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Letters from Our Readers
John, you are so right on! I woke up agitated today and posted this on Facebook: "Hammer in hands of craftsman is infinitely better than nail gun in hands of amateur." Then an hour later I just happened to find Tape Op #102 under piles of gear and parts lying around here. I flipped to the back page first, as I always do, and saw the hammer! DUDE! Don't even get me started! All my close friends are engineers, producers, and musicians. I never want to offend; I love them all dearly, and they need to make a living. This industry, like a lot of other commercial industry in America, runs on greed. It stinks, but it's "the way things are," or "it is what it is" - however you want to say it. Please keep doing your thang! When my Tape Op arrives it's like getting candy in the mail!
Your last page, "Food For Thought" [Tape Op #104] contained such great information that I fell off my chair. The first one, and the last one were the ones that knocked me out. The rest; some I agreed with, some I didn't, but overall you did it again Larry. You gave us all something to think about that was relevant. I am so grateful to receive Tape Op in print every two months.
I just read a very interesting article on "unusual microphone applications" in a magazine called Live Sound International. Author Bruce Bartlett describes various unorthodox mic techniques, including a "one mic technique invented by Tchad Blake" which he very briefly describes as: "take a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser and mount it over the kick drum top, aiming at the snare drum." It never occurred to me to mic a kit like this, and it is the closest to a perfect one mic drum technique I have ever found. Among other things, it allowed me to easily fit a kit into a dense mix consisting of some 20 various and exotic percussion instruments. I was hoping to solicit peoples' opinions on favorite one mic kit capturing techniques. Perhaps including preamp, EQ, and/or compressor choices, in addition to mic and placement selections? My favorite used to be a B&K 4006 omni small-diaphragm, about a meter out in front of the kick and a meter off the floor, pretty hot into a Demeter tube mic preamp.
As an engineer who records for a lot of producers who do the mixing (and require options), my "one mic" technique for recording drums requires no less than three mics, usually hovering around nine mics.
The one mic technique can definitely be a great sound, if you find that sweet spot. I've found that a dynamic mic works best, either a Sennheiser 421 or Shure SM7, over the kick drum, but pretty close to the shell of the snare. Compression tends to smear it too much, so I record dry and can add some later if needed. This tends to sound better when recording to tape to tame those transients. But the most important aspect is having a drummer who balances the kit well. Sometimes putting a mic right behind a drummer's head can give it a great "drummer's perspective" sound.
A few off the top: 1) A PZM taped to the drummer's shirt, low for more bass drum. 2) RCA MI-6203 Varacoustic, RCA 77DX, or AEA ribbon mic out front; potentially crushed and with added high end, if needed. 3) For high fidelity, an omni condenser, perhaps a SE-BB1 bova ball, over, or in front of, the bass drum. 4) EV635 "Hammer" mic, or Shure 55SH, perhaps through a Shure Level-Loc or variable-mu compressor. 5) Lastly, a bullet- style Turner or Shure mic behind the drummer's right elbow; add distortion and compression.
The room, drummer, and kit are undoubtedly the most important elements of a single mic drum sound, but if we're just talking about recording chain I've had a lot of different options provide great results. Firstly, you nailed it by placing a mic over the middle/drummer side of the kick drum. I recommend a pressure-omni for the job; its even frequency balance and lack of directionality mean that the whole kit will come in clearly. I've tried the same placement with cardioids, and occasionally a figure eight ribbon, and whatever's addressing the side of the mic (cymbals and toms, in this case) always sound far too clouded for my taste. It's kind of an obvious placement, actually. What do you want to hear most of? The kick and snare? Put an omni close to the kick and snare! Viola! Another old chestnut is to place the mic three or four feet out in front of the kit, somewhere just to the drummer's left of the kick drum, at about two or three feet in the air. It's a magic spot for large diaphragm condensers. I'd say our [Neumann] U 47 ends up there 65% of the time, whether it's a one mic drum sound or not; but when the drummer is really great and can balance himself in the room, it can certainly stand on its own. The final one I want to suggest is just a smashed distant mic pointed away from the kit. Sometimes directing a cardioid away from the kit, especially at a distance, seems to improve the balance. I'll often point one at the glass on the opposite side of our live room if I want something a little splashy, or up towards the soffit for more control. Shure SM82s do great in that role. They were originally designed as golf announcer mics, and have a built-in limiter. A RFT 7151 bottle mic is often killer for that job as well. Both of those mics are so hot, you don't even need a compressor to smash things up pretty well.
I'm a big fan of a mic just over the shell of the bass drum - often I prefer a dynamic - and I will sometimes hit it with distortion by overloading the preamp. A technique I nicked from Jonathan Pines is to use a single large diaphragm condenser at snare height about 3 or 4 feet from the drums off to the side, at about the drummer's 10 o'clock. I've set up that way as a close room mic, but have been able to turn it into a single drum set mic with just a touch of EQ and some compression.
I'm always experimenting with this sort of thing. I make it a habit to have at least one "experimental" mic set up while recording live drums. Lately, I've been placing a prototype Ear Trumpet U 87 clone behind the drummer's right shoulder and back about 4 feet. I aim the mic at the floor tom. I've been running it through an API style mic pre and I have been using an RNC compressor for its quick attack and release times, which I pay close attention to, while slamming it with a heavy dose of compression. The RNC can be really heavy-handed and my goal is to get it to pump and breathe as much as possible. I hope it sounds interesting on its own, but I find it's really useful to add this track into the drum mix for giant drum fills, drum intros at the top of a song, or drum breaks. It can be a great tool for adding a little something extra into the drum mix.
I am a huge fan of the "heart mic" on a drum kit. I have used it, along with other mics, on many records I have made in the last 10 years. I wind up with a small diaphragm omni of some sort, just past the shell of the kick drum, aiming at the beater, centered above the beater, at snare height. I have been using a very inexpensive, great mic by 12 Gauge Microphones lately, with a Neve 33114 preamp into a 33609 compressor. I have tried a bunch of mics in that position, including everything from [Neumann] U 47/67/87 and then moved towards the Earthworks omni type thing.
Why is this unusual? Is it because we're used to a dozen mics on the kit? Blake's technique makes sense to me because: a) No phase issues with the drums (a biggie!!), b) The large diaphragm can best capture the low end of the kick drum, which is under it, and c) Large diaphragm condensers usually have a wide cardioid pickup, pulling in the snare/hat/rack combo, and d) If explained to the group before recording, it can save a lot of mixing time. My favorite is this same position, but with a bi-directional ribbon (Beyerdynamic M 130), which will grab the floor tom too. Even though the kick is seemingly in the null, the fact that both sides pick it up makes it come thorough nicely, and ribbons love low end. Preamp? Something beefy, no top-end hype (the distance from the drums will take care of that). Compression? Careful - your release may cut into another strike soon following. EQ? Why, if you've gone this far? Crucial point: The overall sound of the drum kit has to be excellent! Also, the room must sound good, since it will play a substantial role in this setup. But - I must admit - I back this up by putting an accent mic on each drum, and I use far room mics too. After all, gotta use all these darn mics I bought! And I check the phase very carefully!
I've used this technique a fair amount. Above the kick drum is, indeed, an excellent spot for getting a good balance of the entire kit. I'll often have a mic there, even with other close mics on the kit, as it's easy to do effect processing (extreme compression, distortion, etc.) across the entire kit by processing the one mic. I like a "dumb" cardioid dynamic, like a Sennheiser 421 or 441, or a Shure SM77, if I'm likely to be using the mic for processing (in addition to the normally placed close mics). I also like either a cardioid or omni small diaphragm condenser if there's the possibility that I might use that one single mic for the entire drum sound. These days I like an Oktava MC-012 for that, but I've had varying degrees of luck with a Neumann KM 84, Audio- Technica AT4051, and AKG C451. Generally I like directional mics, as the proximity effect helps to add beef to the drum sound. I've also had good luck with a single mic in front of the kit, somewhere around the area you described for the B&K mic; but I prefer a hefty-sounding mic, like the Coles 4038, for that.
If you imagine a four-piece drum set with one rack tom on the right side of the kick and a ride cymbal overhanging the kick drum from the left (a very common set-up for drummers over the past decade or two), I really like putting our Coles 4038 about 3 feet up over the ride bell, looking at the center of the snare. Balance the volume of the rack tom and floor tom so they're even in level by shifting away from the louder of the two. It's a great, solid, mid-channel image on the drums, and it combines very well with stereo overhead condensers, the way we normally do it. We have a ton of images that show it at our site below in the Shaking Through project [Tape Op #92]. (Ask me about stereo room mics too... even cooler!)
John Baccigaluppi's "Give Me a Hammer" in Tape Op #102 - a plea for simpler, stable recording software and the fact that the learning curves and installations have grown tedious - really resonated with me. In 2012 I essentially took my recording PC "off the grid" while I was working on digitized 1980's multitracks for the CD of my band, Informed Sources. At that time it dawned on me that the interfaces I had available, the recording applications installed, the plug-ins on hand, the loop generation software in place, the resolutions I could utilize, the number of tracks available to me, the stability of my operating system - it was all exactly what I needed and it was all working seamlessly. Perhaps most importantly, I knew the entire environment. I had to ask myself, "Can you envision needing more than what you have?" Granted, my recording is limited to my own work, in various genres, but the answer was, "No." Since then my recording PC system has remained static, with few minor exceptions. I know, at some point in the future, I may need to reconfigure or even start over on a new machine; but for now I focus on getting better with recording techniques - many learned thanks to Tape Op! - rather than digging through yet another manual, installing new releases, or worrying about missing out on some new digital development. Thanks for all the thought-provoking articles like this one.
The End Rant in issue #102 about wanting stable solid tools really struck a nerve. I'm an acoustic musician who tends to treat a DAW like a tape machine, and I use minimal effects during mixing as well. I also grew up in wood shops, and doing work as a blacksmith during my teenage years. I know very well what a good hammer can do and how that single tool decides the shape and outcome of every product I turn out. Which was why I chose one that had the weight and balance I needed for the type of work I did. Bringing my note back to studio work, I've had a hard time finding a digital audio home for years now. It felt like I would find something perfect, only to have development get dropped during a buyout phase by the suits. Right now I keep a fairly old iMac running Propellerhead Record 1.5, and though it doesn't support plug-ins, I haven't found a sound I cannot create with it. The problem is all the features got rolled into Reason, and now my DAW of choice is no longer made. Give me a hammer is right; I don't think I'll be doing MIDI-based quantized beats anytime soon. Until things really break I will be running the same rig for as long as possible. Then I'm thinking [of going] open source for the next go around in the land of upgrades. For some reason the last time I took on an "upgrade," the amount of tracks my machine could handle was cut in half. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll be "pounding out" another song.
Software is getting better. Designing software is maturing as an art. Asking what users want is getting easier. It's nothing nowadays to mock up a design and understand how usable it is. The process of prototyping DSP is becoming quicker. It's simpler to manage the quality of code and prevent adding defects when making improvements. It takes less time to respond to support issues and provide the best possible quality of service. Software developers are taking smaller bites. Instead of taking on improvements that are a year or more in scope and packing them into some monster version release, the trend is to take on tinier, more focused iterations. In making small, continual work, we act more as gardeners than shipbuilders. We maintain the quality of software so it stays reliable. We do this with strong cultures of dedication to craft. We develop good practices, and continually re-evaluate them. This idea of software as an ongoing relationship between developer and user is starting to make its way into the professional audio industry. Moving forward, the most successful pro audio software companies will be the ones that go out of their way to understand their users, make swift and skillful design decisions, and have a robust foundation of quality code. There is no room in the future for companies that can't do that. All software is moving this way. Because of this, professionals and hobbyists will benefit from having high-quality tools at their disposal, despite the continual turmoil of OS updates and CPU architecture changes. The not-very-distant-future is going to rock!
In agreement with the bulk of your readers, I LOVE TAPE OP. John Baccigaluppi absolutely, positively, definitively hit the hammer on the head in redressing the DAW upgrade situation [#102], just a part of the entire computer software upgrade nightmare. Not everyone can absorb all the changes, or afford to continue their recording education to the extent that the developers assume, making hardware and software upgrades anywhere from annoying to prohibitive. If only they thought two words - user friendly. The beauty of home studios is that it brought the ability to make great recordings back to creative people, not just engineers. I'm one of the ones with a rough background of no formal training who has recently made the switch from PC to Mac, including my first DAW upgrade in seven years. The old setup served my purposes well, but more recent software went beyond my hardware capabilities from the olden days. Lack of support for those of us who can't move at the speed of technology feels very condescending, even though our work is valid and creative. Just like the Apples and PCs of the world, we have no choice but to change or get out. It's a big FU to all of us little guys. I refuse to apologize for my limitations. If the developers had half a brain, they'd include us in consulting about their "improvements." We're very lucky that some of us have the most important possible tools for doing what we do... ears and hearts.
Neat little paragraph at the top of Tape Op #102 about home recording (Les Paul, Emitt Rhodes), but don't forget about one of the greatest - Rudy Van Gelder! He engineered some of the most amazing and important jazz recordings in history, right from his parents' living room. It's ultimately more about the ear than the gear. Thanks for the great magazine!
Although I enjoy every issue of Tape Op when I receive them, I have to say that issue #103 has been my favorite yet. The articles/interviews on Bill Szymczyk, Richard Kaplan/Indigo Ranch and Giles Martin were great - the great music I grew up with!
Keep up the good work!
How ballsy to send an email to the guy in charge of a magazine you really love. Here he sits, under a mountain of unread emails, begging for someone to send just one more; the last digital straw to break an editor's back. Wait no more, Larry. Here I am. The last page of your magazine [#103] included a "recording game" Monopoly board. The first roll lands us on "email us", and here we go. Loved the, "Is the band breaking up?" square. Thank you for your time; thank you for your magazine. It is filled with hope for the up and comers and an encouragement for any jaded guys to try something new.
I love how you are working to keep Tape Op accessible to your subscribers. I just downloaded the digital copy of #103, and I'll be putting in several hours reading it on my computer. I look forward to every issue because it keeps me inspired to work on music and recording. Thank you Larry, John, and all of you on staff there!