BY MIKE SNYDER
You don’t need a million-dollar recording studio to achieve great results. Modern software-based recording makes it possible to create incredible sounding tracks — given time, experimentation, a good ear, and decent material to record. On a recent swing through my hometown of Portland, Oregon, the duo Ten Finger Orchestra & Johnny Rabb supplied all of the above, while I provided the recording environment, the gear, and the button pushing. Drums were recorded in my living room, and the bass/guitar amp was isolated (sort of) in my kitchen. This was home recording at its best. Before describing what we did, let’s review the signal.
SIGNAL ROUTING 101 IN ONE RUN-ON SENTENCE
The drums are set up in a room; the drummer hits drums; the sound is picked up by the microphones and sent to the mike preamps via cables; the preamps boost and color the sound (hopefully for the better); the sound is then sent to the recording hardware, which turns it into digital information (analog-to-digital conversion, zeros and ones); this digital information is sent to the computer and ultimately to the recording software that makes sense of the information, displays it on the screen, and records it to the hard drive.
Since I’m in short-description-mode, here are all the parts you need to record: a room, drums (and someone to hit them), microphones, microphone preamps (optional), recording hardware (assume it’ll be digital), recording software, a sense of what you want to hear, and much more time than you think you’ll need. Let’s look at each of these using the Ten Finger Orchestra & Johnny Rabb session as a model.
This is the wildcard. Most of us don’t have control over the type and quality of the room in which to record. We’re probably left with the most undesirable room in the house, like the smallest bedroom, or the garage. My advice is to put the control room in the undesirable room, and explore the rest of the house for rooms to use for recording. Find the room where the instrument to be recorded sounds best, move some furniture, and “appropriate” it for the session! Literally, take a snare drum, guitar, or Alpine horn into each room and give it a go! The amp room for our session was my kitchen (Fig. 1), which offered sound isolation so that there was only minimal bleed between the bass/guitar and drum microphones, as well as quick access to the espresso machine!
Ah yes, the drums … where to put the drums? Well, I’m a drummer, so the drums get the best sounding room in the house — the living room. More than almost any other instrument, the recorded sound of the drum set is heavily colored by the “room sound.” My benchmark is for the recorded drum sound to be as close as possible to what I hear in the room. If the room is live-sounding and splashy, it’s going to be difficult to get a dry drum sound, and visa versa. Think about what drum sound is needed for the recording project, and choose the recording room accordingly. If a dry, tight sound is needed, don’t be afraid to use a small room, with lots of sound absorbing materials. I wanted to get a big, fat drum sound without having to use reverb. The sound needed to be organic and as unprocessed as possible. My living room offered all these qualities, with 18-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, and multiple obtuse angles. Drums. Recording a drum rarely makes it sound better than it actually does acoustically. Buzzes, rattles, whines, and unwanted frequencies are often accentuated. You want to capture the sound of the drums, not try to craft the sound later with EQ and effects, so pick a drum set to record that sounds closest acoustically to the final drum sound you want for your project. This saves a lot of time during the mixing process.
Rabb brought a fun, great sounding prototype of the City Kit he’s designing for DW. It’s compact, but has a huge sound. These drums knocked me out.
Just like choosing the right room and drum, pick microphones that most accurately capture what you hear in the room. There are a myriad of great sounding mikes available that won’t break the budget. For the bass/guitar amp I used an Audix i5, a dynamic mike similar to the Shure SM57, only with some extra frequencies that the 57 doesn’t have.
I used only six mikes on the drums: AKG D112 (kick), Audix i5 (snare), Audix D2 (rack tom), Audix D4 (floor tom), and a match-pair of Audix SCX-25 condensers for the stereo overheads. Mike placement was standard. Because of track limitations, I didn’t use a separate hi-hat mike, like I normally do. Although there is usually enough hi-hat captured in the overheads, using a dedicated hi-hat mike allows for the imaging of the hi-hat left-to-right during mixing. For me, the perfect hi-hat mike is an Audix 1290. An additional track was used for Rabb’s SPD-S sample pad, as he uses lots of custom loops in his performances.
Microphone preamps are optional, as most recording hardware has some sort of built-in preamp. But it’s a good idea to have good-quality preamps in the signal path if you can afford it. A discussion on preamps is the topic of a future article, so I won’t go into depth here. My standby is an eight-channel preamp from True Audio Systems (it’s the red piece of gear in Fig. 2). Although it doesn’t add much character to the sound, it is sonically clean and versatile.
My studio uses the eight-channel Digi002 hardware from Digidesign (mounted below the preamp in Fig. 2). This is a clean, rock-solid piece of hardware and one of the most popular hardware interfaces for the home studio. Having only one 002, I’m limited to recording eight simultaneous tracks. Although it’s possible to play back and mix dozens of tracks at one time, having only eight input tracks available at a time is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in home recording, which means you have to carefully plan your microphone setup. If I had another 002, it would have been possible to record more simultaneous tracks, probably adding a dedicated hi-hat mike, and a second snare mike underneath the bottom head — both would have offered a little more flexibility during the mix.
This session was laid out as follows:
Input 1: Kick
Input 2: Snare
Input 3: Overhead Left*
Input 4: Overhead Right*
Input 5: Rack Tom
Input 6: Floor Tom
Input 7: Roland SPD-S Sample Pad
Input 8: Bass/Guitar Amp
* Left and right are generally labeled according to the audience or listener’s perspective. This can be strange for drummers at first, as we always refer to left and right from the drummer’s perspective. Always note on the tracks which perspective you’re using. Recording Software. I’m a recent convert to Pro Tools. After using Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) products for more than 20 years, the change was forced by most of my clients moving to Pro Tools. It works, sounds great, and is rock solid — very few crashes.
Enabling Paul Allen and Rabb to hear each other was simple. The Digi002 has a dedicated monitor out. This stereo mix was plugged into the headphone amp (in the rack below the Digi002), and two 50′ headphone extension cables were run with the mike cables down to where they were playing. Although the cue mixes were identical, the headphone amp allowed for individual control over cue volumes (up to four).
To get the players to hear me, I use a small mixer to mix together the cue mix and a mike in the control room (Fig. 3). When I need to talk to them I unmute the mike and talk — simple and functional. After It’s Recorded: Trust the “Force.” Mixing is part art, part science, and part religion. Take a class, read a book (or two), and spend lots of time observing a good engineer mixing tracks. But above all else, rely on your ears. When people hear a mix on a CD, few think about the process used to make it sound good. They just think that it sounds good.
No matter how good the drums and other instruments sound live, there is almost always a certain degree of sound-crafting behind the scenes during the mixing process. For example, I use gates to cut out unwanted tom ring that occurs from sympathetic vibration, which otherwise tends to muddy up a mix. There are two ways to do this. You can individually edit each tom track to cut out the ring. After performing this type of editing, you should manually create a small fade-in and fade-out on each resulting tom sound bite. I prefer the way this technique sounds, since you have complete control over each individual tom hit. The downside is that it’s very time consuming, so this is a great technique to use on a track that doesn’t feature a lot of toms. However, if there is a lot of tom work, or mix time is limited, I’ll use a gate plug-in to automate this process. I continue to be amazed at how this simple technique adds clarity to a drum track.
I also use EQ to “make room” for each drum sound. In other words, I’ll remove frequencies from one drum sound (or instrument), to allow the same frequency to be emphasized in another sound. Like removing the constant tom ring, this adds clarity to the drum track (Figs. 4-6). The bottom half of the frequency curves of the kick and snare are almost opposites. The kick needs more bottom end, so I like to boost 100Hz and below for a fat kick sound. To make room for this, I cut similar frequencies in the snare sound. To further add room for the kick’s boosted low end, I cut the low end of the high-tom sound by12dB. There is now room for your newly created big-bottom! Look at the low/mid frequencies of the kick and snare. With these frequencies, the reverse situation exists. Boosting about 160Hz really fills out the snare sound, so I’ve cut the same frequency a little in the kick to make a little room sonically. I also like to cut 1K in both the kick and snare drum, but there is no right or wrong when mixing drums. I’m a practical guy. Digging into intimate minutia doesn’t often hold my interest. So experiment with different settings — just get a cool sound! That’s what it’s all about.
Here’s a sneak peek at the City Kit that Johnny Rabb is developing for DW: