My recording ethos: non-equipment centered

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve written here.  I’ve kept myself pretty busy, and a lot of that has been with recording.  I’ve been blessed enough to have been able to buy some new equipment (saying goodbye to my Nintendo NES collection at the same time), and I must say, I couldn’t be happier.

I’m running into one roadblock though: people asking me for equipment lists.  My equipment list just isn’t very impressive.  I have one nice mic, a great interface, and a really killer room to record in (doubles as my living room).  The results I get are pretty great!  I did some voice-over recording recently for a documentary film.  They had to redo the VOs (because the script changed), and I wasn’t available.  So they went to a real expensive, fancy studio.  I asked him what he recorded on, and he basically listed off my wishlist.  They got their recordings back, and they didn’t sound as good as the ones I did for them.  Now, in a real rush, they scheduled an emergency recording session with me and redid everything with my lesser equipment.  We achieved the same superior result.

This got me thinking about equipment.  Maybe it’s just not all that important.  A lot of great albums from the late 70s and 80s–stuff with quality so good, it’s used as reference material–were made using equipment that wouldn’t be considered so great today (excepting mics).  Recording gear is getting cheaper and cheaper, and the quality if the cheap stuff is rising.  So many engineers and producers are gear obsessed, buying new stuff constantly, chasing some sort of unattainable ideal.  Here I am, unable to buy much, and I’m chasing a better result with what I already have.  And I’m getting it.  So what gives?

This naturally leads to the question: what do you need to make a great recording?  I gave a lot of time and thought to this, talked to everyone I could, read everything I could get my hands on.  If I take out every gear-related answer, this is the conclusion:

1) Great music!  It’s GIGO [garbage in, garbage out], so don’t put garbage in!

2) A really good room.  Music is only going to sound as good as the music it’s being played in.  So play it and record it in a good sounding room, even if that’s your bathroom.

3) A recording engineer that knows what he’s doing.  I’ve seen some top-level engineers get amazing recordings out of SM57s running into a laptop at live venues.  I suppose if you’re getting surgery, your surgeon matters more than the brand of scalpel used, right?

That’s the list!  With all gear-related answers removed, of course.  It seems like a real solid list without any gear; decent equipment just seems ancillary after that.  Besides, there’s a real consensus on these three elements – I challenge you to find a mic or monitor speaker even three engineers can reach an agreement on!

What do I take out of this?  I can’t let myself get gear-obsessed.  No one who’s anyone in this business isn’t an obsessive person (a quality I find in myself if I’m honest) – so I need to be results-obsessed.  Even when I have great success and a great reputation, it would be a very sound business practice to keep overhead low, rates competitive, and avoid debt.  Not chasing gear seems like a good way to go.  I’ll invest in making the room sound phenomenal, and stop when I have a good mic for every situation.  Gear can always be rented.  Results can’t.

Anyway, check out my recording/production tab on my website!
http://www.johndanielmusic.com/production.html

P.S. (couldn’t make this fit in the rest of the blog) – Recently, I was looking for a good mic preamp and talked to a friend of mine who has a very impressive studio with some serious credits.  He said I won’t be happy with anything that costs less than $4,000.  I hope I’m never that out-of-touch.  I purchased a $40 Behringer unit, took it apart, rewired it a bit, swapped out the tube, and it sounds fantastic.  That’s about 1% of that “$4,000” price!

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How do I have ‘perfect’ pitch?

A friend of mine emailed me today.  He’s an amateur musician and had a question about pitch.  He isn’t able to play by ear with instruments, but can whistle very well.  He wondered if, for me, playing the saxophone was like whistling, when I hear something can can simply sound the corresponding note.  To paraphrase:

Q: I can instinctively find the “right” pitch when I whistle, but not when I play an instrument.  In your experience, when you don’t know the key a song is in, can you pick up your saxophone and find the pitch automatically? What do you experience when you play?

A: Well, you probably know this, but there are two types of pitch: perfect and relative.  Perfect pitch means you can hear a note and know exactly what it is.  Relative means you have a good sense of pitch, but you need to be able to hear a reference pitch.  Now, I always thought I had perfect pitch because I can hear a note and say, for example, “that’s a G.”  That was, until I went to a music conservatory and met people with REAL perfect pitch.  I had this friend–a brilliant composer who is getting some international recognition these days–and he could identify ANY pitch.  We were in the choir rehearsal room and he was asked what pitch the lights were producing.  (You know as well as I do that light bulbs aren’t exactly loud.)  He pauses, listens, puts a finger in the air and says “11,370 Hz.  No, 11,371 Hz.  Actually I think it’s closer to 11,370.4 Hz.  That’s about an F.”  One student had with him some very expensive recording and oscillation equipment.  He recorded the lights, and my friend was right–down to the decimal.  Now THAT is perfect pitch.

So, my pitch is relative, and like I said, I can hear a tone and give you the correct answer.  I think it’s easy because I ‘feel’ a characteristic to every note and key signature–e.g. D is very regal, C# is really round and thick, C is bright and chipper, B is gentle and clear, etc.  Beyond our aural perception, I think there’s a deeper physiological element happening, too.  Our bodies are timed with natural internal frequencies and I think the frequencies of sound interact with our bodies on ways we don’t even consciously understand.

That said, it depends a lot on how much I’m playing, too.  If I’m practicing/rehearsing/performing all the time, it’s no problem.  Sometimes I’ll be off a bit if I haven’t played music much lately.  I’ll hear a guitar in A, think it’s G, etc.  But it’s pretty close.  Sometimes, especially if it’s important and I don’t know the key, I’ll close my eyes, clear my head, and just blow and move my fingers.  This lets my muscle memory take over, and it’s hardly ever wrong.  The subconscious mind is incredibly powerful.  I’d love to have perfect pitch, though a lot of musicians more accomplished than I am envy how accurate my relative pitch is.  I’m very fortunate; I grew up playing a lot of jazz, blues, rock, etc. that necessitated my ear.  I also had formal lessons where I learned to read music.  Most musicians have to rely on one or the other but it’s a wonderful thing to have both.  I try to give my music students the same thing, not using written music OR the ear as a crutch, but I haven’t yet developed a perfect system for that.

So to all inspiring music students out there: don’t feel like you can’t play by ear.  You can!  My very first gig (with a big band), I had to play In The Mood by memory (made famous by Glenn Miller).  I wasn’t given music to prepare with, but I had a recording.  I tried my best to figure it out and memorize it.  I couldn’t.  I was hopeless.  I couldn’t even figure out which notes to play.  I barely figured out the key.  The day of, I faked it, and luckily I was in a big band so it wasn’t too obvious.  The band members had some grace for me since I was so young.  Today, that same assignment wouldn’t be a problem.  But it took years of training my ear–built by jam sessions, transcribing, playing along with recordings, etc.  Today, professional musicians I work with assume I have perfect pitch, but I don’t.  But it’s close enough.  This same “perfect” pitch is available to any musically talented individual who works hard for it.  You can do it!


Dave Guardala Earth Tone Saxophone [Tenor]: A review

Years ago (in 2001), I was in the market for a new saxophone.  I had recently started attending a music conservatory, and was in need of an equipment upgrade.  Going to a music shop in San Jose for a mouthpiece, I stumbled on an incredible going-out-of-business sale.  All saxophones were 50% off.  Of course, I would have been a fool not to pick one up.  At 50% off [only tenors to follow], the Yamaha Custom was $2100.  Selmer’s Series III was $2600.  The Earth Tone was $4000.

If you’re at all familiar with this saxophone, it will be no surprise for you to hear that the price was astonishing.  It’s pretty uncommon, so I don’t blame ya if you aren’t familiar, either.  It’s unusual for any sax to be more expensive than a Selmer.  Allow me to give you the back story:

scammers don't look like they do in the movies

Dave Guardala, c. 2006-7. Thanks to Guardala.net

Dave Guardala is an odd guy.  He’s the original custom mouthpiece maker.  He got big/famous in the 70’s designing mouthpieces for Michael Brecker, Tom Scott and other big names.  They were the best mouthpieces on the market, and also expensive.  They cost $400+ back in a day when the average cost would’ve been $50 (or $100 max).  Guardala remained the most sought-after maker of jazz mouthpieces through the 80’s and 90’s.  Near the turn of the 21st century, Guardala started making his own saxophones.  B&S produced them, out of Germany.  That production ran for a few years, but Guardala ended up abandoning that, claiming B&S wanted to steal his proprietary technology.  After that, he was officially out of business, including both saxophone and mouthpiece production.  A few years later, he returned, telling everyone that he was going back into business.  He set up relationships with vendors, distributors, and several producers, demanding large cash advances for contracts with him.  Guardala took the cash and ran.  He evaded the law for a while, but was eventually apprehended with the help of some embittered musicians.  In September of 2009, Guardala was sentenced to 48 months.*  I’ve heard from a trusted repair tech that he never traveled without a large mafioso-type entourage.  I’ve read rumors that he defrauded people out of over $2 million.  It’s tough to tell what’s true and what isn’t; most of what you can find online seems to be hearsay.  At any rate, he’s a strange and interesting fellow.

My primary reason for putting this review: the number one search result for “Dave Guardala Earth Tone Tenor” is a review that trashes the horn.  And I don’t believe that’s a fair representation of this saxophone.  I’m not saying the reviewer had some vendetta against Guardala or anything (you know, that’s actually possible come to think of it), but he must have either had a poorly set-up horn or a bad mouthpiece/neck combination for it.  He made the concession that the horn could have been a dud, followed by the argument that at the price point, the Earth Tone shouldn’t have any duds.  Tough to argue with that, but considering the amazing performance of mine, I can’t imagine anything less than incredible quality coming from the Earth Tone line, or any of the other Guardala’s.  Don’t forget, the official endorsers were Michael Brecker, Tom Scott, Branford Marsalis, and Kirk Whalum.

On to the saxophone itself: it’s incredible.  It’s the most intense sounding sax I’ve ever played. The tone is very, very dark.  It is rich and deep, with an amazing presence in both its fundamentals and overtones.  The first time I blew it, I was shocked.  I had to stop playing and look at it.  I just couldn’t believe the sound that came out.  Every eyebrow in earshot was raised.

Dave Guardala Earth Tone Tenor no F#

The tone, though dark, is focused and centered.  It has a great band of overtones that are audibly present at any dynamic.  This gives the saxophone an incredible depth of tone color in all registers, and a great ease into the altissimo range.  Even with bright, open mouthpieces, the horn is easy to control at any dynamic.  Pianissimo will come out focused and clear (a real ppp, not a subtone), and fortissimo is the definition of controlled strength.  It’s free-blowing and really gets out of your way when you want to really go for it, but at the same time it doesn’t get squirrelly and squawky like some of the other makes of brassy, flared-bell horns.  The low register is capable and comes out easy.  No warbling or tendency to honk.  The mid register is free and doesn’t have that ‘throaty’ or hollow color of some cheaper horns.  The high register is just as clear and pure.  The tuning is even and consistent throughout, with well-matched overtones.

The horn itself is visually stunning.  It’s engraved throughout, up and down.  It’s beautiful to look at.  Strangers comment on how it’s the most gorgeous instrument they’ve ever seen.  You’d think the matte finish would be too subtle to be so noticed, but it makes the engraving pop and gives the horn a very unique character.  The inside of the bell is a gold wash.  These features are designed to be sonically beneficial.  The matte finish is supposed to simulate the thicker, older metal found on vintage horns (metal is lost from the body when polished up for lacquering).  The gold wash in the bell is theorized to be acoustically reflective and help the sound project.  Some players believe that the finish of a sax has no effect on the end quality of the horn, and some believe that it makes all the difference.  The same shop had the New York series for sale, which I was told were the same build, just a lacquered finish (photo at bottom).  They were very bright and brash, and completely unappealing.  So I believe that the finish makes this horn special.  Whatever the case may be, this Earth Tone tenor is made right.

It should be noted that this particular model is a one-of-a-kind.  It has no high F# key (see pic).  It was produced like that to enrich the overtone series, enhancing its sound and giving the player a greater ease into the altissimo register.  I don’t have an F# key model to compare it to, but I can believe that it worked.  It was a special order that was never picked up.

It was produced by B&S, a German instrument maker that no longer makes saxophones (though they still make brass instruments).  I spoke to a former B&S technician who said that all of the saxophones they produced for third parties had their own proprietary designs, metal consistencies, etc.  There are sax techs who claim that that’s financially impossible, but it does go along with Dave’s story that B&S wanted to steal his designs.  Again, it’s more rumor, conjecture and hearsay, and the details are tough to sort out.  At any rate, B&S saxophones have a great reputation for being as well-made and high-performing as the ‘big four’ (Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa and Keilwerth).  There are new boutique companies producing great handmade saxes that are worth a look (like P. Mauriat, Tenor Madness M’Lady, Rampone & Cazzani, etc.).  My point is, a lot of sax players (esp. older ones) will tell you that you need to stick with a certain brand (esp. Selmer).  That simply isn’t true anymore.  It was arguably true in the 1950’s when Selmer was making the only horn with a good scale and ergonomic (yet durable) keywork.  The mentality has stuck, but the truth hasn’t.  Today, great saxophones come from all over the world.  Don’t dismiss one just because of its place of manufacture (though stick with a brand you know if it’s mail order!).  (Side note: I played about a dozen Selmer Mk. VI’s on my quest for a great tenor sax.  None of them played as well as the Dave Guardala, and there certainly weren’t any that justified their market prices.) I haven’t seen any on the used market for years, but if you happen to see one, go play it if you can.  It’s too good not to.

The bottom line: this is an incredible saxophone.  It’s edgy, sophisticated, and full of character.  It’s old soul with a new feel.  It’s also not for everyone.  I’ve had several pros play it and say “wow, that’s incredible, but it’s so dark, and I don’t know if I’d ever adjust to that.”  Some players wouldn’t ever part with a bright sound.  I have different preferences, though.  The Earth Tone sounds great, with a flawless scale, but it’s a bit resistant.  Not enough to make me ever want to get rid of the horn, but I have had a couple of technically challenging pieces that made me half-wish that I had gotten that Yamaha Custom, too.  But, it’s unique, intense, and incredibly interesting, present both sonically and visually, and just full of soul.  I have a suspicion that because of the amazing quality of this horn, the legend of Dave Guardala the man, and the infamy of Dave Guardala the brand, this is destined to become a collector’s item.  But collector’s item or not, it’s the best tenor sax I’ve ever played–and I’ve played a lot!

More photos and sound clips to come.

Guardala Horns: Two New York Series with Earth Tone

Guardala Horns: Two New York Series with Earth Tone

Dave Guardala Earth Tone Bell

*details about the Dave Guardala scams, shenanigans, and his sentencing can be found at guardala.net


My story

Welcome to my site!  This is my first post here.  If you’re reading this, good to have you.  You’re either interested in saxophonics, the music biz, or are one of the precious few friends and family cheering me on.  I’ll take the time here to introduce myself and give you a bit of my background.

I’m a woodwind player – a saxophonist, flautist, as well as a player of various other winds (Native American flute, penny-whistle, conch shell, etc.).  I started playing the clarinet when I was nine.  I moved to saxophone when I was twelve, and started playing professionally within that year.  I played gigs with various jazz bands (big bands and combos) and also did any freelance work I could get my hands on.  This included weddings, band/orchestra work, etc.  I picked up the flute when I was fifteen, and bass clarinet at eighteen.

I graduated high school in 2001 and went to the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music.  I had a great education with my upbringing in jazz/blues/rock, so the classical training held a lot of appeal.  I expected to come out a classically trained jazz player, but ended up falling in love with concert music.  That’s almost unfortunate; classical saxophone is one of the most esoteric [and difficult to monetize] arts in existence.

After getting my degrees in saxophone performance and music management, I moved down to the Long Beach area in 2006.  It has been quite an adventure.  I was talking with a couple of record distributors and other music companies about employment, but the world economy ended up crashing, and I never got any of the positions I hoped for.  I looked elsewhere, but no one else wanted to hire a kid fresh out of college with a music degree.  One interviewer at a car rental company even flat-out told me that I seemed like a great fit, but it obviously wouldn’t work because my interest was in music.  I was very close to asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up (the John Daniel of 2010 wouldn’t hesitate).  Anyway, with the shrinking global economy and entire music industry restructuring, it’s been an interesting time to be a musician, classically trained or otherwise.  I still fantasize that one of those employment positions would’ve worked out, but, as it’s said: calm waters do not produce skilled sailors.

Things have been looking up recently.  I’ve signed with an agent, have gotten some good recording equipment (with a budget of $o.00), and have been tentatively invited to join a couple of bands (if they get gigs where they need a horn).  Of course, there’s no promises in it, but that’s just life, and you have to keep working.

Thanks for reading.  May we both have great success.  For more information, sound clips, photos, etc., see johndanielmusic.com.