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Umphrey’s McGee Engineer Chris Mitchell Depends On Earthworks

One man's pursuit of completely natural and accurate live recordings without the use of equalization.

In the four years Chris Mitchell has acted as front of house engineer for Umphrey’s McGee, he has mixed over 480 shows that are all available for purchase and review online.

Over the past two years, Mitchell has been working to remove corrective EQ from his front of house mix with the help of Earthworks microphones.

Mitchell first heard of Earthworks microphones when the company was first founded 20 years ago.

“I was a big fan of David Blackmer while at dbx and seeing his name associated with microphones, attracted me. When I saw the engineering behind the microphones, (i.e. flat frequency response, quick transient response and extended high frequency response), it made perfect sense to me, so I have been intrigued with Earthworks microphones ever since.”

While most of Mitchell’s recordings are now done on the road, his first experience with Earthworks microphones was in a studio setting.

“In 2001, I used the TC omnis for recording several blue grass bands. For these players, acoustic guitars were a big issue,” explains Mitchell. “When they walked in with a $50,000 guitar, they had just one request: they wanted the recording to sound just like their $50,000 guitar. This was simple. I miked it with my Earthworks mics and the recording sounded like the microphones weren’t even there.”

“After this I started using more of the TC Series, in addition to SR25 cardioids. After I got my SR25s I couldn’t look back. I had four SR25s, a pair of SR20s and a pair of SR30s.  Once I got into the SR series, it was hard to ever pick up an SM57 again.” Needless to say, Mitchell is a fan of Earthworks microphones. “If someone were to ask me what I think about Earthworks mics on drums, my comment would be: ‘You will have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands.’”

Mitchell has been working hard to eliminate the use of EQ over the past few years.

“The old adage: ‘move the mic and not the EQ knob,’ rings very true with me. Once I started using Earthworks mics for drum overheads, they quickly became my favorite.”

“This started me down the path of tighter, cleaner, more accurate transient response and less EQ. The excellent characteristics of the Earthworks microphones make it easier to use less EQ all around. I really like the Earthworks off-axis tonality of the drums. For example, the Earthworks DP30/C that I used on snare will of course pick up the hi-hat. When using conventional mics I had to position the snare/tom mics to pick up minimal hi-hat because of their uneven off-axis response, which would incorrectly reproduce sounds from the hi-hat, which also didn’t respond too well to EQ changes.”

“In short, things that were being picked up by one conventional mic were fighting things that were being picked up by another. Once I switched over to the Earthworks mics, the flat off-axis and the very flat frequency response simply made EQ unnecessary and the sound of the drums started to open up. Then I could really get into things like close placement, time aligning my snare and toms to my overheads to make the sound of all these drum set elements microscopically tighter and cleaner. Without the Earthworks clean transient response and off-axis response, this would be impossible.”

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“When using Earthworks mics on drums, if any particular drum mic is muted or goes away, (like Tom 1 mic goes away) then the sound of Tom 1 is being picked up with Tom 2 mic or the overhead mics, and it still sounds the same. It’s just a quieter version of the previous Tom 1 mic. So, the other Earthworks mics picking up Tom 1, off-axis does not reduce the highs or a produce a 250Hz bloom or any other undesirable side effect. It all still sounds so natural. The off-axis response of the Earthworks mics is incredible, I love it.”

“I have published an article on my blog entitled “How to Disappear Completely: My Year Without EQ” which, thanks to Earthworks mics, I was able to remove all my EQ filters. I have a theory that since Equalizers use regenerative feedback, that the use of EQ creates small time smears, which the analytical part of your brain can notice. So, if I can get away from using EQ, hopefully, I can get a truer, more lifelike reproduction of the signal.”

In April of this year, Umphrey’s McGee performed a concert in St. Augustine, Florida, and Earthworks microphones were on stage in full force. “At this concert we were using the following Earthworks mics: SR40V cardioids on vocals, SR25 cardioids on guitar amps. On drums we used a pair of silver SR30 cardioids as drum overheads, DP30/Cs on snare and rack toms. We also use an SR30/HC hypercardioid, a pair of SR20s and an SR40 cardioid on percussion.”

“The Earthworks microphone transient response is second to none. I can make a snare drum sound so natural and so pristine, you would never guess it is coming out of a PA system. One of the biggest compliments I get is: ‘It’s loud, but it doesn’t sound like it is coming out of the PA.’ This all that traces back to the use of Earthworks microphones, which makes this possible.”

“I also really like the SR30/HC used for our percussionist on timbale. Behind the timbale player is the drummer playing his snare drum. I have measured sound level from that snare drum at 125dB SPL (A-weighted). The SR30/HC does a great job of rejecting the snare drum sound behind it, yet picking up the timbale in front.”

“I get a lot of compliments on our guitar amp sound now that we started miking our guitar amps with Earthworks SR25s. My guitar player has been a ribbon mic fanatic, as he likes the high frequency drop off associated with ribbon mics, and felt that warmth was necessary for a rock & roll guitar tone. I explained to him that in addition to the extend frequency response and flatness that the Earthworks mics will give you, the microphones transient response is going to capture more detail of the guitar tone from the guitar amp speaker than a ribbon or dynamic mic can. After I started miking his guitar amp with SR25s, he came back to me a couple weeks later and said that he could actually hear the difference between a worn plastic guitar pick and new plastic pick, because of the detail coming from the Earthworks microphone. These guys are using in-ear monitors, so they have that isolation to hear this kind of detail. When miking the guitar amps, I move around the mic to find the location on the speaker cone that gives me the tone I like. One of the player’s tone sounds better with the mic positioned at the speaker dust cap and the other player’s amp sounds better at the edge of the speaker.”

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In addition to the benefits Mitchell has experienced using Earthworks microphones for sound reinforcement, there are also major benefits on the recording side while mixing Umphrey’s McGee.

“Using Earthworks microphones has made the second most important aspect of my job easier, and that is in making recordings,” notes Mitchell. “Umphrey’s McGee has a policy of releasing every show as a live recording. So, in the four years I have been working with them, every show that I have mixed is available for sale and review/critique online, (481 shows as of June 2015).”

“There is a marked point in these recordings where I started using Earthworks microphones, thereby improving their sound quality. Our fans noticed it, and on their forums talked about the guitar and drums sounding better. In 2011 we started using Earthworks mics as drum overheads and two Earthworks mics on guitar, and from then on, every 6 months I would add some more Earthworks mics. Our goal is to make our live recordings sound like studio recordings, and our Earthworks mics have really helped us dial this in. I could go on and on regarding the great experiences I have had using Earthworks microphones. I absolutely love my Earthworks microphones.”