Required reading: How Steve Albini records

I read this article about once a year.  It describes his technique in expert detail, as well as detailing the things other engineers do that he doesn’t. 

I have always done things with the analogue method, and I still think it’s the best method. So I have no reason to change. I’ve had a long time to accumulate equipment and microphones and techniques, and I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to say ‘No, I can’t do that, because we’re working on tape.’ If there were problems that I could not solve on tape, I might be compelled to use computers, but I’ve never encountered such a problem.”

There are a lot of articles on how to mix rock recordings, but Albini’s interviews are the only I’ve found that show you how to avoid having to “fix it in the mix” totally.

How to avoid overbuying Pt. 2: Microphones

I could go on all day about not overbuying equipment.  Our school produces a fairly high quality album of music every year, and we don’t own top shelf equipment.  We own only what we need to get the job done.  When asking a dealer about what equipment you need to buy, they’ll tend to recommend stuff that’s either a) too expensive or b) low quality garbage.  You want the narrow middle end of this equation.

Let’s go shopping for enough mics to capture a generic rock band drum kit.  Here’s what we use:

Overheads:

  • (2) AKG C1000 small capsule condenser  ($400)   -or-
  • (2) Samson C02  ($120)  -or-
  • (2) Røde NT5 ($500) we actually use these in our auditorium but sometimes I’ll use them on a session
As a side note, Røde’s are the highest end I’ll go – they sound almost at good as high end AKG’s, and are made by robots in Australia, which makes them more awesome.  Do NOT buy a Neumann or one of those Sennheiser mics that look like a Star Trek phaser for a school – they’ll get broken and you’ll cry.

I usually end up just using the C02’s.  They’re cheap enough that I’m not scared to have students set them up, and they sound good enough to pick up cymbals.  If I want better clarity I’ll use the C1000’s – note that I don’t use these miss for anything but drum overheads.  The flaws in the C02’s are readily apparent when recording acoustic guitar.

Snare Drum:

With Snare drum, I find myself using the “snap” sound from the bottom head more in the mix, so I put the higher quality microphone there.  Either way, these are pretty general purpose mics.  The PG’s are very similar electrically to the SM series, with the main difference being the entire chipset isn’t drowned in acrylic glue to make them durable as a handheld mic.

Kick Drum:

  • Shure PG52 (kit part) (inside on a pillow)
  • Shure PG56 (kit part (ouside pointed at the pedal mallet – mounted on the bottom rim of the snare but pointed outward)

These do a pretty good job at capturing kick drum.  The PG56 has to be placed spot on to capture a good signal for the higher frequency “slap” it’s trying to hear, but it works.

Toms:

  • Shure PG56 – mounted between hi and mid toms
  • Shure SM57 ($99) – on low tom

More of the old standbys here.

Room mic:

  • AKG C3000  ($300) – actually the vocal mic that is set up waiting for the vocalist’s take.  We just point it at a corner on the other side of the room, and it captures some of the air, in case you need it.

If you buy enough mics to cover a drum set, you’ve got enough to do anything else – vocals, acoustic guitars, whatever else comes your way.  If you were keeping score, for just over $1000 you can get all the mics you’d ever need, and have a solid foundation for recording any source that comes into your studio!

Gear for next year: Presonus StudioLive 16.0.2

I’m looking at buying one of these for our high school’s recording studio.  We currently use two Alesis iO|26 interfaces, daisy chained together, for a total of 16 preamps.  WIth the StudioLive, we’d be giving up a couple channels (since the last couple tracks are stereo pairs or single – it’s really a 12-14 channel mixer in practice), but we’d be able to pre-process a lot of the common dynamic issues that come up when recording drumset.

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Here’s how we do it now – when we record drum set and guitars in the studio, we set up the mixer like this:

Channel 1-2 : Guitars

Channel 3-8: Overheads L/R, Snare drum (top/bottom), Kick drum (inside/outside)

Channel 9: Bass

Channel 11: Mid toms

Channel 12: Lo Tom

Channel 13: Room mic

So 9 channels for drums, 2-3 for guitars.  This is when we totally max out – I haven’t found a reason to go over this many channels for the kinds of recordings we do, so no big deal to cut a couple channels.  And who knows?  Maybe I’ll ending using one of those stereo pairs for overhead mics.

After the session is really where I hope the StudioLive will come in handy.  Right now, we mix totally from scratch – the pres are pretty basic and cheap sounding on the Alesis, which really shows on mixed/compressed vocals.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to set up a basic “all purpose” drum mix on the StudioLive which I can use for every session.  That way every mixing project will start at a good place and hopefully only require minimal tweaking.

Why not get the larger, better and more expensive 16.4.2?  Simple – it’s too long.  Our desk/shelf won’t hold it!

Here’s a great review of the newer, smaller 16.0.2 over at Sonicscoop.