So now that I’ve set about writing about the studio I realize that I could have a complete blog about this subject and never have time to talk about how to get your band to the top. That wouldn’t please all of you punters here at Success at Rock. I will try valiantly to churn out enough studio stuff to get us started on our path to the top of studio work. Then we can once again go back to how to seduce an A & R guy or how to cut a deal with a label that doesn’t include handing over your balls in a box. ( For all you ladies, labels want much, much more from you…)
In the last blog I covered different kinds of mics and mentioned a few applications. Tonight I’ll talk about some stuff that is a little more fun. The kind of stuff that you can try out in your home studio. Tricks of the trade and some common studio tricks that are used by masters and oddly I don’t see turn up in the semi pro world enough.
I’ve seen some really sad prejudices with hack engineers and I guess I should continue to deflate some egos in an effort to get it right. It’s always about getting it right after all. So a recap…..NO CLICK TRACK! if you want to argue for one good luck. There are some times when it is needed but unless you can actually explain why – you haven’t reached that point. Next point, try to have fun. Get pumped. Your attitude and energy is a HUGE part of a successful recording.
Here’s another pet peeve of mine. Direct boxes. What in god’s name is a direct box for? I do actually know but I have been insulted by lots of engineers insisting that the bass, guitar, keys etc. must go through a direct box. THIS IS WRONG. If you disagree please point to a hit record that isn’t a lousy, Britney styled pop record that makes use of instruments through direct boxes. This seems to be one of those ideas that became popular in the mid eighties for very specific reasons and circumstances and very rapidly became an overused method of hack engineers.
Let me be plain about this point. Yes you can skip the trouble of putting a mic on an amplifier and tweaking its position until it sounds great and just plug the bass into a DI (that’s fancy talk for a Direct Box) box and onto the track. Sure go that route. The fact that it sounds lifeless and more importantly it ends up in a completely different sonic universe from the rest of the band shouldn’t stop you. That is if you are lazy and don’t care what the recording sounds like.
We all buy beautiful, unique, expensive amplifiers for one good reason. They echo God’s Voice. This, of course, makes the kids dance. (and pay to see you)If you have an amp use it. Mic it, carefully. Play with the amps settings ’til it sounds like a hurricane. Turn it up, turn it down. Put it in the bathroom. Go in the bathroom, smoke a joint and think of a more creative place than the bathroom to put it. NOW LISTEN CAREFULLY! MAKE A GREAT SOUND IN THE STUDIO AND PUT A MIC ON IT! How do you do that? By listening carefully and trying things out. Here’s a few stories to back up this idea.
I bought an old, 1950’s Danelectro Amp at a garage sale in 1986. It was only about 20 watts. When you plugged a Les Paul into it and turned it to 10 it sounded like half of the Rolling stones catalog, Stay with Me by The Faces, four or five Zeppelin Tunes and even the crunchy reggae rhythm guitar sound from the Jimmy Cliff hits. If you put a mic on it, it sounded like a hit. That’s a guitar sound that can not be a preset on a guitar pod pedal system.
Story two – In the early nineties I was making a record for The Figgs or Small or Phish, hell I don’t remember but I was in a studio in Western Massachusetts. Nice place, expensive. It was one of those places where you lived in a beautiful log cabin and then wandered down a dirt road to a giant cube in the woods that contained a studio. Sweet ride. I was cutting vocal tracks and we were all burnt out from weeks of recording. The phone in the control room rang and the engineer Eric Rachel answered it. He immediately got in some kind of an argument with someone. They wanted to interrupt me and he wasn’t going to let them.[Eric by the way is a metal god. He is a fucking great engineer producer with things like platinum Skidrow records on his resume. His studio is in South River, NJ and is called Trax East. His rates are reasonable. Give him a call if you want to make a kickin rock record] After about five minutes he finally gave up and motioned for me to pick up the line. On the other end is an engineer from a studio in Seattle.
“Hi, is this Brad Morrison?”
“Yeah. but I’m in a session”
“Great. This is Joe Shmoe. We’re cutting some tracks for an album and the band is trying to copy an acoustic guitar sound from a record you produced. Do you mind telling us the secret?”
Was this guy kidding? He was calling me in the middle of a session from the other side of the country to ask how I got a sound? Was the band gonna fire him or something? Was he trying to impress his girlfriend?
“Ah…sure. What do you want to know?”
“You produced the Vestrymen’s first record right? The song “Blue Fall Day”?
“Sure did. Great song. What about it?”
“Well, how’d you get the acoustic guitar sound? We’ve tried everything. I’ve run the guitar Direct and we are using a Lexicon 480 with the Harmonizer patch. Can I read you the settings and you can tell me if I’m close?”
Now most of that bullshit may make no sense to you but he is talking about using a $30,000 effects processing unit. Very Fancy.
“No I won’t listen to the harmonizer settings. You are way off base! Hang on I’ll get you a phone number that will solve your problem.”
Now he was confused.
“Ah..a phone number?”
“Yeah the guitarist from NRBQ. We used his Martin.” (NRBQ is one of the great bands of the 70’s/80’s)
“But….We’re trying to get…”
“Listen you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. What kind of guitar is the guitarist playing?” It turns out that the guy was playing a crappy $300 ovation guitar into a DI box and they had spent hours (I’m sure very expensive hours) playing with effects to try to make it sound like a guitar I had recorded years before. Idiots.
“Listen. If you want that sound, or something like it get yourself a top of the line Martin Acoustic Guitar from the 1940’s. Put a really nice condenser mic in front of it and another really nice condenser mic pointing at the body, check to make sure that they’re not out of phase and hit record.” I hung up. Moral of the story – if you want a really great acoustic guitar sound then use a really great sounding acoustic guitar. Never try to record it direct. Martin guitars sound like the voice of god on a crisp fall day.
Where you place the mic counts. It often counts a great deal. What counts a great deal more is how the instruments you are recording sound. Great sounding instruments, played well by great players make recording easy. They also make recordings that sound like pro recordings.
Now I’ve made that point I am going to tell you some classic mic set ups for various things in the studio. If you are an old dog you probably have seen these. If not maybe this blog teaches you something tonight.
Here’s a classic drum set up:
Drum Set MUST HAVE FRESH SKINS! TRADITIONAL SOUND CHOICE WOULD BE REMO COATED
Kick -EV PL20 (or RE20 same thing) set the mic so the end of the mic is exactly where the front skin would be. Remove the front skin. Deaden the drum with a pillow or or the torso of the lead singer of a band you hate. Mic SHOULD NOT be in the center. Off center somewhere where it sounds good.
Snare – Shure sm 57 on top pointing from the front of the snare across the skin towards the drummers right knee. Place a small leather wallet (best if stuffed with hundred dollar bills)near the front. Place a strip of duct tape so that the wallet bounces up and drops to deaden drum head. In other words put a piece of tape across the top of the wallet and down the side of the snare.
Snare bottom sm 57 180° out of phase
Hi Hat – Either a sm 57, 58 or nice condenser pointed straight down at the center of the hat about four inches from the center cymbal shaft.
Racks – One Sennheiser 421 between the upper racks pointing down to catch a bit of both.
Floor tom (s) Sennheiser 421 or AKG 414 six inches above tom to catch nice head shell combo sound.
Overheads X Y Stereo (see my last recording blog) pair of Neumann 87 or AKG 460 or something else high quality. Set them over the drummers head about 30 inches up.
Make sure the kit is tuned properly!! Try to get the drummer to be sober. ( if that’s his best mood) This set up works great in a space that is relatively small with lots of wood, or stone. A wood floor is always a good idea with a drum kit. With this set up the drummer WILL destroy mics. Make sure he brings cash and knows how to say he is sorry and means it.
Another added mic in this set up is an additional kick mic that is a PL 20 or any decent kick mic. Place it centered on the kick EXACTLY 22″ out from the front of the drum for a 22″ kick, 20″ out for a 20″ kick etc. Check carefully for phase against the first kick mic. Use both kicks in the mix. The second one WILL have some phase issues with the other kit mics don’t worry about it.
One mic I haven’t written about is a PZM mic. This is a pressure zone boundary mic. There are some fancy physics behind the mic design but that means little for this discussion. There are some classic uses of PZM mics with drums. These mics are universally IN PHASE. This goes back to that physics thing. What’s nice about this mic is that it is a flat plate. You tape it down somewhere in or around the kit. It picks up its sound from the vibrations running through whatever it is taped to. It works great with a solid wood drum riser. If you really want to get crazy Tape it to the drummers chest. For some reason the drummers seem to like having 4 pounds of duct tape wrapped around them. Maybe they always wondered when they would finally be fixed up with duct tape so when you do it, they feel complete. I once did this to a drummer and he wore the fuckin’ PZM mic for two days. He wore it out to bars, to another band’s gig and his girlfriend was staring fire daggers at me the whole time so I can imagine he wore it to bed.
So, you must be itchin’ to see guitar mics addressed. OK here are a few classic set ups for mics on guitar cabinets.
First let me say that the EQ setting of a guitar cabinet is crucial. In particular the Bass knob must be used to a minimum. Guitarists hate this. I know I was a guitarist and I hated it. The problem with using lots of bass eq knob on a guitar sound is that most of it goes right past the mic which is up close. The sound of the bottom end of the guitar doesn’t even start to become REAL until around 6 feet out from the front of the cabinet. When you turn up the Bass knob you usually just make the sound muddy. So adjust the EQ carefully, very, very carefully.
Next thing is skip the pedals whenever you can. It always sounds better and comes across better in a recording if you can get the distortion you need from the Amp rather than a pedal. If the pedal is the “sound” then use the pedal. Just crank the pedal back a notch and go for a slightly cleaner amp sound than is used for that sound on stage. Trust me it works much better through the whole mix process.
Ok mics- Simple and easy..Shure sm 58 on one speaker cone 4″ to 5″ out off center. Try halfway from the center magnet to the edge. Then move the mic slowly OUT TOWARD THE EDGE WITHOUT CHANGING THE DISTANCE. Have someone else move the mic slowly while you listen in the control room. Listen for the moment when the bottom end suddenly appears. This is a function of the proximity effect (see last blog). This kind of mic sound is a classic. Works great for standard rock and blues and punk and country but if you are a headbanger then you should try…………………………………………………….
An AKG 414. Either one or two . Both 8″ out from the center of the cones. This mic sometimes seems to come in two models.(?) The best results come from the ones where you can switch the patterns. Try the cardoid pattern first and then try the figure 8 pattern. If you’ve got two of them try one figure eight and one cardoid. This should give you a crisp toppy sound that still picks up the lower edge crunch. Some people swear that having the cabinet face a wall just behind the mics is great I haven’t had good luck with that trick.
With all of these guitar mic tricks you can add a room mic for ambience. It’s often a nice effect to have a room mic track on the recording and only pop it into the mix on solos to add space and depth. (It also picks up the guitarist screaming vampire calls while soloing) You can use any mic for a room mic but the best choices are Omni mics that are high quality condensers. Don’t ever get too hung up on the exact model of a mic. If you can afford high end mics then you can worry about that stuff. Basic miking technique will do more for you than knowing the difference between different year Neumann mics.
Try placing the room mic about 10-12 ft out from the cabinet. Try pointing it away from the cabinet to catch reflected sound. An old English trick is to place a big room fan in front of it so the sound passes through the fan before it reaches the room mic. This is clever. Clever usually sucks. I have used this trick with success. It took a little doing to get the warble that was cool without the sound of the damn fan…. If you really are serious about a sound from this universe you should try the real thing – a LESLIE CABINET which has a rotating horn and base baffle. I own three and they always come in handy.
Bass guitar….Oh what the hell just plug it into a Direct Box! Who listens to the bass guitar? Sorry I couldn’t resist. I’ve been typing through six XTC records, A Gourds record, Public Enemy –Fear of a Black Planet and Now the Tito Puente Box set… it’s late.
Bass can be a bitch to mic. It is also a great deal easier if you think about the sound before you try to capture it. Bass sounds are low down in the frequency range. Most of what goes on with a bass is below 500 HZ. This may mean nothing to you so I will explain. Higher frequency sounds are very DIRECTIONAL. They are also made of very small waves. This is why close miking works so well on a guitar cabinet. Bass sounds, on the other hand, are made up of very long waves. By long I mean that some of these waves can be 20 ft long. This means that the real sound of the bass may not be a complete “image” until you are far away from the cabinet. I have successfully miked a bass cabinet from far away but this is a tricky thing. Until you have lots of experience you should depend on close miking. Close but not guitar cabinet close.
Try an EV PL 2o (notice I really like this mic?) , a sm 58 (they actually work) an AKG D112, AKG 414. They all work. Use a decent mic as high quality as you can spare. If you use one of your good mics on the bass and you take your time and get it right you will be extremely happy with the results. The bassist will be your best friend since he has probably been having to suffer with being direct boxed to death. This means he has never heard his stage sound, a sound he is really proud of, on a recording. Give the guy a break. Record him properly.
Try miking the cabinet about 18″ to two feet out from the cabinet. Put the mic just off the center line of one of the speakers. Once again move the mic slowly out towards the edge until you hear the bottom end appear. You may also need to find a spot that is a little “sweeter by moving the mic AWAY from cabinet. Be VERY CAREFUL, don’t let the sound start to sound distant. This will make the bass disappear in the mix. A little bit of distance in the sound is OK since you are going to compress the sound and this will do wonderful things.
Now we face the kooky bass rig problem. You set up in the studio. The bass player is all ready. You go to set up the mics and you pull off the speaker cover to see what you are dealing with and “Ah F^&%” the guy has one 18″ speaker and 4 – 10″ speakers and some little pyramid thing designed by Mr. Data to recreate alien bird calls. What is wrong with these people? Don’t they know that Motown had 2 trillion hit record grooves played through an old Ampeg B15 Flip top amp with one fifteen inch speaker? What do you do with this rig from Area 51?
First you forgive the bassist. He is, after all, like third in line for the girls so he feels the need to have some kind of fancy pants rig. It’s easy to forgive him when you realize that the rig is not a problem. Try miking the main large speaker. In general the bass’s top end sizzle and growl is pretty easy to catch since the mic will be a couple of feet out from the cabinet. The hard part is to capture the low mids and lows so shoot for that…
If you want to take a chance and mic the cabinet from far away try this. Set the bass rig up in a small closet and leave the door half open. Mic the cabinet close and then mic the cabinet from about 8-10 ft away with a cardoid mic pointed straight at the open door. OR put the cabinet in a hallway. Cement is ideal. Once again close mic. Point the second mic down the hallway. Never put both these mics to the same track without checking for phase problems and being absolutely sure that the mic set up “works”. What do I mean by works? Do this. Solo both bass tracks. Have him play a long ascending scale from the lowest to the high notes on the neck. Listen carefully. You are listening for two things. Any notes that seem to drop out, fade, seem oddly soft, or are swallowed completely. These are notes that are being dumped by cross phasing. If you find any glaring problems move THE MIC THAT IS FAR AWAY slightly and try again. When I say glaring I mean glaring, large, in your face. You will always have some phase problems and this test will teach you to hear them. You can’t get rid of all of them. The second thing that you are listening for is standing waves. These are pesky little problems that demonstrates that Physics is not a high school teacher’s fantasy. As you listen some notes may Boom. By that I mean really BOOM loud with a sense of sustain. You may have noticed this effect before while singing in the shower. Some notes seem to ring the room. This is literally what they are doing. The problem is caused by the bass guitar sending out a note that has a frequency that is a whole number multiplier of the room dimensions. (???!!) Yeah who cares huh? You do cause they will destroy a good mix. A properly designed studio will not have these. Not many studios are well designed. If you are paying the studio $5000 a day tell them to fix the problem by rebuilding the castle you are recording in ( this happened to me once) and go out for a nice meal. If you are recording in the real world you try this. The key is to actually understand the problem. Look at what I said…A whole number multiplier???. OK this is the core idea. Let’s say that the bass plays a B, one whole step up on the A string. This note may have a frequency of 11 ft from peak to peak of the sound waves. (I don’t know the frequency I am just making it up) The hallway that you are in is 33ft long exactly. Ah Shit. 33 divided by 11 is three. Bad news the peaks of the waves will pile up on the peaks of the reflected waves and BOOOOOOOOM. You have a note that is fuckin loud, loud, loud.
This is why I suggested a small closet since all of the bass notes will be too big to cause trouble in the small space. If you run into this problem there are a few possible solutions. Try Moving something large into the space like a couch stood on end or a stack of cases or cabinets, anything to break up the wave before it eats the mix. Large sheets of plywood, sheet rock, blankets (rarely work since they aren’t heavy) etc. Try to break up the space. Another solution is to find the frequency on the bassists graphic EQ and pull out that frequency. Don’t try to EQ it at the mic end. That won’t work……..
————————–Wow! This one is clocking in at around 4000 words so I’ll wrap it up with one cute vocal mic trick.
Set up a nice condenser mic, like a neuman 87, akg 414, PL 20 (it’s a cardoid but it sounds great on vocals) etc. Set it up just above the vocalist pointing down to catch the voice and chest area. The vocalist should be singing slightly up into the mic. So far this is standard. Now for the tricky part. Set up two mics that you would use as drum overheads, nice cardoid condensers like AKG 460 (pricy but nice I own a few). Set them up in an X Y Stereo pattern like I described in my last blog. They should be around chin height. They need to be at an exact 90° angle from each other. They should be pointing left and right to either side of the singer. This gives you three vocal mics. Now combine these three mics onto two tracks like this. The top mic dead center so it is being sent equally to each channel. The X mic panned hard to track one, the Y mic panned hard to track two. Balance the top mic as about 60% of the mix and the XY mics as about 40% of the mix. Now, as the final icing – set these two channels to play back hard left and right in the mix. The result is the Voice of God. You’ll have a solid fat vocal track straight down the middle with beautiful, airy stereo around it. What’s even neater about this trick is that on mixdown you can rock the balance back and forth the vocal will appear to drift left to right AND BACK TO FRONT in the mix. Very Sexy. I used this trick on some Metal Power Ballads. It makes the teen girls melt into their shoes………
Well that’s all I have this evening. Try some of this and you will be on the path to succeed at Rock.
©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010