Although there’s a lot of pretty good engineers around these days, not many have the ability to record a 45 to 100 piece orchestra with the ease of someone who’s done it a thousand times. Don Hahn can and that’s because he actually has done it a thousand times. With an unbelievable list of credits that range from television series (like Star Trek The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager), to such legends as Count Basie, Barbra Streisand, Chet Atkins, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Woody Herman, Dionne Warwick and a host of others (actually 10 pages more), Don has recorded the best of the best. Starting in New York City in 1959 and eventually becoming a VP at Phil Ramone’s famed A&R Studios there, then later at Hollywood’s A&M Studios, Don has seen it all and then some. Don’s retired now but his orchestral technique is still the model to emulate, so here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook that illustrates how he did it.
“How is your approach for mixing an orchestra different from when you mix something with a rhythm section?
Don Hahn: The approach is totally different because there’s no rhythm section so you shoot for a nice roomy orchestral sound and get it as big as you can get with the amount of musicians you have. You start with violins, then violas if you have them, cellos then basses. You get all that happening and then add woodwinds, French horns, trombones, trumpets and then percussion and synthesizers.
What happens when you have a rhythm section?
Then the rhythm section starts first. Any time I do a rhythm section, it’s like constructing a building. That’s your foundation. If you don’t build a foundation, the building falls down. I like to shoot for a tight rhythm section, that’s not too roomy. I think that comes from all the big bands that I did; Woody Herman, Count Basie, Thad and Mel, Maynard Ferguson.
Are you building from the drums or the bass first?
The bass is always first. Everybody relates to the bass. I can remember doing records in New York and some of the producers would put paper over the meters. I told them I don’t care, just let me get the bass and I’ll balance the whole thing and it’ll come out okay. The only time I can get screwed personally on any date with a rhythm section is if the bass player’s late. There’s nothing to relate to because everybody relates to the bass player. If he’s not there, it doesn’t work. Now orchestrally, the bass players can be late and it doesn’t matter because I’m balancing all the other strings and then adding brass and the percussion last. But on a record date with a rhythm section, it’s the bass player and the drummer that’s the foundation and the colors come from the keyboards and the guitars.
Are you worried about leakage?
No, I try to get the least amount of leakage with as much room as I can. On Streisand, we put the bass player and the drummer in one section of the room with some gobos around, she was in her own booth, three other singers were in another booth, and the whole rest of the studio was filled with great musicians.
How has recording and mixing changed over the years?
Well, just for some perspective, when I started there was no Fender bass and one track only, with no computers or click tracks. Every date used acoustic bass. There was no synthesizer. Bob Moog used to come up to the studio sometimes with his synthesizer that he was working on. It was like 15 feet wide with big old telephone patch cords and tubes and have us comment on his sounds.
I think some of the problems you have now is the younger guys don’t go into the studio and listen. You must listen to what’s going on in the studio. Don’t just go into a control room, open faders and grab EQ’s. As an engineer you’re supposed to make it sound in the control room like it sounds in the studio, only better. You must listen in the room and hear what it sounds like, especially on acoustic or orchestral dates, and not be afraid to ask composers. Your composers, and especially the musicians, are your best friends because whatever they do reflects on what you’re doing. If they’re not happy, you’re not happy. Remember, the music comes first.”
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.