“Rattle That Cage” is currently a staple of the Evansville Icemen hockey games at the Ford Center.
Today we are taking a brief departure from art music to examine how classical recording sensibilities can enhance a much more commercial project. In this case, it is Texas Rock/Americana artist Jason Lee McKinney who is providing the musical goods. So let’s get technical:
If you’ve ever listened to near field speakers in a very large room, you’ve probably noticed that they seem cleaner than when you listen to the same system in a small room. If you can remove most of the ambience from the very large room (e.g. with several thick theater curtains to your left, right, front and back – maybe doubled up every 20 feet or so) then the sound becomes even more pure. This sort of environment is not only wonderful for listening, but also for recording – and for all the same reasons.
We upped the ante a bit for this session on my favorite-gigantic-stage-plus-sky-high-ceiling: Lovett Auditorium. Every instrument that we mic’d up was treated to it’s own “sound cave” for increased isolation from the other sounds on stage. We checked for mic cable and headphone cable distances, and then stretched the vocal cave, AC guitar cave, and fiddle cave as far apart from each other as possible, while remaining within the same row of theater curtains. The amp cave was out among the seats and drum cave was way back along the back wall.
The drum cave in particular was something of an acoustical innovation. There is a nice little lock-up room built at the back of the auditorium for storing speakers, cables and such. It is framed out with 2x4s and has a sturdy metal mesh tacked on it. We emptied it out and covered the top, bottom and sides with carpets facing inward. There were also some acoustical ceiling tiles, packing blankets and acoustic foam slapped around (and on the back brick wall). This, coupled with pulling the 4 separate theater curtains between the lock-up and the front of the stage, plus the sound caves for the instruments, did a great job of muffling the drums way back into the distance for the non-percussion mics set up in the room. And the lack of hard surfaces surrounding the kit kept the drums sounding clean and mud-free at the same time.
Just outside the entrance to the drum cave was the bass player, going direct and keeping a line of sight with the drummer.
We opted to use an x-y stereo pair for the drum overheads to avoid phase issues and keep the snare dead center in the mix. I was happy to borrow a pair of large diaphragm condenser AKG C414s for this task. The snare was blessed by two Sennheiser MD 421 dynamic mics, one top and one bottom. The bass drum had an AKG D112 part way inside the port and an M-Audio Sputnik 18 inches farther out. Shure SM 57s rounded out the two toms. All of this percussive goodness was channelled through a Focusrite interface that used ADAT lightpipe to bring the whole drumset discretely into the Apogee Ensemble’s second bank of digital inputs (channels 11-18).
For vocals, we somehow managed to score a Bock 507 tube condenser. Just behind the vocal cave was a choir shell angled backward to ward off reflections from the side wall, while all around the front and sides were more carpets and soft stuff. Though he couldn’t see them, the vocalist was facing a row of additional musicians.
Staggered from left to right are the keys (direct line in), part of the acoustic guitar cave to the right (Neumann KM-184), the electric player who had a nice long cable from his amp head to the speaker cabinet behind him on the other side of the curtain, and the fiddle booth behind the elevated drum shield. Just behind the keyboard player and guitarist is the seating area of the auditorium; they are facing toward the drum booth approximately 70 feet (and 4 theater curtains) away.
Neumann KM-184 on the Gibson.
Neumann KM-184 on the fiddle.
Just in case the Dr. Z amp needed a little spice.
Here is the amp cave, with the Dr. Z Carmen Ghia shooting out into the vastness (picked up by an Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic mic).
We also managed to “shell” off a little piano room to the side of everything else with a Crown PZM taped to the inside of the lid.
The take home lessons from this session are pretty simple. The first isn’t even the engineer’s job!
1) Start with great sounds. Don’t expect to have a good guitar tone unless the guitarist has sacrificed blood, sweat and tears over his instruments, amps, effects and tone. If the guitarist isn’t a serious student of the guitar and the sort of guitar sound you’ll be recording (even better if he is a bona fide master of both) then no amount of studio trickery is going to achieve a great guitar sound. And so it goes all around for everyone (i.e. if the drumset doesn’t sound great just standing there in front of it, you’re in trouble).
2) The environment should either sound great, or not sound much at all. In the case of Lovett, it doesn’t sound much at all – and that actually makes the things recorded in there sound great. Smaller rooms (even if they are well treated with tons of acoustic foam, bass traps and diffusors) can still impart a very strong character to instruments being recording via microphone. So if you have a room with a strong sonic character, you better like it, because that sound isn’t going to go away. Thankfully Lovett can be made about as neutral as recording spaces come with a little effort. At least 50% of our (the engineers) contribution to the quality of this project came from setting up the environment.
3) After you have checked off great sounds and a great environment, the engineer tries to match up microphones with the sound sources so as to not screw up the good stuff that’s happening. A knowledge of microphones (and access to a variety of mics) is the other 50% of this particular project.
Isolated and clean-as-a-whistle. That is always good news for the mixing engineer, regardless of genre! So until next time, keep your ears fresh and STOP reaching for the EQ! Unless it really needs it…