Recording

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Studio recording vs Home recording - lessons from lockdown

Twelve Tone Studio was established shortly before the global pandemic took hold. Initially, I offered only mixing and mastering services, but nevertheless, I had been booked by a couple of bands to supervise the complete recording process of their respective albums in a dedicated recording studio.

Needless to say, at the start of lockdown, the studios were forced to close indefinitely. Given the strict social distancing guidelines of the time, my mobile recording studio was not a practical alternative. I expected the bands that had booked me to record them would simply choose to wait it out, and rebook the studios as soon as life returned to normal (those innocent days). 

But no. Everyone was keen to get on with things, and embrace the DIY approach. 

Over the summer of 2020, I completed a number of home productions by supervising the recording process remotely, including 1 full length album production in which the entire band learned how to record themselves from scratch, with relatively little prior home recording experience. And I have to say, I was sufficiently impressed with the results that I wanted to share how the band did it, using a fairly modest setup, to encourage anyone else thinking of having a go that it really can be done.

 

*Please note: My intention here is to provide a thorough and exhaustive description of how to record a professional quality album at home. As a result, there is a lot of information to include, and this post will continue to be updated and edited regularly over the coming months* - TM 28/10/20 

How to Record your Metal Band at Home

1. Background

The band in question were a 4 piece metal band, consisting of drums, a guitarist, a bassist and a vocalist. Two of the members had some previous experience of recording with other bands, but in each case the recording duties had been handled by a dedicated engineer. However, they had managed to produce some 'live in the rehearsal room' recordings on a single track Zoom dictaphone, and despite the poor sound quality, it was clear from the demos that they had a solid enough performing ability to be able to create some strong recordings, with the right approach. 

They were keen to make a reasonable investment in some reliable gear, whilst also wanting to keep costs down to a minimum. This governed all our decisions in deciding what equipment was necessary and suitable. 

2. Deciding what gear to buy

i) Drum mics and interface

*Disclaimer - I am not affiliated with any of the companies that make these products and neither am I making any specific endorsements. Any opinions are purely my own. This is simply an account of the gear that was used by the band to suit their budget, and pretty much every item listed can be exchanged for an equally effective equivalent*

 

Being a typical metal production, it was established that the drums would be recorded first to a click/ guide track, followed by guitars, then bass and finally vocals.

The first question we discussed was how best to record the drums. The drummer had a 5-piece kit (one kick, one snare, three toms, plus hi-hat and various overheads) which was set up in his garage.  

Rather than seeking out the best possible microphone to use for each individual drum, the most budget-friendly option was to choose an all-in-one drum mic pack. Various drum mic kits are available online, most commonly ranging from 4 to 7 mics. In previous recording sessions, I have used at least 10 mics on a similar kit setup, but we agreed to start with a set of 7 mics and do a test recording to see if any additional microphones were necessary.

This also meant that the band would need a suitable audio interface that would be able to handle at least 7 mic inputs. The vocalist was to use the same interface for the vocal recordings once the drums were complete.  

In the end, the band purchased the following:

- Drum mics: SHURE PGA Drum Kit 7

This pack contains one snare mic, three tom mics, one kick mic and two overhead mics. The band also purchased an adjustable stand and a suitable length XLR cable for each individual microphone.

- Audio interface: Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

The Focusrite Scarlett came with Pro Tools First included. However, this software only permits the recording of a maximum of 4 tracks simultaneously, and upgrading to the full version of Pro Tools purely for recording purposes was deemed to be well in excess of requirements (or budget). So the drummer opted to install Cockos Reaper as his DAW of choice. 

ii) Guitar gear

The guitarist already had a Line 6 POD Studio UX2 interface (with included POD Farm tones) and a copy of Cubase on his laptop, which he had been using for the purpose of recording demos. After listening to some of the demos, it was decided that, whilst the POD Farm tones were adequate for recording guide tracks, the guitarist should also record a DI track using the POD Farm plugin as a 'bypassable' insert in Cubase. This way, he could use the POD Farm tone for monitoring purposes whilst recording, but then bypass it before exporting the DI signal to me for subsequent re-amping.

- The Line 6 POD Studio UX2 Interface

iii) Bass gear

The bassist had already purchased a Kemper Profiler and interface for the purposes of this recording, and was already familiar with Reaper, so no additional gear was required here. In addition, the bass amp profile selected by the bassist was convincing enough that no further re-amping would be required for the bass tracks. 

- The Kemper Profiler head

iv) Vocal mic and booth

The vocalist only had an SM58 microphone, which has better application as a live mic. We decided it would be worth investing in a proper condenser microphone for recording the vocals. We opted for the affordable yet still high quality RODE NT1-A, which came as part of a bundle including a pop filter and mic cradle. 

- The RODE NT1-A microphone bundle

The vocalist was to reuse the same microphone stands, interface and laptop used for the drum recordings, so no additional gear was required here. However, a simple portable vocal booth was also acquired, to minimise the amount of undesirable room reflections being picked up in the recording. (NB You could just as effectively use a duvet or curtain suspended around the microphone for this purpose). 

- A portable vocal booth (microphone not included)

Now that the band had acquired all the necessary recording equipment, it was time to begin the recording process. Here's how we did it. 

3. The Recording Process

i) Recording the drums

The drum mics were set up as shown in the schematic below:

A few notes on mic placement: 

- the snare mic was placed about 5 cm over the rim of the snare, angled down towards the centre of the skin, and out of the way of the drummer's playing ; 

- the tom mics were positioned similarly, and all secured with clips which came as part of the mic set;

- the kick mic was placed through the sound holepointing slightly off centre from the beater. A distance of about 10-15cm was left between the tip of the mic and the beater skin.

- the overhead mics were positioned to cover an approximately equal amount of cymbals on either side of the kit. Height-wise, each mic was positioned at a height slightly lower than the height between the snare and the cymbals. Each mic was pointed downwards and angled slightly away from the drummer, pointing towards the outer rims of the cymbals. This minimises drum capture whilst maximising cymbal capture. IMPORTANT: to help keep the snare in the centre of the stereo image, and to minimise phasing issues, the distance from the centre of the snare to the tip of the overhead mics was measured and matched as closely as possible (see dotted lines). 

Notice that with this arrangement, we were lacking a number of mics that are frequently used in drum recording. Namely:

- the snare bottom mic;

- room mics (mono and/or stereo);

- kick out/ sub mic;

- hi-hat or ride mic. 

For a metal recording, room mics can generally be considered expendable, as the character of the drums in a typical metal mix tend to be very direct and punchy, rather than big and boomy. Besides, in this instance, since the drums were being recorded in a garage with no sound treatment, recording the room sound might not have led to the most useful results. 

In general, hi-hats and ride cymbals can be made out perfectly clearly from well placed stereo overheads, so direct mics are not really necessary here either. 

With regard to the snare bottom and kick out/ sub, I wanted to try using sample augmentation to substitute for the lack of these mics. After an initial trial recording, in which the recording levels were also set (taking care to avoid clipping), the sample augmentation approach appeared to work perfectly to give the kit the character it needed. So we decided to run with the 7 mic set, without using any additional drum mics. 

*Next up: How we recorded the guitars. To be continued*...........

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