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A Philosophy of Drum Recording: we don't need no steenkin' sample replacement

I guess we are really lucky here at Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, England. I recently overheard a conversation between a handful of younger engineers along the lines that they really hated sample replacement of drums but it was a necessary evil 'in this day and age'.

Now the philosophy of this particular engineer and studio is that we capture the sound and vibe of the instruments that are needed for any given record at source so we don't need to replace the actual recording with samples later. For that reason I guess we are really lucky. Because on the one hand we have the the equipment and the chops to do that but, on the other, Circle Studios is a bit different from many studios. Firstly because of the diversity of acoustic spaces we have to work with: four very different sounding live rooms (the biggest being an almost 600 square foot room with variable acoustics, the smallest being a 250 square foot wooden room, with a stone room and a plastered room at 275 and 300 respectively. In addition the big room has a large, high ceilinged yet neutral sounding, isolation booth. All that means that we not only have the choice of microphones, preamps and drum kits to achieve the vibe required for that particular record, but we can also choose the right room for the job. (If you haven't ever thought about how the room you record in will impact the sound of your record watch the video here: http://youtu.be/wXEsCyQgml0 and think about how very different any of your songs would sound if it was all done in one of those rooms).

Now perhaps it's this diversity of sonic footprints that has led to us getting a lot of drum recording work, perhaps it's our hybrid console which has 32 channels of API goodness and 8 channels of fat warm Neve sound. I guess it just could be that we turn out some amazing sounding drum recordings. But whatever it is we are also lucky enough to get to work with some of the best drummers in the business.

Recently for example, we played host to Ian Thomas, one of England's top session drummers and, for the last 12 years, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and British Grove Studios, personal drummer. Unfortunately I can't say who the recording session was for, but I can tell you a little bit about the approach we took in terms of recording techniques, mic selection and placement.

The brief from the producer was that, fundamentally he wanted a relatively tight drum sound, but one that could be opened up readily where the individual songs demanded it. He also wanted to deliver a variety of options so that the mixer had the choice of using a different vibe for different tracks. As time was limited he wanted, as far as possible, to achieve this with a single set up and tear down.

While my standard approach is to try and understand the vibe that the producer wants to achieve and then focus on delivering that recorded sound so that it needs little manipulation in the mix, my brief on this occasion was to deliver a variety of options. This required a slightly different mindset.

Philosophically my general approach is to capture the required sound, or as close as possible to it, using overheads alone. This I do by a combination of mic choice and careful placement. I'll then use close mics then to 'fill in' any frequencies or impact sounds being missed by the more distant mics. On this occasion, due to the need to provide multiple options with just one set up and tear down, we couldn't simply move to a different room for a different vibe. At the same time the requirement for flexibility at mix time meant alternatives in terms of overheads and room mics placed at different distances from the kit. After a little experimentation I decided to place absorbent gobos relatively close to the kit so that the close mics were capable of delivering the tightest possible sound. For the overall picture of the drum kit as a single instrument I employed a pair of KM-69 small diaphragm cardoid-condensers as overhead mics placed as a spaced pair to capture a focussed stereo image. These microphones are a favourite of mine in this application as they have a particularly nice top end: they are relatively bright but without being harsh in the way of many cheaper small diaphragm condensers. I spent a reasonable amount of time on placement of these as they were going to form the basis of the overall sound so it was important to me that these delivered. After some experimentation we ended up with one mic almost directly in front of the snare approximately 12 inches above the highest cymbal and the other roughly above the floor tom. as ever we measured the distance from mic capsule to both kick beater and snare drum and ensured they were identical in respect of each mic in order to maintain phase coherence. We then tested and adjusted those assumptions by listening. Having achieved the sound in my head i turned my mind to 'shading in' the frequencies that the KM-69s were missing.

First up were kick and snare. I often find that the Shure Sm91 placed inside the kick can deliver everything I need, capturing both the low end of the shell and the high end of the click. On this occasion I added a Yamaha Sub-kick to that combination to provide even more girth if required. From there I turned my mind to the snare drum. My go to snare mic in most situations tends to be the Josephson e22s. It is a fast mic so does not adversely affect the transient, captures a nice 'air' around the attack, and has a very useable proximity effect so where you want more girth you can often simply place it a little closer to make use of that. On this occasion I decided to pair it with a Beyer M201. For me the Beyer is like a grown up SM57. The mic that the omni-present Shure should be, but isn't. The Beyer doesn't have such a great top end but what it lacks up there, it makes up for down low. In the circumstances, using these as a pair meant that I could place the e22s where it captured the best top-end without regard to the bottom as the Beyer was all over that. Given the proximity these two mics had, of course to be carefully phase-aligned. As of course did the mic I placed underneath to catch the snare rattle itself. For this job I chose the cheap and cheerful Oktava 219 which deals with this job beautifully. Failure to deal with the phase issue as you place the mics can leave you in phase-hell when you start recording, so it's something we spend a fair bit of time on here at Circle Studios.

We have a number of options on tom mics, dependent on what we are shooting for. Given we were after a fundamentally tight basic sound from the drum kit we decided again to use Beyer M201s. In addititon to the low end girth I mentioned elsewhere the polar pattern is hyper-cardioid so spill from the rest of the kit (and indeed the room) is reduced. Given that the overheads would be taking care of the bigger picture the direct signal and stick impact and the low end was all we really needed from them.

At this point we took a step back to listen to what we achieved. A coherent stereo picture direct enough to maximise the impact but with just enough 'glue' from the overheads to ensure the drum kit sounded like a single instrument in a room. It was time to give the mixer enough options so that he could push the kit back in the mix or bring it forward as he saw fit. First up I decided to put a Royer SF12 directly over the drummers head. Initially about 6 inches higher than the spaced pair, after a test track we brought it back down to the same height. Of course the SF12 has a fixed x-y pattern, giving a naturally wider stereo image, and has a figure 8 polar pattern, meaning that at the same distance it sounds wider and more roomier than the spaced pair of cardioid condensers. After checking phase coherence I considered how I could give even more space than that. One of my favourite combinations is a pair of Coles 4038s as a spaced pair out in front of the kit so that went up next. Approximately 8 feet away seemed about right on this occasion. Once phase coherent these blended particularly well with the overheads. In addition to adding space they also brought a beautiful punch to the image. Finally I added a mono Royer R122v as a mono room mic. after walking around the room and listening for the best balance of the drums, cymbals and room, i settled on placing it approximately 12 feet in from of the kick drum at about sternum height. Listening back and flicking between the options I found that the careful placement and phase coherence meant that we could readily switch between the mics, or even leave them all up in the mix, without any phase incoherence. Beautiful.

Finally, I wanted to place a distant room mic. So that if the mixer wanted a smash mic, a natural room mic to bring up the room sound, or even wanted to go with that, 'whole band around one mic' kind of vibe in any of the tracks, he had the option. Finally, and after some trial and error, we ended up with an M49, in omni, approximately 20 feet from the kick in the corner of the room. I also placed a gobo strategically to remove the direct sound of the kit. I found that in this way it could readily be used either on its own, or as additional reverb if any particular track, or part of a track needed it.

And, when all that was done, it was my job just to set some levels and let one of the UK's drumming legends do his job as in my view, aside from capturing a great sound recording to achieve the vision of the producer at source (without recourse to sample replacement), the job of the very best recording studio engineers is to keep out of the way so that the room and the musicians can shine.