a winding, pothole-ridden dirt driveway off highway 301 in rural
Southern Maryland lies the burgeoning of live jazz recording.
The bumper sticker on the door of the eighteenth century plantation
home reads, Mapleshade: the Excitement of Live Music, Recorded
Without Compromise. Without compromise is exactly how Pierre Sprey,
president/recording engineer, runs Mapleshade recording studio,
the eclectic jazz label of the same name, and it's blues/roots
not your average recording studio. Sprey, it seems, has intentionally
set out to contradict the methods of the big, sterile multitrack
studios, opting instead for a much more organic approach. He records
everything live to a Sony TC-880 two-track and proudly uses no
mixing board, overdubs, noise reduction, compression, reverb,
EQ, multiple drum microphone, or drum booths. In fact, all of
the recording takes place in the front parlor of the mansion where
the musicians can actually see, hear, and communicate with each
other. This eliminates the need for headphones, an obvious plus
for us drummers. Sprey doesn't even like to use alternating current.
Instead he powers everything he can with batteries to eliminate
disturbance of the signal.
Instead of 8
to 10 microphones just for the drums, whenever possible Sprey
uses only two Crown PZMs for all of the instruments. The PZMs
have been modified by Pierre "the mad scientist" Sprey, then mounted
on sheets of plexiglass and attached to a stand. This allows him
to move the mics around to meet any recording situation's particular
What was that
about no reverb? Well, that's not completely true. Pierre uses
only natural reverb by opening the heavy sliding studio doors
that lead to the cavernous front hallway. The more reverb he needs,
the more the doors are opened. If he needs extra reverb, say for
horns or singers, he simply puts them in the hallway. In a connecting
doorway, Pierre runs the controls of the sacred two-track recorder
only feet away from the musicians. Look Ma, no control booth!
Being at Mapleshade reminds me of a swinging late-night jam session
at a buddy's house who likes to tinker with his wide array of
I know all of
you are saying "But how does it sound?" All of the Mapleshade
and Wildchild! recordings that I have heard and I've heard
quite a few sound absolutely beautiful. It's like magic.
If you close your eyes while listening to the Norris Turney Quartet,
for example, you feel like you're sitting at the best table of
your local jazz club, only better. And that's the whole idea.
Sprey actually got his start as an amateur, recording his favorite
acts in Washington DC and Baltimore nightclubs. What he's trying
to do is bring that exciting live sound home to you, and he succeeds.
The Mapleshade sound is crisp, lively, and full of personality.
The drums sound as drums should sound: full, resonant, and energetic.
And Sprey and
Larry Willis, Mapleshade's musical director and in-house jazz
pianist, don't mess around when it comes to getting talented drummers
on the Mapleshade throne. While I was talking with the dynamic
duo, Larry was often excusing himself to answer phone calls from
other great names in jazz (that's why he comes in and out of the
conversation). Willis was but a wide-eyed teenager when he started
playing piano with Jackie McLean and Hugh Madkela.. He later went
on to play with Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Dizzy Gillespie. He
continues to play with the Fort Apache Band and now also leads
hid own trio, quartet, and quintet.
regard in the jazz community is evident in the names he brings
to Mapleshade. From not-yet-legends-but-fantastic-drummers like
Big Joe Maher (who sings in and leads his own seven piece blues
band) and Jeff Williams (who plays with pianist Frank Kimbrough
and has also played with Stan Getz and Lee Konitz) to legendary
greats like Jimmy Cobb (Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly), Vernell
Fournier (Ahmad Jamal), and Michael Carvin (Dizzy Gilespie, Jackie
McLean, McCoy Tyner, and Freddy Hubbard). Mapleshade's catalog
is chock full o' great jazz and blues drumming.
How does Pierre
do it? On-the-job experience from his former career certainly
doesn't hurt. Before pursuing his recording hobby as a third career,
Sprey was an engineering star at the Pentagon. He was part of
the design team that developed the F-16 and A10 jet fighters.
He argued that it was inefficient to build over-equipped jets
that performed a multiplicity of superfluous functions. Sprey
believed that it was more logical to have a jet do one thing really
well rather than 100 things half-assed, a philosophy he has carried
with him to his new recording career.
background in engineering, Sprey makes the music happen by making
the musicians comfortable. A relaxed and comfortable musician
is a musician who performs well. Everyone at Mapleshade knows
this and puts it into practice. There is no time limit on sessions,
and Pierre is always in the kitchen displaying another one of
his talents: gourmet cooking (talk about your Renaissance man).
Sprey feeds the musicians home-cooked meals and if need be, puts
them up at the Mapleshade Inn.
recipe for great recordings? Mix one part magic, one part science,
and one part good ol' southern hospitality, stir in top-rate artists,
and a healthy dose of veracity. Then bake in the Southern Maryland
countryside until golden brown, and serve hot!
Pierre Sprey: Mapleshade
TD: Tell me
about the Sony two-track you use how have you modified
Pierre Sprey (PS): Well, we
just made a huge modification a couple of months ago. It was one
of the biggest modifications we've made, another major advance
TD: How did you modify it this
time? I know that you've coated some of the parts in lead...
chassis is laminated with about 30 pounds of lead, that's to kill
vibrations in the chassis that feed into the tape and muddy the
music. We had already changed the tape path and some of the electronics.
This last time
around we went in and worked on the electronics real intensively.
The main this we did was strip out about 300 parts. Now it has
a totally singular purpose. When you look at [the recorder] there
are a whole bunch of holes in the front panel. Every one of those
holes represents maybe 50 or 75 parts that we ripped out inside.
That means we've
ripped out all kinds of controls and options. Like you can't pick
speeds anymore, it only records at one speed. It only records
with one type of tape. We took out the muting circuits so it doesn't
mute anymore when you roll [the tape] backwards it makes
a horrible noise in the headphones.
those controls hurts the sound, that's why we took them out. They
are all for the convenience of the engineer, but each one of them
involved a compromise. Each involve snaking the music signal through
a few more amplifiers, a few more switches, and a few more feet
of bad wire. And all this degrades the music. So the more of that
stuff you take out, and the more directly you can feed the signal
from microphone to tape, the more you can preserve the pristine
quality of the music, the excitement and the drama of the music.
TD: So you
try to run the signal through as little wire as possible?
In fact, that's why I sit right there in the corner, in that doorway.
I could have built a kind of control room back here with a glassed
in panel, right? But that would mean I would have to run the microphone
wires up through the ceiling and then down into the control room
to listen to loud speakers. And that would mean maybe 75 feet
of wire instead of 15 feet. Because I'm right there at the edge
of the studio, we don't have to run them through the ceiling or
floor or anything.
good thing about not having a control booth, which I didn't realize
at the time. Over time a lot of the things that happen by "accident"
I now realize later that A) they weren't accidents and B) they
turned out to be technically very sound. Like I think it's much
better to record with headphones than to be in a glassed-in booth
with loud speakers.
still have a lot of disadvantages. You really have to train yourself
to listen to headphones. It's easier to listen to loud speakers,
which is why engineers do it. But the good thing about sitting
in the studio and having headphones on is that I can always take
them off and hear the real music.
You get a much
better sense when you can hear what's really happening in the
room. If you're in a glassed-in booth that's acoustically isolated,
then your reality is a set of very bad speakers. You're twiddling
everything, adjusting everything, setting mics, setting tone controls
and all of that, to the phony reality of a very bad set of speakers.
So you're trying to make the bad set of speakers sound as good
as possible. That makes for, you know, a fucked-up recording [laughs],
right? This way, what I'm basically trying to do is capture what
I hear when I take off the headphones.
TD: So what's
the deal with Freud, is Freud made out of lead? [I saw a lead
brick in the studio with the name "Freud" written on it]
Freud is one of our lead pieces. We have many pieces of lead.
We also have Plato... and Aristotle... [laughs].
TD: I also
saw a bucket of lead in the studio.
are many bucket that I use to weigh down the drum stage, for instance.
Those are filled with lead shot, which is particularly good for
damping vibrations, better than massive lead. The lead blocks
(Freud, Plato, Aristotle, etc.) I use for a whole bunch of different
purposes. One is just to hold down the microphone stands and to
deaden them so that they don't ring.
is when I put up a guitar amplifier on a stand. To make it sound
really good, you kind of have to lock it down to the stand so
there's a clear vibration path from the base of the guitar amplifier
straight into the ground. Putting some lead on top of the amplifier
usually makes it sound better. All of this has to be done by ear.
It doesn't always make it sound better, but on most guitar amplifiers
it sounds better.
Every once in
a while on a drumkit it sounds better to put a lead brick on the
bass drum. Because, again, it locks the bass drum into the drum
stage, which tends to tighten up the bass drum attack.
TD: Do you
use lead because of it's weight or is there some property in lead
that helps absorb unwanted vibrations?
it's much more than just being heavy. You could take the same
weight of cinder block and completely mess things up. Lead is
like the antithesis of a bell. The brass of a bell has that wonderful
quality of ringing, which is exactly what you don't want for the
applications I want. You want something that damps sound.
has more internal damping than any common material, it's like
an anti-bell. That's why when you hit it it goes "thunk" because
there is no ringing at all, and that's the property that I want.
You have to
be real careful if you put lead near instruments. How a bass sounds
has a lot to do with the sound of the platform that it's on, and
it's the same with drums. So if you put the lead too close to
where the endpin of the bass is, then it deadens the stage that
the bass is on and the bass sounds dead.
The same is
true with drums. We found that out when Patato was here. I moved
some lead in too close to his conga drums he was on plywood
and I needed to lock the plywood down with lead so it wouldn't
vibrate too much and I moved the lead in a little too close
to the conga drums. He heard it right away. He has tremendous
ears. So I had to back off with the lead because it was deadening
the sound of the drums.
And that's something
that I've gotten into more and more that I never anticipated:
you learn a lot from musicians with great ears. You can learn
a lot about what good sound is about. You have to be very, very
open-eared. When a musician says something like, "I don't think
that's sounding right" or "My experience is that when I play the
bass it sounds better this way," I always listen because I've
learned so much that way.
One thing I've
learned is that multiple microphones on an instrument is a disaster,
and the instrument that suffers the most from that is the drums.
Because your standard drum recording is done with seven or more
mics, you know, mic'ing the top of every cymbal, and the top of
every drum head, and they've got another mic shoved into the bass
If you have
a real genius of an engineer, he can take all that mess and mix
it back together to where it sounds like an approximation of the
drums, but it's never what the drummer played. Ask any drummer
and you'll hear more horror stories about how the sound of their
drums had been converted into something that may please the engineer,
but doesn't please them.
We just avoid
that whole business. We record the drums from a fairly natural
distance: a little closer than you would listen in a club, but
at least three feet back from the drums. When we have a piano
involved, probably four and a half feet back from the drums, so
then what you hear is what the drummer played. If he plays the
bass drum too loud, it's going to be too loud on the tape. But
you let him listen, that's the whole point. And drummers, especially
good ones, know instantly. All they have to do is get on those
headphones once, listen to a little playback, and say, "Oh, I
got it, I know what I have to do."
So I'm not messing
with their mix, right? Whatever the mix is of cymbals,
snare drum, and bass drum is what they played! And they
can always go back and listen some more and see if they really
like it. If they don't like it, they keep on changing around their
playing until it's how they want it to sound.
TD: It seems
like you're really trying to reproduce what a person might hear
in a club. Is the plexiglass microphone mount meant to resemble
the human head of a person sitting in a club?
an analog, in crude way, of the human head. The two PZMs are a
little further apart on that sloping wedge than your ears are
[on your head], but it's the same idea. The PZM on the left hears
basically everything around a hemisphere on the left, as the left
ear works. The PZM on the right hears everything on the hemisphere
to the right of your head. So what you hear when you listen to
the playback of our recordings if it was recorded on the
PZMs is the same as if you were sitting on a barstool with
your head in that position.
When we record
Larry [Willis] on the piano, we always have the PZMs in the curve
of the piano, and we record with the lid off the piano. To have
it open like that really does make it sound much clearer and cleaner.
All the rich harmonies that come up off the sound board are basically
reflected by the ceiling, which is much better than having them
reflected by a lid. And then we do a lot of fooling around with
plywood under the piano, because the reflecting surface under
the piano is as important as the reflecting surface over the piano.
TD: What about
the drum platform? Was that inspired by the suggestion of a musician
you worked with?
in a way that was forced on me by the idea that I wanted to record
piano and drums with just a pair of PZMs. I didn't want to have
separate drum mics. You haven't seen it as it's usually set up
when we have a regular piano trio or rhythm section. The piano
is right in front of the drums. The PZMs are, as I've said, in
the curve of the piano and they are looking across the piano at
The way I set
up the drums originally was on the floor, kind of the natural
way you would in a club. I did that for probably two or three
years or so, but I always had this feeling that the piano was
blocking too much of the drumkit, because you had to move the
drums up pretty close. And then when you're looking, say, from
a barstool across the piano at the drums, half the drumkit is
hidden by the base of the piano, right? It always gave me a slightly
distant, muffled sound from the drums that I didn't quite like.
JIMMY COBB: JAZZ CYMBALISM
Pierre recounts what it's like
working with the great jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb:
I love working with Jimmy Cobb! Jimmy's got such beautiful,
quiet dignity. He's selfless, there is not ego about the
great things he's done.
one of these people all you have to do is say something
once: "Jimmy, on that ballad, you have to bear down a little
harder on the cymbals because Larry's playing the piano
pretty loud." On the next take it's just right his
level is like a meter needle to the nearest tenth of a decibel.
cymbal beat is so exciting. What's interesting is that he
plays the drums the same way he tells a story. His drum
playing is very austere. He's one of those drummers that
doesn't have an extra stroke anywhere. If he dropped a stroke,
you'd be missing a lot.
are a lot of things you could add and most drummers would
add, but he doesn't need to. His beat is so strong and so
exciting and you see other players respond to it. Larry
[Willis] responds to it like crazy. Jimmy gets on the cymbals
and transforms a ballad.
he's got this great, great sound, that totally distinctive
Jimmy Cobb sound. You can't miss it!
his cymbal work just maddeningly beautiful. You listen and
you can't figure out why it's as beautiful as it is.
For a long time
I didn't know what to do about it. And then it occurred to me
finally that the thing to do was to raise the drums up so at least
they would be above the level of the piano and not masked by it.
It turned out that the real benefit of that was that the drums
sound better on a stage than they do on the floor.
because they are elevated?
no, because the stage vibrates a little more freely than the floor
The drums are
very sensitive to what they are mounted on. That's another reason
why we never use drum rugs. Most drummers like to set up on a
rug, because it keeps their drums from sliding. We always ask
them not to. In fact, we ask them to unscrew the rubber feet on
the drums. They can use the spikes and spike them right into the
stage because we don't care about scarring the stage.
makes the drums sound better. Besides the fact that it keeps them
from sliding, it sounds much better than being on rubber because
the spike is a direct path for vibration going from the drum to
the stage. So the drums sound cleaner and have a more powerful
impact. You can also get a little deeper bass out of the bass
drum when it's properly spiked.
In fact, the
next set of improvements that I want to make in the drum sound
here has to do with building a better drum stage.
wrong with the one you have now?
it hasn't really been tuned. I tried several different thicknesses
of plywood and this one was the one that sounded best, but I think
I can go a lot further. If I had a few days with a drummer and
had several different drum stages with different amounts of reinforcement...
The main thing
is that's wrong with it is the stage is still mounted on cinder
blocks. Cinder blocks are pretty rigid, but they're not a wonderful
path for vibration into the floor. What I want to do is mount
them on brass pipe. I think that would be a much better conduit
for vibration. I could use plumbing type brass pipe and fixtures.
TD: What about
the thickness of the wood, does that make a difference?
that makes a big difference. That changes the resonant note of
TD: Do you
want to tune the stage to a particular note?
would just do it by ear, by listening to the whole drumkit. You
can't tune it to a single note because a drumkit is tuned to many
notes. You just have to listen to the ensemble of the drumkit
and decide where it sounds better.
But there is
no doubt that a higher pitched and lower pitched drum stage would
sound differently and change the drum sound. And maybe in the
end what you need to do is adjust that. The lead weights will
help you adjust that: the more weight there is on a stage, the
lower the resonant frequency of the stage. We might get to the
point where we could tune the stage for a given drummer. What
we do tune right now is that reflector, the little voodoo ritual
with the mirror.
TD: How did
you develop that technique?
again, that was from this problem of the drums sounding a little
too distant, having too much room sound reflected behind the drums.
The drums were, in a sense, much more echoey and distant than
the piano. That was when the drums were still on the floor, but
even on the stage they weren't quite as clean and clear and present
as I had wanted.
So I decided
that maybe what I needed to do was use a reflector to get an earlier
bounce of the sound from the drums. Rather than wait for the drum
sound to bounce off the back wall of the studio and come forward
to the mics, maybe I needed an earlier bounce, something closer
to the drums. So I rigged up the goal post-type bar over the drums
and bolted the plywood to it. We checked the acoustic effects
of that very scientifically. Paul Murphy came over for those experiments.
He's a brilliant avant-garde drummer who has recorded here quite
a bit. He has amazing technical dexterity and he was wonderful
for this experiment because he can repeat exactly what he has
played. He can give you exactly the same dynamics, exactly the
same brush strokes. So we basically set down some patterns, recorded
them, changed things, recorded them again. It was a very scientific
What I found
out is that the major advantage to having the reflector over the
drums is not at all what we had intended. It did cut out some
if the room reflection and it did give the drums a little more
clarity, but the beautiful thing that it did was add an amazing
amount of warmth to the cymbals, which was totally unexpected.
As soon as we put up that reflector, the cymbals sounded so much
nicer, and then we realized that the cymbal sound had been very
on it, it's easy to see why, because we were just mic'ing the
drums from where you would be sitting. So you're hearing the edge
of the cymbal which gives you all the shimmer, but you're not
hearing the full face of the cymbal. That sound is either going
down to the stage or up to the ceiling. But if you put up the
reflector and it's looking at the full face of the cymbal and
is reflecting that directly into the mics, then you get all of
that beautiful, warm brass voice.
TD: Can you
tilt the reflector for different applications?
the platform is adjustable. It's really simple: you just hold
the flashlight next to the mics and point the beam of the flashlight
at the little mirror, which is actually from a lady's compact;
I glued it on there.
You shine it
on the mirror, and the spot that it bounces to is the spot on
the drum set that's most emphasized. The sound follows the same
reflection path as the light.
If you want
to emphasize, for instance, the cymbals, then you would rotate
the reflector to a somewhat more vertical position. If you rotate
the reflector to a more horizontal position, then you're emphasizing
the snare drum.
You can play
with it, according to what the drummer wants and what you think
the music requires, to get a little stronger snare drum sound
and a little less cymbals or vice versa. For instance, if I go
to do a ballad and the drummer is going to use a lot of brushes
brushes on a whole tend to record a little too quietly
then I reset the reflector to put more emphasis on the
TD: In what
type of situation do you emphasize the sound of the symbols?
of all, that depends on the style of the drummer. But, if you
had a situation where you wanted some really bright, splashy sounds,
uptempo type stuff, and you don't want to be too oriented to the
toms and the snare, then you move the reflector to accent the
TD: The drumset
on the stage isn't the Mapleshade house kit. What is the house
one I normally use is Paul Murphy's set, which is a beautifully
restored late 1960's Slingerlands with very resonant shells with
many plies of maple. He stripped them down and refinished them
with linseed oil. They look beautiful and sound great.
a real nice set of old Gretsches on the porch. I want to set up
those drums in a very different way so that, basically, they would
be useless for gigs. All the mountings and stands would be so
rigid and so heavy that you couldn't carry them around. That could
lead to a much more beautiful resonance of the wood body.
TD: Are there
any other things that you do now to eliminate unwanted vibrations
from the drumset?
basically just check that everything is tightened down. I'm sure
that there is more you could do and I'm very open, again, to listening
to drummers who are really fussy about sound. I greatly admire
drummers who are really careful about tuning their drumkit. It's
really noticeable when a drummer has perfect pitch, because they
always get some extra increment or beautiful sound from their
drums. It makes all the difference.
TD: Do you
ever make tuning suggestions?
I listen and I'm real careful when talking to people about their
sound. I just say, "How would you feel if you had a little less
'boom' in the floor tom? Would you feel alright if we tuned it
up just a touch?" Some drummers will say, "No, I can't live with
that!" Others will say, "Oh, let me have a listen!"
The best thing
is to work with people who will try something before they decide
if they like it or not: those are the type of people that I work
best with. I don't feel bad if somebody tries something that I
suggested and says, "No, it sucks!"
TD: At least
they were open minded and give it a try.
They heard it both ways and decided what their sound was.
TD: I was
reading the liner notes you wrote for the Michael Carvin record
(Drum Concerto At Dawn) and I thought it was funny that he listened
to the playback of his drums once and said, "That's my drums,
I'm outta here!"
Yeah! I was real disappointed because I was expecting to spend
a few more hours, especially since we were doing an historic solo
drum record. I figured we'd put in a few more hours and really
get that drumkit dialed in. He was knocked out that it sounded
like what he played...[laughs]...so that was it!
In a way, he
was probably right because it was much more important at that
point to prepare himself for that monumental session the next
day. For him this was like martial arts discipline. He was just
totally focused on getting his mind in the right space to do that
He even gave
up drinking beer for a few months. He's a major beer drinker but
he totally gave it up to get himself completely purified spiritually
to do that, and you can hear it. I've never heard drums convey
such a range of emotions as he did in that two-hour session. You
just know that there had to be this enormous focus of concentration.
to that record, it seems like the whole experience was an emotional
cleansing process for him. What was he going through at that time?
think part of it was the frustration of wanting to do it for 15
years and having people laugh at him and having record companies
tell him it was a silly idea, that people wouldn't respond to
solo drums and that nobody would buy it you know, all that
commercial stuff that record companies will tell you. And here
is a guy who must know that he's one of the world's great drum
composers. He can really compose music for the drumset, and not
many people can.
In the music
business, it's so bad that those pieces he created are not officially
recognized as compositions. He cannot collect mechanical royalties
for them, even though they are beautifully honed compositions,
because they are not conventionally written-out, note-for-note
compositions. He doesn't collect mechanical royalties, and he
cannot get copyright ownership of those compositions.
All of that
has to be part of the frustration of being a drummer who has reached
that level of creativity and knows he can do that project, who
is then told, "Forget it!" So I think that was a lot of the spiritual
cleansing that was involved.
Some of it,
of course, was the trauma of his past, part of which was Viet
Nam. Those stories are shattering, and you know those things have
been weighing on his mind. That's part of what makes the recording
so powerful because he is able to convey violence and death and
horror and all of that with a set of drums.
TD: Just to
be able to interpret Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning" to a strictly drumset
format is amazing.
know, it really is. Standard jazz enthusiasts respond more to
that piece than any other because they all know the Monk song,
and when they hear that, they realize this guy can play songs
on the drums! [laughs]
TD: Was the
drum sound fine-tuned at all for Drum Concerto at Dawn?
we did use a lead weight on his bass drum. We listened to it with
the lead and without he liked it with the lead. In fact,
if you listen carefully to the recording you'll hear at one point
that the lead falls off his bass drum. He was hitting it so hard
that the lead started to shift. You can hear this "clunk"
it's the only [percussive] sound on the entire album that's not
actually part of his drumkit.
The funny thing
is the lead fell right on a downbeat! [laughs] So you don't notice
it, you think it's something he did. He didn't mind; he thought
it was funny as hell! [laughs]
as bizarre coincidence!
Otherwise we would have had to redo it, which would have really
been a shame. The fact of the matter is that it probably wasn't
a coincidence. I used to believe in coincidences too until I had
been running the studio for about four or five years. Just so
many things have happened here that I couldn't have possibly anticipated
that we're all in the direction of making more beautiful music.
Like when I
first went to find this place. I went through six months of agony
to find a place that was acoustically right and felt right in
other ways. We get here and I put down the deposit to show that
I'm serious but it was on the condition that I could do some acoustic
measurements and make sure it was all right acoustically. Otherwise,
they would have to give me back my deposit.
TD: What did
the Realtor think of that agreement?
they thought I was a lunatic. They thought I had totally lost
my mind. And so my friend George Weber and I came in here on a
hot August afternoon. We brought in a computer which basically
made test signals that echoed around the studio. It turned out,
by the measurements at least, to be pretty good and by our ears
it sounded pretty good.
What we totally
failed to anticipate was that the hallway is at least as important
as the studio. In a sense, we could never get the kind of sound
that we get here without the hallway. We ignored the hallway and
did all the measurements with the door closed.
TD: The hallway/reverb
control was never part of your decision?
TD: It seems
so fundamental to the studio.
course. That just happened over time, kind of accidentally. I
think it was some acoustic guitar blues that we first recorded
out there because the reverb was nice in the hall and the singer
was bitching about lack of reverb. So I said, "Alright, we'll
try it in the hall." It came out great! And then slowly the light
was either use the hall or the studio. Eventually it occurred
to me that, gee, this is working great and you can adjust the
amount of reverb from the hall through the doors and use both.
Now it's become
crucial. The only reason we were able to do a big band in here
is because the hall is so good. It sounds good and it gives us
space to put the horns we put the rhythm section in the
main studio. But initially, we had no idea.
TD: Do you
think that certain characteristics of a room or building, like
it's age or history, lend themselves to any recording done there?
that's very important. The age of the room has a lot to do with
how it's constructed. We were talking earlier about horse hair
plaster. Horsehair plaster has a much better sound than modern
plaster. The difference is like night and day. If this place had
been built up with modern drywall, the sound wouldn't be half
of what it is. The fact that it's old masonry and very thick laths,
and built with heavy horse hair plaster makes a major difference
I'm not the
first one to realize that at all, I'm just a beneficiary. It's
one of the secrets of the great European concert halls and why
when you build a concert hall here today, usually they don't sound
as good unless somebody takes the care to have the right kind
of plaster for the walls. Eighteenth-century concert halls sound
so good in part because the materials of the walls and floors
are right. So the age of the house has a lot to do with it. The
structure of the floor is enormously important. People have known
that long before I knew it. The architects of the great concert
halls two and three hundred years ago knew it thoroughly well.
I rediscovered it in the course of recording here because when
you start to move certain instruments, like conga drums and basses,
they sound different in different places.
We are real
lucky that this floor is built on oak beams. They are 1 ½ feet
by 1 ½ feet, they're huge. That makes for a much better sounding
floor, and that's the major determinant of the bottom octave of
the music. How good the bass octave of the piano is, how good
the E string on an acoustic bass sounds, has a lot to do with
the structure of the floor. If the floor was a concrete slab,
the bass would be dead in here. If it was a modern floor it would
just be booming. So, yeah, the age of the house has a lot to do
with our sound. The history of the house also has a lot to do
with how it feels, whether or not you want to make music here...I
have never felt an unfriendly spirit in this house. And other
people feel it. It's just like what's happening here is what ought
to be happening here, which is really surprising.
Larry Willis: Causing An
has this to say about his partner in crime, Larry Willis:
"Larry's done something absolutely
unique. I don't think any studio or any label has ever
had an artist of his stature so deeply involved in what
goes on in the creation of better music. He does an amazing
amount aside from the sessions that he plays on. He has
a very quiet way; you have to be sitting here and watching
him to see how he inspires younger musicians and how they
play at a level they never even dreamt they could play
at. It's a word here, a gesture there. It's real subtle,
but the effect on the music is not subtle."
The people who
are most startled by that feeling in the house are the black musicians.
That's because they walk up to the house and their first instinct
is close to horror because they see the pillars and they know
there were slaves around here and they know terrible things happened
here. [Hamiet] Bluiett felt that and didn't tell me until years
after. But the thing that's astonishing is that Bluiett and all
the others who've felt that way walk into the house and by the
time they're performing, it's hit them: No matter what that terrible
history was, something has happened here that makes the place
welcoming to music and to creativity and it somehow has righted
the wrongs of the past. God knows what changed, but it was here
before I got here.
TD: This is
a pretty untraditional recording environment, how do most musicians
react to the studio and your "unorthodox" methods?
musicians who have done a lot of studio work have real culture
shock when they walk in [laughs] because they see the funky wires
and the funky stage [laughs]. Some people walk in and just instantly
say, "Yes!" But people who are a little technically oriented
who are into mixers and EQ and so on walk in and know right
away that this is going to sound like dog shit. They have a real
negative attitude until they hear some playback. Larry Willis
(LW): There are two reasons why I was so receptive to it: I had
an extensive experience recording in a studio in New York that
was built by one of my dearest friends, Walter Booker. So I was
attuned to the home environment. Plus, when I started making records,
the whole concept of doing things right basically came from a
guy who started out recording in the same kind of situation that
Pierre has here, and that's Rudy Van Gelder. Of course, Rudy had
his studio by the time I started making records, but the records
that I listened to were recorded in his living room in Hackensack.
For me, as a player and recording artist and as somebody who has
played on a lot of records, the sound that he got then was unparalleled.
There is no modern studio that has been able to capture the music
the way he did back then.
TD: It definitely
seems that there are a lot of parallels between the early Blue
Note recordings and Mapleshade recordings.
was my ideal when I started. Those are the records that I collected
and listened to. I love that sound. Rudy was doing all those recordings
in his parent's living room in Hackensack, as Larry said. That
was done with relatively few mics, probably a few more than I
use, live to two-track. Rudy was working with all tube equipment
then; tube tape recorders, tube microphones that's all
they had. He got a beautiful sound. He can't do it today because
he's been trapped out by the technology. He's using a 32-track
digital machine and a whole bunch of modern microphones and so
on. He's got a wonderful, beautiful studio and he's a very good
engineer, but he has not been able to get a single record that
sounds as good as one of his 1958 Prestige or Blue Notes. The
reason is that he's not choosing equipment by ear. If he was doing
it by ear he would still be using the tube microphones that he
had then or working with something that's in the style of those
mics but better. But he hasn't; he's gone the technician's route
and he's worried about the frequency response and intermodulation
distortion and all the engineering horseshit that has nothing
to do with what sounds good.
TD: So do
you think the quality of his recordings was circumstantial because
he equipment was the only style available at that time?
I give him full credit. He was a genius with the equipment of
that era. But he obviously was not a genius at picking the equipment
because when the equipment changed he didn't pick stuff that was
better, he picked stuff that was worse. But he got some of the
very most beautiful recordings of that era when everybody else
had that same equipment. He was obviously very gifted.
TD: Did he
influence your recording style?
sound. I haven't imitated his microphone placement, and I haven't
imitated any of his style of equipment. I tried some of those
tube tape recorders, but what I have is far better than that.
I own one, an Ampex of that era. It has a lovely, mellow sound
but to my ears my mid-seventies Sony is just cleaner and more
transparent and even truer to the music. The Sony records dynamics
better, and it's certainly truer to the tone of horn players and
singers than those old tube Ampex machines. It's like they coated
a lot of things with molasses. [laughs] They lied, but they made
it nice, real nice, especially if you had a horn player who was
a little edgy. Those old tube microphones and tube tape recorders
would take a little of the edge out and give a little more of
a mellow, glowing sound, but it wasn't true to what happened in
the room. I think that's a loss. Not everybody has a mellow sound
or wants one.
TD: Are you
totally against the use of multi-track equipment and equalizers
or just for recording jazz?
very simple. If you want totally faithful sound that represents
what was just played in the room, you must go live to two track.
But there are tremendous drawbacks to it. To go live to two track
you have to have real good musicians. If they have flaws in their
tone or if the singer has a little nasal thing going on, if you
record the way we record here, you stand naked in front of God
and country. [laughs] So certainly for pop music when you have
musicians of varying caliber some very good and some not
so hot and you need to do a lot of "band-aiding" of tone
or pitch or whatever, you have to multi-track. You can't band
aid real easily (with a two track). All you can do is re-record
it or you can do some slick digital editing. We can't really change
it, and we don't. What we do works very well if we have very good
musicians. If you have musicians who are kind of mediocre
maybe they're great songwriters but not good musicians
it's real bad here. They would sound better in a multi-track studio.
But what you get on the record may not be real close to what they
played in the room, which is kind of our aesthetic. We're limited
by the fact that you have to have real good musicians, but that's
what I'm interested in anyhow, so I don't feel any loss.
But to be completely
objective, there are tremendous advantages to multi-tracking.
What I do is tedious and time consuming. Larry can testify that
he has spent hours and hours of wasted time in here while I'm
putzing with the microphones because they're breaking down or
something's not right. It's sad when that happens because that
takes some of the energy out of the session. So that's a drawback
to what we do, too.
The plus is
that we reproduce what was really played, and when things go right
and the session is right, we reproduce more of the emotion in
the music, there's no question.
There's no substitute
for playing an instrument in a place. That's basically how you
make good sounds. You pick a microphone by playing an instrument
into it and listening to it. You pick a wire and a tape recorder
the same way. That's basically the way we put all of this together,
by listening to the real music.
...and keep an eye out
for these upcoming Mapleshade releases:
A La Carte Brass and Percussion:
Go-Go & Gumbo, Satchmo' & Soul featuring vocalists
Chuck Brown and Shawn Murphy (Wildchild!).
The Enriquillo & the Jazz
Winds Starring Patato: Melodia Para Congas, The Jungle
and The Saxophone (Mapleshade). This release is
the ninth in a series of Mapleshade discs called Explorations.
Explorations features albums conceptualized and produced
by legendary bari sax player Hamiet Bluiett. The star
of this recording, Patato (no Potato), got his nickname
from the conga rhythm of the same name. In Cuba, back
in the late forties, Patato revolutionized Afro-Cuban
conga drumming by pioneering the three drum approach.
Before him it was simply one man, one drum. Check it
Silent Bear: River Drum
Child (Wildchild!). This disc illustrates the Mapleshade
team's commitment to an extremely diverse and excellent
catalog. Silent Bear is a duo featuring Mark Silent
Bear (vocals, guitar, and harmonica) and Kahlil Kwame
Bell (handdrums, percussion) with special guests Larry
Willis (piano), Steve Novosel (upright bass) and Esther
Williams and Nick Smith (backing vocals). The Bear,
however, is anything but silent. Mark's soulful, guttural
singing, folk/blues guitar, and lyrics rooted in Native
American symbolism and Beatnik sensibilities provide
the perfect foreground for Kahlil's weaving, shaman
trance rhythms. Kahlil beautifully mimics the sounds
of pulsing rivers, summer wind in the trees, and buffalo
stomping on the plains.
TD: Is there
such a thing as a typical Mapleshade session?
don't come typical! [all laugh] It's amazing how different they
are, in every way. The feeling of sessions is so enormously varied
because the relationships among the people are different and the
creative balances among the people are different. Plus, there's
There's a lot
of tension at a session. Sessions are not purely party time. Sometimes
we have moments that are sheer joy and party. But at every session
there are tensions just from the pressure of the tape recorder
being on. We try to minimize them, but...
a lot of what goes on has to do, as Pierre said, with the personalities
of the people involved. That's one of the interesting things about
recording in this context, at least for me. Being here in this
kind of situation adds more to the music, based upon the personalities.
The normal commercial
recording situation tends to depersonalize your approach to playing
music. You know that, for the most part, the drums are going to
be in some isolated room. You know that you're going to have to
record with headphones. You usually don't even see everybody you're
recording with, so in that respect it depersonalizes everything.
Here there is
the maximum of human contact. When I'm playing, I can always look
up there to Jimmy Cobb or Paul Murphy, or Steve Williams. I can
always look out into the hall and see what the horns are doing,
see whose singing or who's playing. There is much more of a human
factor, a personality factor, involved in what you do in this
kind of context than anyplace else that I've ever recorded.
It's part of
your personality and your interplay. These things are very, very,
very crucial to how music is created, and this is what is captured
on the tape. It makes this concept of recording far more unique
than any other place. You know that you're personally involved.
It makes you more aware, more in tune, more sensitive to whatever
is going on because these elements are involved.
It's about playing
music the way music is humanly played that makes this place stand
out more than any other. It requires you to draw upon the utmost
of your professionalism. You can't come in here messing around.
TD: I know
you're trying to increase your amount of releases per year, but
besides that, what are your goals for Mapleshade, where do you
want to be in 10 years?
I'd like to be even more independent of the music business than
I am now. What I'd really like is for the label to exist for a
following who like what we do and to deal basically through mail
I want to make
records that are just so good and so uniform in quality that people
say, "Yeah, I'll take a chance on the next Mapleshade or the next
Wildchild!, that's my kind of music."
We want to get
a web site, and we're working hard on building up our mail order.
There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, it insulates
you from the music business, which is real important because they'll
push you in directions you don't want to go. Even the distributor
will do that. Our only real contact with the music business now
is through our distributor, and even he will try to squeeze you
into compromises that he thinks will sell more records.
The other thing
that's real important to us and where we've been very lucky
so far is to be able to continue to record guys like Norris
Turney. Guys who are unknown, where any other label would say,
"You're crazy to do that record because no one has ever heard
of the guy." That's what we want to do.
We want to do
at least half of our records of people that nobody's ever heard
of, people that are geniuses. There are only two routes to do
that: one is the audiophile route; the other is having a following
of music enthusiasts we want to head in that direction.
The route we
have now mainly is the audiophile route. Audiophiles are so ga-ga
over sound that they don't care who plays. Their perverted sense
of values i.e., sound comes first, music comes second
has helped pave the way for our artistic independence. If it means
we can record Norris Turney or Frank Kimbrough or somebody else,
as long as we don't mess up the sound, there's already a built-in
audience of audiophiles who will buy it because it sounds good.
That will at least cover our production costs. It also means that
we can afford to record people who we think are good. That's a
we want to broaden our musical tastes. This is my third career.
This work has made me happier than any career I've had before,
and I'm very proud of what I've done before. The truth of the
matter is that I probably would have paid people to let me do
what I used to do. But this is even better.
A lot of the
reason is because it's changed me. I used to be really narrow-minded,
musically and in other ways, too. The music has really changed
me. I'm really a lot more open to a whole variety of things, musically
very much so.
And I've learned
that from musicians. From recording great musicians like Larry
I realized what a half-assed attitude I had. I used to listen
to nothing but jazz and baroque music, that was it, anything else
was not music. And it's people like Larry who've taught me that
that's a really narrow-minded, stupid attitude. What there really
is, is good music and bad music and categories don't mean anything.
TD: I think
that attitude is reflected in the catalog. You've released everything
from gospel to Texas electric blues to solo piano jazz.
like to do more of that. We'd like to make the catalog even broader
and expand into all kinds of areas of good music. For me personally,
that's kind of the gift of doing what I'm doing. It's made me
less narrow-minded and more open to all kinds of things musically
I'm vastly more
tolerant here than I was when I was working in the Pentagon. I'm
really into the variety of people that I get to deal with and
admire and respect for their work.
And when we
have a really good session, the elation of that session
the fact that something worked that you took a chance on and it's
opened a whole new creative avenue for you lasts for a
long time. It carries you through a lot of the small frustrations
like the having to deal with printers who screw up things and
pressing plants that slip their dates, all those small things.
They kind of disappear when you have a session like that.
SOME TIPS ON GETTING
A BETTER DRUM SOUND Compliments of Pierre Sprey
Warning! Follow this advice at
your own risk. These are tips to get a more resonant,
fuller sound out of your drums, and are especially appropriate
for recording live to two-track, the Mapleshade way. If
you love the sound of your duct-taped super muffled toms
and your bass drum stuffed with all the pillows in the
house, proceed with caution!
Stand tall! Build a wooden drum
stage for your drums, experiment with thicknesses
and types of wood. The stage will act like a drum
itself and resonate your drumset's sound. If you want
to really impress your friends and neighbors, try
mounting the stage on brass pipe for even more resonance.
Throw away that drum-rug! If
you don't have the room or the time to build a stage,
try mounting your drums on a wooden platform
this could be just a big piece of plywood. The platform
will act as a reflector for your drum sound.
Rubber feet are for scuba divers!
Try unscrewing the rubber feet on your bass drum and
spike the legs directly into the stage or wooden platform.
This will also help to get a more resonant sound out
of the kit.
Take it off! If you can't stand
the look of your drums anymore and want to experiment
with a new sound, strip the plastic covering and sand
down the shells. Refinish them with linseed oil or
perhaps violin varnish. You might want to try it on
an old drum first, one that you don't mind experimenting
The next stage! If you've done
all this and want to get really serious about recording
your drums live to two-tracks, try suspending a wooden
reflector over the drum stage. It's best if you can
rotate the wooden platform for different uses. See
interview for details.
and Wildchild! Listening: Keeping the Drummer in Mind.
Here are some Mapleshade/Wildchild!
recordings that I think all you drummers out there should
hear. Wildchild! is Mapleshade's sister label that is
more blues/roots oriented that the jazz lovers' Mapleshade.
All of the Wildchild! CDS are recorded at the Mapleshade
studio by Pierre Sprey and treated like any other Mapleshade
First on my list is Michael
Carvin's Drum Concerto At Dawn (Mapleshade).
Even for those of us who really love the drums, a
solo drumset and voice album can bore one to tears.
Fortunately, Michael Carvin, drummer for Dizzy Gillespie,
Jackie McLean, and McCoy Tyner, has solved that problem
with this release. A fifty minute CD containing original
drumset compositions, Monk's Rhythm-A-Ning,
Coltrane's One Up, One Down, (that's right,
performed on drumset only!) and an almost nine minute
free improv piece that will make you want to hit the
ol' woodshed. It's a moving, obviously deeply heartfelt,
masterfully executed collection of songs. An album
15 years in the making, Drum Concerto At Dawn
should be in any serious drummer's collection. Listen
for the lead weight that drips on the downbeat.
A La Carte Brass and Percussion:
Boogeyin'! Swamprock, Salsa & 'Trane with guest
singer Chuck Brown (Wildchild!). A La Carte, one of
my personal favorites, never fails to please. Put
this disc on and prepare for an instant trip to Mardi
Gras (especially during "Tipitina"). A New Orleans
marching band drum section, Latin percussion section
featuring Gali Sanchez, and vibrant brass section
mix together to form a really fun, energetic sound.
Fun enough to do songs like Papa Was A Rolling
Stone and the I Love Lucy theme. Serious
enough to play their own versions of Coltrane's After
The Rain, Lee Morgan's Sidewinder (my favorite
track), and Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island
well. If you get a chance to see them live, do it!
Big Joe Maher/Jeff Sarli and
Big Blues: Mojo (Wildchild!). I love the sound
of drummer/singer Big Joe's drums! The snare is snappy
and has a great "crack" on rim shots. The cymbals
are bright with just the right amount of ring. Best
of all, his unmuffled bass drum is beautifully resonant
and BIG sounding. Perhaps that's how he got the "Big"
prefix added to his name. Oh yeah, and the music is
great too. Joe leads this seven piece big blues band
with authority both on vocals and behind the kit.
It makes you want to cry in your whiskey and shake
your butt all at the same time!
The Frank Kimbrough Trio: Lonely
Woman (Mapleshade). A great collection of beautiful
songs. This CD contains mostly original compositions
with a wonderful version of Ornette Coleman's Lonely
Woman" thrown in for good measure. Drummer Jeff
Williams, who has played with Stan Getz and Lee Konitz,
has a delicate and dynamic style and a great sense
of space. He also wrote one of the compositions on
the album, Northwest. Want to learn how to
play ballads beautifully with brushes and sticks?
Pick up this disc.
Mapleshade albums featuring
Jimmy Cobb: The legendary drummer for Miles Davis
and Jackie McLean has practically become the Mapleshade
house drummer. His playing is featured on Big Sweet
'n Blue by the Norris Turney Quartet, Hamiet Bluiett
Sextet's Young Warrior, Old Warrior, and Shades
of Brass by Avi Lebo's Double Trombone Quintet
featuring Slide Hampton. All of these recordings are
superb. It would take pages to talk about Jimmy Cobb
and these recordings. Let it suffice to say-hey, it's