It Came From The Basement

When you’re in a band, it’s not always easy to get a good idea of what you actually sound like.  It seems like a paradox, but when you’re playing you’re usually too busy focussing  your part to be able to listen objectively.  And I’ve been wanting to build up my live recording chops & play with various mic setups.  So we’ve begun recording band practices.

Of course, the drums are the hardest instrument to capture.  They’re spread out more than a guitar amp is, and you have to be able to capture the cymbal sounds–ideally without having the other instruments blathering all over everything.  Waves can interact in some unexpected ways, and sound is a wave.  So if you think of each instrument as a pebble tossed into a pond (and a drum set as a bunch of small rocks thrown in at the same time) you kinda get the idea.  If you don’t pay careful attention to placement you’ll have phasing problems all over the place.  And the place you’ll hear them most is in the mics over the drums.

We set up our drum overheads using the “Recorderman” method (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). This meant that Mark held two drumsticks end-to-end, put one end of the two sticks on the snare head, and used the other end to determine mic placement.  It seems kinda slipshod, but it makes sense if you think about it.  If you’re using two mics, you want them to be about the same distance from your sound source (because that means the sound waves will be hitting each at the same time).  The drumstick is what’s flailing around back there, so it’s an ideal unit of measure.  We put the mics for the kick and snare right up next to their respective drums, to (hopefully) capture the sound waves before they had a chance to interact with each other.

Of course, the other half of the equation is the amps.  Guitar amps are loud.  Close-mic’ing the amp will get you a good sound for that amp, but of course that doesn’t help the drum overheads any.  So we tried an old trick from the ’60s–we set the amps up so they were in a direct line with the front of the bass drum head, and close-mic’ed all three.  Ideally, this cuts down on mic bleed between amps (because mics record what’s in front of them, not what’s beside them), and between the bass drum and either amp.  And hopefully–since the sound coming off the back of the amp is directly out-of-phase with the sound coming off the front of the amp–hopefully this’ll mean that the sound the close-mics pick up either sounds good in the drum overheads, or doesn’t sound at all in the drum overheads.

To make a long story short, it pretty much worked.  The rhythm section–drums and bass–sounds way better than I’d hoped for.  Like, “I could use this to make an actual recording” good.  And it totally feels like a band playing live (a feel which can be difficult to capture in the studio).  Guitar–less perfect.  My good amp is busted, and it was all my backup amp could do to keep up.  We pretty much killed it this last practice.

Much to my surprise, the vocals weren’t terrible.  It’s not that I can’t sing, it’s that a microphone sensitive enough to pick up a voice will also pick up everything else in the room.  Worse still, we were practicing, which meant we needed vocals in the PA system, which meant that they were splattered all over the drum overheads.  End result?  You guessed it.  Phase trouble.  The normal solution is to put the singer in another room, but we can’t do that.  Fortunately the problem is only on the vocal track.  It’s less obvious if the vocals are fairly loud in the mix, though.  And it was good enough to work with, anyway.  In fact, with a little tweaking, I think I got it to sound all right.

Anyway, end result is that we got recordings we liked enough to share.  You can hear them right here on our Bandcamp page (which due to the wonders of technology is also the music portion of our website).

If you’re enough of a nerd to find this all actually interesting, here’s the specifics of our setup:

  • Drum overheads:  Electro-Voice EV635a
  • Snare:  AKG D140e
  • Bass drum:  Shure Beta 52
  • Bass guitar:  this cheap Gear One mic which I got for like twenty freaking bucks, and which sounds spectacular
  • Guitar:  AKG D-140e (maybe not the best choice, but it was handy)
  • Vocals:  Shure SM-78 (a pretty obscure but fantastic mic)

I always mic the top head of the snare drum… one of these day’s I’ll try mic’ing the bottom head.  I may also put the guitar amp right on top of the bass amp, to see if it makes any difference.  And I want to try pointing the PA speakers directly at each other, and flip phase on one of them, and see if I can’t make them cancel each other’s soundwaves right in the overheads (and only in the overheads).  That’d be a pretty neat trick.

About andysmash

North Coast punk-rocker/theologian. A good head for gears and an eye on the far horizon. DIY recording artist and frontman for the Rust Belt Hotrods.
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