Recording 28 songs in five days is no mean feat. So what sort of results can you get, and what compromises are involved?
These files accompany the Session Notes article in the June 2015 issue of SOS
The audio files available on this page accompany my Session Notes article in SOS June 2015 about recording the band Spektakulatius. The filenames are fairly self–explanatory, but here are some additional notes to describe exactly what you’re hearing in each case. If you’d like to download some of the full multitracks from this session to scrutinise the raw recordings further — or indeed mix them for yourself! — then please visit author Mike Senior’s web site at www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#Spektakulatius.
Here’s a rough mix of the band tracks of a blues song from the Spektakulatius project. All the instruments you hear (piano, acoustic piano, electric bass and electric guitar) were playing in the same room, although the bass was DI’d in this case. Note that this rough mix has no processing or effects on it whatsoever — all you’re hearing is a balance of the microphone signals and the bass DI.
Much of the body and tone of the snare drum sound in the Blues01_RoughMix example file is actually coming through the piano mics as spill, as you can hear in this audio example. However, I found the timbre of this spill rather appealing, so there was no sense in trying to remove it. (Note also that the electric guitar is spilling into the piano mics too, although to a lesser extent.)
To hear how much the piano mics contributed to the snare sound in context, compare this audio example with the Blues01_RoughMix file — the comparison will be most revealing if you import both into your DAW system and switch between them on the fly. Notice how the sound gets thinner and more upfront, and doesn’t blend as well with the ensemble as a whole. (The same applies more subtly to the electric guitar too.)
Because the piano mics were supplying so much of the body of the snare sound, I deliberately brought the snare mic in closer to give it a spikier and less noisy tone, in order to complement what was already in the mix.
This is what the rough mix sounds like with the snare microphone muted. There’s still plenty of snare sound in the mix, but it lacks the percussive edge necessary to propel the groove forward. Compare this with the Blues01_RoughMix file for perspective.
Here’s the same section of the final mix of this track, so you can hear how closely the raw balance we heard during the tracking session compares.
Here’s a rough mix of another of the Spektakulatius recordings, which was captured using a live-room setup very similar to that shown in the header picture and diagram of the Session Notes article — the only difference was that the snare mic was placed over the drummer’s right shoulder, about three feet from the drum. Everything you hear was recorded live together, with only the lead vocal separated in our DIY isolation booth. Again, this rough mix is almost totally ‘raw’: other than high-pass filters on the sax (at 200Hz) and piano (at 45Hz) tracks, there is no processing or effects on this mix whatsoever — all you’re hearing is a balance of the microphone signals and the bass DI.
Although the sax blends nicely with the other backing parts while the singer is taking the centre stage, when it comes time for the saxophonist to deliver his solo, the sound feels too far away, as you can hear by comparing this audio example to the SaxDepth01_Chorus_RoughMix file. Given that there’s no effects processing going on here, it’s clear that this is on account of sax spill coming through the microphones, in particular those on the snare and bass. However, I didn’t want to move the saxophonist out of the main live room, so I decided to check whether I might be able to deal with this concern at mixdown.
The biggest offender in terms of sax spill was the snare mic, a Superlux ribbon mic set up over the drummer’s right shoulder, pointing at the drum from about three feet away. We’d come up with this mic position while recording the previous song (which had no sax part), because the drummer liked the smooth and understated sound it offered for the snare, side-stick, hi-hat and ride. When we switched songs, the drummer still liked the sound this position gave, so we left the mic in place, but this did mean it inevitably picked up a good deal of spill, as you can hear.
To reduce the sax spill on the snare mic during the sax solo, I simply applied a limited–range gate to the track — here I’ve used a 6dB range, which gives a useful reduction in the spill level without too many unnatural artifacts. To hear the effects of this in context, compare the SaxDepth02_Solo_RoughMix and SaxDepth05_Solo_RoughMixDrier1 audio files.
The limited–range gating applied to the snare track for the SaxDepth04_Solo_SnareMicGatedSolo audio example pulled the sax part significantly further forward in the mix, as you can hear by comparing this example with the SaxDepth02_Solo_RoughMix file. However, I wanted the option to pull it even further forward if necessary, so also investigated options for reducing the spill on the bass part.
Here’s the bass close mic. Despite the baffling we’d built around the instrument and player, you still can hear a lot of saxophone spill on this track. Gating it out, however, wasn’t really an option, because the sustain of the bass notes was important to the music.
I’d also recorded a Bass DI, and was already using this in my rough mix, balanced with the microphone signal as demonstrated in this example. My idea, therefore, was to reduce the level of the microphone signal and boost that of the DI just for the saxophone solo section.
Here’s the rebalanced version of the SaxDepth07_Solo_BassBalanceOrig file. I’ve turned the mic down 4dB and the DI up 2dB. As you can hear, this has significantly reduced the level of the saxophone spill, although at the expense of a slightly less natural bass sound — a fair price to pay, given that the listener will likely be concentrating primarily on the sax part at that point in proceedings.
This is how the rough mix now sounds with both the snare gating showcased in the SaxDepth04_Solo_SnareMicGatedSolo audio file and the bass mic/DI rebalancing demonstrated in the SaxDepth08_Solo_BassBalanceNew audio file. If you compare this mix directly with the SaxDepth02_Solo_RoughMix audio file, you’ll hear that the saxophone is now plenty upfront, and you can understand why I decided to leave the saxophone player in the room, rather than isolating him from the other musicians. That said, for the following song I experimented with repositioning the snare-mic to put the sax more into the figure-eight polar-pattern’s plane of rejection, a process which resulted in the configuration you can see in the ‘Session Notes’ article’s header picture — and which subsequently made mixing the sax easier.
It’s as well to point out, however, that the sax sound even in the spill–reduced rough mix of SaxDepth09_Solo_RoughMixDrier2 is still to a large extent dependent on spill. To illustrate how much sax spill still remains, I’ve muted the sax close mic for this version of the rough mix.
One of the benefits of this type of one–room recording is the way spill between the instruments enhances the timbre of each, and the saxophone sound in SaxDepth09_Solo_RoughMixDrier2, despite being pretty upfront, demonstrates this very well. To show you what I mean, I’ve created another version of this rough mix section during which I’ve toggled the sax close mic’s solo button. Although the close–mic tone in this case is actually pretty respectable, it only really blooms into something musical and natural in the presence of the spill from the rest of the ensemble mics.
To give some further context here, have a listen to the same section of this song in its final mix context. Although I’ve already demonstrated that it would have been possible to make the saxophone much drier, I didn’t feel I needed to do quite that much spill–reduction in the event, because I also brought up the level of the saxophone’s own close mic in the balance at that point.