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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.

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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.

Light Fire Down – the last ever session

Yesterday I recorded one last acoustic song for Light Fire Down. We recorded at my house for a change, and I stuck Rich in my DIY guitar/vocal booth in the spare bedroom of my house. We tracked with Rich’s Ibanez acoustic which was mic’ed with an NT2000 and Sontronics STC-1. Rich’s acoustic sounds pretty middley, and the acoustic itself doesn’t have a whole lot of low end. I was initially running both mics through my A-Designs Pacifica, but just found I couldn’t get the low end I needed, so ended up putting the NT2000 through my Great River ME-1NV and cranking the input a fair bit. For vocals I had Rich sing through the NT2000 which went through my A-Designs Pacifica; the Pacifica is a really awesome mic pre on a lot of sources, and having Rich’s vocals go through it just sounded great.

I’ve also been using my NT2000 a lot more recently, as I find my KSM32 doesn’t really provide an up-front vocal sound. It’s kind of sat in retirement for a while as I’ve been using my KSM32s a lot more, but I’ve realised it’s an incredibly versatile and useful mic. Overall the session went great, and I think the acoustic track is a good send off for an otherwise brilliant third EP. By far the best-sounding material I’ve heard from them.

The band have since gone their separate ways, which I’m gutted about, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia when I think about the past three years. Recording these guys really put me on the local engineer map, and I’ve grown as an engineer like they’ve grown as songwriters. I think you can hear a real progression in production and songwriting from the ‘Lighthouse’ EP up to this latest release. Max has started a new band, and I hope the others follow suit and continue with some musical endeavours.

Kutna Hora – Live Session

Back in early-mid June, I recorded new local band, Kutna Hora, live in a Village Hall close to my house (the same venue where I recorded drums for Summer Drive Home, TATE and Conchairto.

Recording live is always fun, but also precarious at the same time. Everything has to be more-or-less perfect when you hit the record button, as there’s little room for error. The band need to be comfortable that they can play the song live, and the mic positioning in relation to where the instruments have been placed in the room is so important. The guys are quite influenced by Sonic Youth and Joy Division, so this gave me a basis for how it should be recorded and mixed.

For the first time ever, I tried out a tip (which I can’t remember where I heard it from), where I picked up Ian’s (drummer) floor tom and started walking around the room to hear where it sounded best. From there, I let him set up the rest of his kit, and placed amps in relation to where the drums were in the room. I walked around each amp to hear where the biggest null point was, which turned out to be the side of the amps.

I used figure 8 mics where I could, as they generally have the best off-axis rejection. I used a mono overhead placed more towards the shells than the cymbals to pick up a good representation of the kit, the mic used was an NT2000 in figure 8. Unlike other sessions I’ve done, this mic was about 80% of the drum sound. Mics around the kit were generally a standard array; 57 snare and hi tom, 421 mid and floor tom, Heil PR40 kick in, KSM32 kick out (and also KSM32 as a room mic).

For bass, I took a direct signal and also mic’ed with an AKG D112. Andy’s bass tone was pretty boomy through his Trace Elliot, partly due to the 15″ speaker, and also due to the EQ settings he had set on the amp. During the mix, the mic recording was mainly for the beefy low end to fill out the bottom, and the DI for the string note. I’ve realised that the D112’s cardioid pickup pattern is pretty loose and picks up a lot of bleed, so during the mix this caused some issues with colouring the drum sound which I had to address. In the end I sidechained the snare signal to a multiband compressor on bass and ducked the offending frequency.

Guitars were pretty easy, generally. Fred played through his Hiwatt through an Orange 1×12 and Jay played through a vintage Orange head and 4×12 cab. I initially used Cascade Fathead IIs for both amps, but found it sounded horrible on Fred’s 1×12 so I swapped it out for a 57. For Jay’s 4×12, I still used the Fathead II.

Surprisingly, the Fathead II got quite a bit of bleed from the drums even though its null was facing them, and it was also blocked off partially by Fred’s 1×12 which was propped up on his Marshall 1922 cab. During mix time, I again sidechained the snare to the a multiband compressor on Jay’s guitar.

For vocals, we tracked them separately, as it would’ve been impossible to record vocals live with everything else, as Andy’s vocals are soft and more-or-less spoken word. Andy uses effects when doing his vocals live, and to keep with the band’s sound, I decided to track through his vocal effects pedal. I put him in a small hallway which we padded out with drum bags and a roll of scrap carpet which Ian uses for a drum mat.

Vocals were recorded through an SM58 for the effected vocal, but I took a safety vocal just in case with an SM7B. Vocals went through both channels of my newly-acquired A-Designs Pacifica, which really brought the vocals up front. In the end, the 58 was fine for the mix, so I ended up keeping it and scrapping the SM7B track. Great session overall.

Conchairto radio play

Conchairto got some radio play tonight on Weymouth’s own AIR 107.2. We’re unfortunately not a band anymore, but Billy put some feelers out while we were still together back in November (or something) to see if we could get some air time, and they scheduled us in for today.

I mastered this EP to go against the grain of the typical ‘Loudness Wars’ levels, and the EP has a dynamic range value of about 10dB (around 8dB on the loudest points), I think. Preserving the dynamics means that I retain all the punch and clarity, which has served me well when radio squash our EP so that it has a dynamic range of 5dB! You can hear in some places the slow release time of the limiter as it recovers from the loudest parts of our songs, particularly on the outro of “Weathered Skin” where Max is doing some snare rolls.

Have a listen to the wavey audio of the broadcast that I pinched below.