Yes folks, it’s that time of year again. If you’re gearing up towards getting into the Christmas spirit, or looking to drop some tape-related hints to your gift-buying loved ones, here’s Neville Roberts on Lyn Stanley’s new seasonal jazz album on tape (which, it turns out, it ‘not just for Christmas’).
It’s quite a triumph even under normal circumstances to bring together some of the best musicians and technical people in the business working in some of the finest facilities available to produce audiophile quality recordings. To deliver all this within the constraints of a worldwide pandemic would be nothing short of an extraordinary achievement, and yet this is precisely what Lyn Stanley has accomplished with this varied album of jazz music.
Lyn was accompanied in this big band spectacular by 19 of today’s finest big band musicians, plus a 44-piece string orchestra from Budapest, Hungary, and also (on background vocals) Windy Wagner, one of Hollywood’s leading vocal producers.
For this recording, Lyn used a Neumann U47 microphone. The U47 was itself born out of a challenging time, namely the Second World War, so it seems particularly fitting that this would be the microphone of choice for recording the primary vocals during a pandemic! On which note…
Recording during a pandemic
To comply with the safety regulations associated with recording during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of measures had to be put in place. At every location, all of those involved were tested for COVID-19 and had to wash their hands as they entered the studios. Strict social distancing guidelines were also adhered to and the musicians were positioned well apart. This necessitated changes to the conventional placement of microphones for a recording session. The piano, drums, percussion and horns were sited in an upstairs recording studio while Lyn Stanley remained downstairs in a separate studio. However, it was felt that the recordings actually benefited from this new approach.
In order to keep all of the music in tight control and the timing spot-on, a ‘Click Track’ was used to synchronize all the vocalists and instrumentalists from the various studios and geographical locations when producing the final mix. In this way, everything was kept in perfect time. Each element of the music was layered in during the mixing process, including the strings that were actually recorded in Budapest. The end result is a big band sound that’s more coherent and precise than could have been achieved without the changes in practice necessitated by the COVID protocols.
The output formats
For the mastering, Bernie Grundman used the final stereo mixes that were recorded straight onto tape from the custom-made Neve analog board at Skywalker Sound. In addition to the copy-master tape set, which is made using premium studio quality RTM SM900 back-coated, high output tape on custom metal spools, the album has also been released in a variety of formats, including double audiophile LPs, a 32Gb USB stick of CD quality, and high-resolution audio files, including 5.1 immersive surround sound.
Sound quality & arrangements
Although this tape is called ‘Novel Noel’ and is marketed as a holiday album, many of the tracks are great to listen to all year round. Right from the outset, I’m completely blown away with not only the sound quality, but also the production, the orchestration and Lyn Stanley’s vocals. The vocals are in perfect balance with the orchestra and big band backing. The dynamic range and sound stage from the tape is, as you would expect, huge and expansive. Instrument focus is well-defined and the instruments and vocals are situated within a very believable sound stage. In particular, the sound stage on the tapes is every bit as wide as with the excellent LPs, but has much better front-to-back depth, realism, dynamics and imaging. Of particular note is the bass response, which is really tight, punchy and well-controlled. This album really is one of the finest examples of a modern audiophile recording.
I must also commend the new arrangements of some old Christmas favourites, such as Lyn’s unique take on ‘Zat You Santa Claus’ (Track 1 of Tape 1). The big band opening track of this Louis Armstrong classic from 1953 is given a sultry twist. ‘Come Dance With Me’ has a Latin ‘cha-cha-cha’ rhythm, and ‘It’s Magic’ is given a lovely rumba treatment.
One of my particular favourites is ‘Little Drummer Boy’, which starts with an introduction reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’, progresses into the traditional tune, and then closes with the mesmerising ‘Take 5’ drum and piano segment.
Tape 2 opens with ‘Boogie Woogie Santa Claus’ to really get your feet tapping. Other Christmas favourites follow, along with some great well-known tunes like ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. The tape fittingly concludes with ‘Mary Did You Know?’ as a poignant reminder of the reason for the Christmas season.
Even with the high quality I expect from copy-master tapes, this album really stands out as exceptional on all counts. It is not only a superb Christmas album, but one to dip into at any time of the year.
The copy-master tapes of the album, which are all made to order, can be purchased directly from Lyn Stanley’s website at https://lynstanley.com/product/bernie-grundman-master-tape-reel-to-reel/lynstanley.com at a cost of $1,200 (plus shipping, handling and payment fees) for two ¼” 15IPS copy-master tapes, NAB or IEC equalisation, mastered by Bernie Grundman himself, $700 for tapes made from production masters, and $500 for a single reel sampler tape. The review tape was recorded with IEC equalisation.
Here’s Lyn introducing the album: