I worked as an engineer and tech at Cherokee Recording Studios for over ten years and was involved in recording sessions at many other major Los Angeles recording studios. During that time I saw the recording methods used on many hit records and was able to watch world-class engineers and producers at work on a daily basis. For me there's nothing like the sound of great room mics in front of a kit in a big room like Cherokee's Studio One. As my group of friends moved on to home studios, I noticed that we were all trying to put "room mics" in front of the kit using all the same placement, compression and balance tricks we'd learned at places like Cherokee, generally with less than spectacular results. Too much cymbal splash is a particularly bad problem in most home recordings. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to in order to more closely approximate the room sound of a big studio in my home.
Treating the Room
I live in an 1100 square foot tract home in Simi Valley, California. It was originally completely carpeted, but three years ago we put hardwood floors in the living room and hallway and ceramic tile in the kitchen. This helped to get a brighter sound on the snare, but problems with cymbal splash were made worse. Obviously non-parallel surfaces would help. I was able to pull the drywall off my flat living room ceiling and have it vaulted for about $2,000. I managed to break up the problem of the parallel walls by strategically placing three bookshelves around the room. We started with a carpeted drum platform and an untreated drywall ceiling. I thought the carpet on the platform would reduce the cymbal splash, but it didn't help much. Studio drum guru Chris Heuer of Heuer's Drum Lab suggested that we treat the ceiling instead of the floor. We pulled the carpet off the platform and went to work on the ceiling. Engineer and studio guru Matt Forger suggested that a checkerboard pattern of Auralex would sound better than covering the entire ceiling with the absorptive panels. After some initial testing we also added a few spaced panels on one wall. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a reflective floor and partially absorbent ceiling worked well in reducing cymbal splash, yet helped keep the snare ambience I was looking for and was much better than the reflective ceiling and carpeted platform approach.
Mic Placement and Types of Mics
We tried placing some large diaphragm condenser microphones high up in the corners of the room, very similar to what many engineers would do in a place like Cherokee. This is the typical setup I see my friends using in their living room and garage sessions. In omni, this gave a big bottom boost and nice room sound especially when compressed, but still had too much cymbal wash at times. I had come to believe that it was not possible to get an acceptable "room" sound in a house, so I started to concentrate on moving the mics closer to the drum kit in an attempt to get a balanced "direct" drum sound from a stereo pair of mics. Much to my surprise, I found that a pair of Shure KSM32 mics placed a mere 24" from the drum kit in my house seemed to have as much "room" sound as the U87s I'd placed fifteen feet away from the drums at Cherokee. After consulting some of my
engineering books, I realized that the key factor in how much "room" you got in your mic was not a factor of the distance from drums to mic. Rather it was a ratio of the distance from drums divided by the distance from walls. When I placed a set of mics 2' feet from the drums in my house, the direct/ambient ratio was two to one, the same as placing room mics 15' away at Cherokee. Why? Because at Cherokee the ratio of 15' from drums to 30' from walls was the same as 2' from drums to 4' from walls in my house. I also learned that placing those room mics very low (18" or less off the floor) helped to eliminate much of the cymbal splash. Using a pair of Blue Woodpecker ribbon mics also helped in further reducing the amount of high frequency wash. I now had a balanced room sound in the mics, but my living room just didn't have enough cubic volume to get the sound I wanted, so I tried adding room simulator plug-ins to get the additional "compressed big room" sound I was looking for. It was okay, but still missing some of the natural quality and largeness I'd experienced in the big rooms. I finally got the sound I was really looking for by putting a set of Studio Projects condenser mics at the end of the hallway pointing into the two bedrooms. The hallway in my house, though only 14' in length, has a zigzag in the middle. I thought correctly that this would roll off the cymbal wash via the tendency of high frequencies to not go around corners....