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Minimalist Miking Sessions
Case studies of “brown rice” recording with very few mics...
By Scott Dorsey

In the August 1996 issue, I wrote about using minimalist miking techniques in the real world of the studio, where instruments aren’t always balanced with one another, and where dynamics aren’t so easily controlled. This time around, I’d like to present several examples of how minimalist techniques can be useful.

For many years, I did a live broadcast program every week for a local college radio station, and got a pretty wide variety of groups performing for broadcast in the back bedroom of my house, usually on tight schedules with minimal budget and limited set-up times. I’d like to take a few of these sessions as excellent case studies in minimalist miking. We’ll look not only at successful techniques, but also at spotting those situations where the minimalist route may not be a good idea.

Session 1

Millan and Kenzie is a band out of Atlanta consisting of two guitarists who both sing, a bass player, and a drummer. A couple of years ago, they were touring through the area without their drummer and were invited to perform on our program.

They showed up at the doorstep with a completely acoustic set-up: six-string guitars and an upright bass (which scared the cat completely). First, we set up the two guitars and moved in a single mic pair, positioning the pair forward and back to get a good mixture of instrument sound and room ambience, and up and down to change the amount of vocals coming into the pair.

I used a pair of B&K omni mics with a baffle between them in the classical Jecklin disc configuration, mostly because the room we used is very dry, with bookcases and wall hangings. A cardioid pair won’t quite pick up the ambience, especially in a room this small. I then tried to close-mic the vocals with old RCA BK-5 ribbon mics, but soon decided that it wasn’t really necessary, because the vocals in the main mic pair were well-balanced and had a good room tone to them.

(The BK-5, incidentally, is a nice choice for this kind of thing; it’s got a good vocal tone and a very tight pickup pattern, although the leakage from off-axis tends to sound very colored and strange. You used to be able to pick them up for $150 or so, although now that vintage mic prices are going insanely high—they really aren’t worth the $500 that I see at mic dealers. The Beyer M160 will do as nice or nicer a job here.)

With the main mic pair set in place, and after establishing that vocal mics were not needed, we put the string bass in. I really do like the flat and very extended bass of the B&K mics, and the fact that they are flat and accurate means that there is a lot less tinkering required to get the bass to sound right. We did have to position the bass in the corner of the room to make it sound good in the space, but once it sounded good in the room, it sounded good in the mic feed.

Signal went through Gepco cable into a homebrew mic preamp and direct to DAT. The guys sat down and played for an hour, and the tape as recorded was pretty much put on the air live without any sweetening or alterations, aside from one edit required due to a broken string. I believe that the band has since self-issued this recording on a cassette.

Session 2

Doing the live program lets me record a wide variety of groups under a lot of different situations, and it allows me to describe how the same techniques can be adapted to a lot of different groups.

For example, the Brain Burners came to play a few weeks later. These guys had a full drum kit, two guitars with Marshall amplifiers, and an electric bass. In this case, our usual room was not sufficient, and we had to set up in the middle of the living room.

First we set up the drum kit, with the same B&K mic pair, moving it around the room to get a reasonable and accurate drum sound. Here we hit the first snag, because the conventional open kick drum does not put out much sound at all unless it’s close-miked, and going with a closed kick just doesn’t sound right for this kind of stuff. So I wound up having to use a Sennheiser 421L on the kick drum, running it through some fairly violent eq on the console to roll off everything above around 300 Hz or so to reduce leakage problems, and panning it to the center between the two main microphones.

Then we set up guitars and bass, positioned behind the drum kit and the musicians (remember, we have no monitors here), and we fiddled with the levels on the amplifiers so that the electric instruments balanced well with the drum kit. While it’s possible for the drummer to play so as to match the levels of the electric instruments, it’s hard to find a drummer who can do a good job of it, so when you’re working in a hurry it’s often a good idea to consider the drums to be a fixed reference level and set everything else around them. The guitarists used the same stack of effects pedals that they normally use in concert and the bassist played straight into his (somewhat overdriven) amp.

Because the sound levels here were pretty high, I passed out the earplugs. Yeah, I know, the sound level probably isn’t any worse than it is on stage, but I am paranoid about hearing because I make a living from using mine and don’t want to lose it. If you want to lose your hearing, go ahead, but I’m surely not going to help you do it in my studio. Don’t forget—get the earplugs.

These guys played for an hour, straight to two tracks of my ancient Ampex 440 deck, which was rigged up for 4-track half-inch tape. If you’ve been paying attention so far, you know that we have three mics now and some heavy eq, so they are going into a very heavily modified old Opamp Labs console to filter the kick mic and mix it into the main mic pair.

There’s really nothing special about the Opamp Labs console, and there’s nothing you can do with it that you can’t do with just about any other small console out there. The reason I still use it is that I like the way the eq sounds on it, and I’ve put so much work into upgrading it over the years that I hate to toss it. In this case, the bass response of the mic preamps is important, but the noise floor on the preamps isn’t particularly important—in fact, I had the gain on the front end turned down to 20 dB because the level coming off the mics was so high.

Now, you may have noticed something missing, namely the vocals. After doing the whole run, we rewound the tape and flipped the two tracks from the first run-through into sel-sync, then overdubbed the vocals onto a third track (in mono).

I have a habit of using the center tracks for the main pair and the outer tracks for additional stuff because as the heads begin to wear, the outer tracks lose their high frequency performance before the center tracks do, and when tape is badly treated, the edge tracks tend to get more damaged. In this day of digital systems, nobody remembers to do this any longer, but it’s an ingrained habit at this point for me.

Now, with another group, I might have kept the mic pair in the same place and just had the vocalists sing from a distance, but these guys are a heavy metal group, and it just wouldn’t have sounded right. So to get the stage metal sort of sound, I borrowed one of their guitar amps and plugged a pair of Shure SM57s into it (using a transformer DI wired backwards), handed the SM57 to the vocalists, gave them headphones to listen to the tracks from the first run-through, and close-miked the guitar amp with a B&K mic.

This is going to produce a lot of coloration on the vocals due to the guitar amp, but it won’t put much ambience on the vocals at all due to the close-miking. I once tried putting the guitar amp in a large room and area-miking the room, but did not like the effect as much overall. In part, this is because I like to have the vocals intelligible; if you don’t have such a requirement this shouldn’t be a problem.

After the second run-through, I took a razor blade to the master and cut out a few more obvious problems (like the song in which the 1/4" plug got knocked out of the guitar half way through), mixed the three tracks down to a 2-track DAT, and sent it off to the station for broadcast that evening. This, of course, is one of the other real advantages of going the minimalist route; the hard part is laying down the tracks, and the post production work becomes quite minimal. These guys self-released two tracks of the broadcast on a 12" single.

Session 3

A while later, we had Charlie King come to town. Charlie King is one of the traditional 1960s folk singers who is still touring, and still playing in the same sorts of small coffeehouses where he started out (though he deserves better). He carries a single acoustic guitar and sings along with the guitar. He also brings a pair of SM57 mics and a little Shure mixer, and provides a mix of the guitar and vocal to the house mixer. He can control his own mix that way.

Now, he was playing in a small club-like area on the local college campus, which had a distributed sound system. You’ve seen the distributed sound installations piping music around in supermarkets and restaurants. The bad news is that they tend to have a very uneven frequency response; as you walk around the room you can hear the sound change. The good news is that they have very low leakage—in the areas where there aren’t any speakers, there isn’t much sound at all.

Since I didn’t want to deal with his mix, I just set up the pair of B&K mics with the baffle, raised and lowered it until I got a good mix of guitar and vocals, moved it forward and back until I got a good room tone, and left it.

Now, judging room tone is interesting. It takes some real practice to do it well with headphones; at first you start making recordings that have much too much ambience when played over speakers. I always try to carry a pair of little speakers to help me judge things whenever I can. Sometimes (like this time) that isn’t possible and I have to use the headphones and try to compensate for things.

In this case, I was worried about the quality of the leakage from the PA system and almost made things too dry. But because the PA system was fairly well controlled and the room fairly dry, it wasn’t a bit of a problem. Straight to two tracks, two tracks straight to broadcast.

This kind of thing sounds like the perfect application for minimalist miking because there is a limited number of instruments (just guitar and vocals), and they are naturally balanced among themselves. So the only real difficulty is getting the room sound balanced with the direct sound. In a good hall this is easy. Sometimes in what seems like a bad situation (like the one above), it turns out to be easy. Sometimes it’s not.

Session 4

Fred Small played at a local coffeehouse. He also had the same guitar and vocal arrangement, and the same general miking scheme for PA with an SM57 on the guitar and one on the vocal.

But this was in an old wooden building with no carpet and with PA speakers right above the stage. Even sitting right in front of Fred, it was incredibly echoey-sounding. With the baffled omni configuration pulled back three feet, it was almost unintelligible for all the leakage.

I went with a pair of Beyer hypercardioids in a near-coincident configuration to try and knock out as much of the room tone as possible. Even so, the final recording was much too hollow and echoey sounding, and if Fred Small hadn’t turned out to be one of the finest performers I have ever met, the poor sound quality probably would have kept me from broadcasting this one.

The one problem with minimalist work is that when you use the room to mix the sound, you need a good room to mix in. This was the first time I had ever recorded in this hall, and since then I’ve always just gone and close-miked everything when I have wound up there. Sometimes that does turn out to be the right technique.

A general rule for live performance recording with minimalist techniques is that if it doesn’t sound good live, it’s probably not going to sound good on tape. This isn’t always the case with studio work, where you can move everyone around very carefully to set balances for the most outrageously diverse groups, but you usually can’t do that on stage, and often the PA system on the stage causes leakage problems that make your job a thousand times worse.

Session 5

One time when minimal miking is definitely a good technique is when you have the audience singing along and you want them on tape. Now, for a huge rock concert, you pretty much have to close-mic everything, but it’s always a good idea to reserve a couple of tracks for distant mics at the back of the hall.

The problem is that the sound from the stage hits those mics some time after it hits the stage mics, and the echoey sound can be a problem. In the old days, we used to use Sel-Sync, which would play back through the record head on selected tracks, and since the tape hits the record head before it hits the playback head, this would advance the sound on the selected tracks by a few milliseconds. With the digital multitracks you have a lot more control over this, but when Jettison Charlie, a local band, played live, we recorded them with the 4-track Ampex.

I took the PA mix from the console, the vocal mix, and the signals from a near coincident pair at the back of the small auditorium. On mixdown, I found that I could pretty much discard the PA mix, and primarily used the audience tracks with the vocals added. I did eq the PA mix and add a bit of it to fill out the guitar sound, but this was quite minor.

In this case, I got a good sound with the audience singing along, a good “live concert” feel, realistic drum and guitar sounds, and reasonable sounding vocals. I put a lot of emphasis on vocals (having come from that sort of tradition), and the vocals almost always turn out to be the problem when recording an electric band acoustically. Having the PA mixer cut a submix with just vocals for you to use can be a great help.

Trying to use the regular PA mix can be a nightmare, and even if you pull feeds from each of the stage mics, you will find you need the ambience mics. In a small club there is usually no drum sound whatsoever in the PA mix, and the drum kit is probably not even miked. Even if everything is miked heavily, having the ambience pair gives you a more airy and accurate room sound than any reverb unit you’ve ever used. Of course, my girlfriend and I swore that we would never lug the damn Ampex machine down the stairs into the auditorium ever again, so your mileage may vary.

Session 6

I recently wound up recording a small folk festival called Counterpoint Too. In this case, most of the groups were simple guitar and vocal acts, although there were some larger ones. Now, this is not the sort of event where you’d normally expect to use minimalist recording because the room acoustics (in a hotel ballroom) were fairly poor and the sheer number of acts required set-up every two hours. This means that a substantial amount of time is wasted setting up.

In this case, though, I had an assistant with me, and I listened over speakers in the back of the hall while giving him hand signals to move the mics around. This brought set-up for most guitar/vocal acts to within a couple of minutes, and the larger acts were still taking less than ten minutes to position the mics.

We helped the acoustics by adding some curtains and damping material to the room. At first there was a serious slap echo from the side walls, and I was considering using Crown PZMs (which are often a great salvation in bad rooms for area miking), but with some changes to the room set-up we managed to eliminate the echo itself. This not only led to a better recording but it made the sound more pleasant for the audience as well.

I did run into problems with many performers who tended to bounce around a lot; because the miking was fairly close-in by area miking standards, their moving around was reproduced very faithfully in the sound stage. I solved this by slightly collapsing the stereo image in mastering; as it is, the Jecklin disc gives very wide separation, and the slightly narrower image was not a problem.

Minimal ending

There are a lot of ways that the same simple techniques can be used in different environments to accomplish very different tasks, and there is an infinite number of possible variations on the same simple techniques. In these cases, I was primarily using Jecklin discs with omni microphones, a technique that is much more touchy and difficult to arrange than most, but by taking some shortcuts it was much easier to set up miking than it seemed at first glance.

It’s not a perfect world and not all environments lend themselves to distant miking and area techniques, but a truly shocking number of them do.

Scott Dorsey is a recording engineer and all-around audio guru.

 




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