Capturing The Right Feel & Sound: Rhythm Section Tracking In The Studio
Recording rhythm tracks requires a lot of preparation and planning. With precise ideas on exactly how you want the session to proceed, you'll be ready for a good time capturing great performances. Here's an extensive discussion - with plenty of "how to" - by a recording studio veteran who's had plenty of success.

February 14, 2012, by Barry Rudolph

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Rhythm section tracking is the most important recording session in the production cycle of a record. The recording engineer captures the feel and sound of the musicians as they interpret the song and support the artist’s performance.

The rhythm track’s sound is a component of the production style and identifies the record’s musical genre. I liken the track to the foundation of a house: you can’t build very high on a weak base!

Subsequent overdubbed sweetening is just “window dressing” to reinforce and/or beautify what was laid down originally by the rhythm track musicians.

Recording one musician at a time is a valid process when the vision of the song is still hazy (maybe you are still writing it) or you don’t have the facility for recording everyone at once. The “one-brush-stroke-at-a-time” method is especially good in the case of small home/project studio productions.

The all-at-once-approach is old-school - and valuable when there are budget and time constraints.

Just like in the old days, when primitive recording studios only “documented” a live performance directly to an acetate disc and then later to a tape recorder, many Jazz and alternative Rock producers (like Frank Black) today are recording bands directly to two-track stereo machines.

I have always thought that the more music you could record at one time, the better. For me, from a music mixer’s “big picture” standpoint, hearing everyone playing together results in a better recording, a better mix and a better vibe - even though you can always fix and change it later in a computer.

Convincing fickle artists and trend du jour-following A&R people of this fact is sometimes difficult. Seems like some people get more heat out of the Pro Tools rig than from the tracking room.

Recording Drums
Whether you record all at once or one musician at a time, you’ll probably want live drums and I want to focus on tracking drums because I find it’s what people struggle with.

Starting the track recording sessions with drums is another holdover from early recording days when most drummers got to the session early to set up and work on sounds with the engineer.

Whether you are tracking everyone together or overdubbing the drums on an existing track, the drum kit needs the most floor space.

The rest of the musicians should setup around the drummer for good eye contact and easy communication.

Unless I’m familiar with the room beforehand, I start out putting the drums in the middle of the room away from walls. If you place the kit with the drummer’s back to a wall, you’ll get a tight reflection and a sonic coloration from the wall’s construction material…be it plaster, wood, cinder block or a glass window - usually to be avoided, but could be good.

Putting the kit in a corner will increase low frequencies and add the reflections of two walls, which also could be good!

The drummer will probably like to setup on a carpet throw rug if the studio is not carpeted. Some of the best sounds come from studios with wood or tile floors where area rugs will “stop” the room down for a reverb time (rt) of around one to two seconds…or much less for a very dry, funk drum sound. I have used a wooden riser that adds a woody, overall stage quality especially to the bass drum.

Some metal bands use a huge PA power amplifier with separate mics on the kick and snare that drive subwoofers built-in to the riser…essentially reinforcing the low frequencies for the benefit of the room mics.

This subwoofer rig, done right, sounds huge! Similar studio PA schemes will add a very live quality to the drum recording.

Miking the kit can take lots of microphones… or not! If you have a large console and lots of microphones and a patient drummer (that will work with you tweaking in the control room), go for using a lot of mics on everything that moves on the kit.

I think a lot of engineers think by separately miking a kit they should get isolation between the different drums and cymbals. All manner of gating, wacked equalization, and strange mic positioning goes on to try to obtain this drum machine quality.

In my opinion, you should have your drummer play pads and trigger samples if that is what you looking for…because it is unrealistic to think that a well-miked, real drum set will ever sound that way.

Think of the close microphones as “spotlights” that enhance the sound of the overheads. The close mics add low frequencies, attack and panoramic image focus to the overheads’ sound.

Tracking with limited console real estate (ten inputs or less) requires you to use less mics and spend more time on their exact choice, placement, processing and submix. Naturally, drum tuning and balance (the drum mix the drummer produces when playing), room ambience, cymbal choice and playing volume are even more important and less controllable after-the-fact than a multi-miked setup that you get to “remix” later.

I get a great drum sound, as good as anything on the radio with about five microphones: kick, snare, hat and two overheads. One way to conserve microphones and inputs is to know what the drummer is going to play beforehand.

It’s kind of silly to mike up tom-toms, put them on separate tracks, and never have the drummer use them! Actually, some of the coolest “dialed-in” drum sounds I ever got was when the drummer and I worked on the actual drum part in the song and tailored each microphone’s position and processing together to exactly “fit” the groove.

If you have any outboard mic preamps or good condenser mics, I would use them on the overheads first. The sound in the overheads is the sound of the kit.

Another fallacy is that the overheads are for cymbals only as if you can get rid of the rest of the kit through some kind of engineering science that defies the laws of physics!

Get those “overs” sounding good and in balanced with your drummer and the rest is easy!

Room Mics
It is a major commitment to mix the room mics into the drum mix. Back in the day of four and eight-track machines, I used to record two-track drums: kick on one track and everything on the other track.

Later, with 16-track, stereo drums required three tracks: left and right and the kick and using a separate snare track was a luxury. I would mix the close mics along with the overs to the stereo tracks using pan pots that matched the actual physical position of the overhead mics over the kit. If I used room mics, they would also go into those stereo tracks.

Looking at the drummer from the audience’s perspective, the right overhead is over the hi-hat side (assuming a right-handed drummer) and I’ll add in the close hi-hat mic panned mid-right.

I use audience perspective when monitoring and most drummers like to hear themselves in drummer’s perspective which I provide in their headphones… or they can just wear the phones backwards.

Nowadays, unless you have a great sounding room and most of the drum sound comes from room mics, John Bonham style, you should record those mics on extra tracks. If you like to compress the room mics or the overheads, do it while recording…commit to that process.

Compressors react much better and differently to live sound mic sources than already recorded tracks. If you are unsure of what you have, record it with and without compression at the same time and later, erase the tracks you don’t need.

Headphone Mixes
Headphones and their mix always seems to be a major source of complaint. When recording a drummer, two guitar players, bass, keyboard and a singer, you’ll probably need more than one headphone mix and cue system.

When recording one musician at a time, you’d need only one, and it can usually be the same mix you have in the control room.

Drummer Headphones
Drummers require loud headphones that firmly fit his/her head. That’s means expensive, low impedance studio headphones and a big power amp to run them.

You can get volume with a 5-watt amp and a pair of Walkman phones, but you can’t get clean dynamic range and good low frequencies - the drummer will need to feel the bass instrument, the warmth of the track mix and a sense of the volume changes himself and the other musicians make.

It’s very important that the cue mix represent what each musician is playing dynamically. If you do a lot of live recording, it is worth spending money on good phones and a powerful amplifier to run them.

If you can only derive two cue mixes, one of them should be for the drummer.

The mix I like to give the drummer (in order of loudness): plenty of himself so that he doesn’t play overly hard (unless you want that), a click track (if you use one) good bass and the rest of the band including just enough vocal to know where he is in the song. I use stereo cues and try to get a spacious sound mix with subtle effects and wide panning of instruments that is hopefully inspiring.

Click tracks and instruments for keeping time should be dry and mono…in the middle.

Auto Talkback Mic
Instant communication is super important during the tracking session. Close miking of amps and DI recording won’t allow you to hear normal conversation levels.

If you’ve ever try using an extra microphone just to hear what your players are saying, you have to make sure you always mute it when they start playing or risk getting a loud surprise -  that could do damage.

Here’s a trick for an automatic talkback mic. I use a single omnidirectional microphone placed in the center of the recording room. I use very high microphone gain and patch the pre-amp’s output through a compressor cranked all the way up (minimum threshold).

Use 20:1 ratio or higher with the fastest attack possible (1ms or faster) and a slow release (5 seconds). Any adjustable compressor will work, but I use a Universal Audio (UA) 1176LN for this purpose and route the output to it’s own track and, of course the monitor mix and the headphones.

This compressor will nearly always be in constant gain reduction mode but when nobody is playing, compression releases, and you’ll hear the quietest sounds due to the high mic pre-amp setting.

If the drummer hits his drum unexpectedly, the fast attack will grab immediately and compress completely and avoid hurting anybody’s ears. When the band starts playing, the compressor squashes the gain of the microphone so much, it’s not heard any more in the phones or the monitor mix.

Once things get quiet again, the compressor releases and you’ll hear conversation levels easily again.

I use this system as a “set and forget” auto talkback and the musicians seem to like it because they can hear themselves talking to one other without ever taking the headphones off.

Click Tracks
Recognize that no human ever born stays exactly with the click at all times! I have worked with many drummers and they tell me that they can “push” or “lay back” on the click but are rarely “inside” the click for very long time periods.

A drummer might complain that they don’t groove as well having to focus on staying with a click. Other drummers practice to click all the time and develop a need for it when recording.

If you have a track recorded with a sequencer, there is no choice but to overdub drums to the sequencer’s click or a drum machine track or loop. If you are recording all at once, using a click will insure (more or less) that you could probably add MIDI sequenced instruments later.

One trick is to let the drummer count off and start the song listening to the click and then turn it off. Then, at least the song started out at an agreed upon tempo.

I leave the choice of click sound to the drummer. You can use a cowbell sound playing quarter notes or eight notes if the tempo is slow and/or there is an implied eight note feel. A fat, low-pitched cowbell sound can be very loud in the drummer’s phones and not hurt too much.

I’ve seen drummers request both the cowbell and a simple drum machine loop just for feel and vibe. I give them whatever they want because they have to work with it! Generally the rest of the musicians DO NOT want to hear the click.

Finally, on playback, check that the click is not leaking to the room or drum mics.

If you’re overdubbing a drummer and there is no click or the only tempo reference are pre-recorded musical instruments, your drummer will play more freely, but you may have to fix downbeats and areas where things come unglued.

It may be necessary, at times, to play only the single instrument that represents the pulse of the music and that pulse may be represented by other instruments at differing places in the song.

Strict tempo requirement is one of two stigmas we inherited from 1980s computer/music making; the other is the strict intonation made possible by the digital tuner and quartz-locked synthesizers.

Now, music consumers (even though they don’t realize it) are much more aware of tuning and timing than ever.

Expensive vs. Cheap Mics
There is no doubt about it: expensive mics sound great! Expensive condenser microphones are investments in your recording future. No matter what comes and goes in musical trends or recording gear, you’ll always need microphones.

I get e-mails about using less expensive microphones when recording and people wonder if they are good enough for the task. If you can, rent some expensive microphones for your session just to see the differences.

I think you’ll be surprised when and where you can and can’t hear the money.

I once recorded, as sort of an experiment, the entire drum kit for a song using only Shure SM57s. The producer and I called it the $100 drum sound.

The album, by Daryl Hall and John Oates, was a big hit and the song “Sara Smile” was a top 10 record. We received more phone calls than anything else asking how we got this cool drum sound. What did we use? Where did we record them?

Moral of the story: use whatever mics you have. Keep them in good shape by putting them away and not abusing them with cigarette smoke, moisture and rough handling.

Leakage
If you are recording everyone at the same time and there is leakage, it is not the end of the world. Actually the overall track might sound better WITH the leakage than cleaned up.

Rather than thinking that you are “stuck” with not be able to replace some of the musician’s tracks later because they leaked on tracks you wanted to keep, you make a commitment to the band’s performance and resolve that the track is great or as best (given all circumstances) as it is going to be.

I personally think, as a band, going into a live tracking session thinking that any of it can be replaced is self-defeating, because there will be no urgency to achieve a great performance. It puts a sense of purpose and responsibility on all involved including the engineer and producer to be a part of this super effort.

If you feel that recording together is a good idea but want to reserve the ability to fix it later, just make sure nothing leaks, that’s all!

Leakage can work for you. In my early tracking days, I would place the grand piano right next to the drummer. People would say “wow you are going to get a lot of drum leakage being so close.”

Fact is. I used very thick and dense gobos or baffles and blankets to cordon off the piano from the drums. Sure, I got a little low frequency drum leakage into the piano mics, but since the two instruments were only about six feet apart, the time delay in the leakage was very short and only added to the drum sound.

Moving the piano further away would have increased the delay of the leakage and washed out the drum sound. Putting all the musicians close together is always a good idea anyway.

Recording rhythm tracks requires a lot of preparation and planning. With precise ideas on exactly how you want the session to proceed, you’ll be ready for a good time capturing great performances.

Barry Rudolph is a veteran L.A.-based recording engineer as well as a noted writer on recording topics. Visit his website at www.barryrudolph.com

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