Our engineer records a rock trio while trying also to offer sufficient options to create a drum sample library!
Even though affordable project-studio equipment has allowed many producers to record and mix music without having to watch the clock on financial grounds, time often remains the biggest enemy. This is because the lack of formal session constraints encourages people to hedge their bets sonically, deferring important sound decisions until mixdown rather than recording with a clearly envisioned final result in mind. Much of the advice I've offered in past instalments of this column has been about how to avoid this trap by committing to recording things from the outset the way you want them to sound in the end — a much more time-efficient working method.
However, I'm occasionally asked to record in such a way as to keep lots of sonic options open, perhaps because the needs of the arrangement are still uncertain, or because I want to allow a different engineer enough freedom to develop their own vision for the mix. One such session was when I was recently asked to track a rock trio at a local commercial studio, and in this case, the drummer had an additional reason for wanting maximum mixdown flexibility: he also wanted to use my mic setup to sample his desirable '90s-vintage Tama Star Classic kit so that he could develop his own sample-library product.
With this in mind, my goal with the miking was to be able to achieve a satisfying a band timbre without recourse to heavy mix processing, no matter how dry or roomy the target sound at mixdown. In addition, I was keen that the mic signals should also allow the mix engineer some freedom to adjust the relative balance and tone of all the instruments if they wished. More specifically, the basic plan was to capture a full set of close mics for the drums, cymbals, and bass/guitar amplifiers that would be able to stand on their own if a dry mix was required, but then to supplement those with several stereo mic pairs capturing the whole band sound from different distances. Blending any or all of the mic pairs with the close mics would allow me to generate a wide range of more ambient perspectives, while retaining a useful degree of balance control over individual instruments.
As far as the drums were concerned, it might seem on the face of it logical to begin work with the close mics in this situation, but I actually chose to start with the closest mic pair. This is partly just a reflex on my part, but there are good reasons I've made it a habit. Firstly, the process of finding a sensible miking position for overall kit pickup involves comparing the live-room and control-room sounds by ear, so you immediately start listening critically to the natural acoustic sound of the drums. And once you manage to get that first mic pair sounding representative in the control room, that can provide a powerful reality check when you're judging the success of your close mic positions. In other words, because that first mic pair's more distant placement typically picks up a more natural sound, it really highlights whether your close-miking choices are misrepresenting the timbre of any individual drum or cymbal.
The mics I chose for this first pair were the studio's vintage AKG C414 EB large-diaphragm condensers, which I like for their smooth and unhyped tone, and I set them up in a favourite position of mine a little above the drummer's head, roughly two feet apart, and angled inwards to direct their brighter on-axis tone towards the snare drum. The mics are multi-pattern, and I opted for the cardioid option so that the mics would capture the kit's full width with a sensible balance, while also rejecting a certain amount of room ambience. The sound we got from the mics reminded me why I like this miking approach, as it doesn't over-emphasise the cymbals in the balance the way a more traditional 'overhead' miking position can. It was also good news that the drummer naturally balanced his kit with the snare dominating over the cymbals in the room, because that meant that if I based my drums mix on the overall-pickup mics, I wouldn't have to use as much of the (inevitably less natural sounding) close mics to get a sensible rock balance.
Speaking of which, my next stop was getting the close mics up and running. In addition to the overall-pickup mic pair, I put up four further microphones over the kit, targeting the two crash cymbals, ride cymbal, and hi-hat from around a foot above each. My first choices for the close cymbal microphones were Neumann U87s, as these have quite a smooth high-frequency character and I was concerned that the close mic placement might over-brighten the tone. In the event this proved an unnecessary precaution, so I swapped them out for my small-diaphragm Shure KSM141 condensers, using their cardioid mode and high-pass filter switches to reduce the levels of kick and snare ambience. I put up the studio's Neumann KM84 and KM85 mics for the ride and hi-hat respectively, on the basis of their fairly neutral and understated tone. (In case you're unfamiliar with the latter model, it's pretty much identical to the KM84, but with built-in 6dB/octave 200Hz high-pass filtering — a benefit once again for reducing spill from the drums.) I used small-diaphragm condensers for the toms too, though in this case they were the cardioid Avantone CK1s that I've previously had a lot of luck with in this application.
Inside the kick I had the Electro‑Voice RE20, a cardioid dynamic mic, poking into the drum cavity through a hole in the resonant head to capture a tight, percussive sound with plenty of mid‑range beater definition. Positioning mics inside a kick drum can be a bit fiddly, because of the strong resonance modes inside the shell cavity, so I was glad to have the assistance of fellow engineer Simon Gordeev (https://simgo.de) on this particular session, as he was able to lend a hand moving microphones around incrementally for me while I listened in the control room and directed him via headphone foldback. This working method can feel like something of a luxury in project-studio environments, either because the live room and control room are one in the same, or because there's a shortage of capable personel, but it doesn't half speed up the workflow when you can manage it!
Complementing the RE20 was the rich warmth of a Neumann U47 FET large-diaphragm condenser mic placed outside the drum, roughly eight inches from the resonant head. For the top of the snare, the drummer expressed a preference for Shure's Beta 56 supercardioid dynamic mic, so I was happy to go with that, placing it about three inches above the rim, angled a little inwards. The sound from this mic had plenty of attack, as well as a touch of batter-head resonance, but with very little cymbal or hi-hat spill — another advantage of the drummer's naturally snare-heavy balance.
The under‑snare mic's position mirrored that of the over‑snare for the most part, and the shielding effect of the drum itself helped keep cymbal spill levels negligible, even though I'd deliberately chosen a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser (Shure's KSM132) to capture the drum's tonal brightness. As it turned out, pointing this mic directly at the snare wires made them sound a little too aggressive, so I adjusted the mic's angle until it gave a slightly more restrained outcome. An ADK A7 large-diaphragm condenser placed between the snare and kick drums helped enhance the shell tone of both instruments, as well as picking up some nice sympathetic rattle.
By this time the close mics seemed to be complementing the overall kit mics nicely, but removing that stereo pair to get a tighter sound left the snare drum sounding slightly anaemic. So I decided to bring in one more snare mic just over the drummer's left shoulder to catch a more holistic sound from the drum, the idea being that this could supplement the snare tone in any mix where the engineer decided to jettison the overall-pickup mic pairs. Initially I tried a hypercardioid Avantone CK1 condenser in this role to minimise cymbal spill, but its thin timbre from this position was far from appealing. I then decided to give Sennheiser's supercardioid dynamic MD441 a go, but this was still too bright, even with its switchable treble boost deactivated, so I finally reached for that old stalwart the Shure SM7B, which produced a meatier tone once I'd turned off its presence boost switch. (The mic's built-in low‑cut function was also useful for reducing kick-drum spill.)
Wherever possible, I prefer to record bands together in the same room so that there's no barrier to communication between the performers and they don't have to mess around with headphone foldback to hear what's going on. Fortunately, I was preaching to the converted here, as the band were keen to work that way as well, although they expressed some concerns that spill between the instruments might cause mixing problems and asked about whether we should put up acoustic baffles for better separation. What I've discovered in practice, though, is that if the instruments are well-balanced in the room and the cabs are angled away from the drums, then the spill levels are surprisingly low. Furthermore, if you do your best to keep the instruments fairly close together, the spill between them acts less like unwanted reverb, and more like additional multi-mic contributions. So I suggested that we proceed with no extra baffling to start with and defer that decision until we'd heard how effective the separation was in reality.
As with the drums, I used multi-miking with both the electric guitar and bass guitar to give more scope for tonal reshaping at mixdown. For the bass, I used the same Electro‑Voice RE20 and Neumann FET 47 combination I'd already used on the kick drum. Both of those mics have comparatively linear low-frequency responses, which I felt would help preserve an appropriate balance between the different registers of the performer's melodic bass lines. The electric guitarist was alternating between two different combo amps for different numbers, and I used the same general-purpose miking setup for each: a Shure SM57 cardioid dynamic mic; a Neumann U87 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic; and a Bash Audio RM BIV1 figure‑of‑eight ribbon mic that Simon had brought with him. Each of these mics has its own unique sound character by design, and I also chose positions for them to maintain that individuality — after all, you're not going to get much tonal range from three mics if they all sound the same! Once again, Simon's help was invaluable here, as he was able to sweep the mics across the front of each cab until I heard something coming through the control-room speakers that I liked.
With small amps, comb-filtering between the direct sound of the speaker cone and reflected sound from the floor can colour the mic signals, so I made a point of using angled amp stands for both the guitarist's amps. To keep spill levels low, I kept all the mics quite close to the speaker grill in each case, which necessarily overloaded the raw mic signals with proximity-effect bass boost. Fortunately, though, it was easy to remedy this with the variable high-pass filters built into the Audient ASP880 mic preamps I was using. Just for safety's sake, though, I recorded clean DI signals for both guitars (via Radial Pro 48 active DI boxes), just in case the band wanted to expand their sonic options still further through the joys of re‑amping.
With all these mics on the go I was now able to transition from a very dry band presentation to something more natural and open-sounding, but for more obviously roomy sounds I was going to need some more distant mic pairs too. In the end I set up three different mic pairs which covered a lot of different bases. The closest pair were DPA small-diaphragm omni condensers spaced about two feet apart and 10 feet or so behind the drummer. These delivered a nice rich ambience for the drums, without overprominent cymbal splash, and also provided a balance biased towards the drummer, on account of the guitar and bass amps being on the other side of the kit facing away.
Both of the other mic pairs were placed on the opposite side of the kit to give a more guitar-heavy balance, both arrays at a distance of about 12 feet from the kick drum. I set up the studio's lovely Schoeps CMTS501 stereo multi-pattern valve mic in a Blumlein configuration (ie. with the coincident capsules in figure-eight polar pattern with a mutual angle of 90 degrees), aiming it at the drums. Because the Blumlein array naturally recesses the levels of sound sources arriving from the centre of the soundstage (relative to those at the edges), this distanced the drums a little more. Tonally, though, these mics picked up a much brighter cymbal sound than the DPAs.
Either side of the Schoeps mic I set up a Superlux R102 ribbon mic to create another spaced stereo pair. With these mics, however, I wanted to get a much more distant sound, so rotated them 90 degrees such that they pointed their figure-eight rejection nulls at the drums — a handy little trick for creating the illusion of a larger recording room. (Another option, if you have no figure‑of‑eight mics, is to point a pair of cardioids in the 'wrong' direction so that their cardioid nulls point towards the sound source.) As you'd normally expect of ribbons, these mic signals had a warmer and more rounded tone than the other pairs.
The advantage of having all these room mics was that they offered the mix engineer some leeway to decide how much ambience was added to the guitars as opposed to the drumkit, depending on how the DPA and Schoeps mic pairs were balanced. These mics also provided different amounts of ambience for the drums and cymbals. The Superlux pair then added the option of expanding the apparent size of the space.
The only way to check whether you've got what you need while tracking, in my opinion, is to build a rough mix of all the tracks as you go. On this session, though, the time required to do this was significantly greater, because I had to evaluate not just one mix sound, but a representative range of different sounds in order to confirm that we had the mics we'd need in each scenario. There's no sense in killing your performers by having them play for you while you're doing this, so I did a number of test recordings as we progressed to give the musicians a few minutes to chill out while I experimented with different rough-mix blends.
It was a lot of work, but it paid off, because we ended up with tracks that needed only minimal processing to generate a wide range of different mix sounds. Furthermore, we never did end up adding any acoustic baffling between the instruments, because the separation seemed perfectly adequate as it was. But don't take it from me; head over to the accompanying Audio Examples page on the SOS website (https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/session-notes-multi-purpose-recordings-audio), where I've posted three different example mixes demonstrating the kind of sonic variety on offer. Plus, I've also uploaded audio files for all the raw mic signals, so you can use your own DAW software to experiment with mixing them for yourself!
This month's column features Marcus Boeltz (www.marcusboeltz.net) on drums, Christian Bolz (www.christianbolz.info) on electric guitar, and Tobias Knecht (www.tobiasknecht.de) on bass guitar. We were recording together at Munich's Mastermix Studios (www.mastermixstudio.de).
If you'd like to check out the drum sample library that came out of this session, it's called 'Real World Session Files 1' and can be purchased from www.wavepowerblog.com.
Marcus Boeltz: "The brief for Mike was that I wanted my drum sample library to have a modern and punchy sound with various mixing options for the end user, and that his sampling setup should also work well for the live band recordings. I've recorded drums myself a few times, but always went for one of the few proven and pretty standard strategies I knew, so I was quite excited to see what Mike would come up with. I loved the fact that Mike wasn't just pulling off any of his proven setups but did quite a lot of experimenting as our schedule allowed for that. Later on, Mike had no fewer than 17 mics on my four-piece drum kit, which was both impressive and intimidating at first, but I was more than happy with what I heard at the first soundcheck.
"In my mind Mike nailed the session requirements perfectly: the kit sounded fantastic, and there were ample mixing choices available. The band were also more than happy with the sound when they came in the following day, and the whole tracking session (sampling as well as the live band) turned out to be a smooth and fast-paced ride. We even left the studio ahead of schedule!"
Visit the accompanying Audio Examples page (www.soundonsound.com/techniques/session-notes-multi-purpose-recordings-audio), where I've posted three different example mixes demonstrating the kind of sonic variety on offer. Plus, I've also uploaded audio files for all the raw mic signals, so you can use your own DAW software to experiment with mixing them for yourself!
You can also download a ZIP file of hi‑res WAV audio and MP3 examples in the righthand Media sidebar or use the link below.
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