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7 Simple Tips For Improving Your Drum Sound

drum sound - parallel room micsWhen it comes to a live drum sound during a tracking session, sometimes the smallest details can make a big difference when you consider that there are usually multiple mics involved. Changing one thing can sometimes make a difference, but sometimes it’s the fact that many small adjustments have a cumulative effective on the overall sound. Here are 7 tips culled from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook 4th edition that can individually or together improve your recorded drum sound.

1. Microphones aimed at the center of the drum will provide the most attack. For more body or ring, aim it more towards the rim.

2. The best way to hear exactly what the drum sounds like when doing a mic check is to have the drummer hit the drum about once per second so there’s enough time between hits to hear how long the ring is.

3. Try to keep any mics underneath the drums at a 90 degree angle to the mic on top to keep the acoustic phase shift to a minimum.

4. Most mics placed underneath the drums will be out of phase with the tops mics. Switch the polarity on your preamp, console or DAW and choose the position that has the most bottom end.

5. Try to keep all mics as parallel as possible to keep the acoustic phase shift to a minimum (see the graphic on the left).

6. The main thing about mic placement on the drums is to place the mics in such a way where the drummer never has to be concerned about hitting them.

7. The ambient sound of the room is a big part of the drum sound. Don’t overlook using room mics where possible (see the graphic on the left).

The above tips can generally apply to just about any drum miking setup, but remember to listen carefully after each adjustment to note the difference, if any, that occurs, then make sure it fits with the track.

Mic Placement Tips To Help You Find The “Sweet Spot”

Finding the sweet spotMic placement may be the most important part of recording since a change of half-an-inch can sometimes make a huge difference in the sound. Finding that correct placement isn’t always easy though, so here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook 4th edition to give you some easy tips to find that “sweet spot” quickly.

“Quickly finding a mic’s optimum position is perhaps the single most useful talent an engineer can have. Sometimes the search resembles questing for the Holy Grail as more trial and error is involved. That said, you should always trust your ears first and foremost by listening to the musician in the tracking room, finding the sweet spot, and placing your microphone there to begin. If you don’t like the resultant sound, then move the mic or swap it with another. EQ is the last thing to touch.

TIP: Mics cannot effectively be placed by sight, which is a mistake that is all too easy to make (especially after reading a book like this). The best mic position cannot be predicted, it must be found.

How to Find the “Sweet Spot”

How you listen to an instrument in the studio is just as important as the act of trying to capture its sound. As good as many microphones are, they’re still no match for our ears, and we can sometimes be fooled in what we’re hearing over the monitor speakers. Here are a few tips to help you listen more closely to the way the mic your using is capturing the sound.

  • To place an omni microphone, cover one ear and listen with the other. Move around the player or sound source until you find a spot that sounds best.
  • To place a cardioid microphone, cup your hand behind your ear and listen. Move around the player or sound source until you find a spot that sounds best.
  • For a stereo pair, cup your hands behind both ears. Move around the player or sound source until you find a spot that sounds best.

Before you start swapping gear, know that the three most important factors in getting the sound you want are mic position, mic position and mic position.

Get the instrument to make the sound you want to record first, then use the cover-your-ears technique to find the sweet spot, position the mic, then listen. Remember that if you can’t hear it, you can’t record it. Don’t be afraid to repeat as much as necessary, or to experiment if you’re not getting the results you want.”

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

8 Indicators That Your Mix Is Finished

8 indicators your mix is finishedOne of the hardest things for many mixers to determine is when a mix is finished. In fact, engineers new to mixing may think a mix is ready in an hour, but a pro will usually take considerably longer. How much longer? Well, some big hit maker mixers that I know may spend up to 16 hours just on a vocal!

That said, the time spent on a mix is all over the place these days, so this excerpt from the 4th edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook outlines 8 indicators that will let you know when your mix is ready for the world.

“One of the tougher things to decide when you’re mixing is when the mix is finished. If you have a deadline, the decision is made for you as the clock ticks down, but if you have unlimited time or a deep-pocket budget, a mix can drag on forever.

Just when is a mix considered finished? Here are some guidelines:

1. The groove of the song is solid. The pulse of the song is strong and undeniable.

2. You can distinctly hear every mix element. Although some mix elements, such as pads, are sometimes meant to blend seamlessly into the track, most mix elements should be clearly heard.

3. Every lyric and every note of every line or solo can be heard. You don’t want a single note buried. It all has to be crystal clear. Use your automation. That’s what it was made for.

4. The mix has punch. The relationship between the bass and drums is in the right proportion and works well together to give the song a solid foundation.

5. The mix has a focal point. What’s the most important element of the song? Make sure it’s obvious to the listener.

6. The mix has contrast. If you have too much of the same effect on everything, the mix can sound washed out. Likewise, if your mix has the same intensity throughout, it can be boring to the listener. You need to have contrast between different elements, from dry to wet, from intense to less intense, to give the mix depth.

7. All noises and glitches are eliminated. This includes any count-offs, singer’s breaths that seem out of place or predominant because of vocal compression, amp noise on guitar tracks before and after the guitar is playing, bad-sounding edits, and anything else that might take the listener’s attention away from the track.

8. You can play your mix against songs that you love, and it holds up. This is perhaps the ultimate test. If you can get your mix in the same ballpark as many of your favorites (either things you’ve mixed or mixes from other artists) after you’ve passed the previous seven items, then you’re probably home free.

How much time should all this take? In the end, most mixing pros figure at least a full day per song regardless of whether you’re mixing in the box or mixing on an analog console, although it’s still best to figure a day and a half per mix if you’re mixing in a studio with an analog-style console and traditional hardware outboard gear. Of course, if you’re mixing every session in your DAW as you go along during recording, then you might be finished before you know it, since all you may have to do is just tweak your mix a little to call it complete.”

You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

February 15, 2017

The Magic Frequencies For EQing Mix Elements

Magic FrequenciesWhen it comes to EQing, there are certain frequencies that seem predominant for every instrument. Many call them the magic frequencies, because they do tend to work most of the time. Here’s a chart of those frequencies from the latest edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.

Remember that using the magic frequencies might make an instrument or voice sound dynamite on its own when soloed, but then it might not fit in the mix properly. That’s why it’s best to listen against other instruments when adding or subtracting EQ. Also remember than every song is different because the players, arrangement, recording environment, players and feel is different, which will greatly influence your EQ decisions.

Instrument Magic Frequencies
Bass guitar Bottom at 50 to 80Hz, attack at 700Hz, snap at 2.5kHz
Kick drum Bottom at 80 to 100Hz, hollowness at 400Hz, point at 3k to 5kHz
Snare Fatness at 120 to 240Hz, point at 900Hz, crispness at  5kHz, snap at 10kHz
Rack Toms Fullness at 240 to 500Hz, attack at 5 to 7kHz
Floor Toms Fullness at 80Hz, attack at 5kHz
Hi-hat and cymbals Clang at 200Hz, sparkle at 8k to 10kHz
Electric guitar Fullness at 240 to 500Hz, presence at 1.5 to 2.5kHz, attenuate at 1kHz for 4 × 12 cabinet sound
Acoustic guitar Fullness at 80Hz, body at 240Hz, presence at 2k to 5kHz
Organ Fullness at 80Hz, body at 240Hz, presence at 2 to 5kHz
Piano Fullness at 80Hz, presence at 3k to 5kHz, honky tonk at 2.5kHz
Horns Fullness at 120Hz, piercing at 5kHz
Voice Fullness at 120Hz, boomy at 240Hz, presence at 5kHz, sibilance at 4k to 7kHz, air at 10k to 15kHz
Strings Fullness at 240Hz, scratchy at 7k to 10kHz
Conga Ring at 200Hz, slap at 5kHz

Studio Air Conditioning On A Budget

mini-split air conditionerOne of the things that frequently happens when building your own studio in your basement or garage is that you construct it to get as much isolation as possible, then realize that the temperature inside always hovers around tropic-level heat, even while the weather is below zero outside. That’s because the last thing that most home builders consider is ventilation and air exchange, or they think they don’t have enough money to get the air conditioning job done properly.

Here’s a quick excerpt from my Studio Builder’s Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that covers what might be the best way to make those studio temperatures comfortable without spending a lot of cash.

“HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) is a bigger part of any studio than you might realize, so it has to be taken into consideration right in the beginning. Don’t even think of using a window air conditioner since they’re way too noisy and will defeat any isolation you might’ve built. For real studio HVAC you really only have two options; forced-air or a mini-split.

Forced-air is certainly the way to go but gets very expensive very quickly, since the ductwork has to use a lot of right angle bends and diffusors to lower the air speed so it doesn’t make any noise (air noise is a vocal killer). It also requires a concrete slab to mount it on the ground outside. Finally comes the installation labor, which must be done by a pro.

A much more viable solution is known as a “mini-split”. This is a system that’s very popular in Europe and Asia were the compressor is located outside the building and the air handling unit inside. All that’s required is a 1″ hole that’s cut through the wall to allow access for a hose to go from the compressor unit outside to a cooling head mounted on the wall inside the studio, and a small drainage hose. The cooling head is mounted on a wall and is very quite. Depending upon how large your space is, a unit that puts out between 9,000 and 12,000 BTU unit may be enough. A big plus for the mini-split is that not only is it inexpensive, it’s very quiet as well. They are also available with an optional “heat pumps” for those cold winter days that everyone experiences (even in warm climates).

While you can install a mini-split yourself, your might want to get a pro HVAC technician to do the complete job. It should only take a few hours to install, so it won’t be outrageously expensive, but because these units need freon gas to function, you’ll have to have a professional technician do the freon work and they charge a lot for handling this gas. Even with the extra expense of a professional tech, at least you’ll be sure that it’s done right. Make sure that you have the unit serviced every year, and keep the filter clean as that helps to keep the unit from getting noisy.

If you do decide to install a forced-air system, it’s important to know where your feeds and returns are going to be. For instance, you don’t want to place an air conditioning feed directly over the mixing position of your console, or directly over were your drums are going to be set up. As practical as this might sound, you’ll find this kind of direct placement will mean that it will become uncomfortably cold when the air blows directly on you. Make sure you put the feed in a place where it will be defused and quiet.”

You can read more from The Studio Builder’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

7 Tips For Improving Your Drum Sound

7 tips for improving your drum soundWhen it comes to your drum sound, sometimes the smallest details can make a big difference when you consider that there are usually multiple mics involved. Changing one thing can sometimes make a difference, but sometimes it’s the fact that many small adjustments have a cumulative effective on the overall sound. Here are 7 tips culled from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook 3rd edition that can individually or together improve your recorded drum sound.

1. Microphones aimed at the center of the drum will provide the most attack. For more body or ring, aim it more towards the rim.

2. The best way to hear exactly what the drum sounds like when doing a mic check is to have the drummer hit the drum about once per second so there’s enough time between hits to hear how long the ring is.

3. Try to keep any mics underneath the drums at a 90 degree angle to the mic on top to keep the acoustic phase shift to a minimum.

4. Most mics placed underneath the drums will be out of phase with the tops mics. Switch the polarity on your preamp, console or DAW and choose the position that has the most bottom end.

5. Try to keep all mics as parallel as possible to keep the acoustic phase shift to a minimum.

6. The main thing about mic placement on the drums is to place the mics in such a way where the drummer never has to be concerned about hitting them.

7. The ambient sound of the room is a big part of the drum sound. Don’t overlook using room mics where possible.

The above tips can generally apply to just about any drum miking setup, but remember to listen carefully after each adjustment to note the difference, if any, that occurs, then make sure it fits with the track.

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Direct Box Basics

Radial JDI direct boxDirect boxes are something that we use every day in recording, yet take for granted because of their simplicity. Here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook that looks at the ins and outs of this useful recording tool.

“Direct Injection (DI or “going direct”) of a signal means that a microphone is bypassed, and the instrument (always electric or electrified) is plugged directly into the console or recording device. This was originally done to cut down on the number of mics (and therefore the leakage) used in a tracking session with a lot of instruments playing simultaneously. However, a DI is now used because it either makes the instrument sound better (like in the case of electric keyboards) or is just easier and faster.

Why can’t you just plug your guitar or keyboard directly into the mic preamp without the direct box? Most preamps now have a separate input dedicated for instruments, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case and plugging an electric guitar (for instance) into an XLR mic input would cause an impedance mismatch that would change the frequency response of the instrument (although it wouldn’t hurt anything), usually causing the high frequencies to drop off and therefore make the instrument sound dull.

Advantages of Direct Injection
There are a number of reasons to use direct injection when recording:

  • Direct Box transformers provide ground isolation and allow long cable runs from high impedance sources like guitars and keyboards without excessive bandwidth loss.
  • The extremely high impedance of the DI insures a perfect match with almost every kind of pickup to provide a warmer, more natural sound.
  • The length of cable can be extended up to 50 feet without signal degradation.

Direct Box Types
There are two basic types of direct boxes; active (which can provide gain to the audio signal and therefore needs electronics requiring either battery or AC power), or passive (which provides no gain and doesn’t require power). Which is better? Once again, there are good and poor examples of each. Generally speaking, the more you pay the higher quality they are.

An active DI sometimes has enough gain to be able to actually replace the mic amp and connect directly to your DAW.

An excellent passive DI can be built around the fine Jensen transformer specially designed for the task (www.jensen-transformers.com for do-it-yourself instructions) but you can buy basically the same thing from Radial Engineering in their JDI direct box (see the figure on the left). Also, most modern mic pres now come with a separate DI input on a 1/4” guitar jack.

Direct Box Setup
Not much setup is required to use a direct box. For the most part, you just plug the instrument in and play. About the only thing that you might have to set is the gain on an active box (which is usually only a switch that provides a 10 dB boost or so) or the ground switch. Most DI’s have a ground switch to reduce hum in the event of a ground loop between the instrument and the DI. Set it to the quietest position.”

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Choosing the Right Microphone For The Job

Choosing the right microphoneWhile it’s safe to say that most engineers rely on experience when choosing which microphone to use in a given situation, these are some things to consciously consider when selecting a microphone. Here’s a list of items to think about from the latest edition of my Recording Engineer’s Handbook.

  • There’s no one mic that works well on everything. Just because you have what could be considered a “great” mic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the best choice in all situations. There are times when the characteristics of that mic just don’t match up with the instrument you’re recording, and another mic will work better. In fact, sometimes even an inexpensive mic can work better than an expensive one.
  • Select a microphone that complements the instrument you’ll be recording. For instance, if you have an instrument that has a very edgy top end, you normally wouldn’t want to choose a mic that also has that quality, since those frequencies will be emphasized. Instead, you might want to choose a mic that’s a bit mellower, such as a ribbon. This is one of the reasons that a ribbon mic is often preferred on brass, for instance.
  • Is the mic designed to be used in the free field or in the diffuse field? Free-field means the sound that comes directly from the source dominates what the mic hears. Diffuse-field means that the room reflections play a large role in what the mic hears. Mics designed for free-field use tend to have a flat frequency response in the high frequencies, and as a result can sound dull when placed farther away in room from the sound source. Diffuse-field mics have a boost in the upper frequencies that make them sound flat when placed farther away. A good example of a diffuse-field mic is the esteemed Neumann M 50, which was meant to be placed somewhat away from an orchestra, so it has a high-frequency boost to compensate for the distance.
  • Select a mic that won’t be overloaded by the source. Some mics are sensitive enough that you must be aware of how they’re used. You wouldn’t want to put certain ribbon or condenser mics on a snare drum with a heavy-hitting drummer, for instance. Even some dynamic mics have little tolerance for high sound-pressure levels, so always take that into account.
  • Choose the right polar pattern for the job. If leakage is a consideration, then choose a mic with the proper directional capabilities for the job. If a mic is flat on-axis (at the front), it probably will roll off some of the highs when it’s 90 degrees off-axis (on the side). If it’s flat 90 degrees off-axis, it may have a rising high end when it’s on-axis.
  • Is proximity effect an issue? If you intended to place the mic within 6 inches or closer from the source, will the bass buildup from the proximity effect be too much? If you think that may be the case, consider an omni pattern instead.
  • A large-diaphragm condenser mic is not necessarily better than small-diaphragm condenser. Believe it or not, small diaphragm condenser microphones can sometimes capture the lower frequencies better, are generally less colored off-axis than large-diaphragm mics, and have a smoother frequency response. Large-diaphragm mics are a little less noisy, though.

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

The Drum Recording Checklist

drum recording checklistDrum recording is too often left to trial and error to when getting sounds. Here’s a checklist from the 2nd edition of my Drum Recording Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that makes sure that the basics are covered (assuming that the drums sound great acoustically) before you open up the mics.

“Like the foundation of a house, the drums are the foundation of a recording. With a strong foundation, you can build almost anything on it that you or your clients can imagine. A little effort and time spent miking the drums and getting the sound just right can result in a recording that sounds better than you would have ever imagined.

Remember, take risks, experiment, take notes on what works and what doesn’t, be creative, and most of all, have fun!

Here’s a list of things to check if something just doesn’t sound right. Remember that each situation is different and ultimately the sound depends upon the drums, the drummer, the room, the song, the arrangement, the signal chain, and even the other players. It’s not unusual to have at least one of these things out of your control.

☐ Are the mics acoustically in phase? Make sure that tom mics and room mics are parallel to each other. Make sure that any underneath mics are at a 45° angle to the top mics.

☐ Are the mics electronically in phase? Make sure that any bottom mics have the phase reversed. Make sure that all the mic cables are wired the same by doing a phase check.

☐ Are the mics at the correct distance from the drum? If they’re too far away they’ll pick up too much of the other drums. If they’re too close the sound will be unbalanced with too much attack or ring.

☐ Are the drum mics pointing at the center of the head? Pointing at the center of the drum will give you the best balance of attack and fullness.

☐ Are the cymbal mics pointed at the bell. If the mic is pointed at the edge of the cymbal, you might hear more air “swishing” than cymbal tone.

☐ Is the high-hat mic pointed at the middle of the hat? Too much towards the bell will make the sound thicker and duller. Too much towards the edge will make the sound thinner and pick up more air noise.

☐ Are the room mics parallel? If you’re using two room mics instead of a stereo mic to mic the room, make sure that the mics are on the same plane and are exactly parallel to each other. Also make sure that they’re on the very edge of the kit looking at the outside edge of the cymbals.

☐ Does the balance of the mix sound the same as when you’re standing in front of the drums? This is your reference point and what you should be trying to match. You can embellish the sound after you’ve achieved this.

These are not hard and fast rules, just a starting place. If you try something that’s different from what you’ve read and it sounds good, it is good!”

You can read more from The Drum Recording Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Tips For Choosing A Set Of Monitors

choosing monitorsIt’s surprising that so many monitors (speakers that is) are purchased just from a review or word of mouth, since they’re such a personal item. Here’s an excerpt from my Studio Builder’s Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that covers some things to think about before you purchase your next set of speakers.

“1) Don’t choose a monitor because someone else is using them. Just because your favorite mixer uses a set of Tannoy Precision 8D’s, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be right for you too. Everyone hears differently and has a different hearing experience. Plus, the match with your room might not be ideal, they might not be a good match with the type of music you work on, and if they’re unpowered, you may not have the same amp to drive them with as the reviewer, so they’ll sound different from what someone else hears.

2) Make sure you listen to the monitors before you buy them. The pros take their time and listen to them under a wide range of conditions before they commit to a purchase, so why shouldn’t you? It’s true that you might not live near a big media center with lots of pro audio dealers, and even if you do, you may not have a relationship with one that gets you a personal demo in your own studio. That shouldn’t stop you from listening though. Take the trip to your local pro audio or music store and spend some time listening.

Here’s what you should listen for when you evaluate a monitor:

  • Listen for An Even Frequency Balance – Check to see if any frequencies are exaggerated or attenuated while listening to a piece of music that you’re very familiar with. Listen especially to the mid-range cross-over area (usually about 1.5 to 2.5kHz), then to cymbals on the high end, vocals and guitars in the midrange, and bass and kick drum on the low end.
  • Listen to the Frequency Balance At Different Levels – The speakers should have the same frequency balance at any level, from quiet to loud.
  • Make Sure The Speakers Are Loud Enough Without Distortion – Be sure that there’s enough clean level for your needs. Many powered monitors have built-in limiters that stop the speaker or amplifier from distorting, but this also keeps the system from getting as loud as you need it to be. Be sure to listen to them at various volume levels to determine if they’ll be loud enough for your needs, if they will distort, or if their sound characteristics change dramatically at different volumes.

3) Listen with source material that you know very well. The only way to judge a monitor is to listen to material that you’re very familiar with and have heard in a lot of different environments. This will give you the necessary reference point that you need to adequately judge what you’re listening to. You can use something that you recorded yourself that you know inside and out, or a favorite CD that you feel is well-recorded. Just stay away any critical listening with MP3’s; the higher the quality of your playback source, the better. A high quality 24 bit source like from a personal digital recorder is great because it gives you a better idea of the frequency response of the system.

If the monitors that you’re auditioning aren’t powered, you might want to bring your own amplifier to the audition because the amp/speaker combination is a delicate one. A speaker has a much greater interdependence on the power source than most of us realize, and many engineers search for the perfect amplifier almost as long as for the perfect monitor. Thankfully, that’s not as much of a problem these days since most high quality monitors have built-in amplifiers perfectly matched to its speaker drivers by the manufacturer.

That being said, you can easily get used to just about any speaker if you use it enough and learn it’s strengths and weaknesses in your room. It also helps to have a reference point that you’re sure of to compare the sound with, like your car or a particular boombox, then adjust your mixes so they work when you play them there.”

You can read more from The Studio Builder’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

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