Recording drums – why recording studios all sound different

by | 25 Oct 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

Recording drums tests a recording studio to extremes. And while half the musicians in the country now have their own recording set up few have access to a great sounding room that can really make their music shine. That’s why when we first decided to build Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, we knew it had to be different.

You see over the last 20 years the music industry has changed beyond all recognition. When our chief engineer, Trev, was just starting out (rumour has it he went to school with Noah) the world was a very different place. Records were made in buildings were incredibly expensive to build, equip and run. As a result, there were far fewer around and, for most unsigned bands, recording in a studio was just a dream. They were the preserve of bands who had been signed to a recording contract, or ‘record deal’ as they are often called. When bands got ‘signed’ their label would ‘advance’ them funds to make their record and to tour it. While that was a bit of a gamble for the label, they could afford to do it because the contract would give them about 80% of the profits from record sales. But, because the returns could be very high, if a band were looking like a good bet labels would be willing to ‘advance’ very significant piles of cash indeed. As a result even recently signed bands could afford to record in what were very expensive institutions. And because they were paid decent rates thosee studios were, in turn, able to invest in the very best of buildings and to buy the best of equipment and maintain it well. The digital revolution changed all of that. Studios have closed. Experienced engineers have lost their jobs. And in many studios, even those who in the past have an excellent heritage, maintenance is a long forgotten art.

On the positive side of course, the very same digital revolution brought recording equipment into the hands of many. Suddenly most bands could afford to buy a small recording rig and DIY. But there was also a downside. Because Joe Public quickly realised that digital music was very easy to steal. As a result, the profits record labels made dropped very significantly. And because their profits were down they looked at all sorts of ways to reduce their costs. They signed fewer bands because they weren’t willing to take a gamble. They expected that the bands would do more of the legwork that labels used to help with than ever before. The bands they did sign received far lower advances. And the whole supply chain slowly declined with music institutions like Olympic Studios in Chiswick closing down and the ones that survived cutting back on equiment purchases, staff and, crucially, equipment maintenance. The impact of the ‘digital revolution is still being felt though, for the music loving public, the negative impact is probably most obviously seen in the lower quality of music which can be heard in the charts today.

Of course amongst all that, because the price of recording equipment had dropped so much and there were many engineers who found themselves out of work, there was a rush to open smaller, cheaper studios. But virtually none of them could afford a maintenance engineer on tap. And while equipment was now much cheaper to come by it was neither cheap nor easy to rebuild the studios of yore, with their large rooms and tuned acoustics. And how a room is built and treated significantly affects how it sounds. In fact, when you get right down to it, the sonic signature of a room probably comes down to just 4 factors: the size of the room, the shape of the room, the materials the room is made from, and the amount of acoustic treatment in the room. And how quiet it is depends on its construction. In acoustical terms then, small rooms don’t tend to sound so good, square rooms don’t tend to sound so good, and rooms with carpet and foam on the walls don’t tend to sound so good. But because drums are spread right across the stereo field on your record, the room they are recorded in has a very significant impact on the overall sound of the finished product. If you record in a dark sounding room, your record will sound dark. It follows that if you record in a boxy sounding room, your record will sound boxy. And if you record in a toilet, your record will sound like… well you get the message.

So as I said above, we set out to build a studio complex to buck that trend. One with well maintained gear and very special sounding rooms indeed. Now you may have read elsewhere about the different tone and reverb times of each of our rooms. When we realised that what was missing in today’s studio market was great sounding spaces we hired top acoustician, Thomas Jouan-Jean of Northward Acoustics in Belgium, to design ours. And shortly afterwards we set about building not one but five live rooms; and every studio has it’s own sound and vibe. The main phase of the build was completed 18 months ago. And we’ve had an incredible response with bands like Manowar coming all the way from the US to record here. But we’ve been wondering for a while how we can get across how very different our rooms sound. Ultimately we decided to create a video to show exactly how different the same drummer, using the same equipment, with the same microphones the same distance away would sound in different rooms. The idea was that by watching the video you could see and hear how each room sounded side by side. We thought this might both educate young bands what to look, and listen, for when they were checking out places and trying to decide where to go but also could help bands that were thinking of booking us to work our which room would best suit the vibe they were shooting for on their own record.

We recommend that you watch and listen to this using the best system you have available. Distinguishing the tonal and spacial nuances will be much easier even on headphones than laptop speakers. And of course if you have a high end set up yourself, you’ll hear it even more clearly. Anyway, enough talking. Find below our video: one drummer, two microphones and six rooms from Circle Recording Studios complex in Birmingham England: