Back to What's New

Sandy Brown Jazz


Full Focus - How It Sounds

Alex Killpartrick


[Your computer might ask you to allow the music to play on this page]


Alex Killpartrick was born in the West Country. Bath. His father was a DJ, jockeying discs around the country from the 1960s to the 1990s and coming from Leeds, closer to the Northern Soul music that made up most of his collection than he was to the music of the West Country.

From an early age, Alex was intrigued by his father's DJ kit, looking to see how things worked and building 'speakers' out of cardboard boxes when he was just four. When he was eleven, Alex's father took him to visit Steve Winwood's recording studio in the Cotswolds. Alex was fascinated and on the way back, his father gave him a budget to spend on recording equipment. Alex bought his first mixer, Working on the Tom Green Septet recordingsome sound cards and other items that took them over the budget. They sneaked it into the house when they arrived home.

Around that time Alex started to play keyboards. His teacher was frustrated that Alex was remembering pieces rather than learning to read music properly. Nevertheless, you couldn't question the commitment of Alex and his friend Jeff Carpenter and the time they spent with a Casio keyboard and basic Sound Foundry Acid software experimenting with music on the computer.

In his teens, Alex worked on Saturdays at the Bang and Olufsen shop in Bath. Staff would bring in their own records and play them on shuffle on the multiple CD player. This is where Alex began to hear jazz; albums by Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil stay in his memory. 'It got the the stage where I would spend half of my earnings each week on CDs, and I wasn't paid that much!' he remembers.

In 2009 Alex left Kingswood School in Bath with certificates that included an A Level in Music. He applied to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff to study Creative Music Technology.

We often take for granted the recorded music we listen to. Rarely do we think about the process that has taken place to bring that music to us, nor that what was originally recorded is not always the way it sounds on the recording. Alex points to early recordings by Blues singer Robert Johnson and the debate that his recordings were released at a different speed (click here). Similarly, Richard Alabone in an article on this site (click here) discusses how early jazz recordings were not made as we hear them. Much depends on how recording equipment is used. There was a story that Bix Beiderbeck's Blue River had a microphone in front of the band and when the time came, Bix moved to the back of the band to play behind Bill Challis's vocal and then down to the front to play by the mic. for his solo that follows. Whether that is true, who can say, click here to see what you think.

Since then things have changed radically both in terms of the recording and mixing technology available and the experience of recording engineers.

Starting college in Cardiff, Alex says: 'Before Cardiff, there had not been many other people around doing the same thing as I was. Here I was exposed to a whole bunch of things. The course at the Royal College is good and perhaps unconventional. We were encouraged to listen to a lot of different music including avant garde by tutors like Odilon Marcenaro who also introduced us to interactive music as well as the whole electro-acoustic world.'

'At first we listened to musique concrete from the French composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and then moved on to Stockhausen, Edgar Varese and even some choral and orchestral music from Berio, Ligeti and others. At first I really struggled with the music I heard from the avant garde world of music, but now I love it.'

'In my second year I started hanging out with musicians on the Jazz course, people like Alex and Lloyd Haines, and we would go regularly to Dempsey's jazz club in Cardiff. I would take my recording equipment there on a trolley and ask the band if it was OK to Recording a gigrecord them. I think they just expected me to record from a small recording machine, but when I started setting up mics. they were not so sure. I would take the recordings home and work on them and then send copies to the musicians.'

'On one occasion I recorded the Kit Downes Quintet who were playing music that would appear on their Light From Old Stars album and I was really pleased when later Kit asked me to be involved in the recording. Since then I have worked quite a lot with Kit's recordings, including the Troykestra recording that was done for the BBC. The music was recorded for a BBC programme and not considered for an album, so it was a challenge to take a recording of a large band and then re-work it to make it suitable for an album.'

By the time Alex graduated in 2013 with a BMus degree, he had made contact with a number of recording studios in Wales but he decided to work on his own. 'I didn't want to be tied down to working in a recording studio working insane hours for a pittance, so we agreed that I could move back to my father's flat in Bath and set up my equipment there. Saxophonist Iain Bellamy who was a tutor at Cardiff put me in touch with a number of people, and I had contacts with studios and bands that I had met at Dempsey's and through the Jazz course.'

'The hours working on a piece have still been long for not a lot of money, but I prefer to have the flexibility to work as I want to. Much Discussing a recordingdepends on the equipment and the better the gear, the more efficient you can be, so I have spent time building up my kit, and I have been very fortunate in working with a wide range of people since leaving college.'

Alex talks about the factors involved in approaching a recording. He might well be asked to undertake a whole recording or just work on parts of it. 'A recording might take from three to four days,' he says. 'Planning is needed beforehand, for example, which studio might be best for the size of band? Bands that have not recorded before might be happy to leave everything to the engineer, but they might not anticipate questions like how far the band will play together or in separate cubicles and what that means for the set up. Some instruments can sound 'bright' in the room and that can often be enhanced on the recording, so adjustments need to be made. Bands are often used to using amplification when they play but this changes in a studio. Under certain circumstances, a whole day can be taken just working out where musicians will be, where mics will be placed, making sure the spill is right. Sometimes it takes no time at all and you've recorded an entire album in a day.'

'I will then take the recording away and work on it, and then send copies to the band. Some bands are quite happy with the result, others might want to come down and make adjustments with me. It varies from project to project. In a recent recording for Snowpoet I placed a number of mics. for each instrument which gave us a lot more flexibility when it came to working on the recording afterwards - which is just as well because the music really turned into something else entirely during the mixing process.'

As the use of technology has increased, jazz musicians have begun to incorporate it into their compositions - at a 'simple' level, watch how guitar players set up loops when they play, at another, listen to the work of Beaker that we featured in Full Focus recently. For some Alex Killpartrickmusicians they have used it to extended the possibilities of their improvisation, for others they have involved engineers in their work from the outset with a view to the way the music will sound when it is played.

Alex Killpartrick is already becoming busy. As people get to know of his work, experience and understanding of the needs of jazz musicians they seek him out. Alex has been behind a number of recent albums - here are samples from some of them: Kit Downes Tom Green Septet's album Skyline, Kit Downes and Lucy Railton's Tricko Tareco album, Blue Eyed Hawk's Under The Moon, Snowpoet's Butterfly and Misha Mullov-Abbado's New Ansonia.

As an example, Alex describes the approach taken to recording Chris Hyson's Little Moon Man played by Kit Downes. You can listen below to the track he is describing:

'The aim was to create a sound reminiscent of an upright piano in your front room, but with the refined playability of a good grand piano. Often the approach is to record with as few microphones as possible, avoiding phase issues and unnecessary hassle – why use eight microphones when you could achieve just as fine results with a single pair of microphones? Well, sometimes because it’s more fun to use loads of mics. Much like with a drum kit, it is sometimes important to capture instruments from a number of different positions. When hearing an instrument in a small room (such as a lounge), you hear a lot more of the sounds which are normally not projected directly towards the listener.'

'In a concert hall, you mostly hear the sound of the instrument from one angle only, and then a ‘reverb tail’ which is effectively a combination of all the sound the instrument is displacing into the room. Well in a smaller space, this ‘reverb tail’ is no longer actually a reverb tail – it is perceived as a part of the instrument’s sound. Hence, capturing the musical balance of an instrument in a smaller room involves just this, capturing it from all angles.'

'When recording Little Moon Man, we used a combination of eight microphones, a range of quite distinct and different sounds which when combined (carefully, ensuring phase relationships are not destructive at any stage) create a truly ‘wholesome’ sound which feels as wide as it is deep, thick and warm, yet defined and bright at the same time.'




'One of my favourite microphones to use on pianos, the Sony C48s, were placed in the harp or ‘cutout’ of the piano in a sort of ORTF-ish pair (I seem to remember bringing the angle in slightly), Fet 47s in a small AB pair at the tail-end (for bass) but angled away from the piano slightly to keep the image centred and a pair of Schoeps cardioids about 1-1/2 feet above the hammers (again in a wide-spaced pair).'

'Further to this, I added in a U87 under the soundboard (around C5), heavily saturated into an API pre, and a sound field as a coincident pair from behind Kit’s right shoulder(ish). Both of these keep the image centred and also add a little grit, I didn’t want it to sound too polite.'

'I also spent a while experimenting with different preamp combinations. An API for the U87 for example gave quite a different texture to a tube-ish Fearn, or the midrange of the Neve. Finding the right combination really helps things settle sonically, and the music can seem to speak for itself better. I know numerous people who are ‘preamp skeptics’, and when every studio would have a big old analog console, there were often 24, 32 or more matching good quality preamps available from the board itself, but having a palette of different flavours really helps create subtle (but important) colours in recording which you’d otherwise struggle to achieve.'

Click here for Alex Killpartrick's website and contact details.

© Alex Killpartrick and Sandy Brown Jazz 2015 - 2016

Like us on FacebookFacebook

Back to What's New Magazine

Visit our other Full Focus pages:
Tommy Andrews: Crystal Car
Alec Harper: Beaker
Dave Manington's Riff Raff: Agile