Friday, September 25, 2009

Notes On Recording Live Drums

I’ve been recording drums all weekend for an artist named Christian Lewis. Really good stuff. I think I got some of the best drum recordings I’ve ever gotten here in my studio, The Zone. I get a lot of compliments on my drum sounds so here are a few notes on what I did:

(I'm not going to get into head tensions / tuning and drum heads. That is a whole other subject)
I started by mic'ing up the drummer Andrew Faletti’s kit, and recorded some short clips for him to hear. After he approved the drum sounds we had, I started replacing his drums with mine- starting with my Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum. This model of snare drum has been called “The most recorded snare drum in history”. I don’t doubt it. Almost every time I compare this snare with whatever my clients bring in, the difference is obvious. I mic’d the top with a Shure SM57. I have a couple that I always use for snare as the SM57 can be a very inconsistent model of microphone: they all sound a little different. When using this mic it is good to try a few (if you have more than one) and pick the best one (I write on the side of the mic with a sharpie after I find one I like for the application I’m using it for). The mic was placed about 2 inches or so above the rim of the snare pointing down to just off center on the head (where Andrew was hitting the drum. I ran that mic into an API 512C and then an API 550b EQ which was eq’d at 10K + 4db and 8K +2db. From there I ran it into an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor compressor at a 4:1 ratio, slow attack, quick release and 4 or 5db of gain reduction and then into my AD interface.
I usually mic the bottom of the snare with an AKG C 414 B which works great, but I wanted a little more snap, so this time I used something I’ve never used for mic'ing a snare: a Josephson C24, which I ran into an API 512C (remember... flip the phase on bottom mics) and then ran into another Distressor with the same settings as the top snare mic’s Distressor. The bottom mic was set at the same angle and distance from the bottom head of the drum as the top mic was from the top head.

With the toms I started by using my toms, which are Bearing Edge drums. These are some of the best drums I’ve ever heard. I mic'ed the toms with Sennheiser MD 421s which I ran into my Soundcraft Ghost console (a pretty good sounding board for the money). I usually pull some low mids out and boost a little highs and then some lows in that unique sweet spot for each tom (using a narrow bandwidth. The tom mics are about 3 to 4 inches above the heads, at a 45 degree angle to the head and pointing to where the drummer strikes the head.

The kick drum was the drummer's AHA Custom kick which is made here in Gainesville Georgia. On the kick drum I mic’d the inside with an AKG D112. I keep the mic almost centered inside the drum, with the mic pointing right at the point where the beater from the kick pedal is hitting on the other side of the head. That mic is run into an API 512C and then into an API 560 graphic EQ with 500hz pulled all the way down and a boost at 125hz and 4K. The outside of the kick drum was mic'd with something a lot of engineers call a Sub kick, which (in my version at least) is just a speaker hung on a couple of cables suspended in front of the kick, and wired to a XLR plug (a speaker in reverse, and mine is still low-impedance). This works better than any mic I’ve ever used. You can buy a factory version of this - the Yamaha Subkick, but having used their version I have to say mine gets better lows. I think the lack of a shell and all that housing lets it breathe more. It was placed about 6 inches (tho I've often placed further out) from the head and off center. The sub kick I ran into a Chandler Limited Germanium with the “Thick” button in. (I gotta thank Producer Matt Goldman for the suggestion that I get one of these. Matt knows a lot about gear).

On my overheads I used a pair of Earthworks TC30Ks. These are omni-directional microphones. I’ve tried so many mics for overheads, but something makes me keep coming back to these. They just make everything sound soooo big! I also like the way I get better coverage on the cymbals this way. With directional mics I always feel like there is one crash cymbal that isn’t as loud as the others. I placed my overheads about one drumstick height or so above the cymbals. I also make sure that they are over the edge of the cymbal and on the axis of the cymbal's rotation when they are struck (meaning that when the cymbal is pivoting or swinging after being hit, the mic is over the part that isn't moving up and down. That would be 90 degrees around the edge of the cymbal from the spot they are being struck. This gives a smoother sound).

One of the biggest parts of the sound is my room mic. What I’ve been doing lately is putting an AKG C 414 B straight over the snare drum up about 9 feet and run that into my Ghost console. Then I turn up the gain on the top of the channel until the red overload light is on. Then I turn it more right up until the distortion is crazy, then I dial back just a bit. I might EQ it, bit not always. (check phase!) This track gets gated and is keyed off the snare. Just a tiny bit of this in the mix will give the drums a very muscular sound and make the snare sound like you added a few inches of depth to the shell.

I used a couple of spot mics as well. One Josephson C24 on the high hat and a shure SM57 on the ride. I don’t always use them in the mix, but I get them just in case.

Here are a couple of clips I made from the session. These are the raw tracks just after we recorded:

You might notice from the sound clips that the drums are very ‘ringy’ and live sounding. I rarely muffle the heads and when I do it is very little. Many engineers will get a little freaked out by all the ring and over tones they hear as they are getting the drums dialed in, and start to muffle the drums. The problem is that by the time you add a lot of other instruments to the production your drums will actually start to sound small and thin, so you'll then start reaching for reverbs and other tricks to make your drums big again. If you just let the drums ring a bit you’ll find that you need less or no reverb in the mix.

And finally, a good drummer and good drums cannot be overlooked and in fact are the biggest part of the equation. I've had drums set up in the studio and put a different drummmer on the kit to have it sound like a whole different kit.

Well that’s about it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Filtering vocals - High Pass and Low Pass

(This is an embellishment on a post I did on

Like many engineers, I put a High Pass filter on my vocals when I’m mixing. Usually from 100hz to 150hz. (A little higher with female vocals.)
I do this because for the most part there really isn’t much down there that is useful or going to be heard in the mix (before I get any haters, let me say that if I were mixing a vocal and acoustic guitar only or a solo vocal than maybe I might approach this differently. I am mostly talking about dense mixes and production).

I do the filtering pre-compression so that any low frequencies won’t pump the compressor. This filtering will really clear up the mix a lot. For that matter I do a lot of high pass filtering on other sounds too, because low end is weird in that a tiny tiny amount of it can really screw up a mix. Even stuff you can’t hear will mess with a mix.

But here is something else I do that I think is a little unusual: I often put a low pass filter on vocals as well, most of the time using a McDSP plugin called Filterbank (F2 configuration).

I usually do this on backing vocals or on ‘adlib’ tracks in hip hop. Usually I’m taking out everything above 10khz and even as low down as 6.5khz.
I’ve found that sometimes the vocals just get so harsh and I’m putting de-essers on all the vocals, so might as well take a short cut. It’s also because so many times when I’m mixing for clients it sounds like all the vocals were recorded using the same mic with the same settings. It’s kinda hard to to get a good blend sometimes when all the vocal stacks sound the same.

I read an article about how Michael Jackson recorded his vocals. He would do his leads on a condenser mic and back-ups or stacks on a dynamic (in the article they said a Sure SM7). I think the point is to switch up the source; it gives a bigger sound. So when I’m mixing I’m trying to achieve the same thing with the tracks that are sent to me.

Here’s something else I noticed while mixing. I would often get a nice natural sounding vocal and then in one part of the song want to get that 'telephone' filtered effect. I would always be surprised that after doing that that the natural sounding vocal just sounded boring. It made me start filtering the lows out of my vocals more and being a little more extreme in my approach. I also sometimes go halfway into that telephone type sound for my leads, even boosting the mid-range on my vocals. Remember, all sound systems sound different and you can never really be sure how your mix is gonna sound. But you can be sure that all sound systems do have mid-range and your vocals will be heard there if you treat mid-range as your friend.

I hope this helps.