Through the years, I’ve noticed a difference between the live/acoustic sound of a particular instrument and the recorded sound emerging from the control room monitors.
I believe the reason for this is that the average engineer must get off his/her reclining chair and walk into the big room. Listen carefully to the instrument as it’s going to be played on the session and discover the “sonic signature”, which is the result of a unique instrument, played by a unique individual in a unique position out on the floor. Only then can effective mic placement and true high fidelity recording begin. Let’s take drums for example.
After dealing with the obvious discrepancies such as rattles, droning resonances and squeaks most often caused by lack of maintenance, we are left with the sound of the kit itself. Each make of drums has its own sonic signature. A set of DW’s, Taye, Ayotte, Ludwig, Rogers, Gretch, Pearl … what have you … will each sound clearly different from the other. Deeper into the sound, the type of skins, sticks, rims, tuning and the player also profoundly affect the sound of the kit, notwithstanding the effect of the different types of cymbals and hi hats. In other words, if we have two identically manufactured drum kits but one has different skins and tuning, they will sound substantially different. The engineer / producer needs to treat each kit in each room with each respective player as unique.
When I record an instrument, I record it and the room it is being played in. The room’s natural reflections watermark the sound of that particular instrument in that particular room. I believe the way to capture an accurate recorded rendition of the instrument is to carefully LISTEN to the instrument as it’s being played in a given room. One would think that the important thing is the result. Does this give me, the engineer or producer, the sound I need to achieve the result that I want? Even though this may be true, I believe that the comfort zone of the player is equally important. If the player is happy with the sound of their recorded instrument, then I will receive their best performance. This gives me a better result. Errors and weaknesses in a recording are cumulative. The more tiny problems we can eliminate, the better the result will be.
Another reason that the recorded sound may not represent the actual sound is the use of too many mics. To close mic each drum can cause several problems. When we listen to a drum kit, we don’t put our ear a half an inch from the skin; we listen from a distance. It is this perspective that gives us the nature of the sound of the instrument; therefore, to duplicate this, it is necessary to mic the overall sound of the kit. Some types of music require some close micing in addition to the overall sound but the meat of the sound of a well played drum kit will still be prevalent in the end.
I think we can agree that John Bonham had an aggressive drum sound yet the fact of the matter is that when those recordings were made, they were done with minimalist micing techniques. Yet the up front and forward aggressive sound is undeniable. This was achieved with excellent, minimal micing and well applied, careful compression / limiting and, of course, a player capable of a balanced performance, negating the need for level adjustments of individual drums during the mix. Further, the drums were tensioned appropriately for the performance.
In the past, I have tried using as many as eight or ten mics on drums, but when it came time to mix scrubbed the majority of those tracks. There were always phase aberrations among the multiple mics. Careful mic placement and vigilant listening for phase coherence can reduce these problems; but from my perspective, it is far easier to reduce the number of mics and strive for a more natural rendition, complete with the sonic character that is conducive to the song and the kit, relying on a competent, even performance from the drummer. One could argue that it will only be at the mix stage that the need for more mics will become evident but I still believe that if the song has been properly pre produced, then the necessary components will have been pre ordained and therefore recorded.
One of my preferred techniques is a stereo pair of overheads, with a single ribbon mic or large diaphragm condenser mic out front and center. These arrays can be switched around as well, that is, the stereo pair out front and the ribbon/condenser as an overhead.
The first ‘view’ is from the perspective of the drummer and the second ‘view’ is that of the listener. If the kick drum is not prevalent enough, I will add an AKG D12 (or reasonable facsimile) to the kick, either in front or even inside of the drum depending on the song and player. If more beater attack is required, then the internal kick mic may point towards the beater head. If the attack on the beater skin is too aggressive, point the mic towards the side of the drum or even towards the front skin. Because of the vibration of the shell, I often just lay the D12 on a hand towel and forego the mic stand.
My most preferred technique is to employ five mics: a pair of overheads to provide a stereo view from the drummer’s perspective or a stereo pair out front to give a listener’s view front and center, a kick mic, an SM57 between the snare and hihat, and a single ribbon or large diaphragm condenser mic front and center. This allows me to have an option on the width of stereo spread using the density of the large diaphragm / ribbon to give more mid range, and I can control the kick, snare, hihat mics individually.
Further, each room has a sonic signature. If we record a multitude of instruments in a variety of environments then mix them together, more often than not, result is confusing to the listener’s ears. For example, the singer sounds as if they are in a cathedral, the drummer and bass player in a bathroom, and the guitarist in an echoing canyon. It’s easy for the listener’s ear to be confused. This is where the proper processing of delays and echo must be within the range of psycho acoustic normalcy. Convoluted reverbs and echoes are wonderful tools to use to achieve this sense of normalcy. They ape the sonic character of a given environment, which can then be emblazoned on any instrument in the recording, creating a natural sonic character to the recording.
I have listened to recordings where the mix and panning confused me. As I sit front and center, I hear toms spread to far to the left, snare slightly to the right and the kick up the center, with the ride cymbal past the snare right and the ride swung dramatically to the left and the crash to the right. This distracts the listener and defeats the song. It sounds as if the drummer has arms four meters long. It also consumes a lot of sonic real estate, which blurs the vocals and accompanying instruments. I heard an expertly recorded and engineered CD by a famous artist and producer that used the sonic view of the piano playing from left to right. In other words, the impression was that the piano player was sitting with his back to the listener, in front of the band and singer. It drove me nuts because I could not let go of this impression and it distracted me from listening to the song. The goal is obviously to keep the listener’s ear on the song itself.
So, let’s strap on our best ears, LISTEN, and above all, have fun.
(Gerry Griffin is a veteran producer, songwriter and musician who can be found at his custom built analogue and digital studio, Renegade Music, in Val Des Monts, Quebec, on the shores of McGregor Lake. He can be reached through his web site at www.gerrygriffinmusic.com.)