Behind the Session: Halpin & Li - Lion's Mane

This performance of the jazz composition "Lion's Mane" features the American pianist Christian Li and Irish saxophone player Matthew Halpin.

A spaced pair of Sphere L22 microphones with the LD-12 model from our core collection captures the lovely Steingraeber & Soehne grand piano. Matthew's tenor sax is also picked up by the L22, but this time I chose the darker and smoother OW-12 #2 from the UAD Ocean Way Microphone Collection. The L22 microphones were recorded using the built-in preamps of Universal Audio Apollo interfaces. As a safety, I also set up additional ribbon microphones that I had used on an earlier session, but they were not used in the mix for the project.

As you check out to these performances and audio examples, please make sure to listen on high-quality studio monitors and headphones to hear all the details. All the SoundCloud examples are available for download as high-res files in 24 Bit / 96 kHz on our SoundCloud profile.

Watch the performance of "Lion's Mane":

The Sonic Vision

Two accomplished jazz musicians performing a collection of mostly their own compositions together in a fairly reverberant, yet rich sounding rehearsal room. That was the the essence of this recording session with Christian Li and Matthew Halpin, which apart from the video above led to a full-length album titled False Idols. While the decision to record in a rehearsal room may seem unusual at first, there were a couple of really good reasons to go ahead with it. First of all, the rehearsal room belongs to a piano dealership meaning that the room would also give us access to a selection of fantastic sounding grand pianos in perfect conditions. Especially the later can not always be taken for granted at commercial studios because the upkeep of grand pianos is costly and typically causes some studio downtime.

Secondly, the two musicians wanted to perform in a characteristic sonic space that interacts with their music and where they can comfortably perform without wearing headphones. It was clear from the get-go that the sound of the room would play an inherent role in the sonic texture of the recording. I personally will always favor a unique sounding room with a great instruments over a fancy console or the selection of outboard equipment. The fact that the acoustics of the room “give something back” to the musicians so they can hear each other well has an instant feedback on the recording. They will balance themselves within the room more easily which typically yields a very cohesive sound (and a fast mix). Also, the acoustics themselves inspire the musicians to perform a certain way - especially when it comes to the choice of tempo.

As a result, I set up a very simple tracking setup consisting of an Apple MacBook Pro laptop, a couple of Universal Audio Apollo interfaces, a few extra preamps, and a pair of headphones I’ve grown to know very well. Being in the same room as the artists results in very fast and straightforward communication, which to me will always have a positive effect on the vibe of a session.

There are drawbacks of this approach of course: bleed (also known as crosstalk or spill) between the instruments is inevitable. There is no punching in of a solo or pitch-correcting a few notes after the fact with this style of recording. So you have to position the artists and the microphones in a way that bleed between the instruments doesn’t cause you too much grief. This is where Sphere’s technology can be a huge help: enabling off-axis correction generally results in a more natural off-axis sound. This in turn means that the bleed won’t sound as colored and unnatural as with conventional microphones (Learn more about why directional mics sound inherently colored here)

Also, monitoring exclusively with headphones and in the same room as the artists presents its challenges, because you simply can’t always make positioning and mic placement decisions with full confidence. Being able to even just slightly adjust the polar pattern (like I did with the piano mics, for example) come mix-time in the controlled studio environment can make the difference between a decent recording and a great one.

The tracking space inside a piano dealership with the mobile recording rig in the front.

Tech Notes

  • Piano: spaced pair of L22 microphones with the LD-12 model from the Sphere Core Collection
  • Tenor Sax: single L22 microphone with the OW-12 #2 model from the UAD Ocean Way Microphone Collection
  • Room Mic: AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone
  • Preamps: Universal Audio Apollo interfaces
  • Recorded at 24 Bit / 96 kHz in Pro Tools

All Sphere L22 microphones were recorded using the built-in preamps of the UA Apollos without any additional Unison preamp plug-ins or other processing.


Instrument Spotlight - Grand Piano

The piano was recorded with a spaced pair of Sphere L22s plus an additional L22 rotated 90 degrees for a single-mic stereo pick-up using Sphere 180. In the mix only the spaced pair was used.

Sphere Model:

  • LD-12 model from Sphere Core Collection set to cardioid
  • Off-Axis Correction engaged, polar patterns set to slightly sub-cardioid

There is quite a bit of tenor sax bleed in the isolated piano track, which was essentially inevitable in this type of recording situation without any kind of baffling available. Sphere's built-in Off-Axis Correction (OAC) helps to reduce the bleed a little bit or at least make whatever spill gets into the piano mics sound more natural. After trying a range of different microphone models from the Sphere Core collection I eventually gravitated towards the LD-12 model because of its lovely top end. Even so, I felt that I needed just a touch of low and high boost to bring out even more air and some of the wonderful low-end bloom of the piano.

Additional Plugins:

  • UAD BAX EQ with low and high lift
  • UAD Manley Vari Mu, maximum 1 dB of gain reduction

Hear the an excerpt of the isolated piano track, first with the LD-12 model set to cardioid, OAC off, and no further processing. This is followed by a version with OAC engaged and set to slightly subcardioid, and finally a third track with the additional EQ and compression enabled (Please make sure to listen to these sound examples on high-quality studio monitors or headphones as the differences may be relatively subtle!):

Hear a variety of different Sphere Core models in this short solo piano performance from the same recording session:


Instrument Spotlight - Tenor Saxophone

The Sphere L22 was set up alongside an AEA KU4 ribbon microphone, which provided an alternative option but was not used in the mix.

Sphere Model:

  • OW-12 #2 model from the UAD Ocean Way Collection set to cardioid
  • Proximity control dialed back about 10%.
  • High-Pass set to 60 Hz

The goal was to get a not overly bright and smooth tone for Matthew’s saxophone that still has plenty of detail. Boosting the top end on a saxophone too much can result in excessive breath and mouse noises. Knowing that Matthew prefers a somewhat darker tone for his saxophone playing I felt that the OW-12 #2 model from the Ocean Way Collection would strike the right balance of detail and breathiness. This microphone is based on one of Allen Sides’ favorite C12s from his personal collection and he used this particular mic to record Frank Sinatra for the album “LA is my Lady”, for example.

There was much less crosstalk from the piano in the sax microphone with the cardioid pattern selected, so I left OAC off but I did have to use some subtractive EQ to remove a few resonances. Finally, I used a UAD Neve 1073 for some minimal tone shaping and a Fairchild 660 for a little bit of compression and tone.

Additional Plugins:

  • Fab-Filter Pro Q to reduce some resonances and high-pass at 44 Hz
  • UAD Neve 1073 for tone control
  • UAD Fairchild 660 for 1 dB of gain reduction or less, barely moving the needle.

Hear an excerpt of the isolated tenor sax track with and without additional processing:

Hear a variety of different Sphere Core models in this short solo tenor sax performance from the same recording session:

About the Artists

Learn more about the False Idols record and the musical vision behind it here.

Matthew Halpin
Matthew Halpin is a saxophonist and composer born in Dublin, Ireland. He graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2013 (BA) and is currently based in Ireland and Germany. Matthew has studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, the Banff Centre’s workshop in jazz and creative music in Canada, and at Berklee College of Music as one of two international presidential scholars of that year. In 2010 he was chosen to be educated through the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, a highly concentrated two year music performance program headed by pianist Danilo Perez. Matthew leads and co-leads several bands, these include "Last Chance Dance", "The Owl Ones", "Cats Out of the Bag", "Earwax Control", "Spilt Milk", "Gamerz", "Modern Men" and "Roamer". Currently he plays as a sideman with Hendrika Entzian, Jonathan Hofmeister, Riaz Khabirpour, Veronika Morscher, Mike Nielsen and Maximilian Stadtfeld. He also works with larger ensembles such as the RTE National Concert Orchestra, the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra and the Irish Youth Jazz Ensemble. Matthew is a regular member of faculty at the Sligo Jazz Project in Ireland and has taught masterclasses around Europe, USA and Central America.

Hear more from Matthew here!

Christian Li
Christian Li is a pianist, composer, and arranger based in New York City. Born in Montreal, Quebec and raised in the small town of Horseheads, NY, he began performing regularly at the age of twelve. He has since been mentored by a colorful cast of musicians, including Danilo Perez, Ben Street, Greg Osby, Hal Crook, Joe Lovano, Joanne Brackeen, John Patitucci, and Alain Mallet. Christian has appeared in such notable venues as The Newport Jazz Festival, The Panama Jazz Festival, Jazz En Comminges, The Monterey Jazz Festival, The Blue Note, Birdland, and the Detroit Jazz Festival. He has performed with several renowned artists, including Greg Osby, Dave Liebman, Chris Cheek, Rich Perry, Adam Cruz, Jason Palmer, and Chad Lefkowitz-Brown.


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