Thursday, February 18, 2010

Recording Drums With 2-3 Microphones

This might be an interesting post. I'm just going to drown myself out with some vinyl In Rainbows and type this. I seriously need to get this blog together theme-wise. I'm sorry that I don't have pictures for all of this, but you're just going to have to trust me. I have an audio file to prove it.

Alright, in this post I will describe two recording techniques for drums, that only take up 2 channels, and don't use more than 3 microphones. These techniques are as old as The Beatles, and require a well tuned drum set, and a drummer who can play. (That's important.) Off we go.

Recording drums can be a bit tricky, and when you only have an M-Box mini with 2 XLR inputs, you have to resort to recording multiple tracks. Another way of adding more mics is adding a mixer like a Bheringer 8 channel mixer, and take the main stereo outputs of that into your M-Box, but this still only gives you two channels when you track to Pro Tools, or Logic. If you have both of these programs, you can use my instructions on Syncing Logic to Pro-Tools that I posted in December and get 4 tracks going! It saved me once, that's for sure, and I used one of these techniques I am about to describe to you.

Recorderman Technique (2 mics)
The first technique requires two microphones, of the same make and model. It's called the Recorderman Technique. It's an old technique, but apparently was recently named "Recorderman" after a DIY recording blog. (Kind of like this one....) The type of microphone is up to you, and depends on the sound you want. I like to use AKG 414's for both of these techniques. The U87 is also probably a good choice, but you, in your bedroom, probably can't afford this, so I'll suggest that any condenser mic would do the trick. Hey, use 57's. It's been done before, and worked well.

You will need the two microphones, a long piece of string or an XLR cable and two drumsticks. (Or a tape-measure.) The first microphone will go over the snare. Some say the center of the snare, but it honestly doesn't matter, as long as you're measuring from the same distance. I like the 11 o'clock lug nut on the snare that's closest to the first tom and the hi-hat. Directly above this point is where you will place your first mic, pointing directly at that point. Use your two drumsticks end on end to measure how high it should be from the point on the snare. It doesn't need to be exact right now, we'll move it as needed. Now, sitting on the drum throne, the second mic will go behind your right shoulder, equidistant to the snare. Here's where the string comes in. (Tape measure though, if you want to get all phase-coherent when adding a spot mic on the kick.) Measure 3.75 ft. from the beater of the kick drum to the end of the capsule on mic number two. Make sure the snare is also 2 drumsticks length away from the point you measured on the snare.

Almost there! Take the end of one of your strings and hold it in place with the beater pressed against the kick drum. Run it to the "shoulder" mic, and back down to the point on the snare. Don't start playing cats cradle. Now, with your fingers holding the end of the string to the point on the snare, and your other hand pinching the string where it met the microphone capsule, swing your pinching fingers over to the other microphone to ensure that your mics are both equidistant from the kick and the snare.

These level of these microphones being recorded should yield the same level when the snare drum is hit. Pan the mic above the snare Left, and the other one Right, however much you want, and you should have a pretty nice sounding recording!

Glyn Johns Technique (3 mics)
This technique is named after the famous engineer Glyn Johns, who recorded The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The You Name It. He also did Led Zeppelin, so think Led Zeppelin when you think this technique. This one is easier to set up and requires three microphones all of the same make and model. (Some people say this technique is a 4 mic technique, but fail to realize that the 4th microphone is a spot mic.)

Here's how it works; take your first mic, and place it in the same place above the snare as the recorderman technique, measured from the same point 3 or 4 feet. (The further you go, the more room sound you will get.) The second mic will be to the drummers right hand side, a few inches above the floor tom. This will be pointed at the snare, and equidistant from the snare as the first mic. The third mic will then be placed just above the lip of the kick drum, a few inches, and moved back about a foot. This one is hard to measure because of the toms, but it should also be equidistant from the snare. Use an XLR cable or string or a measuring tape to get the distances right.

Again, all three of these mics should have the gain set so that when the snare is hit, it yields the same amplitude on each of them. Pan the mic over the snare to the Left, the mic beside the floor tom to the Right, and leave the mic in front of the kick in the center. If you're using a mixer, use the mixers main L+R outputs to go to your laptop or whatever you're using. 

Spot Mics
I've been talking about spot mics here and there throughout this post. Spot mics are basically close microphones to pick up any drum that you want to be able to control in the mix. Usual go-to spot mics are the snare, and the kick drum. If you have the extra channels, just mic those normally. (If you used my measuring tape method on the Recorderman technique, flip the phase of the two mics when using a spot mic on the kick.)

This is a sample of the Glyn Johns technique that I did in a very low budget recording situation. I had 3 small cap condenser MXL 993's, which I summed into two channels with a mixer and recorded the output into Logic. I used a subkick mixed with a Beta 52 on the kick, and a 57 on the snare and ran those to Pro-Tools and synced the two programs to record the four channels, but for the purpose of showing this technique, I took off the spot mics, and you are only hearing the Glyn Johns Technique.

Now go forth and record!
-Steve Xavier

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Are My Mixes So Quiet?

You've had this experience before. You've recorded some awesome tracks, and you're mixing, and it's sounding great. You've got the gated 40Hz tone on the kick drum and it's shaking your house to the ground. You bounce to disk, and put it into iTunes and it's super quiet compared to all the other music out there. Why?

The reason lies in compression of the overall mix. This is a dangerous subject. Before I go any further, let me say that loudness is a psychoacoustic phenomena that initially leads you to believe that a song sounds "better", but over a period of time, it becomes fatiguing to the ear, and that's probably why you don't listen to popular music on the radio for very long. If you take a popular song and turn it down to the loudness (unmeasurable and only perceived by the listener) to roughly the same as the mix that you have done, you'll notice that your mix is much more defined, and clear, and has much more impact. That's because it has more dynamic range. (I'm saying all this assuming your mix is a quality mix, which I'm sure it is.) Any compression to your mix will degrade the quality. Actually, any processing to the signal will degrade it, but sometimes these degradations are what we like.

Compression is a form of dynamic range reduction. You've probably acted is a form of compressor yourself, if you've ever turned down your volume knob when a song jumps into a loud section, or turned it up if you couldn't hear something clearly. A compressor works on a ratio basis. If the signal goes above a certain level, called the threshold, then the signal passing through will be reduced by the amount of the ratio applied. For example, if we have a compressor on a 2:1 ratio, then every 2 dB louder than the threshold will come out of the compressor as 1 dB. If it were 4 dB going in, you'll get 2 dB coming out. The compressors put on most pop/rock music today has a ratio of 8:1 or higher. That means as soon as you pass the threshold in amplitude, you have to pass it with 8 dB or more to get 1 dB of dynamic range, which isn't a lot.

Think of it like this; imagine a person whispering to you from across a quiet room, and then all of a sudden starts yelling at you in your face. You can imagine how much of an impact yelling in your face would suddenly be. Now imagine that when they're yelling, they aren't any louder than when they were whispering. Compression actually turns down the amplitude of the louder portions of the song, and then the whole level is brought up. So now the person is whispering as loud as they yell, which I've actually heard on a song before, so if you thought it was a ridiculous analogy, well, you're right. It's retarded.

I'm not saying that compression is a bad thing. I <3 compression. If you need to even out a sporadic drummer hitting a snare with uncontrolled attack, then a compressor can easily bring all those down to roughly the same amplitude. Heavy compression with high ratios on the entire mix is something to watch out for though. Like I said before, a high amount of compression will allow you to raise your levels to an unholy average level, but it's going to mess with people's ears, and it will be fatiguing to listen to. You'll keep turning it down, and it will still sound too loud. Have you ever heard Metallica's newest album? I think it flat out won the Loudness War, and no one else wants to compete with it, because that much compression just sounds like fecal matter being processed through a meat grinder.

If you use a compressor on your stereo bus for the output of your mix, please use it sparingly. People like dynamic range, and the more you compress, the less dynamic range you are giving someone. The "downside" to dynamic range is the apparent average loudness of the song. If you want your song to be louder, locate your volume knob and turn it clockwise until the desired amount of amplitude is reached. Seriously, stop being so lazy.

OMGZ it's taking over! Here I have taken a song and went all Metallica style on it. (The red portion is the overly compressed, and the dark blue portion is the normal uncompressed music.) You can see that the one guitar intro to the song in the over-compressed portion of the song is louder than the loudest part of the song. And then you have zero dynamic range when you get into the verse right before the loud portion. Now the chorus will have no impact. Don't do this. It's about as dumb as not having breaks on your bicycle.

DIY Microphone (More or Less.)

Wow, so it's definitely 2am right now. That's usually not abnormal, but I had a midterm at 9am this morning, which means I've been up for about 18 hours. I'm just going to dive right in.

I've been talking about this microphone for a few weeks now. I finished it last month, and I haven't tested it on any real equipment yet, although it sounds fine through my Bheringer mixer into Logic via 1/8" stereo line input. So, audio engineers, I'm going to tell you how to build a microphone, with exception to the circuit, because I'm not about to explain electronics to you, and you're not about to suddenly understand it.

The microphone that I built was a Large Capsule Side Address Condenser microphone. Long name, but it's big enough to fit on the side. Basically, it looks like a Neumann U87. I fashioned the grill based on that microphone, so it looks quite similar. Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that I'm not an expert at this. This is the first time I've ever looked past the grill of a microphone. Hopefully you're in the same boat, so all this will be informative. Mics shouldn't be scary to understand.

Let's get some of the circuit design out of the way so we can get on to the fun building stuff. I used a condenser type circuit, which means that the microphone is powered by +48V Phantom Power supplied by almost any channel strip or little mixer ever. This means that the circuit actually amplifies the signal of the capsule, which which allows your mixing console to recognize the signal coming in. There's much more to that, but I'm just studying that now. It's not necessary to know it when building your first microphone for fun.

The body of my mic is made out of 2" brass tubing, or kitchen railing. It was easy to cut, and easy to find the bottom of the microphone, which is a railing end cap. I drilled a hole in the end cap to fit the XLR connector through, and screwed that on. On the inside of the end cap, I attached a metal rod that angled straight up. When the end cap was fitted to the brass tube, the rod would go through the tube and end up about 2" short of reaching the end of the tube. Then I soldered a round plate 2" in diameter to the top of the rod, perpendicular, so parallel to the end cap. To this, I screwed on a small flat metal strip, which was bent at a 90 degree angle to continue upward. To this I screwed on a small flat metal strip that was bent into a circular shape, which held the capsule in place.

The grill was probably the most fun. I had to hand bend the brass mesh, as well as roll it on counters, chairs, thick pens, or anything I could find that was the right shape. The right shape was somewhat difficult. To copy the U87, the grill had to come out of a round mic body, and then flatten out into more of a rectangular shape at the top. I took a thicker metal strip and bent it around the top to enforce the rectangular shape, and soldered it to the mesh from the inside. That was difficult, because my soldering iron is weak sauce.

From there I got some black fabric at Michaels, and covered the inside of the grill, apart from a large hole for the capsule. I didn't do this for any other reason than look, and to be honest, it looks awesome. Other than that, I had to screw the end cap to the tube, and that was probably the hardest part, because you have to tap the end cap, and also countersink the screws into a really thin tube. So, of course, I only have one screw instead of the planned two, because you really can't tap with brass, and so now part of that screw is still stuck in there. I just about threw the whole thing across the garage.

Here is the mic, strapped onto a tripod with a velcro strip. Very ghetto, but I just ordered a shock-mount yesterday, so it should look a little more professional after that.

I tried it on several instruments, and I concluded, through the gross little set-up I had it running through as described earlier, it sounds best on the cello. The capsule has a slight raise in the frequency spectrum around 5-10KHz, and it has a good low frequency response, so it picked up the fundamentals of the cello as well as the friction caused by the bow.

Overall, this mic sounds "OK". That's my official rating until further testing. I'm not going to be a fool and believe everything I make sounds amazing. I'm comparing this against the best microphones on the market. It fairs ok, to say the least, and I'm very pleased with that, for not having a clue what I'm doing. Seriously.

I'm already planning on the SX-II, this being the SX-I. (No, that doesn't mean Sony X-plode.) The SX-II is going to be a phantom powered tube microphone, so it won't need an external power supply. I'm working on the schematic now, and it's coming along quite nicely. As far as look, it's going to be a combination of the Neumann M149 and the Blue Woodpecker. This microphone I will know what I'm doing. Since the SX-I, I've been studying microphone design and condenser microphone circuits. 

So, folks, I venture on, preparing myself into a weapon of knowledge against the vast darkness of the unknown.

Goodnight for now,
-Steve Xavier

Friday, February 12, 2010

Every Decision You Make Is Art

Yesterday morning at around 3am I woke up and headed off to my personal session I booked regarding The Howls, as seen in earlier posts. This session was a re-amping session, and I'll briefly explain that before I move on. Re-amping is basically taking a recorded sound and running it through an amp, miking the amp and recording that as a new track. I didn't use amps and microphones though, but pre-amps. I was able to get away with this because of the way that Digidesign pre-amps are made, which are very "invisible", and don't add much tone to the sound. If you record first with a pre-amp that doesn't add a lot of tone, then you can do more with it later, like send it through another pre-amp, which is what I did yesterday morning.

Anyways, I sat in the studio clicking the chicken head knobs up and down to get whatever tone I desired. It was my unannounced artistic feel that led me to each decision. Drive the pre's, back off the pre's, which frequencies to use on the Germanium Tone Controls, and EQ on the Neve 1073. While the musician/client is always in mind, and what I am doing is only emphasizing what they want, without anyone there with me at that stupidly early hour of the morning I am artistically visualizing what I think the client wants. Also, I had my "so what" moments when I felt like the pre's were driving too hard for their taste. It sounded awesome to me.

From the moment you set up a microphone, your name is all over that recording, no matter who is spittin' over those fat beatz. The level that you commit to multi-track, the amount of compression, or EQ, it's all you. These things are subtle, definitely, but over time they amount to a giant signature, and no one else can duplicate it. Every year, during a certain season at a specific time of day under exact weather conditions, people come with all of their camera gear to the exact spot where Ansel Adams took one of his famous photographs of Yosemite and the Half Dome. I can guarantee you that even if someone where there with Ansel Adams with the exact same camera and film even, they would not be able to produce the same photograph. If you want to be like Ansel Adams, don't join the hordes of photographers to take pictures just like someone else, but go off in your pick-up truck that you fashioned into a dolly of sorts and live photography.

The same holds true for recording. You can't make your tracks sound like his or hers. You may have the same style, but striving to be someone else will only hold you down. Great leaps in art are made by people doing something completely different. This is up to you, I suppose. Do you want your tracks to sound like radio trash that has no feeling or life left after it's been pushed out of the beat-detective and auto-tuning tube, all factory ready? Or do you want to alter the way people think by employing such heinous techniques that people would only see it as pure genius? Alright, maybe not heinous, or pure genius, but different, and skillful. We're still engineers here, so let's not get carried away, but the principle still remains.

So now I hope you can go out into the world of audio engineering and define you. I thought up a really good analogy for this earlier today, but I just watched a Mystery Science Theater 3000 and completely forgot.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knowledge Is Power! (Inspired by Melissa Rodwell)

My safari homepage is a fashion photography blog by Melissa Rodwell. (Very random, I know, but I am an amateur fashion photographer.) Today she posted a blog about knowledge, and understanding fashion photography to it's fullest. Not only fashion photography, but fashion itself. She named off all these types of clothes that I didn't know and talked about Coco Channel. I suppose it's time that I talk somewhat on this subject as well. (Not fashion photography, but understanding the industry in it's entirety.)

How does this apply to the audio engineer? There are a few different aspects of audio engineering that we have to fully understand to become masters of audio. (Like Bob Katz.) What I'm saying is that the knowledge that audio engineers should have, more or less, is the understanding of how a sound is produced, transduced, manipulated and arranged from beginning to end. This attention to detail separates the bed-room enthusiasts from the Jedi's of recording. Jedi's, yes. More like bed-room padawans than enthusiasts.

First off, the reason you wanted to become an audio engineer, hopefully, is music. (I know I'm forgetting about all you Post-Production people right now, so imagine that I'm talking about sound in general.) Now, music in and of itself is a vast and extensive subject that requires years of study to start to comprehend it. Your understanding of music will help you to mix a band more logically according to the arrangement and genre. You are the invisible conductor, so if you don't know anything about the music that you are mixing, how will it turn out sounding good? The music is the first thing that you have to focus on, and the most important thing! Sufjan Stevens has recorded several albums with techniques scoffed at by the religious right of the recording industry, but these techniques promoted his music and his over all sound in an impressive way. First, music, then engineering.

The next aspect that I want to look at is the sound itself, or the acoustics of audio. Each one of these topics could be a blog themselves, but I'll save expanding upon them too much for a later day. I've got a deadline with this one. As an engineer you absolutely need to understand the sound that is produced by each instrument. Several times I've seen people make their microphone lists without ever hearing the instrument, then when they go to record, they set up the mics on the instruments without hearing them played! This happens, and it's downright stupid! Understand where different tones are produced on a guitar, and how to smooth out an amplifiers punch or emphasize it. Know how to affect certain things, like drums, and why the pitch bends up or down after the tom has been struck. Understand how sound travels, how it bounces, and be able to manipulate it's path with different surfaces such as baffles or gobos. When you understand how instruments are creating the sound, and how that sound is reacting within the room, only then can you decide which microphone would best suit the instruments musical needs.

Which brings me to microphones, gear, and signal flow in general. This is something that you can understand on two levels: 1. How it will affect the sound, and 2. Why it will affect the sound. The first is on a tonal level. Neumann microphones will give you tons of presence, tube gear will give you a "warmer" sound. The second level is more of an electronic understanding. Tube gear will actually roll off transients because of the nature of the electrons passing through the tube, therefore de-emphasizing a portion of the signal with the most high-end information, giving you more low end which to your ear will sound "warmer". Just a side note, this is why solid-state sounds harsh, but in reality, solid-state is a truer representation of the input sound. Anyways, understanding your gear is a very important thing. As soon as you get a new piece of equipment, test it with all you have, to it's limits. Know how the gear will handle in every situation.

There is still so much more in audio that can be learned, I haven't even started digital, but because of time, and for the sake of this post getting too lengthy, I'll stop there. What you need to do, if you truly are an audio engineer, is understand every aspect of audio, not just beat-making. I guess my point is this; you have to get in the water completely before you learn to swim.

"Wait a minute," you say, "what makes YOU an engineer?"
Um, obviously the legit cardigan.
In the words of my Advanced Recording and Production instructor George Borden, "Feel it."