Tag Archives: music

Crushed To Hell: My Thoughts About Mastering

For the second time in my life I have realised that reaching out to a mastering studio to put the “finishing touches” on my music is completely pointless.

Allow me to explain…

Mastering recorded audio became its own discipline after the Second World War, when a “dubbing engineer”, secondary to the recording/mix engineer, was tasked with transferring the recorded audio from tape to a master disc, which served as the template from which all following vinyl discs would be pressed. This was a purely technical procedure, whereby the dubbing engineer’s job was to ensure that the final recording, which had been signed off by those creatively involved with the production of the music, was faithfully duplicated onto its designated medium.

Early vinyl records tended to be dogged by various inefficiencies in the tape-to-disc transfer process, not least that the dynamic range of the recorded material could be too large, resulting in the cutting of unplayable waveforms where the needle would actually pop out of the grooves, or even burning out the disc cutting head. The use of compressors and limiters in the mastering process became widespread in the 1960s, to cap the dynamic range at a particular threshold and thus ensure that such problems could be avoided. However, because this process was automated, often the dynamics processing employed was not sympathetic to the fidelity of the original material, and so over-compression would sometimes squeeze the life out of it, making everything sound consistently loud in a way that dishonoured the integrity of the original tape master. Some records ended up sounding particularly nasty due to this pitfall at the mastering stage.

And so, the solution to this problem?

Enter the mastering engineer.

By the 1970s, dedicated mastering studios had been established, staffed by sound engineers using high-end equipment. These “mastering engineers” were incredibly adept at finalising tape masters in an artistically satisfactory way, establishing mastering as a new artistic discipline that could actually make the final result sound “better” than the original recording.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, music production was revolutionised by digital technology, and CDs became the darling format of the music industry. To this end, the significance of mastering for vinyl became less prominent, as the problems incurred by analogue playback were no longer an issue in the digital domain. Mastering engineers, however, did not disappear, and instead their role migrated into audio specialists who serve as the last step in the production process – the guy or gal who collates all the final mixes for a particular release, and applies their technical wizardry to ensure that program volumes and tonal balancing are consistent throughout the entirety of the album. This is arguably of particular importance given the infinitely flexible DIY audio production world in which we now live, where track one may have been recorded and mixed in your bedroom, and track ten is a live recording from that gig you played last year – a far cry from the rigidly calibrated standards of professional audio recording of the 60s and 70s – the mastering engineer can be an invaluable specialist who coalesces all of these final mixes, “topping and tailing” each song to run seamlessly from one to the other, and thereby creating a pleasingly consistent album.

So, what’s my beef with mastering then? Why the need for such cynicism over a specialist process that seems so necessary?

Well, as we have seen, the discipline of mastering has migrated away from being a technical necessity, and has reinvented itself as an artistic process that seeks to “correct” and “improve” audio recordings. It seems to me that underpinning this is an assumption that all recordings require “correction” and “improvement”, such that it has now become an almost unquestioned assumption that recordings must undergo such processes before they are properly finished, regardless of the fact that 99% of all recordings these days end up uploaded onto Soundcloud or YouTube, and as such have absolutely no technical requirement for any fiddling at the final stage. I have had this demonstrated to me twice in my life, and both times I reached the conclusion that mastering is really only necessary if identifiable problems are present with the final mixes. In short, if your final mixes sound great to you, and you are satisfied that they translate well across systems, then you really have to ask yourself what the point of having it mastered actually is.

Case in point, I recently finished working on two songs of my own, and rather than do my normal thing of using some light compression, adding a little sweetening EQ and then normalising the result, I decided that it is high time I found myself a decent, trustworthy mastering engineer to whom I could reliably outsource any material recorded at my studio – for both myself and my clients – to put the “finishing touches” on the mixes. The icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The sachet in the pot noodle. The mayonnaise on your kebab. Whatever your favourite culinary analogy, that’s what I thought. And so I touched base with several mastering facilities, both home and abroad, each of whom did a test master for me of one of my songs.

The result?

In each instance I found their work to be a terrible detriment to my original mix; crushed with compression in a way that seemed to me to be horribly distasteful, and accompanied by notes claiming things like “I tried to make it a tad warmer and kill some spikiness in the guitar”. This seemed to me to be slightly presumptuous – perhaps I like the spikiness in the guitar (I do). But of course, how was he to know otherwise? He is not familiar with my style, my artistic preferences, or what I consider important about my mixes, and so he was just trying to rectify the problems in the mix, as he perceived them. Attempts to articulate my preferences via email just leads to a cumbersome back and forth whereby words prove to be an inefficient medium in which to convey the subjective pleasure of ambiguous terms such as “guitar spikiness”, let alone any other of the myriad things that I neglected to mention. I actually work hard to capture a wide, natural ambience in my music, especially in the drums, and I feel that, in this current age of “loudness war” style over-compression, excessive limiting of transients in order to push up the aggregate volume of the music actually works against this kind of production style, and forces a kind of “breathlessness” in the music, where everything becomes squashed into a mulch of muddy sounding loudness.

Let’s take a closer look…

1

The image above depicts a stereo waveform representation of my original mix (red), followed by two subsequent masters from two different studios. In both cases we see that the audio peaks have been truncated in order that the aggregate level can be further maximised. The blue-backed waveform represents an attempt by the first mastering engineer – this waveform is a real sausage! Obviously hugely compressed (oddly more so on the right hand side than the left), which manifests as very noticeable “gain pumping” (sharp volume rises and falls) when listening. Detailing this concern to the second mastering studio, they returned their master, which is the yellow-backed waveform above. Noting that I was not a fan of excessive compression, they opted to still squash the mix, but just not as much. The result was a slightly less severe but still noticeable and ugly compression.

It actually seems to have become second nature to mastering engineers to simply make everything as loud as possible, because, hey, louder = better, right? We can see this trend towards excessive loudness by comparing two more waveforms, this time from Nirvana’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, recorded in 1991. The image below depicts the original 1991 master (blue), and the 20th anniversary remastered “Special Edition” from 2011 (green):

2

It is interesting to note that the blue-backed waveform clearly shows Nirvana’s signature loud-quiet-loud song structure represented as an actual change in peak volume between the verses and the choruses. Cut to 2011 and this natural dynamic has been crushed in order raise the aggregate level of the song, arguably sacrificing one of the very trademarks that made Nirvana such a dynamically versatile and intense band in the first place. So no, louder is not always better.

But here’s another reason to be wary of excessive compression. Look what happens when we truncate peak waveforms in this way:

3

The above image shows a close-up of my original mix (red) side by side with the first master (blue). What we see is that, by truncating audio transients we are actually sacrificing audio content that would otherwise have been present. The detail displayed in the red wave has been totally lopped off and replaced with something resembling a large square wave. Square waves actually introduce odd-ordered harmonics into the signal, which manifests to our ears as rather ugly distortion.

So it seems to me that we are somewhere close to the old days of ramming final mixes through limiters at the mastering stage simply as a matter of course rather than because the music actually warrants it. Indeed, when I suggested to subsequent mastering engineers that I don’t wish to overdo the compression, they still felt inclined to push it somewhat, rather than to err on the side of subtlety. It’s curious why this has become the norm, and of course the much discussed “Loudness War” of the 2000s has impacted significantly upon the industry, such that it seems as though a mastering engineer doesn’t feel he is creating value for money unless he is seen to be mastering for “competition volume”, or else tampering with the mix to some significant and obviously noticeable degree. But for me, this is not actually the job of a mastering engineer. It seems to me that a principled mastering engineer should not be afraid to listen to a mix and decide that nothing needed to be done to it. And to that end, their job is done, and they are still every bit as entitled to be paid as if they had actually decided that there were real tonal balance problems that needed to be rectified. The mastering engineer is your last line of defence against actual technical problems, not a dude who can make your mixes sound “shit hot”. Working under that preconception actually encourages sloppy mixing, because it’s okay – the mastering guy will fix it!

So, where does this leave me?

Well, just to be clear – I am not a mastering engineer, and I do not claim that I can adequately do the complicated job of fixing the technical problems of someone else’s mixes. This task is for dedicated mastering engineers who are good at what they do and conduct themselves in a principled and agreeable manner. But I would urge you, if you’re happy with your mixes and you love the way they sound, please ask yourself – what exactly is the problem that you’re trying to solve? Personally I can only conclude the same point that I reached several years ago when I went through a similar experience: I seem to be trying hard to locate a mastering engineer to whom I can pay money in order to fix unidentifiable problems. All they seem to do – inevitably – is fail to align with my artistic vision and return results that I actually think make my mixes sound worse, not better. And so, being that I do not wish to employ someone to make further creative decisions on mixes that I am already satisfied with, it seems to me that I should take my cue from my previous decision on this matter, and that is that the person best placed to put any “finishing touches” on my music is me.

Hopefully, in a few years from now, when I have again forgotten why I don’t use mastering engineers and I find myself once again looking for that special someone who can put the awesome “finishing touches” on my music, this blog post will serve as a reminder of just how pointless that pursuit is.


Stereo Recording Techniques On Test

Often in recording scenarios it is necessary to implement a stereo miking technique. Usually this is employed to capture room ambience at a distance from the originating sound source, by which I mean the reverberant field of an acoustic environment – anywhere where the late reflections are of greater intensity than the direct sound. Whether it’s for drum kit ambience, concert halls or choirs, ambient stereo miking provides a way of adding depth, width and general realism to the recording that is not possible through close-miking alone.

However, there are numerous stereo mic techniques and it struck me recently that I had never undertaken a direct comparison of them. This realisation in fact struck me with such vigour that I felt moved to instantly rectify the situation, spontaneously leaping up from my seat, screaming “STEREO MIC COMPARISON!!”, and bolting, arms flailing and screeching like a girl, towards the door. The other cinema-goers were somewhat bemused.

And with that I decided at once to trial four different stereo mic techniques over a few different scenarios. These are techniques that any good engineer should be aware of, but perhaps not all have actually directly compared. Well, in the name of science I hereby rise to the challenge.

Yes, that’s right… science.
 
 
So the four techniques on the menu today are the following:

  • #1: XY
  • #2: ORTF
  • #3: Blumlein
  • #4: Mid/Side

stereo-mics

I won’t go into detail about the configuration of these techniques here, largely because it’s late and I can’t be bothered, but if you’d like to know more about their implementation, please follow this link.
 
 
The purpose of my trials would be to answer the following questions:

  • Which technique captures a more effective and balanced stereo image?
  • How well does each technique collapse to mono?
  • How rich is the tonal balance?
  • Which one do I like best?

 
 
I chose to make these comparisons under 3 different scenarios: a large, reverberant concert hall, the drum recording environment in my studio, and with a moving sound source in a small room, which in this case was me wandering around and talking. The tests employed two sets of microphones – two AKG C414s for Blumlein and Mid/Side, and two AKG C451s for XY and ORTF. This selection was imposed due to equipment restrictions, otherwise identical microphones would have been used for all applications, thereby eliminating the variable of the sonic performance of the different mics. Nevertheless the comparisons should allow us to draw some reasonably solid conclusions.
 
Listed below are the recordings. Click each one to listen for yourself and see if you agree with my analysis:

 
stereo-mics-2
 
stereo-mics-3
 
 
So, based upon these recordings, along with a whole load of other tests I carried out which are not listed above, here are my answers to the aforementioned questions:
 
 

  • Q: Which technique captures a more effective and balanced stereo image?
  • A: Mid/Side.

The weakest stereo image seemed, across the board,  to be XY. It has a strong centre but very little width. This is unsurprising, since the capsules are so close together that it seems illogical to expect anything more. This is as I had always suspected, and why I never really felt tempted by this technique. The lack of movement in the voice recording is particularly noteworthy. My next preference is ORTF due to its much wider stereo image and strong centre point, followed jointly by Blumlein and M/S, both of which clearly exhibit a wide, detailed image. If I had to pick a winner, I’d go with M/S. The movement may not be quite as authentic as Blumlein, perhaps due to the trickery involved in the M/S configuration vs. the fairly organic method of Blumlein, however for the capture of room ambience for a static source, M/S just seems to have a special kind of something about it – a width and depth that to my ears is incredibly realistic.
 
 

  • Q: How well does each technique collapse to mono?
  • A: ORTF & Blumlein win.

The mono drum recordings reveal that no technique has any particular issue or phase weirdness occurring when collapsed to mono, however in terms of preserving the fidelity of the ambient field that we are attempting to capture, Blumlein and ORTF seem to have it over M/S and XY. With M/S this is due to the cancellation of the side mic so that we are left with only one microphone pointing at the source, and XY had the weakest stereo width anyway, so this result is unsurprising.
 
 

  • How rich is the tonal balance?
  • A: Mid/Side wins.

We have to be a little careful here when we start using ambiguous terms like “richness”, “warmth”, “creaminess”, “silkiness”, “moistness”, “purpleness”, etc, etc, because these aren’t exactly scientific words. However, what I intend it to mean in this instance is how well expressed are the bass, middle and treble parts of the frequency spectrum, subjectively speaking. In my view, M/S clearly trumps all others in terms of its pleasing bottom end yet detailed high frequency reproduction. This was deduced by looping small parts of the drum and concert recordings and directly comparing each technique. ORTF is also very good in this regard, followed by Blumlein and finally XY.
 
 

  • Which one do I like best?
  • A: Mid/Side!

Yep, it would appear that M/S is awesome. Science says so. Well, to my ears at least. My science ears. It adds something magical to the recording and is extremely pleasing to experience, especially on drum recordings when combined with the close miked signals. Here is a demonstration of that:

 
 

Blumlein and ORTF are still excellent techniques though, offering a nice, solid centre and plenty of detailed width, which is certainly bad news for the XY technique, which has since been strapped to a rocket and jettisoned into the centre of the sun.
 
It deserved it, too.
 
 
That is all.

 


Drum Miking Techniques

While working as a freelance engineer in a prominent Brighton studio I saw that here lay an excellent opportunity to properly exploit a decent live room and a large selection of microphones (a combination of ribbon mics with my own extensive set of small diaphragm condensers) in order to once and for all produce the kind of drum sound that provokes wet dreams in any fan of Steve Albini, and probably be the only studio in Brighton with the foresight to do so. With that notion, and with the promise of a kick drum sound capable of producing an internal haemorrhage elusively wafting through the air, I set to work in order to discover exactly how it is done, and exactly which mics and techniques are appropriate to induce such biological phenomena in a laborious weekend of tedious excitement. Aided by fellow engineer Chris Blakey, and musician and professional cable winder Genti Aliaj, these were our findings.

 
 

The Approach

All tests were conducted through a Neve 5316 using the console preamps, recorded to Pro Tools 9 HD at 96 KHz, 24 bit, and monitored through NS-10Ms and KRK VXT6s.

In order that the best drum sound could be obtained, the approach was logical and methodical:

  1. Get a decent sounding drum kit.
  2. Tune and dampen it as appropriate.
  3. Create a deadened environment using a surround of acoustic screens.
  4. Set up one drum at a time within this dead space and find the appropriate microphone and position.
  5. Reassemble the kit using the close mic techniques found.
  6. Listen for spill and reposition microphones accordingly, without compromising the sound.
  7. Test overhead microphones and positions.
  8. Test M/S microphone and positions.
  9. Test ambient microphones and positions.
  10. Experiment with processing.

It seemed to me that with two days meticulously analysing the drum kit in this way, it should become apparent exactly which microphones are more fit for task than others, and what techniques add to or detract from the overall sound.

 
 

Snare Drum

The snare drum was set within the screen and a selection of microphones aimed at it, in order to approximate recommended techniques suggested by various engineers over the years who may or may not have engaged in this kind of direct comparison. In total 8 mics were used, with diaphragms aligned as closely as possible, each pointing fairly flat against the drum head, around 1½ inches from it. This position seems logical, since aligning the diaphragm parallel to the drum head allows the greatest frequency energy of the drum as a resonating system to drive the diaphragm of the microphone, without passing obliquely across it, as is the case in a non-parallel placement. Indeed, adjustments to this end found that aiming the microphone at the point of stick contact, whilst possibly capturing fractionally more attack, does seem to incur a slight bass roll-off, which is a particular concern with condenser mics where this content is particularly important (since their sound is very different to the dry, bone-headed “thump” delivered by a dynamic).

During the test, each mic was analysed relative to the others for its particular qualities and ranked in order of “likeability”, based on its character and its frequency content. The results were as follows:

Microphone  Rank Comments
Shure Beta 98 1 Bright, full bodied sound. Very directional but with an impressive amount of high end detail and a surprisingly thuddy bottom end. Everybody’s favourite by a long way. Its small size and gooseneck clip also makes it excellent for positioning.
Audio Technica ATM450 2 Another bright mic, although lacking a little of the detail and body of the Beta 98. Still a very good mic but may work better in combination with a dynamic mic to reproduce the depth of the drum (the Beyerdynamic M201 is an excellent dynamic microphone but unfortunately one was not available today).
AKG C414 3 A good, rich, unimposing tone, although with less “wow” factor than the aforementioned microphones. However, its physical size and cost render it probably inappropriate for all except the most affluent of engineers.
Josephson E22 4 The darling of Electrical Audio. A surprisingly dark sounding small diaphragm condenser microphone – its advantage is its rigidity and its directionality, however its top end response seemed to leave something to be desired.
Shure SM7 5 The brightest of the dynamic mics used, but still ranking below all condensers in terms of overall detail. Again, its physical size makes for problematic application in a real world scenario.
Shure SM57 6 Peculiar sounding dynamic microphone that has somehow found its way into the recording aether as a “workhorse” multi-application standard. In this test the SM57 ranks far below every other microphone so far discussed, with a very boxy, artificial sound that carries no discernible benefit other than the fact that you can happily throw it at a wall and find it still sounds the same.
Shure Beta 57 7 Even worse than the SM57, this microphone imparts a very noticeable high mid boost that forces its own character upon the source sound, producing a Frankenstein reproduction of a sound that could never exist in nature. A very poor mic.
Electrovoice RE20 8 This microphone ranks lowest only in as much as it was simply tried as a “bit of fun”. Dark, lacking in high end, physically large and intrusive, and expensive, this microphone is completely and utterly inappropriate for this application in every conceivable way.

The individual recordings of this test can be found here.

With the most appropriate top-of-snare microphone now established, the next job was to determine the bottom mic. It therefore stood that in order to determine this, the designated top mic – of which we had only one – should remain on top whilst bottom microphones were tried in conjunction with it, in order that we could assess which complimented the top mic the best. We tested 7 microphones at the bottom of the snare, each time inverting the polarity (not phase – if you are of the school who think that phase and polarity are interchangeable terms then shame on you, and I will shortly be having words with your mother) so as to properly manage the conditions inherent in two microphones at close range pointing at each other. Taking a small moment to elaborate on this, because the bottom microphone receives the vibrations from the resonating drum head 180° out of phase with the top mic, either one of the corresponding channels should be polarity inversed, thereby adding further definition to the sound of the drum whilst avoiding low frequency cancellation, and also serving to cancel out any extraneous environment noise (like traffic or bass amps), since such noise arrives at the two microphones more or less simultaneously. This is known as a differential principle.

Here are the results of that test:

Microphone  Rank Comments
AKG C414 1 Surprisingly complimentary sound with great separation and nice, rich body, rendering the overall drum sound extra punchy. A good range all round with a top end that is not too harsh. Very easy to place underneath the snare so physical limitations are no issue. Easily the best choice.
Audio Technica ATM450 2 Nice and bright (which is what you want in a bottom-of-snare mic) with a fast response, but lacking the depth of the C414. Still provides a good deal of snap.
Josephson E22 3 A slightly darker, slightly drier version of the ATM450. A good mic but not first choice in this application.
Shure SM7 4 Spits out a pleasant thump but lacks the top end detail of the aforementioned mics. Sounds as you might expect a dynamic mic under a snare to sound.
Sennheiser 441 5 Slightly richer than the SM7 but lacking in top end, rendering it fairly uncomplimentary to the top mic in this application.
Shure SM57 6 Characteristically dry, nondescript sound, not really useful for anything. Less thumping than you might expect and exhibiting extremely poor top end clarity.
Shure Beta 57 7 Entirely ridiculous. All artificial mid-range and nothing else. Sounds like a mechanical sneeze.

The individual recordings of this test can be found here.

 
 

Rack Tom

Although the microphone positioning in this case was based on identical principles as on the snare drum, the analytical process for the rack tom was slightly different, because essentially the mic that is fit for purpose on the top of the drum should also be fit for the bottom, given that the source is more or less the same:

Microphone  Rank Comments
Josephson E22 1 This is where this mic comes into its own. Great attack and full body, nicely preserving the detail of the drum. The darker tone serves to enhance the tom sound very nicely without accentuating any irritating wolf tones.
AKG C414 2 Another nice, rich sound, with slightly less attack than the E22, but still pleasantly full-bodied. However, again it is physically intrusive and makes a great target for a drum stick.
Audio Technica ATM450 3 Slightly less body but good attack. Still a nice clean sound, but possibly not the first choice should an abundance of E22s be available. Having said that, there is absolutely not £500 worth of difference between this mic and the E22, and given its price, small profile and excellent position-ability, this is a great little microphone.
Sennheiser 441 4 A bone-head dynamic sound – nondescript and characterless, but “gets the job done”, if what you are looking for is the lower mid thump without concern for detail.
Shure SM7 5 More attack and less body than the 441. It’s passable, but it would be a strange engineer who considers this an appropriate microphone for any drum.
Shure Beta 98 6 All attack and no body. Strange, because it sounded so rich on the snare drum, but for a rack tom, this mic lacks the required depth to sufficiently reproduce the desired boom.
Shure SM57 7 Sounds like an SM57 – dull and lacking any redeeming features other than there tends to be lots of them about.
Shure Beta 57 8 Quickly becoming the stupidest sounding microphone. More imposing mid-range nothingness and entirely inappropriate for use on a drum kit, or, I suspect, anywhere else.

All in all, the E22 was clearly the most appropriate microphone for the rack tom, however, given their price at around £700, the likelihood of owning enough of them with which to entirely coat a drum kit is very small, unless you happen to be the man who conceived the design. We were lucky to have one to try out, but given the price difference of around £500, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with using the ATM450, which is lucky for us because we have an abundance of them. Where the E22 really scores points however is in its robust design and (as we were to discover later) its superior directionality, meaning that spill from the rest of the kit is less of an issue. However, the ATM450 has pretty good off-axis response, meaning that, even though it does pick up the rest of the kit more than the E22, it never actually sounds bad. Just be careful that your drummer doesn’t smack it with her stick.

The individual recordings of this test can be found here.

 
 

Floor Tom

It is probably unsurprising that the floor tom test harboured almost identical results to the rack tom test, save for some inconsequential ambiguity regarding whether the ATM450 was actually better than the C414 this time around. Either way, It’s pretty clear by now that if you are financially privileged enough to own enough E22s, this would almost certainly be the tom mic of choice, otherwise the ATM450 comes a close second. Either way I believe that you are going to end up with a close drum sound that boasts superior depth and clarity to the standard practice of using only dynamic microphones on the top heads.

The individual recordings of this test can be found here.

 
 

Kick Drum

When we came to examine the kick drum it was quickly established that the position of the mic had more bearing on the sound than the mic that was used. While every mic exhibited its own character, each of which could potentially be useful in different applications dependant on the style of music, the positioning harboured radically different results. Firstly, here is a brief analysis of the four mics tested at the hole of the kick drum:

Microphone  Rank Comments
Electrovoice RE20 1 A great, full bodied microphone that really highlights the accompanying “boom” of the drum, as well as the attack sound. However a great deal of gain is required to produce suitable performance from the mic, and therefore decent preamps are advised that are suitable for the task.
AKG D112 2 Toppier than the RE20, it is actually a matter of preference which one you may decide to go for, with equally good attack and a mid-range that sounds… just… different to the RE20.
Audix D6 3 Apparently designed as a “metal” kick microphone, and you can definitely hear it, emphasising as it does the clicky attack that is a staple of irritating metal music everywhere.
Shure Beta 52 4 Not dissimilar to the D6, it only ranks lower because its physical shape renders it slightly harder to position.

The problem, however, was that, in the regular placement – just at the sound hole at the point where the greatest volume of air is being ejected from the drum – all of these microphones sounded peculiarly plasticky and weird. When listening to the drum in the room it sounded large and booming and just as you would hope a kick drum would sound, but under the microscope this was not the case. In order to remedy the situation, an AKG C414 was slowly moved around the outside of the repeatedly pounded kick drum while we determined to find the sweet spot at which the non-plasticky boom could be sufficiently captured. This transpired to be around 2 feet in front of the sound hole, where this microphone was subsequently positioned. This did bring to mind the idea that I now recalled from other engineers, that a condenser mic outside of the kick drum could sound quite nice, and here we seemed to have confirmed it. It had lots of attack and lots of boom, but the only component potentially missing was some extreme bottom end. Use of a Yamaha Sub Kick right against the resonant head seemed to provide the thud we were looking for, and when compared to the C414 with artificially boosted low end, it resulted in a much more natural sound.

An important component of a good kick drum sound however, and one that is almost always overlooked and then attempted to be fixed at the mix stage (usually by boosting somewhere around the 1-3 KHz mark) is the attack. It is this that is clearly audible in recordings, not the sub. The sub is something you feel, but the attack is something you hear. This is an important distinction to make, because I have seen many people (myself included, some years ago) trying in vain to boost the sub part of the kick drum, ever wondering why they are not able to allow it any definition through the sub frequencies of the rest of the mix. We all know the feeling of the bottom half of our mixes turning into a definition-less squelchy mulch of non-descript boom, without ever really being able to tell what is happening down there. And so the solution to this is to take care to faithfully capture the attack component of the kick drum by separately miking it. The bottom end of this signal can then be rolled off in order to achieve a piercing beater slap that accentuates the kick sound without ever having to boost silly frequencies in the mix. Obviously for this application a suitable microphone is any that has good high end definition but is also easy to place in such an awkward position. Three mics were tried in our test:

Microphone  Rank Comments
Audio Technica ATM450 1 Great attack and full bodied, plus physically small. Combined with an Audix D-Clamp mounting clip, this is very easy to manoeuvre into a very close position. Just be sure it doesn’t get thudded by the beater. That wouldn’t be good.
Shure Beta 98 2 Excellent attack but lacking definition lower down in the spectrum. Also comes with a clip that looks like it is purpose built for this exact application, but after some frustrating fiddling you find that it really isn’t.
Sennheiser MD421 3 Boring dynamic nothing-special microphone that did nothing special in this application except got in the way.

The individual recordings of these tests can be found here.

 
 

Assembling The Kit

Having determined the best microphones and relative positioning, the kit was assembled and all techniques applied with a view to checking how spill from the rest of the kit affected our choices. Happily, spill was hardly an issue, and in fact the benefit of dual miking drums was further accentuated in this regard, as having two microphones in different locations pointing at a single drum serves to enhance the character and definition of that drum whilst cancelling spill from elsewhere in the kit, or at least widening the relative signal-to-noise ratio. I suspect that this is therefore a critical consideration in using condenser microphones as close mics on a drum kit because, although sonically superior to dynamics, the advantage of dynamic mics is their off-axis rejection and poor high frequency response, meaning that crashing and clattering cymbals from elsewhere on the kit tend to interfere less with the dull character of the dynamic microphone. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, for excellent drum definition with condensers, use two of them.

The only instance in which spill was a noticeable concern was with the C414 in front of the kick drum, which by now was reproducing less of the boom exhibited by a single kick drum being repeatedly and consistently struck on its own, and more of the cymbal clatter from the rest of the kit. It had lost definition, and it was apparent that a closer technique was required in order to produce acceptable separation. It quickly became clear that a sound hole microphone could actually be used, so long as it was angled in such a way as to minimise the plastic tone of the beater slapping against the drum head. This was achieved by simply moving the mic off axis in relation to the beater. Still slightly plasticky, implying that there is some as yet undisclosed issue with the internal acoustics of that particular kick drum, but far less problematic than before, and with acceptable depth and precision. An RE20 was used in this application.

 
 

Overheads

Overheads were assessed in two ways; by exchanging microphones and by raising their position above the kit. The fundamental technique however always remained the same: both microphones positioned in a straight line either side of the kit, face-down directly above their respective cymbal clusters. Incidentally, it was a point of contention between Chris and I regarding which overhead microphone is considered “left” and which is “right”, with my firm belief that, as a drummer myself, it is appropriate for the stereo spectrum in the mix to be situated in a way that makes sense to the drummer – a right-handed drummer has his high-hat on the left-hand side. Anything else is disorientating and conducive to travel sickness. I fully accept, however, that not everyone shares this view, and some (most, probably) consider it appropriate to balance the mix from the audience’s perspective, rather than the musician’s. Personally my view is that the music was created entirely from the musicians’ perspective, from the composition to the lyrics to the performance, and therefore the recording and mix should reflect this and not be tailored to the perspective of an abstract person whose role is no more than an observer. I understand that a gig scenario has different connotations because a large audience is actually present and looking at the band, and therefore probably expects that their visual reference correlates with what they are hearing, but a recording is a musician’s opportunity to speak, unobserved, directly to an audience from their perspective. That’s why, to me, the high-hat side (for a right-handed drummer) is always OH L, and the floor tom side is always OH R. But whatever side of the fence you fall on, just make sure that you and any assistant engineers are all on the same page. It could lead to confusion.

In positioning the overheads, it was found that, for a hard hitting drummer such as myself at least, close miking the cymbals was inappropriate in that the attack part of the cymbal felt ear-splittingly harsh, whilst the sustain was largely unrecognised by the microphone. Not only this, but, as is often the case when overheads are too close to the cymbals, the movement of the cymbal creates an undesirable phasing effect. The remedy to this was to raise the microphones up to around four feet above the cymbals, being sure at all times that both microphones were equidistant from the snare, such that the risk of snare phasing could be minimised (an XLR cable makes a handy measuring device for this task). In this position, although allowing more room ambience into the microphone (which, in a room that sounds as functional as this, poses no problem), a good balance of the kit could be achieved with great stereo imaging. There was talk of elaborating on the positioning by trying a coincident pair or some such oft-referred to but curiously never observed technique, but given that the stereo imaging was doing everything we needed it to do here, it seemed inappropriate to change it.

The mics tested were as follows:

Microphone  Rank Comments
Coles 4038s 1 Deceivingly dark sounding microphones, such that on first glance they appear entirely inappropriate until you realise that they are perfectly balancing the kit and smoothing out all the aggressive high end usually present in overhead microphones. Very dry and functional sound without excellent body.
Neumann U87s 2 A bright, clattering sound, rich in upper mid detail but inappropriate for this application without significant EQ treatment.
Neumann KM187s 3 Very bright with excellent high end detail and transient response, but as such renders clattering cymbals ear splitting.

The individual recordings of this test can be found here.

 
 

M/S Room Mic

An essential component of the “Albini” drum technique is the placement of a cardioid/figure-8 arrangement in front of the kit, with the side mic aligned to face the walls perpendicular to the direction of the kit. The principle of M/S (mid/side) recording is that, whilst a directional microphone captures the sound source, a figure-8 mic captures a stereo image by means of polarity-inverting a duplication of its signal, the two of which are then hard panned left and right. And so it was in this test that, after experimenting with the positioning of the mic in front of the kit, moving it increasingly further back until the most desirable spot was found (around four feet from the kit and 2½ feet from the floor), the resulting trickery harboured subtle ambience which lent itself nicely to the width of the kit. It was however important the right microphones are used, as the initial choice of Audio Technica AT4050 – although a great microphone for many instances – actually sounded too bright and revealing here. Cymbal clatter is a large problem in ambient drum miking, and so use of ribbon mics – in this case the Royer 121 – provided just the right amount of high end roll off that served the sound well, although ultimately, at mix stage, the high end had to be further attenuated to minimise the clanging clutter as much as possible.

 
 

Ambient Mics

With the essential sound of the kit now nicely built up, and the drums thumping through the speakers in a way that has not been observed by any of us in any studio this side of Chicago, ambient miking became merely a matter of taste, the essential function of which was to add a little extra something into an already more than serviceable sound. In this regard, we spent little time experimenting with different microphones and placements, but instead went with a tried and trusted technique of using two fairly transparent sounding omni mics (in this case some custom built Panasonic WM-61s – two surprisingly high quality electret capsule mics that I built some time ago) placed ¾ of the way up the wall at the back of the room, thus utilising the principle of the boundary effect. Boundary microphones exhibit more accurate definition due to their being uninhibited by the comb filtering effects caused by wave cancellation from nearby boundaries – placing the mics on the boundary itself reduces such an undesirable effect.

Following this, a rusty, vintage tube microphone was placed in the corridor outside the live room in order to capture what I have come to regard as “a bit of fun” – special effect ambience that you can take or leave, depending on taste. Just compress the crap out of it and – presto – instant drum fun.

And so essentially, that was it. All this experimenting resulted in a drum sound that, when played back, just about knocked your head through the rear wall, which is precisely the effect we were striving for. If you would like to hear for yourself, you can find the resulting files here.

For the time being, anyway, I’m off to give my fingers a rest from about three hours’ constant tip-tapping. In another post I will elaborate on the mixing process following these techniques, as one or two tricks should be employed in order to suitably manage such a large number of independent signals. However, for the time being, this appears to be the secret of the Albini method.


Criticism

A word about criticism.

Criticism is a necessary fact of life. It is required to regulate a democracy and ensure that the actions of empowered individuals and bodies are scrutinised against a consensus. Politicians, as elected representatives of millions of people, invite criticism for their conduct. So too may anyone who holds influence significant enough to palpably affect the lives of others – religious leaders and their espoused doctrines, captains of industry, health service officials – these people and others like them are rightly open to the strongest criticism, particularly from those whose lives they may affect.

Such a statement is obviously true, and it is a premise which provides a certain lubrication to the mechanics of society.

But where I feel the outlines defining the function of criticism start to become distinctly blurred, and also where the opinions of each self-appointed critic hit new heights of vitriol is, rather bizarrely, in the criticism of art. And it is something that we are all not only capable of, but have been guilty of at some point in our lives. I’m sure even you, dear reader, can distinctly remember a specific occasion in which a piece of music, television, film, theatre or art has stirred such a hurricane of negative feeling within you such as to condemn those responsible for its creation to an eternity of suffering and damnation for the incomprehensible sin of unleashing such an abomination upon the world and therefore even creating the possibility that you might one day have to sit through it. “Miss Y created artwork X. I hate artwork X. I therefore hate Miss Y and wish nothing but pain and misfortune upon her”.

This, I would like to suggest, is demonstrative of a cavernous moral blind spot. Not only this, but such opinions are far more telling of the person making them than of anything to do with artwork X, or Miss Y.

There are people in the world participating in acts of unimaginable evil, specifically designed to cause suffering and pain to innocent people. There are corrupt governments, liars, cheaters, rapists and murderers, all doing so to further their own agendas at cost to others. Then, by contrast, there are people who feel compelled to create works of pure self-expression through utterly peaceful means, harming no-one in the process of merely attempting to put their little stamp on the world. “Miss Y waz ‘ere”. It only takes a quick glimpse through some of the comments on your favourite YouTube videos however to see that the strength of negative feeling directed towards these two groups is very often analogous. Why exactly should this be? What does it say about us that we should think in such terms about those who dare to present their work to the world? And please, don’t pretend you have not been guilty of it in the past. You know you have. I know I have. It’s an ugly facet of the human condition that is hidden deep beneath our subconscious, but when examined most likely reveals very ugly truths about the individual making such remarks, or even thinking such things in the first place, whether expressed or not.

The distinction however, should be between those who realise it and therefore make attempts to intellectualise it and use it to increase self-awareness and therefore become a better person and a clearer thinker, and those whose thought process grinds to a halt at “I hate artwork X and I hate Miss Y”, and who then take the opportunity to express such tedious and inconsequential opinions to the rest of the world, these days through the instantly yet superficially gratifying and undeniably faceless medium of the internet. The internet has indeed been an astonishing revolution in bringing the power of communication en mass to the global civilisation, but yet where it gives with one hand, it takes with the other, for it instils ill-conceived empowerment in each and every one of us to act as critic to every piece of honest personal expression we stumble across in our daily cyber lives. We have the power to actively humiliate each other within the context of a wider audience, and it is an activity many people seem to revel in at every available opportunity, with deeply unsubstantiated claims about how “shit” a particular piece of work is. Such a sentiment is no more than baffling, since it totally neglects the innate narrow-mindedness of the human individual that generates such biases, not to mention the distinct failing of humanity in favour of caressing one’s own ego. It’s easy to forget that there is a real person with a real emotional investment on the other end of your ill-considered words. We wouldn’t for example stand out on the street outside Miss Y’s art exhibition shouting “Miss Y is shit” through a megaphone at passing members of the public. It’s curious that people are so readily able to perform the equivalent act online. Why do you suppose this is?

The problem ultimately begins within the critic themselves, that is to say, each and every one of us. We all have the misfortune of observing the world through the blinkers of our own minds. Well-trodden neural pathways instil an innate bias in us that gives no one of us an authority over someone else’s work than we have to describe another person’s experience of seeing the colour red. It is a purely subjective phenomenon. This is because we are inherently unable to empathise with the thought process and emotional journey that led to that piece of work being created in the first place. Let’s say a guitarist sat up late one night, feeling considerable emotional pain regarding some personal issue, and chose to use her guitar as an outlet for this. She closes her eyes and allows the feeling to pour from her fingers into the strings and subsequently into the surrounding air particles. It is a beautiful process of energy transference from the very core of her tortured being into the air that surrounds her. Music falls from her subconscious and the beginning of a song is born. The next day she takes this embryonic material to her rehearsal session where she re-performs what she had previously extracted from her soul. The band connect over this and begin jamming to it, each member understanding each other on a profound level, connecting over the shared experience of creating something new, and enjoying the immense satisfaction that is gleamed from doing so. The song is worked into a structure, lyrics are written by the singer who poetically conveys her dark inner feelings and a new song is created. A pure expression of a genuine feeling, and a description of a beautiful, healthy process that speaks of individuals united. Somewhere down the line the song is recorded and sent to a reviewer for an opinion that will hopefully increase the artist’s chances of being able to undergo the cathartic process again in the future, with the support of a growing audience. With baited breath the artist opens her inbox one day.

“This is shit”.

And with that, all the honesty and emotion that the artist had poured into her work is at once undermined. A process abundant with such beauty and integrity, regardless of the musical underpinnings from which it emerged in her subconscious, is trampled upon. Who can we say is the person lacking understanding in this scenario? Who is lacking insight? And is it right for an artist who is guilty only of expressing something so personal to be insulted in this way? What kind of person must you be to feel that you have a right to offend someone in this manner?

All a critic can really do – if we are to accept that criticism can have a legitimate function free from the considerable bounds of a knee jerk reaction based upon a neural underpinning of which there is very little conscious awareness – all we can do as every one of us a critic, is adopt a scientific approach in our analysis of other peoples’ hard work. It is the only fair way to describe to an audience the relative success of a piece of material with reference to the intentions of the artist. It is a simple process – Miss Y seeks to achieve objective Z, she therefore creates artwork X. Now, where should the focus of criticism be? Well, how successful was Miss Y in achieving objective Z with artwork X? In our previous example, our guitarist’s objective was to express her personal feelings through her music, and then offer it to another in the hope that they may be empathetic to the emotional journey she had taken, such that it could connect with another soul and ultimately help her pursue a career in which she can continue the process. The subject’s musicality, or its place within the context of the current cultural landscape may still be scrutinised, but not without maintaining respect of the fact that this artwork really means something to the person who created it. Anything else is an analysis based upon a scientific method; an analysis of results with reference to hypothesis.

Yes, we are all free to have and express personal reflections on what someone has created as a catalyst to the emotional response that arises within us, but it is nevertheless critical that we each acknowledge that it is an emotional response unique to the individual, and ultimately talks only of our own subjective experience rather than the work that we are responding to. Uttering such banalities as “artwork X is shit”, speaks exclusively of the perceiver’s own summation of “shitness” based upon years of subjective experience filtered through a very particular set of neural programs, themselves subject to an overwhelming myriad of environmental factors, the extent or weight of which can never be truly realised by the perceiver, but whose influence, combined with certain preconceptions about him/herself and the validation of their place in the world, congressed to initiate the process of vomiting the words “artwork X is shit” from their mouth or fingertips. In fact, the most that the phrase “artwork X is shit” can possibly mean to the artist is “I am clearly not the right person to be reviewing this”.

Criticism as I see it should be as just and unbiased a reflection on a work as is possible for the human mind to conjure. It should not be an attempt at personal slander via the indulgence of an initial emotional response to something without any attempt to understand the intent, method, or relative outcome. To do so is crass, lazy, hurtful, unnecessary and steeped in personal insecurity. Hatred is rife in the world. Surely humankind would do well to refrain from transparent attempts to achieve peer validation by undermining others and their work?

If this particular piece of hearsay is correct, then I am to believe that John Peel once made a profound statement regarding this very topic. He said (as paraphrased by Steve Albini), “when I get a record from somebody and I don’t like it, I assume that it’s my problem and that the band would not have made that record if there wasn’t something valuable about it”. This is a rare admission that an artist’s work not being to your taste highlights your own misunderstanding of what that artist is trying to achieve, and the satisfaction they garner through the process of creating it. And that is a line of thinking so profoundly absent from the droves of pseudo web journalists out there, each offering a critique of people’s work by way of labelling it “shit” as if such a lapse in critical thinking and journalistic expression could actually convey anything worth reading to any audience. Such a person shows a failure of empathy, intelligence, literacy and critical faculties of such contemptuous proportions that they succeed only in demonstrating their own shortcomings and insecurities. Yes, by all means point out that a piece of music may fail to meet the artist’s objectives as you see it, and by all means justify your reasoning based on your particular experience. But go online and declare to the world that something is “shit” at your peril, because to do so is to present yourself as an intellectual and social ignoramus.

Because the phrase “this is shit” is actually a code. And it does not take a degree in psychology to decode it. If you are the kind of person that likes to throw contempt at those trying to peacefully create work and exhibit it to others via fatuous reviews, forum comments, YouTube comments, or any other such medium, please know that this is what you are actually saying:

“This is shit” =

“I wish to assert my dominance over you. I take the submission of your artwork as an invitation to do so. I therefore look down upon you because it accredits me with a sense of validation for my existence and my opinions, whilst demonstrating to my pack that I am a dominant player deserving of respect, and to the opposite gender that I am a person of strong will and conviction and therefore a good choice for a mate. The fact that I feel compelled to attain these things, particularly through such means, does however ultimately demonstrate deep seated insecurities about me about which I am not directly aware. I consequently have problems with empathy and am unable to realise my own shortcomings and therefore prove myself to be a person of extremely limited intellectual and emotional insight. I am however glad I have the internet to use as an outlet for my insecurities because it allows me to create a persona for myself that differs considerably from my treatment of people in real life. All I really want is love and respect, and I’m afraid to die.”