Best Vocal / Large Ensemble Recordings

In another topic we were (until it devolved into musician jokes) talking about whether producers/mixers consider higher-level audio systems where the “phantom center channel” really brings the vocalists “closer” to your ears. From this topic, thanks to @jazzophile I listened a few nights ago to Sinne Eeg, her 2020 album We’ve Just Begun, backed by the Danish Radio Big Band. At first I was a little put-off by the amount of reverb on both her and the band, but I persisted and got more used to it. It’s really a great performance and recording. It got me thinking about the challenge of producing a recording where a vocalist is in front of a large ensemble. I know we could spend hours on classical opera, etc., so I’m going to stick to what I know better when it comes to high-end audio – jazz (OK, there are a few pop and country acts that count here).

How do you achieve the best presence of voice, yet maintain a realistic soundstage? It does make sense to use a fair amount of reverb - to create the concert hall environment, but I often hear the band too far back, not well-defined, even muddy. It’s not so often the singer gets buried - even when listening to my collection of 78 rpm records - we always want the singer to prevail, but I also want to get the full excitement and skill of the band, good solos, powerful sections, rich strings (when used). I want my system to give me everything the singer and ensemble have to offer.

I’ll open this up for your favorites, but as a benchmark, I’ll go to the 1964 Frank Sinatra recording with Count Basie’s orchestra, It Might as Well Be Swing. Sinatra’s voice is strong, but the band is treated as an equal - Frank cuts through with no problem. The dynamics are amazing - or the impression of dynamics maybe. And as its title suggests, this really SWINGS, with the energy of the Basie band behind Sinatra’s brilliant interpretations. A friend of mine once pointed out that Sinatra doesn’t actually “swing,” but instead sings very straight and it works with the swinging band to effect an even greater sense of swing.

So what are your favorites? Male or female or even vocal ensemble - where the singer(s) and band merge to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This was a tough one, but you got me.

I first thought about jazz, but I usually don”t like jazz singers with strings. Billy Holiday Lady in satin is one of the rare exceptions. Then about voices with big bands, but nothing special came into my mind.

Then I thought about operas. There are quite some great ones with great sound, especially golden era ones on LP. But I thought that might not be what you looked for.

Then I thought about what’s meant to be sung with an orchestra aside of operas and what’s my favorite listen musically, also with fantastic sound (at least on the releases mentioned). And that’s Mahler”s orchestral songs.

You might be no vinyl listener and even if, it would get expensive for those LP”s unfortunately, as the Bernstein Kevin Gray mastered Analogphonic reissues (not to confuse with a 2023 reissue box set) cost a few 100$ each meanwhile (and sound much better than the many 100$ expensive vinyl originals and even much better than the CD”s). The SFS Symphony LP boxset costs nearly 2k meanwhile (actually 3k on Discogs) and kills the SACD’s by far. Both of those explicate LP releases are a really magic experience musically (the Bernstein”s are reference, the SFS fine) and sound wise (the Bernstein”s and especially the SFS exceptional). Your post made me listen through several of them, which was fun.

If you get the CD”s/SACD’s, you at least have half of it, still great.

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Thank me later for this hint, vinyl listeners :wink::

You won’t get it cheaper than this for the upcoming 100 years, and there’s only one. 750 CAD.


Many enjoy:

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Oh, believe me, I wasn’t singling out jazz because I don’t LIKE classical. In my previous life, I worked as a programmer and announcer in public radio, so I got to know the classical repertoire very thoroughly - at least I back in the 80s. I really love the Mahler works you mention. I’m a vinyl listener, but have a medium-level setup that I’m not sure would bring out the detail you’re getting for $100s. It’s a tricky thing - I grew up on vinyl, but gave it up when CDs came around, and now I’m back to vinyl to see if I can experience a level of enjoyment I wasn’t looking for earlier. Jury’s out.

As for jazz singers with strings, I agree with your choice of Billie Holiday, but golly, what about Sinatra with Nelson Riddle or Axel Stordahl (“Embraceable You” - Stordahl 1944 version / Riddle 1960 Version)? I wrote an article years ago called “Gruff-Sweet” that showed how a “rough-hewn” sound can meet the sweetness of strings and produce a phenomenal effect. One of my favorites is “Black Butterfly” which features cornettist Wild Bill Davison with strings. Other examples included Tom Waits songs, Charlie Parker with strings. How about Sarah Vaughan’s 1957 recording of “My One and Only Love”? I think Tony Bennett has some great recordings with strings. And recent recordings by Melody Gardot qualify to my ears (example).

Back to the topic, I think the examples I gave qualify for good ensemble/vocal interaction, which is probably why they stuck out in my mind.

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You guys! This wasn’t supposed to include classical, but I just previewed a little of this Rutter work and it is phenomenal, even on my Mac Studio Display (which is actually pretty good). Buying it now. I have to admit I laughed at the thought of the conversation: “So Mr. Rutter, what do you think of your Requiem being done by the Turtle Creek Chorale?”

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Hey Elk. Just wanted to thank you for suggesting the John Rutter album. I’ve heard a number of his pieces, but never the Requiem, which I found quite a bit richer than most things of his I’ve heard before. The “anthems” were more in keeping with what I’ve experienced - which means they sometimes border on “pop” melodies, but certainly still good. The recording is amazing. The dynamics are as close to perfect as I’ve heard - no apologies for super-pianissimo to fortissimo!

Two things in the Requiem that really stood out were what might be called “distance things”: first the female soloist in the Pie Jesu. I can’t remember ever hearing a more perfect feeling of distance-with-presence. I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard in a great concert hall such perfection as though she were in my room. The second was the regular beat of the drum in the final Lux Aeterna. On my Mac I could hear the drum, but with my system in my room, I could FEEL the drum being struck - to where I knew how hard, the whole envelope of the drum’s sound - and it was QUIET - in the distance. I’ve really noticed this with a better system/better room - that before I could certainly hear all these things, but a revealing system provides so much more of the total effect the composer and musicians were trying to convey.

As for the topic, well, everything was as it should be as far as balance between singers, soloists, ensemble, etc., but I would have known that with any system in this case.

Again, thanks for the suggestion - what a great recording!

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You are very welcome.

The recording is wonderful, the primary reason I suggested it. But the Requiem is lovely as well.

Rutter tends toward the easily accessible melody. Typically, his craft is so good it works and the pieces are a delight. He occasionally slips into the surgery, but it is such high quality sugar I can forgive him.

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LOL! I love that way of saying it. For many years people would make fun of me for loving Gino Vannelli - Oh GOD - it’s so OVER-produced, they’d say. But it’s FANTASTIC as far as over-production goes, I’d reply. Those same they (and I) were also making fun of anyone who liked Barry Manilow. Then a few years ago I was dating a woman and she dragged me to hear BM (no pun intended) and he was FANTASTIC. Puts on a great show and has powerful leadership skills. Schmalz? Yes. But GOOD schmalz!

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Funny, while as a soloist, I felt the same way about Michael Feinstein. Then I saw him perform in person. What a fine performance and incredible showmanship!

I had a chance to see Michael Feinstein not long ago and passed on it probably for similar reasons. You just never can tell who’s going to be good or bad in concert. One of the best concerts I ever went to was John Denver. I was never nuts over his stuff, but I had a feeling it would be good, and it really was. Good sound too as I recall.The worst concerts I’ve been to were ZZ Top and Wilco - for the same reason - they were so DAMN LOUD, I couldn’t hear a thing, even with earplugs.

John Denver was highly skilled. He would record his albums in a single sitting, no re-takes.

He was another of my aerobatics students