Skip to content

An Interesting Observation

Today I snuck into the studio at work when there was some downtime, and recorded short cymbal swells for the project I’m currently working on. I figured that now was as good a time as any, and so I set up two sE Electronics X1s going straight into an Allen & Heath ZED R16 and using its onboard preamps. Throughout this project, I have used my A-Designs Pacifica on literally everything except for vocals. The result, of which, has meant that every little track in the project has had the Pacifica’s colour imparted on the tracks, and gave it a sound.

Recording the cymbal swells today through the onboard preamps of the Allen & Heath really stuck out to me, in a bad way. The sound is still useable, but the result is very distant. The Pacifica is great for making sources sound close, and makes things gel really good in a mix. The preamps that I used today in the Allen & Heath really stick out like a sore thumb in comparison; the pres have a hyped top-end, but this top end becomes very flakey with things like cymbals and becomes pretty harsh. In conjunction with sounding distant as well (as I said earlier), the overall result is one that sounds off after stacking tracks through a preamp like the Pacifica.

The ZED R16 is about £2,000, so each mic pre is less than £125 when you factor in the A/D D/A conversion, knobs, switches, housing, XLR and jack connectors, etc that are all included. Of course, it’s not a fair contest to compare a £2,000 mic pre against a desk that costs £2,000 in total with 16 mic pres, but I found the results pretty astounding. I was actually doubting if the Pacifica really sounded different to other mic pres, but the truth is, it does. It has its own sound, as they say, which really does make a huge difference once you record multiple tracks through it.

Advertisements

Practice What you Preach

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you’ll see that there’s been a couple of times over the years where I’ve posted something along the lines of ‘just because equipment is more expensive, it doesn’t mean it’s better’. This idea becomes more and more true as I keep recording.

I’m currently working on a studio project with a friend of mine recording some acoustic songs. Over the years, I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to find great deals on gear and build up my home studio to a professional standard. This means that I have a lot of expensive equipment that a lot of people are unable to afford. I have things along the lines of A-Designs Pacifica, Great River ME-1NV, Maag EQ4, Universal Audio Apollo, etc.

With so many choices, this can be a blessing, but also a curse. Naturally, I gravitate towards the more expensive equipment assuming that it will be better, despite the fact I’ve posted a couple of times before that this isn’t true. I have to remind myself that this isn’t the case. Over the course of this project, we’ve been recording the songs in a pre-production state, and then actually recording them for real. I’ve been using the A-Designs Pacifica pretty much on everything in this project to put it through its paces.

During the pre-production stage, I recorded some shaker tracks through an SM58 that I use as a talkback mic going directly into my Apollo just to lay the idea down. This sounded really good right off the bat, even for pre-pro. When it came to the project though, I thought; “I’m going to record this properly”, and set up one of my KSM137s going straight into the Pacifica.

The result? The shaker sounded bad…

It was really thin, and didn’t really sound like how a shaker should sound. Keeping the Pacifica in use, I swapped out the KSM137 for the SM58 I had originally used in the demo.

The result now? Way better!

The shaker sounded like a finished record right from the get-go. This is hard evidence for me. It really does show that because a mic is more expensive, it isn’t necessarily right for the job. An SM58 here in the UK retails for under £100. The KSM137 retails for three-and-a-half times the price of an SM58.

What’s the takeaway from this anecdote? Well, with all of us being caught up in thinking we need to buy more equipment and more expensive equipment to better our recordings, we lose focus on what actually matters – the song. It doesn’t matter if you have a 58 and a 2-channel interface anymore. The only limitation is yourself. We can have a whole studio’s worth of expensive equipment, but if the song and arrangement of the song isn’t good, recording the sources with expensive gear and mics won’t make the song any better.IMG_20171009_203053_650IMG_20171024_142504_149

Why Using Less Mics is Better

It’s no secret, there are hundreds of articles on the internet which say that you should use less mics to achieve the result you want. Most notably, this idea was arguably conceived in recent times by Graham Cochrane of Recording Revolution. The thing is, we don’t want to believe using less is better, because we see videos on YouTube of famous engineers that put a million mics up on a guitar cab, or putting up multiple mics on multiple cabs, or putting up multiple mics on a drum kit… the list goes on.

Why is this bad? Well, first and foremost, it detracts from the original objective; to record a song and capture a good performance. Finessing the placement of multiple mics on a guitar cab to have the perfect balance of each other is very time consuming.

There are so many variables that are more important than using multiple mics; by using more mics, the process becomes more confusing. So many different tones can be achieved through amplifier choice, guitar choice, pedal choice, mic preamp choice and more, without ever reaching for another mic, or even positioning the one microphone you’ve put up differently.

The big advantages of using one mic over several is that it forces you to commit to sounds then and there. Your projects will become a multitude of well thought-out decisions which makes things easier when coming to mix. The other huge reason is phase relationships between the mics; using one mic means it is impossible for the variable of phase ruining your tone. If the tone you get is lacklustre with one microphone, it’s on you. You should be able to achieve pretty much the tone you require using one microphone.

Why Performance and Source Tone are the Winners

Today I posted a blog post about a jazz session I did in a restaurant a few nights ago. I think as audio engineers, myself included, we get too caught up in what mic/pre/converter sounds better, rather than focusing on performance and source tone. What I’ve found through my 10 years of recording experience is that the less mics I use, the better the overall result and the more proud I am of the completed product, but this is especially true if the performance and sound sources are good.

I was genuinely surprised with the jazz recording how well it worked with just three microphones. Okay, it wasn’t perfect, as I could’ve done with a kick mic to reinforce the low end and have another mic on piano to capture its sonic spectrum, but working with limitations makes you work smarter, and makes you think about how you can yield the best possible result with as few options as possible. The trap that we can fall into is that with using more microphones, we’re not listening to the mics we originally put up. We’re using more microphones as safety nets to make up for what the other microphones didn’t capture, but why not see how much of a completed sound we can capture with as few microphones as possible, then set up additional microphones after to make up for what’s lacking?

The reason why this is more advantageous and will yield greater results is due to the lack of phasing issues. Phase is the number one killer for potentially great recordings. Instead of multi-mic’ing a guitar cab, or placing mics on every single drum, listen to what you can achieve with just one or two mics, then add more if needed.

Recording Live Jazz – Audio Sample

The other day I stayed late at my work to record some live Jazz in the restaurant. I’ve grown to love recording live more and more, as it’s not so stifling like the modern way of recording. I took down an Edirol R44 from the office and set it up in the corner. I plugged in 3 mics and took a DI from the bass post effects.

I placed the drum microphone over the drummer’s right shoulder facing towards the kick and snare. Initially this mic was a little ride-heavy, and sort of still is in this mix. I had to angle the mic more towards the snare to reject some of that ride. The mic I used was an sE Electronics X1, which I have to say is probably one of the best mics I’ve used for its price. I’m so impressed, in fact, that I’m tempted to buy one or two. When it came time to mix, I needed to try and add some low end so that you could actually hear the kick. This was difficult, as the kick was like 18″ instead of the standard 20″ or 22″, not to mention that the kick was played very lightly. I had high-passed with kick up to about 30Hz but had added a 8dB low shelf boost at 60Hz set with an aggressive Q.

Mic’ing piano was also an issue, as there’s a huge range of tones and pitches which is hard to capture with just one microphone. I opted for a Rode NT2-A that was in the studio with the view to use figure 8 and angle the null towards the strings and hammers themselves so that the front and back of the mic would be picking up the bass and treble side. Although I decided against this, as it most likely would’ve picked up everything else except for the piano, so I put the mic in cardioid and aimed the mic towards the mid section of the piano. This mic picked up quite a bit of everything else, so in hindsight, I probably could’ve used figure 8 so that the null of the microphone was facing towards the drums, bass and sax.

For the sax, I used an SM57 pointing down the horn. This mic also picked up a fair bit of everything else, but with the sax mainly being mid-focused, it was easy to high pass and low pass everything that was causing an issue without compromising the sound of the sax.

With the bass DI, I ran it through the Ampeg SVT-VR plugin from UAD to add some realistic bass tones back into the mix. This plugin worked great, and adds some weight to the lower register to act as a cushion for the other instruments to dance on top of.

Here’s a few plugins that I used. Looking at the plugins that were included in a basic package with my Apollo, I didn’t realise that I had RealVerb Pro, so decided to try this out. The presets are very useable, although I found that sending the drums to a reverb bus altered the sound of the kick slightly, so only dialled in a little bit of it. I’m a huge fan of the Klanghelm MJUC, and will be using a whole lot more in future mixes.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 13.14.54

Kutna Hora live session… again!

Last weekend, I recorded Kutna Hora again. We recorded two tracks to create a three track EP from the song we recorded last time. I don’t really record live anymore, so when sessions like this come up, it’s very welcome. I generally prefer to take a modern approach with recording, and record each instrument individually to get a lot of control come mix time, but recording live is really great practice for getting to know the limitations of your equipment and forces you to be more thoughtful with mic placement and amp settings.

We kept things pretty much the same like last time, but I wanted to improve on some things. Last time I used a D112 on bass which picked up a tonne of drums. I still used the D112 this time, but pinched an sE Reflexion Filter from work and raised the bass amp off the floor. Doing this surprisingly helped a lot, I’m usually quite skeptical about reflection filters, but the sE one really helped, I’m probably going to buy one for myself eventually.

I used one of my Cascade Fathead IIs on the guitar that was closest to me last session, but this also picked a lot of drums. The theory here was that using a figure 8 mic and having its null face towards the other instruments would reject more bleed than a cardioid mic would, but this didn’t happen, so I opted for an SM58 and took the grille off. Again, I was quite skeptical about the notion that if you take a grille off a 58, you have a 57. Well, it turns out that’s actually true (kinda), Shure say if you add a meshed ball grille to a 57 you have a 58, so surely taking the meshed ball grille off a 58 gives you a 57, right? http://blog.shure.com/10-things-might-not-know-sm58/  But anyway, the 58 did a better job on guitar than my Fathead II did.

For everything else, mic wise, it was the same. I used a Heil PR40 on kick, SM57 on snare and hi tom, MD421s on mid and floor toms, SM7B on hi-hat and my Rode NT2000 on overhead. I’ve been using the SM7B on hi-hats for the past few sessions I’ve carried out, and it’s become my hi-hat mic of choice now, it’s a great mic. The NT2000 is also a really great mic.

In terms of mic pres, there was only one major difference. I originally had bass going into my Great River ME1NV, but due to recording an active P-bass style guitar through an amp with a 15″ speaker, this was way too woofy. This time, I opted for my Hairball Audio Copper which worked really well! There was just the right amount of colour to the signal whilst not adding a tonne of weight.

For vocals, we overdubbed them like the last session, but due to having a kid’s birthday party taking place in the main hall, it was bleeding into the vocal track. I originally had Andy up a flight of stairs facing the wall, but this didn’t work, so I had reluctantly put him in the toilet and recorded vocals there (a first for me). The toilet is, as you would probably expect, brick walled, narrow and reverberant. Thankfully, Andy’s vocals are just a textural piece, and his vocals are just whispered rather than sung, so it didn’t interact with the room all that much (if at all).

Additionally with this session, we recorded some synth parts which went into my A-Designs Pacifica. Fred runs his synths through guitar pedals to dirty them up a bit, so we took a clean DI without effects and another with effects so that if it went horribly wrong, we at least had a clean take. I’ve come to really love the Pacifica; It’s probably the best mic preamp I’ve ever used, and I’d be happy to just have a studio with about eight of them in a rack. Anyway, here’s a couple of pictures from the session for your visual pleasure.

 

The Case of Knowing Your Gear *Warning: Long, Nerdy Post*

Over the past couple of days, I’ve had some free time, and so I’ve been putting my gear through its paces. I’ve been testing out guitars through guitar amps, and swapping out different preamps in the process. What I’ve realised is that you can get a vast array of tones just by changing one variable.

For the tests, I just had an SM57 on the centre of the cone, and just wanted to see how much difference in tone I could get from just swapping out one variable at a time. By having the 57 on the centre of the cone, this gave me the brightest tone possible, and was a good starting point to base everything else around. I started out by swapping out mic pres when I had a re-amped signal feeding my Fender Champ. Swapping out the pre alone made a huge difference. I started out with my A-Designs Pacifica, as I’ve found I’ve really been enjoying the sound of this pre on lots of sources recently, but never put it through its paces on guitar. Characteristically, the Champ is chimey, bright and punchy; something you would expect from a Fender amp.

Fender Champ

With a 57 on the centre of the cone through the Pacifica, and the re-amped signal being a Fender Telecaster, this only accentuated the brightness of the amp itself. The Pacifica in itself is quite an open mic pre with a little bit of an extended bottom end. If something’s buried, the Pacifica can really bring things to the top of a mix with ease, and doesn’t particularly get crunchy and gnarly when you push the gain pot a bit. In this case, the Pacifica didn’t work well for an already bright amp. I then moved onto the Great River ME-1NV, somewhat of an opposite direction to the Pacifica. While the Great River gave more bottom end, it still had a clear top. Pushing the mic pre’s input stage and dialling back the output added more lows until it just got crunchy whilst retaining the top end pretty well. The impedance button helped tame the high end a bit, but not overly so. I went to my Hairball Bronze which was quite like the Great River, but not overly heavy on the bottom end, but just extended and somewhat of a shaved top end. Again cranking the input and dialling back the output just got crunchy. Finally, I went for my Warm Audio WA12. By padding the input signal and hitting in the tone button, this added a thick gooey mid range that the other pres didn’t, which really worked well for the chimey Champ and 57 combo.

Amp Maker PP18

I tried a couple of guitars through the Amp Maker. First off, I tried my Les Paul. I think I started off with the Great River, which I found sounded really cool with the input stage dialled back but cranking the output stage. It kind of rounded off the top a bit whilst adding just a little bit of low end presence. Really quite hard to describe, it just sounded really cool. I tried out the Hairball Bronze which didn’t have as much the top end of the Great River, but still a good competitor either way, and sounded really quite similar on this application. The WA12 shaved off the top end a bit too much for the amp and the forward, gooey mid range didn’t really work for an amp that is already accented in that range. Finally, I tried out the Pacifica, which sounded absolutely phenomenal on this setup. The upper mid range presence really brought out the best qualities of the amp and guitar, whilst retaining just enough bottom end to know it’s there. The Amp Maker PP18 is a classic sounding amp, a pretty apparent bottom end with a clear top when you dial in the tone knob. Would definitely work for Rock but would also sound really cool for Punk and Hardcore bands as well.

Jet City JCA22H

Keeping with the Gibson, I thought the Gibson through the Pacifica would be a good starting point. The JCA22H has more of a mid range bark than the Amp Maker PP18, and is definitely more gainy at lower volumes. With the gain on 1.5-2 and the master volume on about a 6-7, the amp had enough gain to rival the Amp Maker. To get the volume, I pushed the master up to a 7-8. Pushing the amp further than this just made the gain overly saturated with no defined string note which was remedied with the presence control on the amp. This amp would definitely be great for modern Rock, Metal, Punk and Pop Punk styles. The Pacifica did pretty well with this amp, although I think the Great River probably would’ve added more of an apparent bottom without sacrificing any of the top end. Turning the bass knob on the amp all the way up didn’t really do what I wanted, and the Pacifica didn’t really add anything to the bottom itself. Playing with my Telecaster through this amp resulted in less gain with more high mid apparent. The 57 through the Pacifica and a Telecaster didn’t really work with this amp, but the Warm Audio WA12 probably would be a good choice to shave off the top slightly whilst thickening up the lower mid range.

Conclusion

I really wanted to get to know my equipment better and what it does. I’ve got a lot of equipment which I’ve never really known what it can and can’t do. It’s incredible how different the tone can be without swapping out a mic, but rather swapping out the mic pre, amp or guitar. By moving the mic a bit too, you’re certainly able to get 80% of the tone you want before reaching for another mic or mixing without the need for more mics. I usually shove a couple of mics on each speaker on a 2×12, aimlessly plug them into my favourite pre at the time and just see what happens. Going through this process has made me more aware of what my gear actually does and will give me a more informed choice when I record stuff in future. Really informative process.