Tag Archives: microphones

Live Recording

A few days ago I happened to listen to an old edition of the Mixerman Radio Show in which Ron Saint Germain talked about recording live jazz to two-track.

OK, some explanations first. Mixerman is the online alias of Eric Sarafin, an LA-based engineer and producer who got a high profile among people interested in recording for his Mixerman diaries, originally published on the internet in serial form. Sarafin set up an audio forum (The Womb) and began recording podcasts (which he called Mixerman Radio Shows) with some of his industry friends, some of whom used aliases (Slipperman, Aardvark) and some of whom didn’t (Bob Ohlsson, Ron Saint Germain).

The forum was a bit of a boys’ club, and it had its share of backbiting and general nonsense, but unlike the folks who hung out on Gearslutz, these guys all had solid track records as pros in the actual music industry, and some of them were a very big deal indeed (particularly Ohlsson and Saint Germain, who have had genuinely amazing careers).

I found this forum at a time when I was becoming obsessed with recording but had very little money, so I listened to every podcast and read every post to try to absorb the knowledge and techniques on offer. Slipperman (Tim Gilles), in particular, went out of his way to teach newbies, recording a series of podcasts in which he proved himself entertainingly foul-mouthed, hugely knowledgable about tracking and mixing heavy rock guitar and music in general, and in possession of a heart the size of New Jersey. The guy’s an absolute hero and a total inspiration.

So, back to Ron Saint Germain and his live jazz recorded to two-track.

This is recording of essentially the opposite sort to that which I described last time, with the endless tweaking and the mixes that are never quite done. Live to two-track means live to stereo tape (stereo tape has two channels, one that you hear out of the left speaker and one that you hear out of the right speaker). Since the invention of sound-on-sound recording, records have as a rule been recorded to multitrack tape, and then mixed down to stereo tape as the last step in the mixing process. Working this way, you can always remix if you decide tomorrow that, say, the vocal’s a little too loud. Collapsing the process by recording live to two-track, with no possibility of altering the balances, stereo-field placement or performances later, is for most musicians and engineers simply an obsolete way of working, as well as one that forces them to live with flaws in the end product that could easily be fixed if it had been recorded to multitrack and mixed down to stereo after.

Boy, did Saint Germain make it sound fun, though. And in my limited experience, it is fun. And hugely challenging. And massively rewarding when it goes well. It forces you to up your game, whether you’re placing the microphones or having them pointed at you – and I’ve a bit of experience at both. You can’t rely on punch-ins, edits, retakes or any other staple of the multitrack world to come to your rescue if you can’t play, and if the sounds you got when you placed your mics are phasey and indistinct, how do you think the recording’s going to sound?

Maybe I’m a masochist, but I think that’s great. In fact, I went through a phase last year where I tried to record all of my solo acoustic songs this way: partly to sharpen up again as a player so I could cut it in front of an audience after a few years of not really doing many gigs, and partly because I felt like my recorded vocals were hampered by self-consciousness and lack of confidence, and that recording live while playing guitar would help. In some respects it did; it forced me to be able to truly perform a song before recording it, which oftentimes isn’t necessary when you’re multitracking and not planning to ever play a song on stage.

I’m recording with Yo Zushi this weekend and have a hunch that the session will once again include some live recording: the band all in the room together, leakage and all; maybe with live vocals, maybe without. I’m looking forward to it.

Recorded live with two microphones last year

Recording drums in the studio

I’ve talked a lot about recording drums on this blog. Here are just a few more thoughts. They’re not technical, I promise!

Yesterday, rather than spending a day at home doing freelance work and stealing an hour or so to write a blog post (which tends to be how my Thursdays out of the office go nowadays), I went to Shack Studio in East Hanningfield, Essex, to spend a day tracking drums with a very fine engineer called Grant Matthews. Grant’s recording experience goes back to the analogue era, so he is, by my reckoning, a proper engineer. He’s done all the hard stuff you have to do when working out of the box: aligned tape machines; cut takes together on tape; worked with hardware gates and compressors; done submixes to tape knowing that mix was going to have to be right, there and then, on pain of recording it all again; dropped in and punched out during vocal overdubs, risking accidentally messing up a good vocal track with a bad edit.

Guys like this think differently to those who learned in the digital era, who tend to learn, and therefore think, from the software back. Grant thinks (I would guess, from watching him work) from the microphone forward. Anyone who’s worked entirely in the DAW era (that is to say, anyone who began their working life in the late 1990s) is now at least in their mid-30s. Which is to say that in the next ten years or so, people who have Grant’s knowledge and experience are going to become harder and harder to find out in the wild. A lot of them are out of the business already, victims of the death of the demo studio.

Briefly, because this will be old news to many of you, there used to be a lot of demo studios around. Recording equipment was relatively expensive and hard to use without some measure of training, so bands tended not to record themselves, as they couldn’t come anywhere near the results a real engineer could get. This changed somewhat with the advent of the four-track Portastudio, but cassette-based multi-track recording devices are an inherently lo-fi proposition, so a studio with an 8- or 16-track reel-to-reel tape machine was still the place to go for an impressive recording. Bands would book a couple of days, the engineer would record them playing live, they’d do vocal overdubs, maybe a couple of extra instrumental parts, the engineer would mix, and give them a cassette or CD, and the band would have a demo or a single or whatever to send to local radio, sell at gigs, push to labels and promoters and managers, and so on.

When the digital audio workstation (DAW) became a viable proposition in the late 1990s (a development that had been a long time coming – computers had to reach a certain level in terms of processing power and speed before 24-track+ in-the-box recording and mixing was a genuine possibility), and when folks started cracking pro-level software (Cubase SX3 was cracked within minutes of being released), musicians realised that they could, with maybe £500, buy an interface and a few microphones and record themselves on the computer they already owned, without any need to go back to that demo studio.

This was in maybe the early to mid-2000s. At that time, I was in a band, and while I did record at home, and loved doing it, the limitations of my equipment (I had a 2-input soundcard so couldn’t record a whole band with that) and lack of engineering knowledge meant that we went to a studio to do when we wanted to make real recordings (the aforementioned Shack Studio with Grant). Even if we’d owned a lot equipment, we knew we couldn’t use it properly and would get crappy results left to our own devices.

Not every musician felt similarly, though. Within a few years, smaller studios were closing at a rate of knots. Bigger studios, too, as major-label budgets shrank (this also being the post-Napster world), and professional bands began limiting real studio work to drums and orchestral overdubs, doing vocals, guitars and programming work at home to save cash.

All of this fed into the precipitous decline of audio quality that we now live with. But that’s a nail I’ve pounded on enough times.

As I said, yesterday I went into the studio with Grant, and we recorded some drums. I began recording drums at home principally because for a few years he got out of the game, and there wasn’t anyone locally I felt could do the same job he could, so I was going to have to learn to do it myself. I’ve recorded drum tracks a lot over the last four or five years, and some of the ones from the last couple of years have even sounded pretty good. But there’s nothing like working with someone who knows more than you. It’s a joy. As a client, I came away with drum tracks that I think sound great. And, as an audio engineer who knows a bit but still learns something every time I plug in microphones, I got to watch a pro do something with ease that comes pretty hard to me. It’s something I’ll be doing again, I think.

These are just observations. I know that some folks have got very into their work as home recordists. I understand that. I have, too. It’s great. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded of what you lose when you decide to go down that DIY route: great gear, really good sounding tracking rooms and the expertise of people who’ve got tens of thousands of hours of studio time under their belts.

2015-07-02 11.56.40x

This is the Shack.
Note use of both an A-B overhead pair, and an old school “Glyn Johns”-style pair

Five tips to help you record better drum tracks

OK, so I’m no Steve Albini, but I’ve learned a thing or two about recording drums these last few years, and maybe I could help you if you’re starting out with this stuff.

1) Check your phase relationships
The more microphones are pointing at the same sound source, the more you’re going to battle with their phase relationships. (Which are frequency-dependent!) You can’t assume that more mics on the sound source will make it sound bigger. There’s a good chance you’ll make it sound smaller. When you’re putting eight or so close mics on a drum kit, which is a biggish but not huge sound source, you’ll have to pay very close attention to the relationships between the mics. This isn’t merely a case of, say, making sure your snare mic plays nicely with the overheads. What’s it doing to the rack tom? What’s the tom doing to it? If you increase the high end on the tom, what’s that do to your snare sound? Too wiry? Too much hi-hat? This stuff is crucial.

2) Don’t default to using every mic you have access to
Think about the demands of the ensemble you’re recording. Do they need a hyper-modern, very controlled and processed 16-mic drum sound? Maybe they’d sound better with Bonham-style drums? In which case, keep four of them and forget about the other twelve.
And it’s not just a case of different set-ups allowing you different sounds. A 4-mic set-up of close kick and snare mics plus a stereo pair – not necessarily overheads; perhaps one in front looking down and one over the floor tom looking across will sound better – with its simpler set of phase relationships will very probably give you a more focused drum sound than an 8-, 12- or 16-mic set-up. Maybe that’s what the song needs?

3) Use room mics (or not)
If you want an ambient sound – or you think you might need one and want to keep your options open – try recording real ambience rather than adding digital reverb effects. If you’ve got access to a good room and you put a good drum set in it, with a good drummer playing it, your work is done for you. Walk around the room while the drummer plays and listen. Put a mic in a spot where it sounds good. Repeat.

4) Tune
Learn how to tune a drum kit. It takes a bit of time to learn what to listen for and to know how to produce certain effects. But using half a ton of moongel, or tightening the skins up so they sound like timbales, won’t cut it. Make sure the heads are fresh enough to be worth bothering with and learn to hear when a drum is in tune. If you’re an engineer who can tune drums, clients will love you for it.
I took lessons from a drum teacher to help me with this. Just something to consider.

5) The best-laid plans of mice and men
Maybe you have a set-up you like. Maybe you record your own band’s drums a certain way, and it’s always sounded good. Maybe you’ve recorded 10 different drummers in different rooms playing different kits, all with this one micing plan, and it’s always sounded good.
That’s great!
But the next drummer who walks through your door could have a crazy set-up. Maybe he puts his ride cymbal half an inch from the floor tom. Maybe she has a rack with six toms and a set of rotos. Maybe he plays two kick drums, and now you need a mic for both. Arrgghh.
Drummers are entitled to put their stuff where they want to, so you’ll have to work round them. Be ready to improvise, don’t get flustered. Blind dates can be scary, but you might learn something you can use again in future. How much you can stumble on and then remember is key getting good at this.

And here’s a bonus tip.

6) Don’t process needlessly
When you mix, don’t smash your drums out of habit, or a sense that you ‘have’ to. The excitement in a recording comes from the transients. If the drummer is consistent in performance, why compress the tracks to within an inch of their life? The only good reason would be because you like the sound of them that way. In which case, smash away, with my blessing. But maybe the song would sound bigger and more exciting with an uncompressed drum sound?



This is how they did things in Ringo’s day