Now with all the work we had done to the listening environment, it was time to set out and actually record something. Jimmy and Rob and I set up another date to record drum tracks to five songs. All three of us had done some test sessions over the summer to see how some of the new equipment I bought sounded, mics, compressors and pre amps, and we were going for real this time. Jimmy and I planned on getting together on Sunday to get his drums setup and miked, and all three of us would come back on Monday to jam and get the stuff on tape.
Rob, Steve and I had been working on demos using our computers and a built-in drum machine since last April. Rob and I have had the same setup for a while. We use Sonar Producer’s Edition to make demos. It’s really a wonderful tool, you can cut, paste and change arrangements in a second, and lay down tracks in a tenth of the time it used to take using ADATs or a more sophisticated DAW. We hooked Steve up with his new computer so now all three of us have the same demo creation capability with Sonar, the DR-008 software drum machine and some snappy Joey Kramer drum samples. Rob and I have a PODxt and Steve has a Line6 combo with a direct out that he likes to use. But since we got the Tech21 endorsement, we just got the GT2 which I think sounds better than the POD and I think we’ll all be using that from now on. My point is that since we all have the same setup for demos, we can carry projects back and forth to each others house and work on the exact same demo, rather than everyone having their own versions of songs. It has made things a lot easier for us as far as collaboration goes. Since we do the actual recording of the CD at my house, I always drive to Rob or Steve’s (since he now has the same computer setup as Rob and I do), those guys will be doing their fair share of driving later on.
Once again this time, we’ll be using the trusty Roland VS-2480 that I recently installed a DVD burner into (voiding my warranty I might add), and I also have a DIF-AT24 that links the VS-2480 with my computer so I can very quickly bounce tracks back and forth between Sonar and the VS via the R-BUS. A little different than I had the last time. Before I could only bounce two tracks at once, now I can do eight. I’m all about convenience! For example I planned to record all the drums to the VS and the hi-hat and room mic to Sonar with an accompanying sync track. We use our original demos as a sync, muting the drums we programmed and creating a basic beat click track for Jimmy. It also makes it easy to reference the demo material if there is a question about how something goes.
With all that in place and ready to go, I was anxious to try out some new gear I had acquired over the last year. I had got some new mics – Sennheiser 421’s for the toms and possibly using one for second miking guitar, and a very nice Neumann TLM-103 off eBay that I had planned on using just for vocals but since it is such a kick ass mic I decided to use it as a room mic instead of the Audio Technica 4033 I had originally planned on using. I am going to use the 4033’s as drum overheads. It’s what I used last time and I love the way the cymbals came out on the last record so why mess with perfection. The thing I was most excited about other then the Neumann mic was the two Empirical Labs Distressors I bought – again one off eBay, one from a dealer. (It should be called eBay Studios here) These things are baby’s ass smooth. One for the kick drum and one for the snare drum. Then I’ll use them on just about everything else I record, especially vocals. On a side note, one of my Distressors started acting funny a while back and I contacted the factory about it and they had me send it in for repairs. I expected to pay a hefty sum for the repair but they actually REPLACED the unit – no questions asked. This thing was way out of warranty and wow, you just don’t get service like that anymore. They didn’t even ask when or where I bought it even though I did get it from a dealer.
Jimmy showed up at the appointed time, not often late is he, and we went about setting things up, he with the drums, me with all the recording gear. I had done some preparation with the sync tracks and with some settings on some of the gear but most of this stuff was new and I expected to mostly work on getting sounds rather than actually recording anything on this day. Boy was I ever right. We spent probably nine or ten hours just working with the gear and figuring it out as we went along. There always seems to be some adjustment to be made. Jimmy spent an awful lot of time just doing single hits on each drum that day! Finally I thought we had everything together and ready to roll and we decided to call it a day and reconvene Monday.
Once again Jimmy arrived on time. I was still a little burnt from the mental calisthenics of Sunday and as we got back into it, I knew there had to be something I missed with all the new gear and new signal paths we were using. But so far nothing was rearing its ugly head. When we were doing our test recordings to try out the new gear over the summer, I had noticed that we needed some noise gates on the toms and especially the kick. The kick mic was picking up the sound of the snare and it added this horrific tubular tone to each snare hit that I had to get rid of manually by editing out the snare hits on the kick track. It was really destroying the snare sound and this problem had to be addressed. I didn’t mind doing it for one test song but there’s no way I would do it for every song. I got hold of a Drawmer DS404 to use on the kick and the three toms. Cool thing about the Drawmer is that you can tune the gate to be sensitive to specific frequencies. Most gates will open whenever any sound is loud enough to break the threshold. In other words, I only want the kick gate to open when the kick drum is hit, even though the snare is just as loud and would also open the gate if it were just a normal noise gate. I took the frequency on the gate for the kick and set it so that nothing above 150hz (really low) would trigger or break the gate, thus only allowing the kick sound through that one mic triggered by the low frequency of the kick drum, not higher frequencies of the other drums. Likewise with the toms. I don’t want the snare drum leaking into the toms mics so I set those to be “tom frequency specific” for breaking the gate. I had hoped that we didn’t need to gate anything but I’m glad we did, it’s just too messy. Jimmy’s first comment was “You’re not going to gate the snare are you? They always did that in KIX and I hated that.” Nope no gate on either snare mic, just the kick and toms. So far it worked out well, the drums were nice and clear with each track being very quiet outside of what was supposed to be on it. The bottom snare mic was picking up a nice click from the kick drum due to its close proximity which was nice, sometimes you have to work to get that in there.
Rob showed up about 2:00 and we set about our goal of recording five drum tracks, even though we only finished four by the time we were done. Jimmy got most of the stuff in three or less takes. The ones he had more takes on were due to a problem with the computer playing synched audio and MIDI tracks with the VS properly and rather than figure it out and waste time, we just recorded a click track on the VS instead. We would play the Sonar demo project with the click track we made and the click would stay in time but the audio would lag behind. Very strange unless of course you RTFM which I didn’t do. It turns out that (according to the manual) Sonar does not support audio playback if it is not the master clock. It will only playback MIDI tracks in time if it is syncing to an external clock. That explains why the click track always stayed perfect and the audio was always lagging behind by the end of the song. What I thought was some weird problem turned out to be working as designed. Of course I figured all this out much later after we were done. I just flipped the master clock over to the computer and now it works fine. One of the songs called “No Regrets” we didn’t have a Sonar project for syncing to and so we made a new project with just a click track and Rob played along with Jimmy whilst I monitored gear for little red lights. (Red lights = signal clipping, very very bad) I ended up recording the hi hat and room mic on the VS instead of in Sonar because of this problem.
All in all we did quite well and we were all excited about the drum sounds. Mostly anyhow. I thought the snare sound was suspect and I wasn’t sure why it was bothering me. It sounded OK but it should sound great. We used Jimmy’s Zildjian snare which sounded killer during our test songs over the summer, and it wasn’t quite kicking my ass the way it was on the other songs. We stood around listening and talking about the sounds we got and then listened to some CD’s we liked in the monitoring room for comparisons. We are trying to get that drum “kit” sound not just capturing the sound of each drum, but to get the sound of the “kit” as one instrument. Jimmy likes the kit sound on the last Audioslave album, me I picked G&R Appetite, Aerosmith Done With Mirrors has a killer drum “kit” sound, Rob wanted to hear the Jet album and I just happened to have the new U2 album also which has some good drum room sounds on it. A reality check so to speak, we definitely agreed that we were in the neighborhood we wanted to be in.
Another thing we tried to help insure that we could get some good live room sounds was to record a MIDI drum track from the live drum mics and I could use that to trigger ambient drum sounds from the Drum kit From Hell 2 sample collection I have. That turned out to be more work than it was worth so we bagged it and we felt OK about it when we heard the sound of the room mic and how much liveliness it added when mixed in with the other drum tracks.
One important thing I did was create session sheets for each piece of gear recording all the settings for every single device in the line. Drawmer has some handy session sheets for their gear on their web site with little pictures you can fill in where you have the knobs and switches set. Nobody else had them for any of the other gear I have so I had to make them. Pain in the ass. I tried photographing the gear but you just couldn’t see it closely enough in the pics. Jimmy also brought his digital camera and took shots of all the mic placements on the drums so we could have them for next time.
Unfortunately, we are not going to use any of these sessions. I found two major mistakes I made that can’t be fixed in the mix much to my dismay. Remember the snare problem I thought I had? Well I was reading an article in a recording magazine and somebody was writing about recording drums and mentioned in passing something like, “put top and bottom mics on the snare and flip the phase on the bottom mic” so on and so forth like it is a given, which I knew it was. As a rule you always have to phase invert one of the mics on a top-bottom miked drum. As soon as I read this I ran right upstairs and fired up the VS to see if that was my problem and sure enough, I had forgotten to flip the phase switch on one of the mic pre amps, not did I switch it on one of the channels. When the snare is hit on a top-bottom miked snare, the top head moves towards the bottom mic at the same time it is moving away from the top mic (and vice versa) resulting in and electrical phase inversion on one of the mics at any given time, resulting in some frequency cancellation of a perfectly good snare sound. You have to compensate for this by inverting the phase on something in the signal path, I prefer to to use device closest to the mic in the signal chain which would be the mic pre. I know all this but simply forgot to do it. I knew something was wrong with the snare! The VS has phase inversion on the tracks but flipping the phase does not bring back the cancelled frequencies. I was hoping just simply reversing the phase switch on the track would help but it didn’t do much.
The other thing which made me decide to trash these tracks was the overhead tracks. I am trying to get a good drum KIT sound as I said earlier and part of that is getting a good stereo image from the overhead mics. I’m using a stereo mic bar with the diaphragms of the mics angled at 120 degrees or damn close to it – I measured it with my handily little compass. That includes all of the devices in line handling those two tracks as stereo tracks. I noticed I had forgot to channel link the input tracks on the VS for those two tracks, results being that each track had roughly the same thing on it. For a true stereo image, both tracks should have something slightly different, cymbals should be stronger on one side of the image or the other depending on where they are positioned on the drummer’s kit relative to center, the hi-hat should also be a little on one side and so on. I had captured none of this and I thought while we were recording this session that the overheads sounded great but it wasn’t “stereo” enough for me and I was silently reconsidering the stereo mic bar thinking that the mics were much too close, even though you see the same configuration in real studios all the time. I figured it just wasn’t working here and I would change it for the next sessions and it wouldn’t be all that noticeable. When we decided what songs to do for this session, I chose five songs that I thought would be the easiest to redo if we struck out with this session. Good thing cuz we’re doing them all over again.
So just incase this edition isn’t technical enough I’ll outline the drum recording signal path for all you gear heads:
Kick -> AKG D112 mic -> Drawmer DS404 gate -> Presonus MP20 mic pre -> Distressor on Opto mode about 3-5 dB gain reduction
Snare top -> Shure SM57 -> Presonus MP20 mic pre -> Distressor 3:1 with about 3 dB gain reductionSnare bottom > Shure SM57 -> Presonus M88 mic pre -> dbx 166 compressor 3:1 about 3-5 dB gain reduction
Toms -> all three Sennheiser 421’s -> Drawmer DS404 gate -> Presonus M88 mic pre -> no compression, will do that later, and 7k and 400hz were subtracted about 3 dB on the inputs of the VS. 7K to lose some attack and 400hz to lose some boxiness.
Overheads -> two AT 4033’s on a stereo mount -> dbx Stereo 31 band eq with a high pass filter at 120hz, then 200hz, 400hz and 800hz dipped about 5 dB (eliminates the clang in the cymbals which I find harsh) -> Presonus MP20 mic pre in Stereo mode -> Drawmer DL241 Auto Compressor in Stereo and Auto mode -> into the VS as a stereo linked pair of tracks
Hi Hat -> Shure Beta57 -> Presonus M88 mic pre, no compression
Room Mic -> Neumann TLM-103 -> Presonus M88 mic pre -> no compression -> plan to run this track back through one of the Distressors in Nuke mode and see what that sounds like. The Nuke mode is made especially for room miking, we shall see.
Talk at ya soon – Mark