Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Drum Miking - Part 1

Hello everybody and welcome back.  Being an instructor here at The Lexington School For Recording Arts means that you have to be able to wear many audio hats. So along with teaching the mastering class, helping in the Pro Tools lab, the analog portion of the school, the Waves certification class, and the occasional live sound class, the main course that I teach at the school involves actually recording a live band.  This deals with setting up the board, routing the tracks to the recorder, setting the separate headphone mixes, and of course, setting up the microphones for the band. This is the part of the course I would like to talk about today.

I have already gone over some of the guitar mic placement in the previous blog post, so today I want to focus about miking up the drum kit. Now a full blog about this could take a very long time, so today I'm going to focus on kick drum and snare only. I will do a part two for my next blog about the rest of the kit.

When you mic up the kick drum, there are two things to be aware of - the microphone you're going to use, and the  placement of the microphone on the drum. There are many great microphones for miking kick drums. Some I have used are the Shure Beta 52, the Audix D6, the AKG D12, and my personal favorite, the AKG D112.

The positioning of the kick drum microphone is very important depending on the type of sound you're looking to get out of the kick drum. You can put it in three general places: Outside the drum, just inside the hole in the front head, and completely inside the body of the drum itself. Although I have seen many many engineers use the second way of miking the drum, I prefer the third way, putting the microphone completely inside the drum.

When you put the microphone inside the kick drum, you achieve several things that you cannot get from any other way of miking. Number one, you get much more isolation from the rest of the drum kit than you do if you mic outside the drum or just barely inside the hole. Number two, you control how much snap, or attack, that you receive from the beater side of the kick drum. If you need more attack, you simply move the mic closer to the back head. If you need less attack, you just move the mic closer to the front of the kick drum. This option is not available to you if you do not have the microphone inside the drum itself. You are also able to do off axis miking from inside of the drum. If you like the bass to attack ratio that you are getting, but not the overall brightness of the attack, you simply turn the mic slightly to one side or the other so it is not pointing directly at the beater and you can achieve a slightly less bright attack while still maintaining the same amount of bass. For most rock drum sounds, my personal placement of the kick drum mic is approximately 6 to 8 inches from the beater side of the kick drum pointing directly where the kick pedal is going to connect with the beater head. This gives me a nice, natural, bright attack and still allows me to have a good low-end when I get into the mixing stage.

Occasionally you will run into the drummer that does not have a hole cut in his front drum head for you to place a microphone either just inside or fully inside the drum. This could be major problem, and my solution for this is one of two ways.  One way, is I tell the drummer that he must remove his front head so I can place the microphone inside his kick drum to receive the necessary attack that I need to get his kick to sound correct. If he won't take his drum head off, then I either have to use two microphones, one in the front (usually a condenser like a Neumann U87) approximately 6 to 8 inches away from the front head,and a smaller, tighter patterned dynamic mic (such as an SM 57) pointing where the drummer's kick pedal is hitting the beater head. Then I will blend these two microphones together to create one kick drum sound. Sometimes the bleed is too much on these microphones, and the sound is not good at all. When this problem happens, I usually do not use the front microphone.  I take the back microphone by the beater head and I trigger it with a drum replacement program. I have not run into this problem very many times in the past, but occasionally you will find a drummer who does not have a hole cut in his drum head and refuses to remove it, so it's good to have a back up plan when these incidences occur.

So enough about kick drums. Let's talk about snare. There's not very many ways to mic a snare drum. You can mic it from the top, or you can mic it from the bottom, or you can mic it from top and bottom. Personally I like to mic from the top. I have tried miking from the bottom as a blend with the top microphone, but it never seems to sound good to me, so I stopped using the bottom microphone many years ago. So today we are going to focus on top of miking only.  

Although there are quite a few small diaphragm dynamic microphones that can be used to mike up a snare drum, the most used (and the one I use) is the SM 57.  How far you place the microphone away from the top head of the drum changes how the drum sounds. If you put it too close, you will not get much body at all. If you put it too far away, you will not get very much stick attack. Plus, you have run the risk of getting too much bleed from the rest of the drum kit onto your microphone, making it almost impossible to compress or gate correctly. What I have found to be a good position for the snare mic, and what most other engineers have found as well, is to put the microphone approximately 2 to 3 inches up above the snare head and about 2 inches inside The perimeter of the drumhead ring.

Now, I don't usually go through my drum kit with a ruler or measuring tape and make sure that the snare mic is exactly 2 inches up or that the kick drum microphone is exactly 6 inches away from the beater head, I just use very basic rough estimates.  You can use a tape measure and get exact measurements if you would like. If you were doing a major label session where the drums will be recorded many different times over the course of several months and the microphones must be placed back exactly where they were to begin with, then I highly recommend using a ruler or measuring tape. But if you're going to record all the drums for say, a local band that is going to only be in the studio for one month total, then the exact measurements aren't that crucial because you're going to record all of your drums at once or possibly even just leave your drum kit miked up for the entire session so that if overdubs are needed, the drum kit will be available and ready to go immediately. This is how I usually do my sessions, so I rely on what I refer to as "the finger method".

I know that my index finger is 4 inches long (yes, I measured it), so I just use my hand to get my distances on my microphones. I do this for the entire drum kit: snare, toms, Hi hat, you name it, I use this method. The only thing that I can't do with it, is measure my overheads, because of course, they are more than 4 inches away!  Now  I know that my snare drum should be 2 inches off of the head and approximately 2 inches into the head, so having a 4 inch finger, I just place my finger down on the snare head, and position the microphone to touch my knuckle. I do this for the up and in and it is almost exactly 2 inches up and 2 inches in every single time. It may not be the most exact method, but it works for me, and I get a good sound on my snare drum, so I'm not worried about it. If it works for you, use it. If you need to measure with a measuring tape and get the exact number, do that. If the sound of the snare is good, what ever way you use, then you did it the right way. That's what's great about music, to quote Eddie Van Halen, "if it sounds good, then it is good".

So that is how I do my kick and snare mic placement. Next time I will go over my placement for toms, using dynamics and using condensers. Also we will go over miking the cymbals and the role room mics play in the overall sound of your drum kit in a later article.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall

Head Engineer, LIRS

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My thoughts and technique for Bass compression

So I recently got a new bass guitar (a Spector Legend 4X), and while trying it out in the studio here at The Lexington School for Recording Arts, I started thinking about bass compression in modern music. I do a seminar here at the school on this subject, so I thought I'd talk to y'all about it too.

The major problem I find when mixing a song is the overall volume of the bass guitar. When they're playing on the lower strings, you can hear everything clear and full, but when they're playing on the higher strings, things tend to thin out and sound quieter. So how do we fix this problem? Well, besides riding the track fader with volume automation, compression is a major tool in fixing this. A lot of it has to do with where the threshold is placed and the attack time. If your threshold is too high, then you won't be able to compress the more average notes and only get the loud notes. If your threshold is too low, you may compress the loud notes way too much. So how do you do it you may ask? Well, this is how I personally compressed bass guitar.

I first find my average level, and I put my threshold to where the average level is getting about 3 to 6 dB of compression. My attack time is generally around 1 ms. This gives me a nice, fast attack but still allows a small bit of transient information to come through. If you want more transient attack to come through, then a longer attack of maybe 15-20 ms would be best for you. My release time is usually between 300 and 500 milliseconds. This allows the note to fully fade away for most instances before the compression goes away. The ratios I tend to use usually fall between 4:1 and 6:1. It gives a nice amount of compression, but not too crushing.

So with the threshold giving around 3 to 6 db of compression to the average volume of the bass, my louder hits are going to have somewhere between 6 and 10 db of reduction, and my quieter hits will not have any. What this will do is compress my average down a little bit and, of course, the loudest notes lowered even more. So what should be happening is that everything is coming closer to the volume of the quieter parts. If you were to record through this setting, you would see that your very dynamic loud to soft bass waveforms are now a lot more uniform. Not really a rectangle, but more in the same general ballpark of overall volume. This will allow the bass guitar to stay at a steady volume in the mix so that the instrument does not get covered by the guitars.

This technique will not change the overall low end of your track though, because the lower strings have more natural bass resonance than the higher strings. What you can do, however, is to add a bass roll off (HPF) filter around 80 Hz. This will take away some of the overall big bottom end, and the kick drum is really going to be down in that area anyway, so we're trying to keep our bass guitar and kick drum away from each other to have them more defined as individual instruments. If I really need the dynamics to be gone completely from my bass guitar, say that I am mixing a metal band, then I will move my attack time even faster than 1 ms and bring it down to around 500 ns and move my ratio up to a limiting threshold where it's higher than 10:1; usually I'm around 30:1 (if not 100:1), effectively making it a brick wall limiter. Now, remember, when you are using extremely fast attack times you must also have a longer release time or else you will have distortion on your bass guitar, which you probably don't want to have. 

So that's how I do it. I generally use a soft knee compressor like the Waves Rcomp or the CLA1176 compressor on my bass tracks, but really any compressor will do the job if you set it up correctly. Just experiment with the attack and threshold while maintaining average ratios and release times and see what you can come up with on your own. Most of the fun of mixing is trying out ideas and figuring out ways of making things sound even better than they actually are!

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall

Head Engineer, LIRS

Friday, December 4, 2015

Single mic VS double mic - which is best?

So when you go thru The Lexington School For Recording Arts, we have a course dubbed Phase 3. It is during this time of the course that the students have hands on practice with the console, mic preamps, and microphones, and learn what it means to actually run a session with a full band.

When you track a guitar, you have two options, amp or direct. I have been know to do both, depending on the situation. Today I want to talk about the amp option. Specifically single mic vs multi miking techniques.

Miking with a single mic is probably the easiest and most straight forward way to go. Just put a mic in front of the speaker, right? Well, not really. There are many variables to think about. You have the amp, the mic, the distance the mic is from the speaker, the position of the mic, etc.

Of course, things always go better when the source is good, so having said that, a nice amp is a must. It doesn't have to be a Marshall half stack or a Fender twin, just a good sounding amp. Cheap, practice style amps won't cut it in the studio environment. I'm not talking low wattage, small amps - there are many companies that make smaller amps like Marshall and Blackstar that are excellent.

Then comes the microphone. Most engineers have a "go to" favorite for guitars. Some like the good 'ol SM57. Some like the Sennheiser 906. I lean mostly on either an AKG 414 or an Audio Technica 4050.

The position and distance also matter. If you want a tight sound, move your mic in close. A more roomy sound? Pull it back to get more natural ambience. Also, the position on the speaker itself matters. If you are dead center, it's going to be a brighter sound. More on the outside edge and you'll get a more bassy sound. I like to be about 2 inches off center, personally.

The volume of the amp is another piece of the puzzle. If you are using a tube amp, you might need to have it pretty loud to get the tubes to work how they should. If you place a microphone very close to a blasting loud amp, sometimes it actually sounds small when recorded. I have done sessions where the amp was cranked and the mic was almost 2 feet away! But in a smaller room, the room acts as an extension of the amp, and it will sound much fuller than if you put up close and turn the amp down.

Also, part of positioning the mic is the axis. Are you on axis or off? If you are off, you can get a fuller sound and not add in any actual bass, because you can be pointing at the center of the speaker but not looking directly at it, but pointing at an angle. This will roll off some bright without adding lows. It's a little smoother than the straight on approach.

Shew! So many things to think about! And with double miking it's even more confusing and technical!

When you double mic an amp, you are using two different microphones to blend together and make one big sound. This involves two different mics at different distances and different placements to compliment each other. Usually, you have one mic that is your main sound and a second that works to make the main one sound better. With that main mic, you will go thru all the steps and possibilities I have already talked about when using one microphone. Then the fun begins.

With your second mic (and hopefully an assistant!), you will begin to shape the overall sound by adding in additional textures. I almost always double mic the amp (as well as split the signal, but that is another article!), and I couldn't do it without my assistant. His job is to go into the live room while the guitar player is playing and move the position of the secondary mic around in front of the amp while I listen to the result in the control room. All he is doing is watching me for a signal and then he stops moving the stand. He comes in the control room, we listen and sometimes he goes out and moves it a little more. Not only are we listening for a good blend, but we want to make sure the phase relationship between the two microphones is the best it can be. Our goal is to get a great sound from the start, so that in the mix we just put the faders up and it's done. No compression and very little EQ, if any at all.

So, to me, single miking of an amp is ok, but limiting of what the overall sound can become. You have no secondary microphone to augment and compliment your main sound. Sometimes one is all you need, I won't argue that. I have done many a session with one mic on the amp, but I have found that my best guitar sounds have come on sessions that I took the time to not only add an additional mic, but find the correct position for it, so my main sound has more color and depth to it naturally instead of trying to fake it in the mix.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall

Head Engineer, LIRS

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

12.2.15 - Studio and School

What's up, everybody? Welcome back to my little corner of the net. So what's been going on at LIRCo and LSRA you ask? Well, we're only a few days into the week, but I'll tell ya what's going on so far…

Local guitarist/vocalist Chandler Shelton was in just yesterday with his band laying down some more basic tracks for their upcoming release. Our own in house producer/engineer extraordinaire, Michael Thomas, was at the helm for this session and by the end, the band had an awesome drum track to build on. They're coming back in later this week to drop in guitars and bass, and next week we're gonna hit it hard again with some more drum tracking. With the project in such an early stage, it's unknown which one of us will be there for the mix stage, but being a heavy rock guy myself, I know I'm gonna be throwing my hat into the ring on this one!

On the Recording School side of the coin, our Production class has finished the tracking of their project song and are now in the mix stage. Everyone has a part to play in the final product, so while a couple of the team handle the mix, the others are in charge of album art and video story boarding. After the mix comes mastering! All these skills they are using for this project they have learned from months of classes and labs, and it's all coming together at once!

Not too far behind them is the live sound class who are learning all that goes into being the man that makes the band sound awesome live. From the basics of plugging in the gear in the right order, to hooking up crossovers, to getting proper gain staging, to ringing the system, these students are learning what it takes to be FOH and monitor world all in one!

I've got a few topics brewing in my head for later, but that's about it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Thursday, November 26, 2015

10 Tips and Tricks To Make Your Mix Shine!

Hello again, and welcome back to Nall In The Mix. On this Thanksgiving Day, I’d like to take a few minutes and discuss making a decent mix better. Sometimes you finish a mix and you think, “This is ok, but I know I can do better.” Well, here at LIRCo and The Lexington School For Recording Arts, part of my job is to help students do this very thing; make their mixes better. Some are students are in the digital classes using Pro Tools, and some are in the beginning analog portion of the school. The 10 tips and tricks I am going to run thru today are much easier to do in the digital world, but can still be done if you haven’t made the jump yet, it just might take a little more thought and work to get it right.

I hope after reading this you will have gained a few ideas to make your mixes jump from the speakers and come alive for your listeners. Feel free to ask me your questions and I will try to respond as quickly as I can.

1. Splitting your guitar signal and using amplifier simulator plug-ins.
The amplifier simulator is a great tool for the mixing engineer. You are able to take a clean signal (guitar, bass, vocal, whatever!) and run it into a virtual guitar or bass amp. This is great if the recorded sound just doesn’t have the power or twang that is called for in the song. This is achieved by splitting the signal with a direct box before recording and sending the signal to the players amp as well as a clean track directly to the recorder to be manipulated later during the mixdown.

2. Delay the guitar signal to create an illusion of stereo.
A band always sounds bigger when there are at least 2 guitars playing the rhythm. If the band only has one guitarist, you can use a very short delay (usually around 28ms), that when panned opposite of the original signal, emulates the effect of doubled guitars.

3. Replacing drum parts with sampled hits.
This is a common occurrence in the mixing process. By putting in either recorded samples of the actual drums or by using sounds from a sample library, the mixer is able to make the drums sound uniform and it helps tighten the overall drum sound on the record. It can be used as a total replacement, or just an addition to the original drum sound, depending on the situation.

4. Reversing cymbals, snares and reverbs for effect.
The act of reversing cymbals, snares and reverbs mentally sucks the listener in to the coming section and is a nice way to come back in to the song after a pause in the action.

5. Using a flanger on the cymbals for effect.
This is a very subtle effect and should be used as such. Usually this goes well at a pause in the song.

6. Putting effects across and entire section/entire mix for emphasis.
Putting a flanger, delay or other modulating effect across the entire mix for a few measures sometimes gives the song that little spark it needs to put it over the top. A good example of this in action is “Life In The Fast Lane” by the Eagles.

7. Making an instrument or vocal have the “small speaker” or “telephone” effect.
This is always a cool trick to know and when used correctly can really make a track stand out and create a different mood within the song. Usually this is done with High Pass and Low Pass EQ filters, but there are some great plug-ins out there hat do the job too.

8. Fitting the right reverb to the song.
Big reverbs sound great, but sometimes bigger isn’t better. Listening to the song as a whole before mixing will give you a better idea of the overall vibe of the track and should help in your choice of effects that fit the song.

9. Making vocals line up together using Time Compression/Expansion.
You can’t always count on all the singers in the band to be dead on each other’s vocal timing and phrasing. Using this editing tool allows the engineer to align all these parts without have to delete syllables or words to make the parts fit together. It is also very good for tightening up multiple rhythm guitars or extending “power chords” for a few beats longer to make the section sound smoother. Just be careful and don’t expand or compress the waveform too much as this can cause an audible “warble” in the sound.

10. Multiple miking of snares/acoustic guitars/amps and pianos.
When you record an instrument using two or more microphones, you have the ability to combine the two for a bigger, multi-tambered sound. While this can really help the overall sound of the instrument, you must always be aware of phasing problems between the multiple microphones and take the necessary steps to correct these problems or your signal will be small and thin if not disappear completely when the song is heard in mono.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Thursday, November 19, 2015

EQ before or after compression? My take...

So besides being the Main Engineer for Long Island Recording Studios (LIRCo), I am also an instructor at the Lexington School For Recording Arts (LSRA), which is housed in the same complex. When beginning students start to learn the basics of EQ and compression, I am often asked the question, "Which comes first, Eq or compression?" And, "Why?" Well, here I hope to clear a few things up on that subject. This might get a little long winded, so stick with me, ok?

I'd like to preface this by saying that there really is no right or wrong answer to this question. You can go online and find this topic on many audio forums and the pages of arguments will be endless. It really comes down to your preference, and I am going to try to explain why mine is almost always going to be Compression First.

First, when you Eq something, what are you doing? Well, you are finding a few bad frequencies and cutting them out, and then finding a few good ones and boosting them, correct? Now, when you boost frequency, you are adding energy and volume to the audio. This is an important concept to understand.

When you compress audio, you are working on the dynamic range of the waveform. The dynamic range, basically, is the most quiet the audio can get up to the loudest. When you compress, you are controlling that range by bringing down the peaks in volume to a more manageable level to work better with the average sound of the audio. The lower the threshold and the more compression added, the lower the peak level becomes.

Now, when you Eq first, you are adding level (volume) to the signal. Usually being a bass and/or a treble boost. The compressor is going to react to that boost and take some of it away in an effort to control the dynamics of the track. So you will lose some of your Eq'ed sound. You will then have to go in after the compressor and add another Eq to get the sound you had before the compressor did its job and controlled the output volume. To me, this is counter-productive to workflow. Why Eq twice when you can just do it all after the compressor has worked on the raw signal?

Having said that, I did previously say ALMOST always earlier in this article. I would like to put this theory to you as well.

When you are working with the raw, unprocessed signal, you have many frequencies that are making the track muddy, or mid heavy, or some other natural problem. If you compress the raw signal, your compressor will sometimes grab those and give you kind of a "false positive" of where the threshold should be set. If you Eq out a few of those naturally "honky" or "shrill" frequencies, you should be left with mostly "good" frequencies and the compressor will be able to work more efficiently. I have found this out myself by setting a compressor up on the raw track and then going back and adding some pre-Eq and watching my compressor input go down because of the lack of muddy mid frequencies. So cleaning up the mids in your audio BEFORE compression, I believe, is a decent workflow tool, because it allows you to compress a better, cleaner version of the audio and gives you a better base to work from when you add the "real" Eq after the compressor has done it's job containing the dynamics to a more even range.

This is how I understand the differences and this is the way that I teach others. Like I said before, there are many people out there who think BEFORE is the only way and many that think AFTER is the only way. I lean more towards the AFTER camp, but it's really up to your personal ear as to which you like best.

I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of the basics of using Eq with compression. Feel free to ask me your questions and I will try to respond as quickly as I can.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall

Head Engineer, LIRS

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

11.18.15 - Studio and School

What's up, everybody? Thank you for stopping by and checking out my blog, Nall In The Mix. I plan on making this a weekly/bi-weekly posting, so check back every so often to see what's new. So what's been happening around LIRCo you ask? Well, I'll tell ya!

A few months ago, I finished another great album mixing and mastering session with rapper Jaii for his latest release, "The Red Carpet: A Songwriter's Journey". I talked to him recently, and he told me that the single, "Keep On Movin" , has been getting good reception and airplay in his newly relocated "home state" of Florida, as well as several online hip-hop stations. I'll try to keep you updated on that as much as I can.

Country artist Abby Walters has been coming in getting songs ready for her upcoming release, and engineer Patrick Hairston recorded and mixed her first single "Apple Pie Moonshine". It should be released to iTunes with an accompanying video on YouTube any day now, so check it out when you get the chance.

Rocker Ethan Blackburn has also been seen around the halls a lot lately, as he is also working on his debut with Patrick and myself trading engineer duties back and forth depending on the day and what other projects we are working on.

The LIR Artist Development stable of artists is coming along wonderfully, with all of them getting studio and video time as they hone their craft. I'll update you more on them as projects develop more.

The Recording School (LSRA) is slammin' right now! We just had a graduation ceremony this month and the advanced students are in the studio putting their group project together. It involves taking a cover song, reworking it in a different style, and then doing all the pre-production, tracking, mixing, and mastering that goes along with creating a recording. They also will be doing a class project video to accompany the song for their portfolios.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS