It’s a given that successful people figure out a few things on their own along the way. Very successful people also figure out that they might want to keep a few tricks up their sleeves that help keep them unique. But some secrets, as is the habit with secrets, ultimately come out, and here a slew of great engineers and producers share some techniques — on the QT, hush hush, and very confidential — that helped them get to Easy Street.
HERE COME THE DRUM MICS
CHARLES DYE, Grammy winner, best known for his work on Ricky Martin’s 1998 love-it-or-hate-it hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”
“For hi-hat I usually go for a sound that’s less clanky and more whispy. Using a 451 or similar, I position the mic on the opposite side of the hat from the snare for separation, about one inch beyond the hat’s outer edge, and two inches above the edge pointing straight down. The mic is now aimed directly at the floor and not pointing at the hat at all. This off-axis and slightly unconventional position turns out to give me just the sound I’m looking for with the least amount of equalization. But invariably either the drummer or assistant engineer will at some point ‘fix’ it for me, thinking someone bumped the mic.”
Beyond the high-hat, Dye says he gets ambient drum sounds via early reflections. “I prefer miking the room’s ambience by positioning room mics facing a wall or window. The purpose is to get as much reflected sound as possible, without getting any direct. I often prefer warmer large diaphragm condensers for this. Most recently at Hit Factory Miami’s Studio C I used a pair of tube 47’s, placing them on the sidewalls to the left and right of the drums 14 feet in front of the kit. They were 10 to 12 feet high pointing directly at the wood walls 12 inches out. Because the mics were pointing in opposite directions from each other, the ambience was out of phase, so I flipped the phase on one. The sound was a very warm and rich room tone that later sounded great while recording electric guitars as well.”
PAT DILLETT, engineer and producer for They Might Be Giants and David Byrne, has a subtle trick for miking drums.
“I’ll place tom and snare microphones at a lower angle to the drum than most people. On toms I usually use [Sennheiser] 421’s or [Shure] SM98’s, on snare usually a [Shure] SM57. I find if I place the mic at a little less than a 30-degree angle to the drumhead —aimed at the point of attack (or at least the drummer’s intended point of attack — don’t get me started!) — I end up with a fatter sound. The mic catches the full impact but also grabs more of the skin resonating than a sharper angle placement. Of course, when stage miking, you want a sharper angle to avoid picking up everything else thundering around onstage.”
DAVID Z While engineering for Prince during his most creative days in Minneapolis in the 1980s, David did a lot of off-the-wall experimentation. And some even had to do with music.
“On the Family album, we were recording in a huge warehouse. We had to put the drums on the other side of the room because there was no control room. To get a particularly hot snare sound, I put a Sony ECM-50 condenser lavalier microphone inside the snare drum. We took off the top skin, suspended it with tape so it didn’t touch any part of the drum, ran the wire out of the air hole on the side and then taped up the air hole as part of securing the mic. You need some way for the air to escape the drum so I burned a hole in the bottom skin with a cigarette. I still do that to get rid of the boingy-ness of the snares. It freaks drummers out when I do it — even when I tell them I’m going to do it, they don’t believe me until I actually burn the hole. But it works, and so did that Sony mic inside then snare, but not for too long. It just got the life whacked out of it. It wasn’t designed for that kind of abuse. It lasted for about four songs. But it sounded great.”
STRINGS & THINGS
RON & HOWARD ALBERT have graced the acoustic guitar sounds of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Steve Cropper, et al. The key? According to Ron? Hardware.
“The ultimate acoustic guitar sound is a Martin D-45, preferably vintage, with bronze-wound strings. Put a Neumann U-87 into a shockmount and place it on a stand upside down, so the capsule is at the bottom — the secret is that you don’t get reflections off the metal body of the microphone that way. Set the mic on axis to the strings, as close as comfortable to the guitarist. Then, run it first through a Pultech PEQ-1A equalizer, because they have the ability to cut and boost in the same frequency range simultaneously. That’s what we do — cut and boost the highs and lows; the microphone honks the mids on its own. Then send it through a UREI 1176LN compressor. The setting will vary according to how hard the guitarist plays.
“On vocals, one longtime trick of ours has been to use dynamic microphones, like a Shure SM-7, for rock vocals. Dynamics lower the proximity effect and they tend to sit in the mix better, whereas condensers tend to pop out.”
JOE CHICCARELLI, production and engineering great whose bona fides run the gamut from the Stranglers to the Kronos Quartet, loves stringing them high.
“Often I’ll record solo violin or viola as a color on a country or even a rock track. The violin puts out sound from all over the instrument, from the neck to the body and out the sound holes. Using a close-up and a distant (room) microphone will work well, adding some depth to the sound. However, sometimes the tracks or the mics aren’t available to me. So I found that the most realistic sound could be captured with one mic above the instrument in the omni pattern. By moving the mic up and down above the violin I can control the balance between the present (close) sound and the ambience of the room. This seems to yield a result that truly sounds like the instrument in the room with a very three-dimensional quality to the sound.”
AL SCHMITT, whose 17 Grammys out of 34 nominations gives him an exact .500 batting average, has a favorite trick for brass.
“I leave all the microphones in an omni pattern instead of cardioid, like most engineers do. On big sections I’m not worried about things from other parts of the room leaking in, and there’s something about the way a fully open microphone sounds. The back is open and it just picks up a more natural array of sounds.”
ED CHERNEY, engineer for the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, knows a thing or two about a thing or two. In this instance: guitar amps.
“For guitar amps, to find the sweetest spot to place the microphone — Shure 57s are usually the classic choice when close miking, although I have really been digging the Royer Ribbon 121 — then plug the guitar cable into the input, but don’t plug in the guitar. On the jack that you would plug into the guitar, hold it and put your thumb against the tip of the jack so it hums. Then get down on your hands and knees in front of the amp speaker, cup your other hand behind your ear and listen from about a foot away from the speaker. Move your ear around until you hear the spot where the hum is the fullest and richest — that’s where to aim the microphone.”
BIL VORNDICK, whose engineering and production chops helped win Allison Krause her first Grammy, and who has pioneered modern bluegrass recording techniques, says lap steels may be electric guitars but do need a special touch.
“I like to mic the front and the back of the amp. I will use a single Shure 57, Sennheiser 421, or a Royer on the front of the amp cabinet (depending on which amp) a few inches from the speaker pointed one-third of the way from the center to the outside speaker rim. Then I position a 421 — out of phase from the front mic — pointing into the back of the speaker cabinet about six to eight inches away. (Move it around until you get the exact sound you like.) You can really get more balls out of the amp using the two mics front and back, instead of just the mics that many engineers only use on the front.”
BOB BULLOCK, a Nashville-based engineer whose discography includes the most recent discs for Shania Twain, George Strait, and Travis Tritt, has a neat adaptation on a stereo microphone technique applied to an acoustic guitar.
“I’ll use a stereo pair of AKG 451 condenser microphones. I set the first one up over the [soundbox] of the guitar about six inches away, aimed toward the sound hole and at the three lowest-frequency strings [E, A, and D]. I’ll take the other microphone and aim it toward the neck, around the 12th fret, and aimed toward the highest-pitched strings [G,B, and E]. With this setup, the first microphone is picking up the guitar’s lowest frequencies from both the lower-pitched strings and from the area of greatest low-frequency resonance. The other mic gets the upper frequencies. It’s the same principle as miking a piano with stereo mics, and when you pan them hard left and right, it gives you the same kind of stereo image. It really sounds great when someone is finger-picking the guitar.”
JOE CHICCARELLI (yes, again) recalls two techniques that helped him capture elusive instruments.
“Some time ago I did a project for blues guitarist George Thorogood. George is an amazing guitarist, capable of producing a big sound with his small combo amp that could fill a room with a great spectral balance top to bottom. Often it was hard capturing the type of low end that would emanate further back in the room and would rumble the floors. I had the best luck miking the Fender amp with the typical Neumann U-87, Shure 57, Royer 121 combinations, but I also mic the back of the open speaker cabinet — in the rear at the outer edge of the speaker I found the most punchy low end that I could blend in with my front microphones. To do this properly, I had the best luck with large-diaphragm condensers like the EV RE20 or the AKG D12. To balance all the microphones correctly, you’ll have to reverse the phase of the rear microphone. Remember, it’s a speaker cone moving positive and negative so the rear motions will most likely be opposite-phase from the front.”