Drum setup is one of the most exciting parts of any session for me. This is very often where the artist and I start committing to the sound of a project because the way we tune, setup and mic the drum kit will have a huge influence on how everything else is going to sit in and around that. Here’s a time lapse of drum setup on a recent session where I was working on some soundtrack music with my drummer and assistant, Christian Burgess, and composer Deon van Heerden (Orchestrata).
The first part of drum setup, which isn’t shown here, is the tuning of the kick drum and toms. Learning to tune drums properly was probably one of the biggest improvements I ever made to my drum recordings. In the video you’ll see me tuning the snare that we picked for this track while Christian is setting up the rest of the kit to his liking. I always try to make sure that a drummer is comfortable and has everything in place before I start micing the kit. It also really helps that Christian is a very flexible drummer and can adapt to pretty much anything I throw at him, so I can get the mics where I want them while he’s still playing comfortably. Double win!
For the sound we were going for in this track I went with a subkick and a close mic in the kick drum, a single mic on the snare (I don’t really care for bottom snare mics), close mics on the toms, a spaced pair of cardioid condensers as overheads and a pair of omni small-diaphragm condensers in an ORTF setup as room mics. I almost never feel the need to close mic hi-hats (and 99% of the times where I play it safe and do mic hi-hats, I end up not using it in the mix). You’ll see me using a measuring tape to make sure that my overheads are placed in such a way that my kick drum is centered and that the rest of the kit is then automatically “panned” to where they should be. A lot of the drum sound comes from the overheads so I make sure that I get a really good overall sound of the kit from them.
With every song I produce I try to get as close as I can during tracking to what I’m hearing in my head. Committing to sounds and the overall vibe of any song early on has proven to not only lighten my workload considerably, but also sound better in the end. It wasn’t as easy to do this while tracking every source in a song like this with only one flavor of mic at my disposal as it would be with a variety of mics but it was not even close to difficult either. When it came to mix time I didn’t feel like I could not achieve anything I was hearing in my head for this song.
I use Cubase’s stock plugins for a lot of my day-to-day mixing so I just did the same for this mix. They are flexible and sound really good to my ears. The plugins that I used that didn’t come with Cubase are available free (legally).
The hardest part to get right of the whole kit was the kick drum. These mics roll off pretty much everything below 100Hz so there isn’t the same amount of low end that I would have to work with under normal circumstances. The song is in E, with E2 being 82.4Hz so I gave the kick mic a 3dB low shelf boost there. I also sweeped the low mids to find that cardboard-y/bouncing basketball sound and cut that a decent amount. To get the extra low end I wanted I also cheated a bit: I generated a 82.4Hz sine wave (with Cubase’s TestGenerator), with a gate triggered from the kick mic signal. I also blended the triggered kick samples we took (see pt.1) in there to give me some extra attack/slap. On my KICK buss there is also a HPF(high pass filter) at 20Hz.
The SM57 is still the go-to snare mic in many, many of the world’s top studios today and we had a beautiful Ludwig Black Magic snare to work with, so getting a cool snare sound was not difficult. I gated the snare and blended that with the triggered snare samples to a buss. On the snare buss, I added a HPF, a wide boost at the snare’s fundamental frequency (around 210 in this case). as well as a high shelf boost at 8KHz to give it some top end. I also felt like I wanted the snare to snap some more, so I used Cubase’s EnvelopeShaper (basically Steinberg’s version of Transient Designer) to help me get that.
I like lots of compression on toms to bring out the sustain and power so I used a combination of EnvelopeShaper (with the Release boosted) and Vintage Compressor to get the toms to sit the wanted it to sit. Since it’s only a floor tom and I liked the low end, I had the HPF at 20Hz. I also boosted a bit at 100Hz, gave it some high-shelf boost at 12KHz and cut some low mids at 475Hz (after sweeping) to get rid of the “cardboard”.
Apart from the toms in the actual drum track, there’s a pair of tribal-sounding toms that we overdubbed and panned creatively to make the pre-choruses feel wide and powerful. They were treated the same way as the other toms.
The SM57’s actually surprised me on OH as they weren’t as dark as I thought they’d be. I only gave them a wide high shelf boost of about 3dB at 12KHz and a HPF at 80Hz.
I always use Bootsy’s FerricTDS, a free tape simulation plugin, on my drum buss. Used lightly, it seems to really bring drums together and give it just a little extra “something”. I also had a subtle high shelf boost at 8KHz and a slight cut at 350Hz.
All percussion (shakers, tambourine, triangle) have fairly high HPFs on them. The “intro” right after the first chorus has some percussion that was treated with a lo-fi/telephone filter to give it some vibe.
I only worked with a mic’d cab for the bass sound in this song. I gave it a touch of low-shelf boost at 100Hz. We often forget that the highs and mids are as important for a good bass guitar sound as the low end. Your ears can’t hear that massive low end if you don’t give them something to find it with. I added a high shelf boost at 5KHz to give the bass sound some clarity, along with a small amount of 1KHz to bring out the power in the notes. There is also a HPF at 20Hz. Even though I tracked with a fair amount of compression I still felt like the bass wasn’t sitting 100% as I wanted it to, so I knocked off a couple of peaks just a touch with some compression from Vintage Compressor.
I got very close to the sounds I wanted for the mix during tracking so I only added HPFs (80Hz on one track, 120Hz on another) and a slight cut at 4160Hz on one of the guitar parts, where I felt that the high mids got a little annoying.
I always try to get the sound that I need finalized during tracking. I hate having to “work” guitars too much during mix time. Processing consisted mostly of HPFs and LPFs (Low Pass Filters). There’s something cool that happens on the LPFs on some analog consoles where, depending on how they are setup, there is a slight boost just before the rolloff. Cubase’s channel EQ has a LPF that mimics this and I sometimes use it to my advantage to brighten up guitar parts while still getting rid of any unusable high-end information (aka fizz).
I didn’t feel the need for any compression during the mix.
LPF with a slight rise just before the rolloff.
Electric Guitar Buss
I sent all my electric guitars to a stereo buss, where I took out a little bit of 350Hz, which cleared up some lo-mid mud and I added a very subtle, wide shelf boost at 16KHz to open the guitars up a little – really just to sweeten them.
I compressed and EQ’d the vocal going in so I didn’t use any additional compression in the mix. I did add a HPF at 80Hz and a high shelf boost at 16KHz to add some “air” to the vocal. I always do a lot of vocal riding (aka volume automation) on vocals. I also used a combination of volume automation and the stock de-essing plugin in Cubase to smooth out s’s.
To give the vocal a bit more “size” and make it “pop” more in the mix I had 2 wide-panned, slightly delayed, copies of the vocal that were tuned +8 and -8 cents and HPF’d at 3KHz mixed in with the main vocal. This comes from an old trick that was used in the 80’s with Eventide’s to make vocals a bit bigger.
BGV were tracked with the same chain as the mains, so no additional compression was added in the mix, but I did ride them quite a bit. EQ was a HPF at 120 Hz, a cut at 350Hz and a subtle high shelf boost at 16KHz.
I treat Cubase as a mixing console so I’ll always have a couple of sends setup. My main sends are usually a couple of different reverbs (but not so different that things sound like they’re in different spaces all the time), delays at different note-lengths.
In this mix the reverbs plugins used were Cubase’s REVerence convolution reverb plugin. One instance was loaded with a PCM 90 plate impulse response, used mostly for drums, and another was loaded with an impulse response from Bricasti’s Concert Hall preset. Both had quite a bit of low end filtered from them to not muddy up the mix.
3 different flavors of delay were used in this mix:
1. A 1/4-note delay with some HPF and LPF to give it a bit of an analog feel, which gives me more depth.
2. A ping-pong delay that went into some subtle phasing and quite heavy filtering for effect.
3. A more standard 1/4-note ping-pong delay, with some HPF and LPF.
Main vox and BGV are sent to the #1 delay. While the main vox weren’t sent to any reverb, the BGV were sent to the Concert Hall reverb.
During parts of the song, the kick and snare, along with their reverbs during these parts, are sent to the #2 ping-pong delay, which creates a nice “drum-loop”-type vibe on the sides of the mix. Tons of vibe! Throughout the mix the snare and toms were sent to the PCM90 reverb.
The high, synthy guitar riff during the choruses are sent to the #3 ping-pong delay to make it soar “around” the mix a little.
While different guitar parts were sent to various effects, depending on the parts, I should mention that I like to add some depth to main rhythm parts by sending them to a subtle delay (the #1 1/4-note delay in this case).
I really like the way SSL-style compression on the stereo buss “glues” a mix together. My favorite flavor of this is the TK Audio BC1 (I have the mk2 version). I had 2-3 dB of gain reduction going at a 4:1 ratio, 10ms attack time and release time set to “Auto”.
I also had an EQ on the stereo buss, taking out a very small touch at 350Hz and boosting a little at 10KHz. The boost, rather than being a shelf, is a very wide bell. I use this often as a way to mimic the way a Pultec-style EQ works and I find that it brightens up mixes without making it as harsh as a shelf EQ sometimes does.
As much as this was a super fun experiment, it was also a really great learning experience. It taught me again how important it is to commit early on. It also refreshed and reinforced to me that every piece of gear is just a tool. It doesn’t make or break a song, and there are always means to get what you need even if it means having to work a little harder. And it made me love my trusty SM57’s even more than I did before.
The Shure SM57 is my desert island microphone. No, it’s not the most glamorous mic in the world but it’s one that will always get the job done if you know what you’re doing. In the pro world it’s still the standard for snare drums and guitar cabs. Even though there are most definitely better choices on many sources, I’ve never found one where I wasn’t able to get at a sound that was at least usable when I was using a SM57. They are also virtually indestructible.
WHY I DID IT
I’ve always encouraged my clients to get themselves a small demo/home recording rig (I’ll get into this soon in an upcoming blog post) and I almost always recommend the same starter setup: a small interface, a pair of decent headphones and a decent mic – a Shure SM57 or SM58 (would ya look at that: all of a sudden you also have a world class mic for live use too!). Upon suggesting this almost all clients come back to me with a suggestion from whatever music store they’re buying from to get some cheap Chinese condenser mic. “It’s a condenser so it must be better than the SM57, which is just a dynamic, right?” ALL THE FACEPALMS! I also fell into that trap when I started out. See, the vast majority of those mics are quite bright, which sounds really impressive to inexperienced ears, but will bite you in the a$$. I found myself constantly fighting that brightness, which turned quite harsh and spitty once I started “working” the mix.
The SM57 will teach you how to record. It will teach you how to use it properly, from which you’ll learn much more about capturing sound than any bright mic will ever teach you. So, when trying to steer folks in the right direction with that first purchase, my view has always been “if you can’t get it to sound decent with a 57, it ain’t the mic’s fault”. With all of this in mind I wanted to put my money where my big ol’ mouth is and prove that, with the necessary skills, you could produce a pro sounding track using just these amazing mics.
I had 3 SM57’s and 2 SM58’s to use for this experiment. Shure themselves say they’re close enough to each other and, besides, 57’s and 58’s are what most musicians already have available to them.
I used my Ludwig birch kit with a Ludwig Black Magic brass snare. Since I had only 5 mics to use, I setup the kit with only a floor tom. Because the SM58 as a small touch more bottom end because of the grille design (again, this is according to Shure themselves) I opted to use them on the kick and floor tom.
The kick and snare went into my pair of Neve 1073 channel strips. Both kick and snare got about 3dB boost at 12KHz and the kick also got a bit of love at 110Hz. Both were compressed (+/- 6dB of gain reduction) on the way in. The tom went through a channel strip on my beloved console, where we added a touch of bottom end and a bit of top end EQ-wise. The overheads just had a small touch of compression (+/-2dB of gain reduction) on the way in.
I also took samples of the kick and snare after we tracked the song and augmented (not replaced) the kick and snare tracks with them. My assistant/session drummer, Christian Burgess, did a great job of the drumming but we both quite liked what the samples added to the mix when we augmented the live drums with them.
I used 2 different acoustics for different parts and textures in the song: an old Epiphone mahogany/spruce dreadnought and a Cort rosewood/spruce cutaway dreadnought. I added a touch of top end EQ and a touch of compression (various amounts on different parts) on the way in.
Les Pauls > Marshalls > Cabs > SM57 > 1073 Pre (no EQ)
Les Paul > Fender Super Reverb > SM57 > 1073 Pre (no EQ)
I really like playing with different textures in my productions so I mostly used my 2 custom built Les Pauls into my Marshall JMP Super Bass and Marshall JCM800 2203 heads. One clean part was tracked with my ’66 Fender Super Reverb. The heads went into 2 custom built cabs that I’ve loaded with different Celestion speakers that I can blend as needed. I have a nice isolated booth so I can really crank these amps to do what they do best.
J-style bass > ’71 Marshall JMP Super Bass > Cab > SM57 > 1073 Pre (no EQ) > FMR Audio PBC-6A
I don’t have a dedicated bass cab so I just used my guitar cabs. I also used quite a bit of compression (up to 10dB of gain reduction) on the way in, as I always do.
Shakers/Tambourine/Triangle > 1073 Pre (no EQ)
It’s been years since I last tracked my own singing so go easy on me. 😛 I actually like the SM57 more on studio vocals than the 58 as I find it to be slightly more open sounding. I like to track vocals like this with a good bit of compression (up to 15dB on the most aggressive parts) and I also added some top end EQ from the Neve.
It was SO much fun tracking one of my own songs again, since I haven’t done that in years, that I’ve decided to do more songs in the near future. I always believe in getting things right at the source and it was extremely exciting to see all of this come together during tracking, knowing that we had good sounds to work with during the mix.
In the next installment I’ll discuss how I mixed this track using mostly stock Cubase plugins.