In my experience, one of the bands most commonly praised for their rock drum sound are AC/DC, especially on their albums Highway To Hell and Back In Black. And so it was with SOS reader Ian Anderson, who contacted us following our in-depth drum miking workshop in SOS February 2003 to ask for advice regarding his recorded drums. Based in Newcastle, Ian plays guitar with the rock band Velatones, and he had been recording band demos in their rehearsal space — a four-room industrial unit shared with a couple of other local bands. The recording setup was based around a Mackie 1604VLZ mixer and a PC running Syntrilliums's Cool Edit Pro and Emagic's Logic Audio Silver. However, Ian had only so far configured his eight-input M Audio Delta 1010 interface to work with the former, so all recording had to be done using Cool Edit before exporting the files to Logic for mixing. Some outboard processing was also available in the shape of three Behringer Composer compressors and a Behringer graphic equaliser.
For mics, Ian had been using an AKG D112 on the kick drum and a Shure Beta 58 on the snare, with SM57s and SM58s on the toms and a Rode NT1 for an overhead mic. While Ian was happy with the kick drum sound, he felt that his snare sounded woolly, almost as if the snare wires had been removed, or as if the drummer were hitting a tom-tom. He had followed our article's suggestions, and had even tried miking the underside of the snare, but to no avail.
I asked him to send over a few recordings on CD and loaded them into Emagic's Logic to have a listen. The snare drum did indeed lack definition, and had a pronounced low-end ring. In addition, I felt that the overall sound lacked high-end clarity and a suitable sense of size and power compared to 'Back In Black', the AC/DC track which Ian considered to be the ideal reference. With this in mind, I arranged to visit Ian's rehearsal room to see what could be done to remedy the situation, taking along a few extra mics to help out.
An early start saw me arrive up in Newcastle just before 10am and, after the obligatory cup of coffee, we went to work. Ian had arranged for Wayne Stronach, the Velatones' drummer, to be there, so the first thing was to have a listen to what was happening in the room. It was a bit of a surprise to find that the drum sound in the room was nicely balanced and powerful, and well-suited to the style of music they were recording. Although the room was not huge (about 6 x 6m), all but one of the walls were bare stone, and these reflective surfaces were reinforcing the sound in a very beneficial way. I could immediately see why the recordings Ian had been getting were such a source of disappointment to him!
Although Ian's main concern was the snare sound, I felt that we should first set up the overheads — so much of the sound was right in the room that it seemed best to work from that. For a start, I felt that it was essential, given the target sound, to mike the cymbals in stereo, giving the drums more width and space in the stereo image. Because Ian had no matched pairs of condenser mics available to him, I'd brought a pair of Groove Tubes GT55s — large-diaphragm cardioid condensers. These were connected to two channels on the Mackie console, which also fed the mics the necessary phantom power. The two mixer channels were bussed via its main outputs to two inputs of the Delta 1010. Once basic levels had been set, we fine-tuned the positioning of the overheads by ear for a good balance of the cymbals.
We could make an educated guess at positionings by moving mics while listening to the results on closed-backed headphones, but there was so much noise in the room that the only reliable method of monitoring was to work incrementally, making test recordings for each new mic position. This method of working is extremely time-consuming, but is often the only workable solution for the one-room studio on a budget. In addition, there were no real studio (or even hi-fi) speakers around, so we had to rely on headphones to make our recording decisions — albeit referencing 'Back In Black' periodically. For this reason, I switched in the 75Hz high-pass filters on all the desk channels other than that of the kick mic, in order to avoid potential low-end phase-cancellation problems. We could have delayed this decision until after recording, but I didn't think it would really reduce the mixing options and, given the rather harsh sound of the channel processing in Logic Silver, I figured it would be best to commit to EQ in the analogue domain. Unless you've got access to very high-quality digital processing, I find that this approach often gives the best results.
In order to help increase the perceived 'size' of the room sound, we also wired up a couple more condenser mics for ambience — I'd brought a pair of small-diaphragm Shure KSM141s for the purpose — and routed their mixer channels to the same two console outputs. (We had to limit ourselves to six soundcard inputs for the drums, because we wanted to leave two soundcard inputs free for recording guitar and bass parts alongside.) The mics were set up out in the corridor, which also had bare stone walls and quite a high ceiling, and were pointed away from the recording room, with an angle of about 90 degrees between them. With the door to the studio left open, this created a great ambience sound, especially once the mic polar patterns had been switched to cardioid, eliminating more of the direct sound. I panned the ambience mics hard left and right, while the overheads were panned for a slightly narrower image — I find that this makes for a more convincing overall sound when your overhead mics are effectively acting as cymbal close-mics, as in this case. Finally, a little high-end sparkle was added to both sets of mixer channels using the Mackie's 12kHz shelving filters.
Once the overheads and ambience were up and running, it was time to tackle that troublesome snare sound. I'd packed one more condenser for this to try to get as bright a sound at source as possible — another Shure, this time a KSM137. The drummer was taking no prisoners in terms of volume, so I engaged the mic's 25dB pad, as well as switching in the built-in low-cut filter. The snare channel was routed through one of the Mackie's subgroups to a separate soundcard input. Despite using a different mic, setting it up in a 'textbook' position just over the rim of the drum gave a very dull and boomy sound, just as Ian had found. A little low mid-range cut on the overhead and ambience channels helped create a slightly less muddy sound, but the close-mic obviously needed some serious attention.
My first thought was to try to damp down some of the drum's low ringing, which was adversely affecting the sound. Firstly, I tried sticking a wad of tissue paper to the drum's top edge, but just from tapping the drum skin with my finger I could tell that this was making very little difference. A position at the bottom left of the skin worked rather better, usefully reducing the extent of the ringing.
Next we set about finding a better position for the mic. Initially, we moved it to aim more at the point where the stick was hitting the drum, to try to pick up a bit more 'snap' in the sound. However, this was a dead loss, accentuating the ringing we'd just tried to reduce. Some more extended experiments with mic positions while Wayne was playing indicated that the least boomy sound was to be obtained by pointing the mic towards the wad of damping material. However, the resulting signal was still rather dull and lifeless, so we decided to see what processing could offer.
I would normally also check at this point whether inverting the phase would improve the overall sound, but there were no readily available phase-inversion facilities while we were recording, so we left this until we imported the tracks into Logic at the end of the session. As it turned out, none of the tracks benefited appreciably from phase inversion, and I imagine that the high-pass filters on the Mackie had a lot to do with this.
The first snare processing we tried was taking off some of the low end using the Mackie's EQ, allowing the overheads and ambience to provide more of the body of the sound. Listening to the snare in the context of the whole kit, we rolled off a few decibels of low end using the snare channel's 80Hz shelf, and also cut a few decibels using the mid-band set to 200Hz. A little 12kHz boost also helped the snare cut through more.
At this point we were beginning to get closer to the sound we were after, but Ian still felt that the snare could do with a bit more bite. He had tried to mike underneath the snare before, but had not had any success, and a few minutes spent experimenting with an SM58 confirmed that this was not going to be useful to us — I actually thought that the extra 'buzz' from the snare wires added something to the sound, but Ian definitely didn't like it, so that was that!
Returning to the basic snare sound, we resolved to finish the job using EQ and compression. After some further listening, we switched the mid-band to a fairly savage 9dB boost at around 6kHz. A Behringer Composer Pro was then patched into the snare channel, set up to emphasise the drum's attack: the settings we used were 2:1 ratio, 30ms attack time, 0.5s release time, and up to about 6dB of gain reduction showing on each main hit. The good news was that this processing provided a much more punchy close-miked snare signal which combined well with the overheads. The bad news was that hi-hat spill coming down the heavily EQ'd snare mic was now adversely affecting the overall hi-hat tonality...
Fortunately, it made sense to close-mic the hat anyway, because we were after quite an upfront sound, so we rigged up Ian's Rode NT3 on the outside edge of the hat, as far as possible from the snare, and angled it to minimise spill from the cymbals. Once a couple of decibels had been added at 6kHz using the Mackie's mid-band EQ, the spill coming through the snare mic ceased to be a problem, so we decided to quickly rig up the kick mic to get a better idea of the overall picture. Ian had already been getting a good kick sound, but it now needed a little extra attack to compete with the snare. This was achieved by boosting the kick channel's mid-band EQ at around 3kHz, and applying a similar compression setting as was used on the snare, except with a slower attack time of around 50ms to avoid robbing it of too much low end.
By this time, we were most of the way there, so we adjourned for a late lunch to give our ears a bit of a rest. On returning, we made a few small balance adjustments to the sound, including increasing the mix level of the ambience mics to knit all the other mic signals together — real ambience of this kind is so effective, but almost impossible to achieve on all but the most expensive reverb processors, so it's great to be able to be able to use it while recording.
With the drum sound now fitting together quite nicely in isolation, Ian suggested that we try recording one of his guitar parts alongside, so he plugged into a wonderful '60s Vox AC30 on the other side of the room and let rip! Again, it sounded great in the room, but this time, fortunately, an SM57 in front of one of the speakers immediately produced a nice solid sound. We grabbed a few spare drapes and cushions the band had lying around the rehearsal room, and used them to tame the worst of the guitar spill, but there was only so much we could do in this respect, so we just went ahead and hit record to see what we'd end up with.
It was at this point that everything really came together. There was enough separation on the guitar mic to give a useful level of control, but the guitar spill on all the drum mics really bound everything together wonderfully. A little more of the ambience mics was the only further tweak — it's amazing how much drum ambience simply disappears into a track once the other instruments get in there.
As a final test, we fired up the band's PA system and compared our recordings to 'Back In Black' over the speakers — although not an ideal monitoring solution, it did at least reassure us that there wasn't anything disastrous going on at the low end. Continuous A/B'ing between the two drum sounds confirmed that we had got pretty close to our target, although it was agreed that we'd probably removed a little too much low end out of the snare, so the 80Hz shelving cut was reduced on the snare drum's mixer channel.
While I was packing up to head for home, Ian replaced the condenser mics I'd brought with me with some of the dynamics in his collection. While the snare sound didn't suffer much from the change of mic, the overhead sound was noticeably less airy, so my main suggestion was that he get hold of at least one stereo pair of condenser mics for using as overheads. Studio condenser mics are so affordable these days that there's no excuse for having lifeless cymbals any more — and you could probably get away with dynamics for your ambience mics if the overheads were condensers.
As we hadn't had time to concentrate on miking the toms, Ian also quickly rigged up some clip-on electret tom mics, and this confirmed that the toms could easily be brought more into the foreground by mixing these with the existing overall sound — the lack of phase inversion facilities seemed not to be causing much difficulty when the close mics were mainly being relied on to provide high-frequency definition to the sound.
So much emphasis has been placed on multi-miking as the 'proper' method of recording drums that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that many rock drum sounds rely more on the overhead and ambience mics than they do on the close mics. If you've got a great sound in your room, as Ian did, don't be afraid to major on it. This means you can use (and abuse!) the close mics to complement the overall sound, rather than having to get the main body of the sound from the close mics. It proved difficult to create even a half-decent snare sound from the close mic in Ian's case, but this didn't matter too much in the end given that the main body of the snare sound was coming in via the overhead mics.
It's also worth reiterating how effectively the drum ambience bound together the whole sound, and how great the guitar sounded when it was playing with the drums. A lot of effort is often put into reducing spill in the recording studio, because its effects can be unpredictable, but eliminating spill completely can be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. The way in which the spill in Ian's studio formed the guitar and drums into a cohesive whole was one of those bits of studio magic, so think twice before immediately hiving off your guitar and bass cabs into another room when recording drums. If your band can play together alright, do multiple takes and edit between them if necessary — you may be surprised how much better the end result sounds.
Since Mike's visit we've bought a matched pair of Groove Tubes GT55 condenser mics, and that has made a huge improvement to the overall drum sound. When Mike first plugged in his GT55s on the drum overheads I couldn't believe how good they sounded, so when I saw a pair on clear-out for £230, I couldn't pass that offer up!
I've now got SM58s on the toms to bring them into focus, as we have a lot of songs where the drummer plays a riff on the toms, so we need those close mics to get enough attack. There is a fair degree of spill between the various drum mics, but we've found that they all mix together to create the overall 'sound' of the drums as we hear it — when listened to in isolation, the snare lacks some snap, but the overheads and an NT1 above the drummer's head provide that. Using the mics out in the corridor has worked well for us too, and with the band playing along we get a nice 'ambience' track to mix in and gel everything together, plus I've just got a amazing '67 plexi Marshall to add to the sonic palette.
I'm still playing with the snare to get more snap/cut. It's getting there, and the addition of an AKG C418 clip-on mic has helped in that respect. Patching in the Behringer graphic EQ and boosting around 6dB at 6KHz seems to bring out that snare 'crack', although I'm sure all snares are different and you need to play with that frequency a little. Panning the snare a little bit off centre seems to make it cut through the mix better as well, and we're trying that out at the minute. When Mike was here we patched in the Behringer compressors and dialled in a little compression on the peaks, but I've since decided that it dulls the sound too much for my tastes, so I'll leave it off till mixdown. I suspect better compressors are needed here and I'd really like some of those Empirical Labs Distressors for the kick and snare for that 'brick wall' Bonham drum sound, but the budget is nonexistent at the minute unless some kind record company would like to upgrade our studio in a 'development deal'...
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