Recording a band in the studio – Part 2
Recording a band – part 2
I continue to look at recording a band in the recording studio. Last week I looked at setting up a tracking session to record a full band together. This week I’m going to continue by looking at what happens during the session. I will also cover some of the creative choices I make.
Microphone choice should usually wait until you’ve heard the source. That way you can decide on which mic will compliment the instrument and best suit it in the mix. After all, there is no need to use a super-bright condenser mic on a shaker part that you want buried in the mix.
Having said that there are a handful of microphones that I find myself using time and time again. It’s useful to have some go-to mic choices – especially if you need to work fast. Most of the sessions I’m involved in are one or two-day affairs. In this case, I haven’t got all day to audition mic choices as I’m on the client’s time so often have to rely upon experience.
The majority of the mics I use when recording bands are dynamic and ribbon mics. In fact, I have had whole sessions where I haven’t used anything else. Now that’s not to say I don’t like condenser mics – far from it but I do find dynamic and ribbons suit my room and tastes.
For me, a drum sound starts with the overheads and there is no better mic for this role than the Coles 4038. They are ribbon mics and need some hefty mic stands but they are wonderful at capturing the sound of drums.
I often EQ the sound on the way in – ribbon mics usually respond very well to high-shelf EQ. In this role, I usually patch in the Clariphonic EQ but anything with a broad shelf around 8-10 KHz will do. I find that if I can get a good solid picture of the kit with these two mics then I can fill in the gaps with the spot mics.
The kick mic I choose usually depends on the style of playing, the genre of music and size of the drum. It also depends on whether there is a hole in the resonant head or not. My current go-to choice is the Audix D6. Now this mic does already have its own sound – it’s pre-EQ’d, but more often than not it works! It has a good balance of low-end heft and upper-mid crack to suit most styles of music.
My other choices for this role are usually an Electrovoice RE-20 or AKG D112. I sometimes add a sub-kick mic as well when I need a more “pillowy” low end from the kick. I have a DIY solution made out of an old NS10 speaker that I have wired up to a mic cable.
For snare, I often gravitate towards the Beyer M201 as it sounds sublime. A Shure SM57 also gets used quite a bit in this role, albeit one with the transformer removed as I prefer the sound. I usually like to capture an under-snare mic as well as top and I often use a Sennheiser MD441 here. Make sure you check the polarity of the mic signals when using two mics to get the most solid result.
Toms usually get treated to a vintage pair of Sennheiser MD-421 mics that I picked up on eBay. They are the white versions with the script logo from around 1960 and are amazing – lots of attack and depth. If a drummer turns up with the wrong number of toms (more than one rack and one floor) then I have used the D112 on floor tom.
Rooms and Cymbals
Room mics and Hi-Hats are the one area where I do use condenser mics. I usually hang room mics at the far end of the studio in the lounge so I need more sensitive mics here. I rely on my trusty pair of Rode NT5s which have modified capsules from Oktavamod. These completely piss all over the stock capsules and are worth hunting around for – they’re that good.
An AKG c451 gets my vote for Hi-Hats although only with more delicate players or if the part needs defining. Usually, there’s so much Hi-Hat in the overheads that you don’t need a separate mic. What a separate mic does offer though is imaging – it’s easy to locate a Hi-Hat in the stereo field with a spot mic blended in.
Any parts like shaker or tambourine usually get treated to the Coles 4038 again. Ribbon mics through a transformer-based mic preamp can tame the transients a lot. This helps to find a stable level for the part without having to slam it with compression.
For hand-percussion like congas I tend to like the detail picked up from a pair of condensers. This depends on the role required for the percussion though – as it’s usually an overdub you can decide then.
Bass cabs can usually stay in the car as I find I get more than enough of what I need with a good DI. For this, I use the Avalon U5 which is very good and has tone controls to further enhance the sound. Nine times out of ten I use an 1176 compressor to control the dynamics while recording. I have a Hairball Audio Revision D 1176 which is excellent in this role. Any EQ deemed necessary is usually to get the kick drum and bass playing together. My Kush Electra 500s usually get patched in here as they are sweepable and sound fantastic.
Also patched in for bass is my Eventide H3000. I have a send ready to go from the DI track and the outputs of the H3000 have their own inputs setup in Pro Tools. This way I can record effects on the way in – usually some light chorus although the harmoniser patch gets used a lot too.
On the odd occasion when I do record a bass amp I usually use an RE-20 or similar dynamic microphone. I have also used a Neumann TLM193 with good results due to its un-hyped frequency response.
One alternative to recording an amp track is to duplicate the DI channel and use an amp simulator. For this, I usually rely on the Sansamp plugin which comes bundled with Pro Tools. A good dose of distortion on this track blended in low in parallel with the DI can work wonders.
Amps are usually isolated and I often use my Little Labs STD to make sure the signal doesn’t pick up noise. This is a great device to use when patching guitar signals from the live room but isolating the amp.
Mics for guitar amp are usually the obvious choices: Shure SM57, MD421 or a ribbon mic. I have recently found some great tones by using the SM57 and MD421 and blending the results via auxes in Pro Tools. In this instance, I commit to one sound and record the tow inputs onto another track. It’s far better to make a decision at the time rather than second-guess yourself later on.
Another couple of great choices for guitar are the Coles 4038 – which, to be fair, sounds great on everything. In this role, you can back the mic off a couple of feet and get some lovely natural tones. I also use a cheap Chinese ribbon, the T-Bone RB-100 which sounds marvellous. Somewhat suspicious is the mic’s similarity to a Royer. The £30 eBay fee definitely sets them apart though!!
The only mic I ever use on acoustic guitar is an AKG c451. It’s one of the EB variants from the 1970s rather than the modern version. These mics sound glorious on acoustic guitar, especially with some light compression. Here I will usually use my DIY Serpent audio SA-3A – a clone of a Urei LA-3A.
I love the sound of my AML ez1081 units on drums. They are clones of Neve 1081s and have a large sound due in part to the input and output transformers. I have 6 of them so use one each on Kick, Snare and Toms and a use a pair for Overheads.
I like to use API-style preamps on guitars and use the Warm Audio WA-412 for this. This is a great 4-channel mic pre that has excellent bang for your buck! Bass usually gets DI’d through my Avalon U5 which leaves my 6 Apogee preamps for everything else. All this and I still have a 1073 left over. This usually gets used on scratch vocals whilst tracking and I aim to keep these if possible.
Any keyboard parts get DI’d through my Radial stereo DI and I also have a pair of Canford powered units. The Warm WA-412 also has Hi-Z inputs which can be useful for keyboards and to thicken the tone.
To click or not to click? Recently I have not been using click tracks when recording bands. People tend to fall back on the excuse that recording to a click helps you when editing later on. This is rubbish. There are many ways you can get around this problem. I tend to try for complete takes and not using a click helps the music breathe more. This then affords the opportunity to splice sections of takes together if necessary.
I find that the worst time to introduce playing to a click is when none of the band has ever done it before. Frustration can soon set in and people tend to focus on the click rather than the track. Music to me feels better when choruses do speed up a little – it’s natural and gives the music emotion. I’d much rather record music that speeds up and slows down but moves me than bland music that has a “correct” tempo.
One of the only other things I make sure of when tracking a band is to have auto-talkback turned on. This is a great feature of the Avid C|24 console – albeit hidden in a menu. I have a mic set up in the live room that feeds the “listen mic” input on the console. This feeds a compressor so all conversations in the live room are audible between takes. Also as soon as I stop the recording my talkback mic is live. This gives me constant communication between myself and the band. This is so important – especially with bands that are less than secure in a studio environment.
The only other things left to you as an engineer are to be helpful and try your best to achieve what the band are after. Keep trying to propel the session forward – don’t be afraid of making decisions. The more you can commit to things, the quicker you start to build up the complete picture.
Next week we’ll look at what I do once the recording stage is complete.