Thursday, December 29, 2011

Engineering Drums Part Nine: Room / Ambient Mics

In the 1970's recording studios were most often very dead rooms with thick carpet, sometimes on the walls and ceilings, and plenty of fiberglass absorption to go around.  Dead, dead DEAD!  Drums were rarely ever given reverb for processing, and for the most part the drum sound you got from the close mics, with the exception of some gating, was the sound that made it into the final mix.

In the 1980's, of course, digital reverb became viable, and many models proliferated the market (and our eardrums) throughout the decade.  In an effort to add space to those dry, 8-bit and 12-bit samples from a LinnDrum or an Akai S900 sampler engineers lathered on liberal amounts of digital reverb, and it was cool!

And then it wasn't.

In general, truly dry drum sounds are a thing of the past.  While it's common to have drums that don't sound overtly ambient there is almost always some essential spatial information mixed it to put the drums in an appropriate environment for the rest of the mix, even if the ambiance is subtle enough not to pull your attention.  Most often this ambiance is provided not by an reverb algorithm crunching numbers, but by mics, well chosen and placed to pick up the sound of the room while tracking drums.

Room or ambient mics capture the environmental response to a drum kit, not so much the kit itself (you've got close mics for that).  The close mics don't pick up much room sound at all.  If you use omnidirectional mics overhead, and place them high above the kit, then you're likely to capture greater room content, but still it's nothing like a mic or two placed 10 feet away from the kit.

I've seen all kinds of mics used as room mics with excellent results.  Condensers will give tremendous detail to the environment, while ribbons will capture a smooth, yet natural perspective.  I've also had excellent results with a pair of Shure SM57's, spaced 5-10 feet apart, pointed directly at an opposing wall, about a half-inch off the wall.  The Shures had less detail in them than a condenser placed out in the room, but the sound was dark, natural, and ambient.

The microphone/room combination is literally endless -- some rooms are well-designed acoustic spaces with quick, smooth decay and no standing waves.  Put up a couple of gorgeous large-diaphragm condensers and you're good to go.  Other rooms, with their rectangular design and plaster walls, are meant for watching TV, not recording.  Here standing waves abound, as does a rather unpleasant mid-range content.  A microphone with a darker personality is the more appropriate choice for capturing this room, and with a placement position and angle to minimize the standing waves.

Rather than try to recommend what kind of mics and placement to use for your room I think it will be more helpful to give a few pointers and then tell you to trust your own ears.   

Pointer Number One:  Listen, listen, listen!  

It is always a good idea to first listen to an instrument you're about to record before choosing and placing a microphone.  This is especially true when trying to capture the sound of the environment around a drum set.  Even without listening you can have decent success miking an acoustic guitar with a small diaphragm condenser about a foot off the instrument, pointed at the 12th fret.  Perhaps not the best placement for a given instrument and player, but most likely a solidly useable signal.  But when trying to mic room there is no similar basic placement.  Each room is vastly different.  You absolutely must go out there and walk around the room while the drummer plays.  

Squat down low to the ground and then stand up straight.  Walk in front of the kit and behind, close and farther back.  Listen for an area with a good balance of drumkit elements and ambient information with no standing waves.  If you've got only one mic for rooms, place it here.  If you have a pair, space them a few feet apart, centered on this spot.   

Pointer Number Two:  If your room is a 'shoebox' (a rectangular room with parallel walls) try positioning the drums off center toward a corner and facing into the corner diagonally across the room.  This will help minimize standing waves between parallel surfaces.  

Also, try to break up the room acoustically and give it some diffusion by positioning large objects (furniture, shelves, etc.) strategically to break up the more obvious standing waves, giving the room a more natural decay.  You could also hang a curtain at one end of the room, or bring in some 4'x8' sheets of plywood from your local home improvement store to position around the room to further diffuse the reflections.  The more diffuse your room, the more complimentary it will sound when layered with the close mics of the kit. 

Pointer Number Three:  If you find that the room has an annoying midrange 'honkiness' to it (often accentuated by the snare drum), then snag a few cheap bed pillows ($3-$5 at the Mart of Wal), and nail them up in corners of the room (ceiling corners, not floor corners), particularly the corners closest to the drum kit.  Hi frequencies are absorbed by air over distance, and low frequencies tend to go right through most walls (which is why all you hear of the stereo in your neighbor's apartment are the low frequencies), but mid frequencies, while strong enough to not be easily absorbed by air, aren't strong enough to penetrate plaster walls and are reflected instead.  Corners at the top of the room are major culprits in focusing these frequencies from three converging surfaces into offensive, resonant sound.  Just one pillow each in a couple of these corners will dramatically reduce this offensive information and make your room much more pleasant and musical. 

Pointer Number Four:  For sparse mixes where the space around the drums will have greater importance (an acoustic jazz trio, for example) use mics with greater resolution -- condenser mics.  The smaller the diaphragm the lower the mass, the greater the resolution.  Uber tiny diaphragm models from Avenson Audio and Earthworks, with their incredibly fast impulse response, will give you the feeling of 'being there,' while large diaphragm models will have excellent resolution, but a more studio or "hi-fi" character.

Low-mass ribbon designs work well here too, though they tend to be more expensive.  Most ribbon mics use 2.5-micron or thicker ribbon material.  Commonly-available Chinese ribbons can go up to 4 microns, and these are often paired with a cheap output transformer that further blurs the signal.  While these mics can be useful for heavier productions I find their overall murkiness unsatisfying for more articulate duties.  The one ribbon model that I would consider truly hi-resolution is the classic BBC design now sold as the Coles 4038.  Owing in no small part to the ultra low-mass of its 0.6-micron ribbon (which is not only a fraction the thickness of most ribbons, but is also cut to roughly half the length of most others ribbons as well) the 4038 provides a smooth, yet defined and articulate perspective of whatever it's pointed at.  I love them on just about anything.  At a bit over $1k each they aren't cheap, but they're lovely! 

Pointer Number Five:  For denser pop/rock productions, pretty much anything goes in the room mic department.  Condensers, Chinese ribbons, classic Coles, RCA and Beyer ribbons, and dynamic mics of all makes and models.  The mic that works for your room is the mic to use.  

I personally hate the overused "if it sounds good it is good" statement, bus alas, it's true.  Remember, room mics provide additional content to augment the close mics on the kit.  The clarity of each drum in the kit will come from the close mics.  The room mics only provide a sense of space to support the close sound, and the room you're miking will dictate what works and what doesn't.  There's lots of 'room' for you to experiment! 

Pointer Number Six:  If using mics with a directional characteristic, compare the sound of the mics pointed directly at the drums with the sound created by positioning the mics with their null points facing the drums (effectively removing the 'direct' signal from the mic).  If the mics are cardioid, point them at the kit and then point them the other way.  If the mics are figure-8 (like the Coles) then its greatest null will be with the mic positioned 90-degress off axis from the source.  Pick whichever placement sounds better to you (I've had great success with both approaches).  

Pointer Number Seven:  Use the room mics sparingly.  This is obviously a preferential call, but take care with levels to ensure that the room mics play a supporting role in the drum sound rather than fight the direct signals in any way.   

Trust your ears.

Next:  Processing!...

No comments:

Post a Comment