Home Recording. Part 2a

A handy guide for mounting microphones, preparing rooms for recording, and the recording process itself.

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Well, this section wound up being a lot longer than I'd intended it to be, so I'm splitting it up into two different portions. In the last article, we covered basic hardware you're gonna need for recording, from software to hardware and mics. This article is going to be over mic placement and the actual recording process.

Part 2

  • Signal Chain Okay, you've got your mics, now what are you going to do with them? First thing's first, you have to establish a good signal chain to your recorder. This is going to be elementary for most, but I've found there are many simple things that can seem complicated to a beginner when they're really not, so I'm gonna keep that in mind as I detail this. The easiest (and cleanest) signal chain is simply to have a mic plugged directly your recording device. I know a lot of engineers who like to have a signal chain established to add some EQ or effects to a track as it is recorded. This is especially useful when you're dealing with vocalists because their vocals tend to sound out-of-place in a mix without a little reverb. Then again for a good vocalist it shouldn't matter. Also remember that anything you add at this stage of the game cannot be removed later. Another thing to consider is that the longer your signal chain is, the more likely it is that you will start encountering interference or hum. This is a killer! The lower you can get your levels when nothing is being played, the better. Basically, my advice to newbies is to just plug everything straight into the recorder with no effects or EQ to start off with. In fact, I still record everything completely clean.
  • Mic Placement 01. Drums Believe it or not, you can mic an entire drumset with just a single microphone. Bear in mind this will sound like crap, but it is possible. However, even more important than how many mics you use is the room you are recording in. Drums are an acoustic instrument and as such you will inevitably get the sound of the room as part of your recorded drums. How can you tell if the room sounds alright? A couple of things I like to do are to first shriek and listen to how the sound bounces off the walls, then stomp on the floor a couple times. Is it too shrill and reverby? Grab some blankets or pillows and spread them around the room until the problem is fixed. Is it so warm you don't hear any reverb? See about getting some plywood boards from a local hardware store to add some reflections. You do NOT want a completely dead airspace. It will make the cymbals sound small and favor lower frequencies to make the whole set sound boomy. If you hear anything at all rattling as you do this, either tighten it down or muffle it with a blanket. Cover any windows with blankets to keep the sound of passing traffic out of the mix. Once you've got your room ready to record, start with overhead mics. Once again, you can make a single mic work. Mount it on a stand about three to four feet high pointed straight at the drumset. If you've balanced the room right, you should be able to hear each part of the drumset quite well. If you've got two mics to use as overheads (make sure they are of the same type), you can mount them on stands roughly two feet above the top of the set. Try and make sure they are equidistant from each other and the edges of the set. The way I set this up is, being as how I'm six feet tall, I mount the stands about a pace back from the bass drum with the telescoping part of the lower stand fully extended and the boom out at an angle to leave the mics two feet above the highest crash and then align the booms such that they both point to the center of the drum throne. This arrangement is called a spaced pair and it gives you a great stereo image of the drumset. You have to watch out, though, because it is easy to put the mics in a position where one is picking up the valley of a sound's wavelength when the other is picking up a peak. The mics will cancel out this sound, this is called phase cancellation. The easiest way to double-check this is to listen to the signals from the mics in mono (pan them both center), and if anything disappears, you know you need to move the mics. If you only have two mics, use the above configuration, but take another two steps back, so the mics are not directly over the set. Another possibility is an XY configuration. In this configuration, you mount the mics 90 degree angles from each other with their grilles nearly touching, it will look something like this: /\, with the grilles facing the top of the page. This also gives a phenomenal stereo image without any phasing problems. Next we have to mic the bass and the snare drums. Bass can be tricky, you really have to listen to how the drummer plays. If you can hear the bass drum reverberating after it's been struck, you'll need to deaden it with a blanket or a pillow inside. The sound of the bass drum should be a nice, tight thump. The attack is the most important thing to capture with this drum and it alone will have no reverb on it. Once you're getting a good sound out of this drum, you can mic it by either placing the microphone right at the entrance to the drum (it should have either a hole in its outer head or no outer head at all), or right up near where the beater strikes the inner head. The former gives a fuller sound, the latter a sharper attack. When it comes to which mic to use on this, a lot of people swear by the AKG D112, however I've found this mic doesn't pick up a lot of the attack frequencies very well and requires significant EQing in mixdown. An SM-57 will do an awesome job of picking up the attack and making sure it's in a frequency range that headphones can reproduce. You'll need to EQ in additional low-end with this mic, however. Use your ears with this: if the drummer has a lot of attack, use the 112. If the kick sounds lower (and especially if the drummer is using a piccolo snare!) and needs more attack, use the 57. A great bass drum sound will put it right in the same frequency spectrum as the snare; you should only be able to tell the difference between the two in headphones by the crack of the snare. To isolate the bass from the other drums, hang a blanket over the top of it, covering it and the stand holding your mic. If you had to put a lot of blankets in this drum to deaden it, you can even just lay the mic down on top of the blankets. Only do this, though, if the blankets take it up to beater level. For snare, you want the stand to put the mic an inch or two from the rim of the drum, pointed down at a 45 degree angle toward the head. Some like to mount this mic so that the hi-hats are directly behind it. For a cardioid mic, this will ensure that there is a minimum signal bleed from the hi-hat. Personally I like to get a little signal bleed because most of the drummers I work with use a lot of nuance on their hi-hats and thus when the snare gets turned up, it brings that nuance with it. Once again, use your ears and decide for yourself. If you've got enough mic inputs for toms mics, you mount them exactly the same way you do the snare. Bear in mind, however, that if you've balanced the room right, you really don't even need to mic them because the overheads will pick them up more than adequately. 02. Guitar First, let's go over acoustic guitar because it's a little harder. Like drums, acoustic guitar needs some air to breathe in order to really make is sound as lovely as possible. Your acoustic may have its own internal pickup and preamp and you may be tempted to just plug that straight into the mixer. I highly recommend against this unless you do so in conjunction with a microphone and mix the two signals together. The reason for this is that acoustic pickups tend to lose a lot of the nuances of good acoustic playing. To mic an acoustic, I recommend sticking your mic about three to four inches away from the point where the fretboard joins the body. Unless the guitar is way too jangly, I don't recommend miking the soundhole because that's where all the bass frequencies come pouring out and it will interfere with the bass in the mix. If you're working with a fingerpicker, put the mic at the bridge of the guitar. Other possibilities include using the XY configuration mentioned above under drums to get a stereo image of the acoustic you can pan left and right. In the case of acoustic, it can actually be a good thing to get out of phase sounds from two different mics because you can pan them away from each other in a mix and it makes it sound a lot more interesting. Either way, you want the acoustic to sound shimmering in most mixes, so mic accordingly. Warmer sounds can be gained the closer you mic to the soundhole. When it comes to electric, there are three different ways the signal can get from the guitar to your recording hardware. The easiest is to just plug your guitar directly into the mixing board. This is best for clean sounds and was the method Mark Tremonti used to lay down all the clean guitar tracks on Creed's My Own Prison. This yields a very clean, sparkling tone but lacks depth and character. The second means is via direct box, many of which exist ranging from the simple all the way up to digital modelers like the POD or VAmp. Now these can be both a positive tool and a negative tool. Many's the guitarist who's fallen in love with the simulated sounds that come out of these machines and I honestly think they're awesome for recording, but bear in mind they are artificial. You will not have all the nuances you would by playing through a real tube amp, even though they do an excellent job of imitating some very expensive and hard-to-find amps. Here's what you need to watch out for with them: the mid-range on them is permanently notched, or scooped as many refer to it, so you get powerful sounds out of them, but there is a good chance they will sound slightly out-of-place in a mix. Second, they cannot adequately recreate any high-end above about 5kHz, so this will need to be added during mixing. Last, they generate ridiculous amounts of low-end; so much so that they can make a mix sound muddy. Whenever I record with these tools, I always crank the mids as high as they'll go and I'm VERY frugal with the bass control. When recording, you have to not only think about how each individual instrument sounds, but how they will lock together. If the guitar is taking up the bass's range, you've got a problem. The last method to record guitars is to mic an amplifier. You may be surprised to learn that many producers and engineers prefer to record small combo amps rather than towering stacks. The reason for this is simple: most recordings are made to be reproduced via headphones or small speakers, which cannot accurately reproduce the depth of a stack. Not only that, smaller amps are easier to control and generate their best sounds without having to be turned up to deafening levels. As such, the sound of choice for recordings it the bite of small amps, often with only a single 12 speaker. One of the primary guitar sounds off of the first Foo Fighters album was a 10-watt combo amp lowered into a tin pail and miked. For any guitar amp, miking can either be done close or from a distance. Close miking makes an amp sound more aggressive, though often not as big. This can be accomplished by mounting the mic directly ahead of the center of the speaker cone. This is the brightest, most aggressive sound and is known as on-axis miking. If you move the mic toward the edges of the speaker, the sound becomes thicker and darker, this is known as off-axis miking. To mic from a distance, mount a microphone at speaker level several feet away. Many people like to combine aspects of all of these miking techniques. Billy Gibbons has a very well-known technique in which he uses one on-axis close mic and another distant mic spaced slightly out of phase with each other and pan one left and the other right to achieve a stereo image. I have a friend who swears by a similar technique for recreating the big sound of a stack. If you absolutely must record with a stack, isolate it in its own room with lots of blankets and pillows and have the guitarist monitor the amp through headphones. Bear in mind that if you do opt to record with a stack, if you close-mic, you will not be able to tell the difference between a combo and your stack. We'll pick this back up with bass in the next installment.
  • 30 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      bassmonkey16
      not exactly first... but great article all the same!! the drums section was well done.
      666filth
      Once again another good article, although..drums.....I am sorry to say this....but way off. I dont know who is teaching people how to record and tune drums, but I havent heard a very good drum recording in years. I mean like 30 years. P.S. I am very picky about drum recording and tuning. Good article though.
      then write an article on how to do it right! i'd love to kno
      TaoAvatar20
      thedankle- Check out my first article for the answer to this. What you're describing totally can work. I recommend a dedicated mixer, though, to make sure you color the sound as little as possible. If you are using more than two mics on a drumset at once, you will need to record from more than one source. I recommend augmenting your mixer with a USB audio interface for this job. But yes, you're definitely thinking in the right direction.
      thedankle
      when you're going to mic more than one thing at the same time (drums) should you use a PA for the mic's, and then connect the PA to the computer?
      askurmoran
      wow dude really nice article i was wondering aout the mics and mica placemants and the racording info because im about to start a band and were all wanting to record a record so thanx for all this info dud
      clockwork555
      this is good although u did not mention the possiblity of connecting to a line out. Great info.
      ooblah
      man that guitar stuff was very interesting! i thought you had to have big amps to record, i wish i had the money to experiment with all this hardware!
      TaoAvatar20
      mcmanigle- Yes, you absolutely can do that. Whenever something is marked "line whatever", it means it is at line level and is not coming out of the power amp. Here's a cool idea: Do a couple takes with the line out, then mic your cab and pan one hard left and the other hard right. It should make for a really interesting sound.
      FourFaces
      This was a very helpful post! I usually go by Jimmy Page's theory for drums (distance = depth), but I shall try your suggestions... Also, I can't wait to try the stereo image of an acoustic! Thanks so much for the article!
      Dyaxe666
      wow this is great, when my band records at my drumemrs house teh recording always soudns muddy (electric guitar) and the higher mids are sort of muddy 2, but this answered my problems, thanks
      mcmanigle
      question....can i run my line out of the back of my head into my computer and not blow anything up?
      Ramco
      The second means is via direct box, many of which exist ranging from the simple all the way up to digital modelers like the POD or VAmp.
      The POD and V-Amp are technically not direct boxes - a direct box takes the unbalanced quarter-inch cable output that can overdrive whatever its going into and convert it to stereo XLR (mic cable) signal. It is a great solution if you are going direct into the board either from your guitar or bass or from the line out of your amp. Not to say the V-Amp and POD aren't awesome. I prefer the DigiTech RPx400 which is in itself an amp modeler, effects unit, USB recording interface and direct box all in one.
      Ramco
      This is especially useful when you?re dealing with vocalists because their vocals tend to sound out-of-place in a mix without a little reverb. Then again for a good vocalist it shouldn?t matter.
      A phenomenal vocalist will still sound out of place when their voice is dry. Even the greatest singers of all time have their voices run through compression, chorus and reverb to make sure their voices are full, even and stand out in the mix. It's also a good idea to record the vocals dry and run the recording through effects later (much easier when recording with a computer), so you can tweak the sound to your liking and not be stuck with something that detracts from your song.
      Bubonic Chronic
      CAPS = COMPLETELY FORFEITING YOUR CREDIBILITY!!!.. Decent article, though some details are left out: "Plug a mic into your recording device." Most consumer recording devices have RCA ins, most mics have XLR outs. That's like trying to f**k a frog! You're right, but you might want to mention two things: * You need a mic preamp to boost the level and * You need to somehow take an XLR signal and spit out an RCA (or 1/4" line) signal Missing component? A console. I suggest the Mackie 1202 for beginners. It works great and costs very little. You can do a very impressive recording with nothing more than a 1202 and a standard cassette deck. I've done it.
      blinkmac263
      WOO 7th lol!! nice article, i have been recording at home for a while now and this seems like really good advice to beginners. Well done....top stars
      DJ_Inferno2000
      OH MY GOD!!!.. THATS IT THATS IT!!!.. OH MAN YOU MUST BE GOD!!!.. MY BAND AND I ALWAYS GOT SUM SHITTY REVERBERATIN SOUND AND NOW...!!!.. MAN YOU RULE!!!.. 50 STARS IF I CUD!!!..
      ollerom_mot
      How exactly would u mike a harmonica?
      you have a special harmonica mic that is shaped so you hold it onto the harmonica with your hands. Great article.
      Pyro128
      Nice for mic setups, I need to invest in an SM-57 because right now I'm using a vocal mic to record my acoustic (not good...). Nice tips though, I need to invest in a mixer with 8 inputs so I can record it all at once, I've been stuck using only the PODXT, which is decent, yet lacks some things. Maybe I'll try miking my amp yet I don't wanna do this with a vocal mic... Damn I need to invest some cash in some better Mic's
      ANTIHIPPY102
      you are a lifesaver i was just about to look up techniques and stuff, and then i saw this on the front page 5/5
      barge
      Once again another good article, although..drums.....I am sorry to say this....but way off. I dont know who is teaching people how to record and tune drums, but I havent heard a very good drum recording in years. I mean like 30 years. P.S. I am very picky about drum recording and tuning. Good article though.
      folk_rocknroll
      Great ariticle!!! some of this stuff ive been wondering about for years! I especially liked the bit about how all those effects can kinda spoil the guitars original sound. Any kind of follow up would be awsome, especially about micing and actually managing recordings on ur computer. How exactly would u mike a harmonica?