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Why good gear makes a difference

To preface this blog post, I have, in the past, posted about how using cheaper equipment is okay, and that it shouldn’t get in the way of making music… which is what a lot of online bloggers post. While this is true in the sense that we shouldn’t get caught up in what equipment to use and act like it’s the make or break of a song, using good equipment gets you to a good recording before the mix has even begun.

I’ve recently acquired a Yamaha Recording Custom brass snare (14×6.5), and recently did some test recording in the guitar room of my house with an SM57 and a Rode NT2000 as an overhead which went through my Hairball Audio Copper module and was mixed with a Maag EQ4 and a Lindell Audio 7X-500. I compared this recording to what I had recorded today, which, albeit in a different room with a different overhead mic, sounds vastly different going through the same unchanged mix chain. The snare went through work’s Allen & Heath Zed R16 console. Bringing these recordings home, the recording of the snare is vastly different that it’s a night and day difference.

The Hairball Audio Copper added a slight lower mid hump which really complimented the snare well, the Allen & Heath in comparison sounds extremely thin. As well as that, the mic placement was as close as I could get it to how I recorded the other day, and the snare was actually tuned lower… so in theory the snare recording should’ve sounded fatter, right? Well it didn’t.

Going through a recording chain of good equipment has a cumulative effect. If you start out with a good source, with good mic placement, going through a good mic pre, and then mix the source recording with good equipment, these pieces of equipment will all impart their tone on the source. Why wouldn’t we strive for that? The home recording world is the best that it’s ever been right now; you can have a relatively good setup for a very cheap price, but ultimately, no matter what anyone online says, good gear matters, and it does make a difference to your recordings.

A bit of a disclaimer though, a good song performed well is what matters the most, but that same song can be made great if it’s ran through good front end.

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The Drum World’s Best Kept Secret

Several years ago, I bought a pot of RTOM Moon Gel to have in my ‘Studio Essentials’ case containing everything that I might need in a session to keep the session going (drum key, torch, moon gel, spare shockmount bands, electrical tape). Over time, my pot of 6 Moon Gels has dwindled to a sorry 2. Moon Gel is expensive for what it is; for 6 2.5cmx4cm rectangles of stretchy gel, you’re paying £7, which is pretty costly if you’re relying on drummers to bring their own kit in and gelling up multiple drums which you forget about once the session is over.

A lot of engineers and drummers will put duct tape on their drums. I really advise against this, as it’s a really quick and easy way to ruin a drum head when you peel it up, and what’s left is either a sticky fibrous residue on a clear head, or that same sticky fibrous residue with the white coating peeling away if it’s a coated head.

I’ve tried using electrical tape which doesn’t leave such a mark on a drum head, but you have to use a lot more of it to get the same result as duct tape. So what’s the solution? Gel window stickers that you get for Halloween and Christmas. This stuff is exactly the same as Moon Gel, except for maybe leaving a slight stain on drum heads… which is a very minor thing.

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I bought 2 packs of these gels for £3.98, and with one pack I managed to make 6 gels the same size as an official Moon Gel, and I still have all the skulls to use. I can make another 6 with the other pack, and use the skulls for more aggressive damping. When using these in practice, they do exactly the same job, but I found that the window gel stickers left a stain on the snare drum head which was coated, but didn’t notice any issues on clear heads. I would prefer a coloured stain on a drum head that could probably be wiped down if required than remnants of duct tape left on drum heads.

So… Need something exactly the same as Moon Gel in fun shapes but for a fraction of the cost? This is your answer!

Recording piano is a pain! Plus notes from the project in general.

Today I had some massive down time at work (I love half term), and decided to record some piano for a new song that we’re recording in The Sky The Bird. The song is really coming together nicely, on Friday last week, I borrowed kick, snare and floor tom from the Mapex Meridian Birch kit we have at work, and me and Jay recorded in my favourite local room for drums again (which you’ll see I mention a lot in previous blog posts). As always, we were against the clock, with only 3 hours to record drum parts, but thankfully it was a very simple beat.

I wanted to try out some new techniques in this drum session, so I put out my pair of Cascade Fathead II ribbon mics in the room in an ORTF configuration (can you even call it ORTF with ribbons?) through my A-Designs Pacifica. The Pacifica coupled with the Fatheads was a great pairing, as the Pacifica has a tendency to make things really stand out and push them to the front of the mix, which was great for my low output ribbons. I had my pair of KSM32s on overheads, as always, running through my Audient ASP-008. I really like this pre! For the price, it’s simply incredible. Transient-heavy sources work so well through it. I love it. Kick in, subkick, snare top and bottom and floor tom also went through the Audient. Kick out was my NT2000 running through my Great River ME-1NV, again another great pre.

When mixing these drums, I’ve not really had to do a whole lot. I’ve recently been finding that I’m using less and less processing to achieve the results I want. Besides using Sound Radix Auto Align to phase match the drum mics and some pretty minimal EQ processing, the drums have really come together nicely. The close mics were ran through a parallel compression send where I used Slate Digital’s ‘The Monster’ which has been a recent discovery, and I love it. Room mics were compressed with my pair of DBX 160Xs, which again I absolutely adore on room mics… especially on my Cascade Fathead IIs, I’ve found.

Now to piano! It was a K Kawai baby grand from approximately the 70s. I stuck my pair of KSM137s in a spaced pair configuration running through my Pacifica. The Pacifica was my first choice, but I wanted to see how my Audient ASP-008 would fair against it, but the Pacifica did its thing of making the mics very up-front and present. I found that using just these two mics didn’t provide enough body, so I stuck one of my KSM32s on the soundboard hole… initially with the mic in the hole, but I found it sounded too honky, so I pulled it out and mic’ed the top of it instead. I initially wanted to do ORTF for piano, but positioning the mics with my Rode stereo mic bar and getting it into a good position on the piano itself just wasn’t happening, so I opted for spaced pair instead. I spent a good half an hour trying to position these mics… it was a nightmare! Mixing was a standard affair of EQ, compression and reverb. Fab Filter Pro-Q as always, as it’s very precise. I wanted something with a really quick release for compression, so went for UAD’s DBX160 and have been loving the Little Plate from Sound Toys at the moment. It’s such an easy reverb to use to get great results. I love it on piano and vocals.

 

Why Less is More

I’ve recently been delving into some old projects that I recorded, and have experimented with mixing some drum tracks. I am a very drum-centric engineer – I hate when drummers show up to sessions with beaten up heads and cracked cymbals and expect it to sound like a million dollars, because it definitely won’t.

The sample below is from the Conchairto drum session whilst I was getting levels. The kit that was used was a Pork Pie USA Custom, and to this day has been the best drum kit I’ve ever recorded. The drums already sounded great right from the get-go, and so putting mics on the kit only reinforced a great drum sound.

When I mixed this project back in 2015, I really went to town on processing the individual mics on the kit, like really extensive gating, EQ, compression and sidechain filtering to get rid of excessive bleed in the tom mics, and then supplemented that sound with close mic samples that we took of the kit.

With this sample though, I wanted to see how little I could do and achieve the same result. I decided that if I couldn’t hear a noticeable difference, or felt like a processor wasn’t needed, I wouldn’t add it in just for the sake of it.

I used very minimal EQ, and I generally only used some high and low pass filtering to make things sit better, but also notched out any weird frequencies that were building up a muddy drum sound. I bussed the snare mics and compressed them with my Lindell 7X-500 and added some high EQ to make the snare sizzle a bit more.

The toms have just had high-pass filtering and some compression of about 3-6dB of reduction just to make sure they’re not too unruly. The room mic was compressed with my DBX 160X on -1:1 ratio and a threshold of about -11dB and low-passed.

The kick in and out mics were gated and high-passed but with the kick out mic having a slight notch in the low mids. The subkick was high-passed and low-passed, but not compressed or gated. The close mics were sent to a SMASH bus, and processed with the Slate Monster compressor from VMR. SPL Transient Designer was used on the kick in mic to accentuate the attack and cut the sustain so it was just the click.

Other than this, the overheads were just high-passed with no compression, as was the hi-hat. The kick mics also had no compression added. Generally speaking, besides the toms, snare and room mics, no compression was added to the individual drum tracks and EQ was very minimal. A good portion of the drum sound is good phase relationships between the mics, levels and panning.

The take away from this is that the drummer and the drum kit are always the two most important things when achieving a great drum sound. If your drummer sucks, your recording will suffer, and if your drum kit is beaten up, your recordings will also suffer. Get those two things right, and the mics and preamps you use are secondary.

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.

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.