Dec 10, 2012
Diary of a DIY Recording: The Grove EP
If you haven’t checked it out yet, read the first post of the Diary of a DIY Recording series, written by Ben Sinclair.
Ben works in the film and TV industry as a sound designer and mixer and has recently been composing music for commercials and TV programmes. In his spare time he funks out on guitar with his band The Grove. He’s into funk, soul, but can probably convinced to rock n roll when the time is right.
Part 2: Recording beds
Our first session was all about testing out recording live but we found that the room was just a bit too small to really make that work. We decided the next best thing would be to record beds with one guide sax part and then overdub all the other horn parts and solos. We did this in two short sessions on consecutive weekends. The important thing here was to mic everything with as little spill as possible. No mean feat in a small room! The key elements are room treatment, placement and mic selection.
The room we’re recording in is a 6m x 4m converted basement with polished concrete floor, two brick walls and two insulated gib walls. Before treatment, it was pretty damn reverberant. I treated it using Novahush Panel Absorbers which have a fairly good NRC rating for mid and high frequencies but starts to drop off below about 500Hz.. They’re fitted into frames with a 50mm air-gap behind them to increase low frequency absorption. These have significantly reduced the reverberation in the space without completely killing the natural ambience. I built three of them to be removable so that I can either shift them or remove them to allow a bit more reverb if required. One is also big enough to use as a baffle although I haven’t tested it yet.
They’re pretty hard to photograph because they’re basically just flat black slabs but that shows one in its frame.
This is really about getting everyone as far apart as possible but also about putting things with greater transient content, like drums (and to a lesser extent guitar) nearer the absorbers. You also need to think about mic selection at this point but I’ll get into that shortly. We had the bass and guitar amps on opposite sides at one end of the room and directly facing one another. The drums and tenor sax were at the other with the sax right in the corner. This allowed us to be as spread out as possible but also worked well with the mics I’d decided to use for each source, which leads me to…
This isn’t just about finding the most flattering mic for a source, it’s a good chance to select a polar pattern that will provide maximum isolation for a given position in the room. First up we decided to DI the bass… so… (cough)… no mic required there, but no need to worry about spill on the bass track either.
For the guitar amp I decided to stick with the vintage Sennheiser MD412 (bottom left in the photo) because it sounded great during the test session. The MD412 is a dynamic mic with a cardioid polar pattern which means it has maximum rejection directly behind the mic, so the guitar mic has virtually no spill from the bass amp. It did pick up a bit of the drum kit but it’s low enough in level to not matter too much. If you want to google it for more info, don’t be fooled into thinking I’ve typed the number wrong and meant an MD421 (which is an extremely widely used descendant of the MD412).
A slight detour for a bit of guitar porn: The guitar in the above photo is a Robin Savoy Classic with a pair of Bareknuckle Manhattan P-90s. Robin was a small, boutique luthier based in Texas that closed its doors in 2010. They specialised in high-end, handmade guitars that are extremely well constructed and sound terrific. It’s a tragedy that they’ve stopped making guitars because they’re not only stunning to look at but they play the pants off most of the other high end guitars I’ve played.
I’m lucky enough to have two, the Savoy (a sort of 335/Les Paul hybrid) and this beauty:
Which is an Avalon Custom. Both guitars feature a 20mm highly-flamed maple cap and mahogany body and neck and they both kick some serious ass.
(Back to our featured content) For the sax on the first session I used an ADK Hamburg condenser mic which also has a cardioid polar pattern. Because this was so close to the drums I placed it so the kit was directly behind it and pointed it just above the bell of the horn (tenor sax). I had the extremely good fortune of a generous loan from one of my work colleagues in the form of a Chandler TG2 Abbey Road edition mic preamp which I ran the sax through. I slightly overcooked it but the nature of the preamp is that it has a very musical distortion characteristic. I found it really hard not to wind it right up and get the horn really barking. It sounds wonderful in places but might not make it through to the final mix simply because it’s a bit too much in a couple of spots. The sax part is not completely clear of drum spill but it’s certainly clear enough to use. Unfortunately there is enough spill there that we’ll have to use either the whole sax track or none at all.
For the second session I used a vintage U87 that my boss very kindly let me borrow from work. I ran it through the Chandler preamp as well but it was just a bit too midrangey for the horn I put it in front of (baritone sax). This unfortunately doesn’t really do the bari justice so that became a scratch track which we’ll replace later.
The drums were the real success story here. Before we started tracking I had planned on going really old-school and just using one mic (omni dynamic, placed between kick and snare) but I chickened out after trying another stripped back method on another session (called “Recorderman Mic Technique”). What I settled on was just three mics- omni dynamic on the kick and either large diaphragm condensers or ribbons as overheads. I have a really cool Electro-Voice 635a omni reporters mic (the little silver one at the bottom of the photo) that sounds awesome on any part of the kit (it actually sounds pretty damn good on almost anything) which was an obvious choice for the kick. Omnis have two advantages in this kind of situation- they’re less prone to the proximity effects which means you can get them really close to the source, and they have an extended low frequency response so they capture really solid thump. The downside is that they have no rejection point but putting it right in front of the port on the kick meant it didn’t get too much other stuff. I settled on a matched pair of Cascade Fatheads (the pair that look like lollipops) as overheads because they have a really smooth, retro sound and a subtle compression on louder sounds- particularly toms. For the overhead placement in this technique: take one pair drumsticks end to end, place them vertically on the centre of the snare drum and place the first mic at the top of the sticks facing directly down. Next, keeping the drumsticks on the centre of the snare, move them 45degrees (towards the drummer’s right shoulder) and place the second mic at the end of the sticks, also facing the centre of the snare. Last step is to shift the mics slightly while wearing headphones so that the kick is right in the middle of the stereo image.
Ribbon mics have a figure-8 polar patter meaning that the maximum rejection point is to the side of the mic, all the way around it. Using figure-8 mics for the above technique means that the maximum rejection area is directly in front of the drum kit. There’s a tiny little bit of sax spill on the drums, but for the most part it’s insignificant enough not to matter. It’s a good idea to solo the two overheads and play with the balance until the kick sounds perfectly centred.
The rambling pile of waffle above may seem like a lot to think about, but it all contributed to getting a solid, clean recording that captures most of the essence of a live band but allows for replacing pretty much anything (apart from the drums) later on. The only real casualty of these sessions was the baritone sax and that was due to a combination of poor mic selection and (to a greater degree) technique. We managed to record about seven useable takes across four songs in these two sessions, neither of which lasted more than two hours. There was a reasonable amount of planning and experimentation but the actual sessions were extremely quick which meant they were fairly seat-of-the-pants affairs.
Here’s a little taste of one of the beds in a work-in-progress state:
As a side note, in addition to the Chandler TG2, I had a stack of great microphone preamps to try for these sessions courtesy of Oceania-Audio.
Top to bottom- Chandler TG-2 two channel mic preamp(the dark blue one at the back), vintage Urei 1176 compressor, Chameleon Labs 7802 opto compressor, Orban 424a compressor, Aphex Compellor compressor, 2x Warm Audio WA12s, Studio Electronics Pre 2 (which was lovely but a bit too $$ for me at the moment) and a Chameleon Labs 7602 mic pre/eq. What do different mic preamps bring to the table? A good microphone preamp can add richness and character (usually by smoothing out the high frequency content, adding flattering drive to the lows or having a mid-range lift) or detail by simply capturing the cleanest possible representation of the signal. My preference is for character hence the vintage inspired preamps above.
None of them were quite what I was looking for (I’ve ended up importing something else instead) but the WA12s sounded so good at such a great price point that I’ll definitely be adding a pair as soon as I’m able. If there’s any interest I’ll add a mini review of them a bit later on.