This month SOS helps Alan Pittaway improve his drum kit recordings, and get his two Roland VS880 multitrackers working together.
Now that samplers and physical modelling processors are so affordable, it's possible to get commercial-quality recordings without miking up anything more than a vocalist. It's hardly surprising, then, that some home studio owners find the task of multi-miking a drum kit a bit of a challenge. So when Alan Pittaway emailed through to the SOS office saying that he was having trouble with his drum recordings, I decided to head down to his home studio in Buckinghamshire and help him out.
Alan is lucky enough to have a room in his house set aside as a studio, and he uses it to record his friends and various local musicians on a pair of Roland VS880 recorders — one an old VS880 VXpanded and the other a newer VS880EX. However, he'd not had much luck in getting the kinds of drum sounds he was after, even with a fairly decent selection of mics and outboard gear to hand.
Once the kettle had been boiled for the first cuppa of the day, the first thing to do was to have a listen to the kit while Alan manned the sticks. Although the studio room was quite large (about 7 x 4m), the carpeting, blinds and furnishings were doing a very good job of damping reflections, so the sound was quite tight. Although I'm not a drummer myself, I felt that the drums themselves sounded pretty good, so we pressed on with setting up mics. Alan's usual way of working thus far had been to set up the kick and snare close mics first, and only then to add in the sound of an overhead mic. However, I felt it would be best to start work with the overheads first, because of the lively sound he was after — he had suggested Blondie's recent single 'Maria' as a good reference, so we were treating that sound as our goal.
The overhead mic Alan had been using up to that point was a single boundary microphone dangling from the end of a mic stand on a piece of wire. This was presenting the drums completely in mono and was also messing with the mic's frequency response — boundary mics are designed to be placed against a large flat surface such as a wall, and their responses are significantly different without this assistance. Fortunately, Alan had a pair of much nicer Rode NT1s, so I suggested we use these as overhead mics instead. We ran them first through an old Studiomaster console, to provide them with phantom power, and then straight into the VS880EX. I decided to use the newer Roland multitracker because it has slightly better converters, and also because it has phase inversion facilities missing on the earlier model.
After setting up basic levels on the mixer and multitracker, I grabbed a pair of enclosed headphones to check the sound while I set up the mics. Positioning the mics a few feet above the kit on either side, angled downwards towards the cymbals, the sound seemed to be fairly well balanced, so I did a quick test recording. Listening back to this on Alan's B&W speakers, we had an acceptable unprocessed overhead sound, with the cymbals nicely balanced, so we decided to start adding in some close mics to give definition to the individual drums. Before we moved on, though, I asked Alan if he could furnish me with a couple of bricks to weigh down the legs of the boom stands — they were both quite extended, and I didn't want either one overbalancing while we were recording.
To start with, I set about adding in the close-miked sound from an Audio Technica DT25 which was already set up inside the kick drum. This was routed through Alan's Focusrite Penta preamp/compressor directly to the VS880EX. After the basic level-setting had been done, we did another quick test recording so that we could experiment with the phasing of the kick mic against the overheads using the VS880EX's internal phase switches — the mic combined best with the overheads without inversion, so we left the switch out on the preamp.
One of Alan's biggest concerns on contacting SOS was that his kick drum sound didn't have enough attack or weight, and this was apparent from the sound we were getting — although a couple of cushions inside the drum made the sound fairly tight, it lacked any real definition. Straightaway, I moved the mic closer to the point where the beater was hitting the skin, to get more of a 'click' at the start of each hit, and then I had Alan patch in one channel of his Aphex 109 EQ between the Penta and the VS880EX. Although we could have used one of the multitracker's internal digital equalisers after recording, these have a rather harsh sound in my experience (especially when boosting), so I find that I get the best results by doing most of my EQ'ing in the analogue domain while recording. With Alan playing the kick, I used the Aphex to add about 4dB boost in a fairly narrow band at 80Hz for weight, and I also emphasised the beater click with a couple of decibels broadband boost at around 2kHz.
Another audition on the speakers confirmed that these changes had improved the sound considerably, but I felt that a little compression might also help emphasise the attack, so Alan headed back to the kit while I dialled some in. Starting from the Penta's Kick preset, I slowed down the default attack setting to let through the sound's attack, and then adjusted the Compression control until about 4dB of gain reduction was showing up. Once I'd slowed down the release a little as well, to avoid messing with the kick's decay, another test recording was done. Alan professed himself pleased with this sound, so we decided to move on to close-miking the snare.
Alan already had an SM57 set up on the snare, although its positioning was a little out of the ordinary. It was pointing across the drum from the hi-hat side towards the tom-toms, and Alan told me that this was to get maximum separation between the snare and hi-hat.
Given the sound we were after, I felt that greater separation between the snare and the tom-toms would be more important, so I repositioned the mic to a more usual position looking over the rear lip and angled slightly downwards towards the centre of the drum — the hi-hat was still about 90 degrees off axis. We routed the mic through Alan's Focusrite Voicemaster to the VS880EX, and set up sensible levels using the voice channel and recorder metering. Another quick recording confirmed that the snare mic sounded best with its phase flipped relative to the other mics, so we engaged the phase button on the Voicemaster. I also activated the Voicemaster's low-cut filter, set at 100Hz, to avoid spill on the mic interfering too much with the low end of the kick drum we'd already set up.
Listening back to the recording, we could hear the snare ringing a little too much, so we tackled the problem at source by gaffer-taping some rolled-up tissue paper at the edge of the batter head in two places. This sorted out the ringing nicely, but Alan still felt that the sound needed more 'sparkle' to it, so I hit the snare while he experimented with the EQ on the Voicemaster. In the end, we added about 4dB of Presence and 2dB of Breath before we were satisfied with the sound.
At this point we were getting a nice balance of kick, snare and cymbals, including the hi-hat, so we retired to the kitchen for some well-earned lunch! Afterwards we had another listen to the Blondie track to get our bearings and, although we were definitely in the right ball park, we were still a long way away from achieving the large room sound of 'Maria' — hardly surprising really, given that those drums were recorded at a big professional studio! My first instinct was to try to record more of the ambience of the room, so I quickly put up one of Alan's small-diaphragm Shure mics in front of the kit, pointing out into the room to capture more of the room sound. Running this through a Dbx 376 voice channel I'd brought with me, I added some compression and mixed it in with the overheads. Although this made the sound more ambient, it didn't really help increase the size of the perceived space very much, so we quickly abandoned this approach and resolved to simulate a larger room sound artificially.
Alan had a Lexicon MPX100 in his rack and, seeing that I've had good experiences with a similar Lexicon unit in my own setup, I plumbed this unit into the system to see what it could do. We connected the reverb's input to an auxiliary send on the Roland and returned the reverb through the remaining two analogue inputs on the VS880EX — the reverb was fed mostly from the overheads, although a little was also added to snare. With a test recording playing back, we auditioned various Ambience and Room presets first, followed by the Hall, Chamber and Plate patches, but we couldn't find anything to match what we were after, even after experimenting for some time and exercising the Adjust knob. I have to say that I was rather surprised at this — I dare say we could have found a suitable setting if we'd had more time, but editing was too restrictive for us to get results in a hurry. In the end, I resorted to using the internal effects processor in the VS880EX, using the Large Room patch as a starting point. I increased the room size to 22m and pulled the reverb time back to 0.9s to remove any noticeable reverb tail. As a final touch, I increased the density to 60 to smooth out the sound a little, and then adjusted the effects return to a suitable level.
Comparing with our reference Blondie track confirmed that we were much closer to the required sound, although we both felt that a little extra high end was required on the kit overall, so we added a few decibels to the overheads using the Studiomaster's high-frequency EQ, and a few decibels of 14kHz 'air' to the whole kit sound by using Alan's Focusrite Mixmaster patched across the VS880EX's main outputs. We also used the Roland's digital EQ to shelve off some low end on the overheads (-5dB at 200Hz) and the snare mic (-5dB at 500Hz), in order to tighten up the low end a bit more.
Even though the overall sound was now pretty well established, the toms were sounding rather distant. Seeing that we still had inputs free on the VS880EX, we put up a spare SM58 covering the two rack toms to see if we could pull their sound forward a little. We plugged the mic straight into one of the VS880EX's mic inputs and, given that the cymbals were quite low over the toms, I decided to point the mic directly downwards between the two drums to increase the separation. Listening to another test recording showed that the close mic was giving quite a warm tone, where we were after more definition, and also that the toms were ringing in sympathy with kick and snare hits, adding a rather undesirable boomy element to those sounds.
One of the deficiencies of the VS880 multitrackers is that there is no proper gating or expansion available, which would have been my first choice of processing to remedy the tom resonance — the multitracker's Noise Suppressor insert effect is a threshold-dependent filter which is unsuitable for most drum expansion tasks. In the absence of a gate, I decided to try dealing with the problem using the Roland's digital EQ, rolling off a fair bit of low end and low mid-range: -5dB of low shelf at 400Hz and -5dB of mid-band at 900Hz, with a Q value of one. This reduced the ringing of the toms, but also made the close mic sound pretty thin on its own. Fortunately, the tom sound coming through the overheads was quite warm, so the toppy close mic actually helped the overall sound cut through nicely, matching the kick and snare. We didn't have the time to put another close mic on the floor tom, which definitely needed it, but another SM58 fed into the VS880EX's final mic input would almost certainly have done the trick.
Like many studio activities, the process of sorting out Alan's drum sound involved a series of small steps, with auditioning of the results at each stage to gauge the effectiveness or our actions. Although the differences at each stage were often quite small, the cumulative effect was a radical change in the sound. Switching back and forth between monitoring on headphones (while Alan was playing)and monitoring on speakers also underlined the importance of doing test recordings when you have no separate control room — you can take an educated guess at EQ and compression settings on enclosed headphones, but it's vital to check everything on speakers as well to avoid any nasty surprises.
Although we'd managed to sync up Alan's two VS recorders (see 'That Sync'ing Feeling' box), I advised Alan not to split his drum recordings across the two machines, because of potential phasing problems arising from the inherently unpredictable nature of the synchronisation. I suggested that he should limit himself to six drum tracks and then use the other machine to record any other band members, being careful to avoid spill from their performances bleeding onto the drum mics. Spill could be kept to a minimum by using the COSM guitar amp simulation on the VS for guitar and bass guide parts, and by placing any acoustic instrumentalists or singers in a bedroom down the corridor from the studio. After capturing the drum parts, I'd be tempted to overdub everything else so that I could reuse the various analogue processors — again, if you make the sounds as good as possible on the way into the VS recorder, then you'll usually get much better results than by trying to fix things in the mix.
If band recording is going to be a frequent activity for Alan, however, I'd suggest that he get himself a slightly more flexible mixer to allow him to set up a decent sound for all the band members together. Ideally a four-buss console, something like a Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro or Behringer Eurorack MX2642A. This would allow Alan to completely avoid the Roland multitracker preamps, the quality of which I've always found slightly questionable, and would give him access to phantom power and three-band EQ on every channel. That would free up his Aphex 109 and Focusrite Platinum units for critical tasks. Both of the desks I've mentioned allow channels to be assigned to the four group busses and master mix buss separately, and these six outputs could be fed straight to the VS880EX for recording the drums. Four extra signals could then be fed to the VS880's analogue inputs from auxes three to six on the Mackie, or from the individual channel direct outputs on the Behringer, leaving at least two mixer auxes for extra foldback, in addition to the two auxes on the master VS880. I'd also suggest that Alan upgrades his outboard reverb processor to something more flexible, perhaps an MPX500 if he likes the Lexicon sound, so that he can more easily tweak the sound to suit the job in hand.