How do you record a piano and drum kit in a modest live room, at the same time? Our engineer explains his approach...
One thing you'll often hear engineers discuss when they're dispensing tips on mixing is the importance of context — how a particular source sounds in relation to whatever is going on alongside it, rather than what it sounds like in isolation, when soloed. But context is just as crucial a consideration when it comes to the recording stage. When recording an instrument, for example, knowing the context in which it will be heard in the final production can influence your choice of mic and mic technique, of the acoustic space you'll record in, the instrument itself, and perhaps even who will play it.
Recently, I completed the production of an album for the artist Kate Lucid that demonstrates this point very well. It featured her excellent piano playing, along with an assortment of parts by other musicians on different tracks. Much of the piano for the album was played on a top-range Steinway D piano and recorded on location using DPA 4006 omnidirectional microphones. And, unsurprisingly, that combination of great musician, great instrument and great mics combined to deliver a rich, detailed sound, with everything you'd hope for from a full-range piano recording.
That Steinway session, though, was for songs that mostly comprise only piano and vocals, with nothing else fighting for space. Yet, for two other album tracks the piano was only one element in an arrangement that also involved drums, bass and guitar. And for those particular tracks not only was it not so important to capture such a lush piano sound, but the context meant it was arguably not even desirable. So I opted for a very different approach, recording Kate playing the upright piano back at my own studio (where I have neither the space nor the resources to maintain a full-size Steinway grand!)
I've worked out a few different ways to record my studio's upright — indeed, regular readers may remember that I took the time last year to compare several different recording techniques with this piano (see SOS December 2019: https://sosm.ag/maintain-and-mic-an-upright-piano). So I have a number of options now that I know can meet the needs of different sessions. But what that article didn't explain is that I've also come up with some strategies for recording the piano when it's being played alongside other instruments.
For this session, the piano would need to share the recording space with a few instruments. Notably, a full drum kit would need to be played in fairly close proximity to the piano. In fact, when we initially planned the recording, we weren't entirely convinced that we'd be able to make the live recording work in this smaller live room — or whether this piano sound would stand up when heard alongside the other tracks on the album. Happily, it did, although, as you can probably imagine, the result was a complete contrast to the 'hi-fi' Steinway recordings.
The line-up consisted of upright piano, drums, bass guitar and electric guitar, with Kate also singing a guide vocal whilst playing the piano. We wanted to capture live recordings of the band, but with enough separation that we'd have some control in the mix. The guitars were quite straightforward; I have other rooms in my studio in which I can put amps and cabs to isolate them and run cables back to the live room. But obviously that wasn't an option for the piano and drums, and recording any live session that involves a full drum kit and another miked acoustic instrument can be a bit hit and miss in a modestly sized live room such as this one. So I had to give some serious thought about how best to make this work.
At a general level, the key to making any live session with drums work in a smaller room is a drummer who's sensitive to the situation — one who plays the kit as one nicely balanced instrument, and who can tailor their playing slightly to make a little less noise. It's a fine line, but experienced drummers seem to recognise that sweet spot in which they're helping the engineer make things work but aren't compromising the tone and impact of their drums. I was fortunate to have just such a drummer on this session — Stephen MacLachlan.
In my live room I've found that it's the drums' higher frequencies that tend to permeate everywhere, with only very marginal improvements being possible through changing the angles of mics or the relative positions of instruments in the recording space. While I can pull the piano away from the wall a little, there's not much flexibility for more dramatic reconfigurations of the room with this sort of full-band setup — there are only so many ways you can comfortably arrange that many bodies and instruments in such a space.
My first step, then, was to figure out how to get a good 'snapshot' of how things sounded in the room, without worrying too much about the bleed, to determine whether bleed was actually going to be a problem before spending precious time attempting to address it!
One of the great things about working with an experienced studio drummer is that they're usually very keen to tailor their kit to meet the needs of a particular session. Generally, we wanted quite a dry kit sound that would work well with the other instruments being recorded in the same space. Steve and I decided we didn't need any toms other than the floor tom, and after swiftly putting the mics in place the majority of the drum setup time was spent tuning the kit and getting any damping right. The biggest difference we made at this stage was tuning the kick down slightly and damping its resonant head a little, to get the low end sounding full but tight.
The drum miking was relatively unfussy and conventional — you generally can't go wrong using AKG C414s as drum overheads, and likewise a Beyerdynamic M201 dynamic mic is a solid choice for close-miking toms due to its very tight polar pattern. Steve's bass drum has a Shure Beta 91a mic permanently fitted inside and that did a good job of capturing that drum's attack. I augmented this with a Flea clone of a Neumann U47 FET to capture some of the resonance and low end from the outside of the drum.
For the snare, though, I was keen to try out the new AEA KU5A ribbon mic that had arrived at the studio for review. It seemed to do a great job of capturing the low end of the snare, although as you might anticipate with a ribbon I had to add a little 8kHz via EQ on the way in, just to brighten it up a touch. (The top end rolls off on most ribbons rather more than on capacitor mics, which can make them sound a bit 'dark'. But that top end is also smooth-sounding, so you can generally compensate for the roll-off with generous high-frequency EQ boosts where required.)
There's not a huge amount to report about the setup for the guitars. The bass was a simple DI recording, and we auditioned two different bass guitars before settling on a Fender Jazz bass, which had a tighter, more rounded sound than the alternative. For the electric guitar, we set up a guitar amp in an adjacent room, using a Radial SGI RX line driver system for the long cable run between the rooms, to avoid signal degradation. I used the second AEA KU5A review mic on that amp, running it into the preamps of the studio's Audient mixing console.
A really good tip for sessions like these is to make sure you also have a couple of 'talk mics' set up in the live room. These mics allow you to hear what everyone is saying between takes, but they often also double up as very useful room mics in the mix. To this end, I had an SM58 on the drummer and an omnidirectional Earthworks mic near the guitarist and bass player.
One of the great things about working with an experienced studio drummer is that they're usually very keen to tailor their kit to meet the needs of a particular session.
The piano was the instrument that needed the most careful thought when it came to miking and, partly with control of drum spill in mind, I turned to one of the techniques which is discussed in the article I mentioned earlier. It combines the signals from a pair of inexpensive dynamic mics, positioned fairly low down and pointing toward the rear of the piano, and a pair of cheap PZM mics taped inside the removable board at the front of the instrument.
Any kind of dynamic mic intended for vocals (a Shure SM58, for instance) tends to work well, as it will generally offer some useful mid-range 'poke' that's helpful for songs in which you want a piano to cut through a busier mix. PZMs, on the other hand, often provide a nice, extended low end on a source like piano, and in this technique they seem to fill in what information is missing from those mid-heavy dynamic mics really nicely. A significant advantage of using this miking technique on this session was that, with all four mics close to the piano and, to some extent, also shielded by it, the drum spill remained helpfully low.
Once the drums and piano were miked up to my satisfaction, I got the musicians to do a proper run-through of one of the tracks we'd be recording.
The thrill of live recording sessions is probably my favourite part of being a recording engineer — those few seconds when you listen back to the first recording on a session and know almost instantly if it will work out well or not! Of course, the biggest factor in things 'working' or not is neither the gear nor the miking — far more important is the way the musicians in the room respond to each other, hopefully playing with that cohesion that's often sadly lacking when overdubbing and working on a song in a more 'modular' way. Still, the sonics are important too, and from that point of view the spill of all the instruments into each other's microphones can often deliver a unifying quality to the sound that can make mixing very straightforward.
On the first playback in this session, I was pleasantly surprised. Each instrument sounded nicely 'in the room' but individually well defined too. Even in this situation, though, I like to take a few minutes where time allows to listen to what the mics are capturing and figure out if I have everything I need to get to what I imagine/hope the finished result will be. In this case, I was broadly happy with what I was capturing. However, I had a couple of concerns.
First, I felt the cymbal spill in the dynamic mics at the rear of the piano could be lower because, while it all sounded OK, I was fairly sure I'd want to brighten these signals with EQ when mixing the track. Second, I noticed what appeared to be the PZM mics overloading on some of the louder sections — not just from the piano itself, but also in response to some of the kick-drum hits.
Because of the position of the main (rear) piano mics, it was fairly easy to try a traditional SOS solution to the spill problem — a polyester duvet. With some pins and a heavy gym weight, I was able to cover the gap between the wall and the piano and that instantly reduced the high frequencies coming from the cymbals into these mics. I then positioned two of my large gobos (portable acoustic screens), each with a built-in viewing window, between the drum kit and the piano. As the band were still fine-tuning the arrangement, they were more than happy to embark on another run through the track, which enabled me to see if my makeshift isolation measures had done the trick.
The combination of the duvet and the screens seemed to be doing just enough to help bring down the volume of the cymbals by a few dB, and I was happy that it wasn't having any negative effect. The overloading of the PZM mics, on the other hand, was something I was unable to prevent. But as I said at the outset, it's all a question of context — and thankfully this distortion was only really noticeable when the part was heard in isolation. Indeed, while it was unintended, it actually created quite a nice effect with all the parts playing together — one of those 'happy accidents'! With time moving on, I decided that I could still make the piano sound work, even if I had to resort to using only the dynamic mics, so I left everything in place and we got stuck into recording proper.
Although we were now ready to go recording-wise, the band were keen to have a little extra rehearsal time — they only wanted 20 minutes or so but, rather than put my feet up, I used the time productively, patching in some of the studio's outboard processors to shape the sounds on some of the mics. That way, I could capture something closer to what I'd want in the mix; not only would this leave me with less to do at mixdown, but when the band came in to listen to what they'd just laid down it would already sound that bit more 'mixed'. That sort of thing can really contribute to a good vibe on a session and that, in turn, can feed into artists' performances; you can't overestimate just how important it is for the musicians to feel good — excited even — about what they're doing!
With the band happily playing away in the live room, I inserted a dbx 560a compressor on both the inside kick mic and the snare top mic. I find just a dB or two of gain reduction on these when recording can contribute to a more solid-sounding foundation. I also deployed my Grove Audio Liverpool vari-mu compressor on the DI'd bass guitar to good effect. More generally, I also dialled in a little EQ on the Audient Console's channels wherever I felt confident, with my most notable moves being to remove some low frequencies on the overhead mics (to create some space for the close kick-drum mics) and to add some presence (around 1.5kHz) to the bass guitar, so that it would sit a little better alongside the piano.
We had two songs to get recorded during this live session, and things moved pretty swiftly once we were recording in earnest. We got the main takes down for both songs in just over an hour, and then spent a little time tidying up the bass and electric guitar takes — we just needed to drop in a few bars here and there. The lead vocal was recorded on a different day, and with fairly minimal mix treatment it seemed to sit very naturally with the band material recorded on this session. Having the sources share a little reverb seemed to help in this respect — to this end, I've spent time creating a preset in the ValhallaRoom reverb plug-in that does a great job of sounding like my live room.
This Session Notes series is primarily about recording tactics, rather than what happens during mixing, but when I returned to the finished mixes to prepare some illustrative audio examples (which you can find on the SOS website at https://sosm.ag/session-notes-0320), it struck me just how little I had actually done with plug-ins in the mix. I'd done a little gating on the drum close mics, but for the most part I'd treated the drums as a single instrument, via a drum group aux track, with just a little compression and some EQ to brighten the snare.
This is the beauty of these kinds of recording sessions: good musicians playing together in a room, getting the mic choices right and having just enough time available to shape the sounds a little bit on the way into the DAW. Mixing this sort of music then becomes predominately about balance and panning decisions, and resisting the urge to apply unnecessary processing for the sake of it!
As I mentioned at the outset, the contrast between these piano recordings and those captured at the album's 'proper' piano session is significant. If you put the exposed piano recordings from the two sessions side by side, you can easily tell the difference. But it was the right decision. With the right mics and a little creative placement, I was able to capture a piano sound that not only sounded right in the context of the other instruments being played on these two tracks but, just as importantly, also held it's own when played next to the other songs on the album.
Kate Lucid started writing songs that she wouldn't be embarrassed to perform at around the age of 13. She has since written over 50 songs and has performed them in a variety of venues and at various events, from talent shows in her home town of Kyiv in the Ukraine, to a coffee shop in Topeka, KS (USA), a music meet-up in Brussels, and a Cambridge University college.
The recording sessions discussed in this article can be heard on her album Illucidity which is available now.