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Session Notes: Magician's Nephew | Big Drum Sound

The Practical Craft Of Recording
By Mike Senior

The task this month was to record rock drums in a tiny live room — so small, in fact, that Mike couldn't even stand up straight in it! Finding a good position for the main stereo pair of Rode NT2As was hard work, but here you can see their final position.The task this month was to record rock drums in a tiny live room — so small, in fact, that Mike couldn't even stand up straight in it! Finding a good position for the main stereo pair of Rode NT2As was hard work, but here you can see their final position.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

Getting a big‑sounding drum recording in a small space is never easy — but it can be done...

Capturing a big rock drum sound is never easy, but it's even harder in a small space, and they don't get much tinier than the basement room in which I was invited to help young riff‑rock band Magician's Nephew record their drummer, Noah. With a floor area of about 10x12 feet, when the drums and mics were set up it was a challenge just getting from one side to the other. The live and control rooms were less than six feet tall below the joists and connected by a four-feet high passageway, making it even more 'cosy' given my height of six foot four!

The kit was fairly conventional, with kick, snare, three toms, hi‑hat, ride, and three crash cymbals. The band's normal tracking setup was based around a set of Audix dynamic mics (an i5 for snare, a D6 for kick, a D4 for floor tom, and D2s for the rack toms), an AKG C451 small‑diaphragm condenser for the hi‑hat, and an overhead pair of Rode NT2A large‑diaphragm condensers. Despite the respectable mic line‑up and having spent considerable time and effort experimenting with mic positions, the band weren't entirely satisfied with their recordings, which were slightly hollow and abrasive. They'd even tried replacing the Rode mics with a pair of Shure SM57 dynamics in front of the kit, and although these did a creditable job of representing the kit's balance, they also lent the timbre an unwelcome indie trashiness that was at odds with the band's classic rock influences.

I asked them to send me one of their latest raw multitracks, so I could try to diagnose the malaise before the session. As expected, given my own experience of the NT2A, a harshness to the upper spectrum of their overhead pickup seemed partly responsible, but it seemed to have been exacerbated by pointing the mics at the cymbals from above, emphasising the brightest cymbal perspective with the mic's on‑axis HF boost. I also noticed that the snare and tom close mics seemed to have been placed very close. An understandable tactic to minimise the small‑room acoustic signature, this had ejected the baby with the bathwater: the mics highlighted mostly head resonances at that distance, without picking up much natural tone, and the dulled off‑axis spill in the overheads did little to supplement that. Also, since the kick's resonant head had no hole, it had been recorded from the outside, so it didn't deliver the tight, aggressive sound that's usually associated with mainstream rock.

With all this in mind, I prioritised capturing a fuller, more representative drum‑kit timbre, rather than strive too hard to downplay the character of the recording room. It's far easier to fake the impression of a larger room using reverb at mixdown than to bolster a fundamentally anaemic kit tone!

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Published January 2019