Does equipment matter?
I think it does, but I'm not talking about DJ equipment. I'm talking about the band.
First, a note of explanation. Christian has generously invited me to contribute something to this page. I do DJ, but I do not consider myself to be any sort of expert on the subject.
I do know a bit about music and history, though, and I'm always trying to figure out better ways to talk about the aspects of swing music which are so important but which almost impossible to find words for.
So, I'm going to talk about something a bit philosophical, but related to DJing.
New Cymbal Types
I recently attended a workshop given by Glenn Crytzer. He had a lot to teach, but there was one thing he said that seemed like a revelation to me. He kept talking about ride cymbals. He said that he could judge a band without hearing them, just by looking at their cymbals.
When he said this, I immediately realized what he was talking about, but I had never had the vocabulary to say what it was.
Before be-bop, cymbals were smaller and thinner. They did not have such a sustained sound. Modern drummers often use cymbals of a type which did not exist in the swing era. These have a sustained, ringing, sizzling sound.
Does it Matter?
So, is Glenn just insisting on some purist idea of authenticity? No, I don't think so. A sustained sound like a modern ride cymbal does not give a dancer the same kind of rhythmic pulse. The old cymbals, with their less sustained sound, gave a more defined beat.
I'm not saying the modern sound is always wrong, or that it can't swing, and I'm definitely not defining what is or isn't swing music… but these new tools give a different kind of rhythm and sound. This marks the music as modern.
Not Just Instruments
These kinds of problems come up with modern recording techniques as well. Standard practice today is to “close mic” each instrument. This creates a very different sound compared to old recordings where the musicians would have been standing quite a distance from the mic.
Part of this difference is a result of the microphone itself, and part of it is because the close mic-ed musician doesn't have to play as loud.
When you play a horn at a high volume, it isn't just louder, it has a different tone. (Pee Wee Erwin claimed that Bunny Berigan was 30 feet from the microphone when he recorded “Marie.” To create the tone that he did, he had to play loud!)
Processing Changes Rhythms
Another tendency is to add reverb to modern recordings. This ability did not exist in the swing era. Why does it matter? Well, rhythm is not just when a note begins, it is also when and how a note ends.
Adding reverb blurs the end of the note. This matters in music where rhythm is practically everything. It makes the rhythm less distinct. Not all modern recordings use these techniques, and I think more and more bands are taking great care about choosing which ones are appropriate.
What Should I Do About It?
Does this matter to a DJ? I think it does, but I'm not suggesting some kind of rule. Good DJs listen to each song and make a decision about how it will work for dancing.
There is a lot to it, and none of it (except BPMs) can be quantified. So I don't think it's necessary to know all of this; your ears will tell you. But I still think it's interesting to try to understand why we find one song irresistible to dance to and another… not.
Personally, I don't play any songs with this modern cymbal sound– not because I'm such a purist, but because they just don't make me want to dance. They make me want to relax and have a drink. That feeling is the way I decide, not something technical.
DJs, what do you think?
Do you hear these differences as significant, or am I making a lot out of nothing? Do you find it jarring when very modern-sounding recordings are juxtaposed with old ones? Or is it a welcome bit of variety? Do you use this contrast consciously in your DJ sets?