microphone is guaranteed to give you an unforgiving and unfavorable response.  Equally as important is to know the playing style, ability and the particular instrument of the player. And, yes, Basement has a set of microphones that follow us all over the world just for pan.  One of the most criminal offenses I have seen constantly repeated is the mic placement in relationship to the instruments.  And I’ve seen it done by people who one would think should know better, and even by those who work in very, very ‘highly-regarded’ establishments.  We don’t have enough time here to spend on microphone types and placement, but suffice to say it does greatly affect your product.

I’m stopping here because I’m tired and its late.  Focusing in this instance on the single pan player in company of other instruments - both electronic and/or acoustical - or in a combo setting, included here are ten samples of various steelpan recordings from different artists to demonstrate what are considered very good productions, and of course, capturing, of the steelpan instrument.  They are all low level mp3s, but their quality is just enough to get an idea of what I’m talking about (go get the CDs if want you want the full audio experience).  Essentially the pan is allowed to sound like a pan in these productions.  Included also are two cuts for which I was responsible on the Belle Eau Road Blues CD by Garvin Blake - Footprints and Pan in ‘A’ Minor.  Stay tuned for the focus on capturing and reproducing the experience of conventional steel orchestras.

At this point, a good rule of thumb for anyone looking to hire, or avail themselves of, audio, recording, sound reinforcement or broadcast engineers - when it comes to the steelpan instrument(s) - should go with someone who has credible experience in the respective areas.  Just as if you are looking for, say, a criminal trial lawyer, you would not go, for example, to an entertainment or environmental lawyer for the task.  The same is true with respect to the steelpan instrument.  And further - the types of engineering expertise needed for recording or capturing, sound reinforcement (live show), broadcast of, and mastering of the final steelband product - soloist, or band - for documenting on either conventional media, or specifically for mobi devices - are all different.  Each scenario demands the respective and specific knowledge and experience. 

And remember to avoid the “Touch the Buttons disease” - evidenced by the mentality of ‘the buttons and knobs are there, and exist, therefore I must touch or use!’  If you or your engineer can’t explain why you are touching it, or moving it, and what would be achieved by doing so - don’t - unless you’re still experimenting.  (click for an extended version of Footprints as recorded by Basement Recordings for the Belle Eau Road Blues CD featuring Garvin Blake)

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