Adventures In Straying From The Norm
by Producer/Engineer Karen Kane
Published in Canadian Musician May/June, 2000
Some of the most innovative recordings come from daring to be different from the norm. Not that the “norm” doesn’t work…..doing what is typically done is safe and almost always guarantees good sound. What is the “norm”? Almost every recording engineer I know who was trained in the late 60’s or early 70’s (like myself) learned standard basic microphone techniques. In the 60’s, what was typically done was dictated by the lack of tracks available and therefore, distant miking techniques were used. For example, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was recorded with 3 microphones. By 1971, we started using 24 tracks. So now, the distant miking techniques of the 60’s were overshadowed by the newer methods of close miking (made possible by having many more tracks). Today it seems, there’s a better balance between these 2 microphone techniques.
Recently, after months of recording and using many of the typical techniques that I know and love, I decided I was TIRED OF DOING THE NORM. My next project was about to start and I was quite bored with the ordinary. Fortunately, Fulign, the band I was about to record bed tracks for, was totally into a bit of experimenting. (Fulign is a rock band from Erie, Pennsylvania). Now that several weeks have passed since this event, I can honestly say, had I not followed my instincts to try something different, the recording of this band would not have the special sound it now has.
For Fulign’s drums, the ingredients were all there for trying something new. A large, beautiful sounding recording room, a great sounding well cared for drum set and an excellent player who also tunes drums very well. Matt Gurley from Fulign uses a large drum set with 5 toms and lots of cymbals and the thought of using microphones on every drum was not only unappealing but here was a chance to be inspired by the idea of distant miking—possibly without any close mics at all. Typically, the approach would have been to use one or two mics on a kick drum, top and bottom mics on a snare drum, every tom-tom miked separately, a mic for the high hat and a pair of overheads to capture all the cymbals. Some engineers also use a pair of room mics to capture the sound of the room that the drums are in.
Without any official “plan” or conception of what they did in the 60’s, I sought out a fresh approach to that old technique. I started out with 4 distant mics in various places but I decided after quite a bit of experimenting that using a close mic on the kick and on the snare was going to be a good idea—even if I ended up not using them in the final mix. So ultimately, 6 mics total were used and it ended up being a novel blend of old and new. The four main distant mics were 2 Microtech Gefell M300 “pencil” condensers and 2 Microtech Gefell 1277 condensers. One of the M300’s was placed on the drummer’s left side about 3 feet from the kit facing the snare, high hat and small toms—at a height just below the high hat. The other M300 was placed 3 feet from the kit on the other side facing all the lower toms at a similar height. The room mics were placed about 8 feet in the air and about 12 feet away from the kit. For this style of music, in this particular recording room, this method worked like a charm. The band was thrilled and I myself, was very happy with this non-conventional drum sound—much more than I could’ve imagined.
Onto the next challenge….. At Chalet Studio, there is only one large room and since everyone wanted separation between the guitar and the drums, the guitar amp had to be placed in another room. This room was small and carpeted so it had a fairly dead sound to it. A combination of several close mics on the amp worked very well but I wanted to try something more. In my quest for a variation in sound, I was seeking out other options. That’s when I noticed the bathroom door. First, they laughed as I was setting up a microphone in the bathtub of the adjoining bathroom. But they weren’t laughing later when they heard it. Mixed in with the close mics, the bathtub mic made the guitar sound like it was in a large reverberant concert hall. The bathtub mic was a Neumann U87 in the omni-directional mode to pick up all the reflections in the bathroom. During one take, I noticed that the sound seemed different. Sure enough, someone had accidentally closed the bathroom door and our concert hall sound was gone! Everyone agreed, the guitar sound needed the bathtub mic!
Dare to be different, stray from the norm! You can always go back to what you know will work. Don’t be attached to the outcome of trying something new, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.