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Archive of the Gino Robair Category
By Cheryl Leonard
[For the next few weeks, we are featuring reports by a guest blogger, composer/performer Cheryl Leonard. Armed with a specially chosen kit of field recording gear, she is about to embark on a musical adventure to the icy continent. Ms Leonard will regularly post information about what it takes to record, edit, and compose in extreme temperature conditions. To read more about her adventures, you can visit her personal blog.]
In just a few days I am going to Antarctica, not to study the decaying ice sheets, or gawk at penguins from a cruise ship, but to make music. Each year the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grants a handful of artists the opportunity to travel to the bottom of the world and make art about this remote place and the science that is happening there. My project is to create a series of musical compositions based on the forces that shape environments and ecosystems in Antarctica, using only sounds from the natural world. more
Before I pose my question, let me give you some background info. I spent over a month working with various USB mics in preparation for the April ’07 roundup, “The Direct Connection.” Before I started my research, I naively thought there would be little sonic difference between the mics, imagining that the majority of them would be suitable only for informal recording situations (songwriting demos, jams, Lo-Fi Podcasts). Was I ever wrong!
Each of the mics had its own personality, and a couple of them surprised me by how good they sounded, especially when you consider the price. However, I still had some reservations.
On a recent trip, I wanted to bring only a laptop and a USB mic to throw down some ideas, because I didn’t want the extra weight of an external preamp, A/D converter, or even an XLR cable. Surprisingly, the recordings were good enough to fit into an upcoming project, and now I feel that my studio toolbox is that much richer. Have you had a similar experience?
Tell us how you’ve been using USB microphones. Do you have any interesting tips or anecdotes to share with other EM readers who are using (or considering) USB mics? If so, hit reply: we’d love to hear from you!
I teach an introductory course on recording at a local college, and the days I cover microphones are always the most exciting for the students. Because the course is set up around Digidesign Pro Tools and a 2-channel Mbox, I spend one of the class sessions on recording a drum set using 1- and 2-mic configurations.
The plan is not to teach them the correct way to record drums, but to give them the critical tools needed to find the correct way. The sound an engineer looks for depends on a variety of factors, such as the drum kit, the recording environment, and the song.
A bonus is that this lecture demonstrates how different each model of microphone sounds when used on the same instrument — drums are the perfect subject for mic comparisons. It’s an opportunity to break down expectations, especially when the students have preconceived notions about particular mics.
First, I create a Pro Tools session with a click track and ask a student to play a simple drum beat using hi-hat (or cymbal), kick, and snare. I ask the drummer to play the same beat for several takes, and I change mics and their positions after each. Typically, I start with one mic placed a couple of feet in front of the kit, about waist high. Next, I may set up a stereo pair a few feet in front and above the kit. Next, I’ll place one mic on the snare and one on the kick drum. Which mics I use for each setup depends on what the students are interested to hearing.
When we listen back to all the takes, I selectively mute and solo various mics to hear how they color the sound of the drums. The results are always an ear opener–even for me.
This semester, I brought in some extra mics–a prototype of the omnidirectional Rode NT55 and a Joemeek JM27–and compared them to what the school already has in its mic cabinet (which includes a Neumann TLM 103, a pair of AKG C 1000s, an AKG C 3000, and a Studio Projects T1 tube mic, among others). And, of course, we have pairs of the most widely used dynamic microphones in the world, the Shure SM57 (still in production after 40 years) and SM58.
With a frequency response of 40 Hz to 15 kHz (+/- 10 dB), and more than a 5 dB rise around 6.5 kHz, the SM57 is tailor made for recording certain instruments, such as drums. (Come to think of it, except for the frequency bump, the SM57′s overall frequency response resembles that of many ribbon mics. Interesting…) Nonetheless, this ubiquitous transducer often gets a bad rap, probably because, at some point, nearly everyone has worked with a beat up SM57 running through a cheap preamp onstage or in a studio.
It’s interesting to compare the reaction of the students when they first hear the SM57 as a snare mic to when they hear it again after listening to other mics in the same position. The SM57 offers a band-limited, controlled “thonk” that says Rock Snare Drum like few other microphones do. However, this time around, we found placement was also critical: about four or five inches back from the snare head, rather than right on top of it, gave us the best snare sound, considering the dead acoustics of the classroom.
With an SM57 on the snare and the dynamic portion of the Audio-Technica AT2500 dual-capsule mic on the bass drum, we captured a tight and punchy drum sound. That was a pleasant surprise, because in the room, the kick was boomy and had a long ring to it. We were recording an 18-inch bass drum that had both heads on it, with no opening in the front head and no internal dampening. Not your typical rock bass-drum sound.
On the other hand, the TLM 103 (placed waist high a few feet in front of the bass drum) gave us a wonderfully live and balanced full-kit sound that would be perfect for a jangly pop song or a big-beat rap sample. The overall vibe was reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” And it took us only five minutes to set up.
But I keep thinking about the much maligned SM57 and how versatile it can be in the studio. I recently edited Michael Cooper’s “Six String Strategies,” the December 2007 cover story about recording acoustic guitar. In it, a couple of the engineers he interviewed suggested that the SM57 would work well on acoustic guitar in certain situations.
For example, world-class engineer Richard Dodd noted that an SM57 “only sounds like an inexpensive microphone when it‘s paired with an inexpensive preamp. You pair it with an extremely sensitive, musical preamp, like a Telefunken V76 or Neve 1073, and the balance of the two is a wonderful thing to be heard.” (Dodd’s credits include engineering and mixing for Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Green Day, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Sheryl Crow, among many others. In other words, he knows how to record acoustic guitars.)
It just goes to show you that, when it comes to microphones, you have to keep an open mind and let your ears guide you (rather than spec sheets or price). For some historical background on the SM57, visit Mix magazine’s TECnology Hall of Fame. For info on recording drums, check out Brian Knave’s article “Capturing the Kit.”
The annual Analogue Heaven – California (AHCali) gathering took place yesterday (Sunday, November 12, 2006) at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. The name of the event comes from the Analogue Heaven mailing list, which, as you would expect, focuses on analog instruments, new and old.
Although the list has an international membership, regional gatherings are often scheduled around the U.S. so that members can meet face to face as well as get some hands-on time with instruments they may have only read about. The California shows tend to be located in the Bay Area, which is handy because a number of manufacturers and instrument designers are in the general vicinity. However, over the years, we’ve had attendees drive from as far south as Los Angeles and from as far north as Seattle.
AH events are informal, and people tend to bring things they want to share with others. Typically, the gathering attracts a wide variety of musicians, collectors, DIYers, and manufacturers, so you never know what you’ll see and hear. For example, a number of DIY modular synth modules were present, not to mention some prototypes (The Magic Smoke Mankato filter), and various other home-brew creations.
Although a number of exhibitors used speakers to demo their gear, the overall volume level was tame compared to past events. However, the volume rose substantially near the end of the day, especially at the table where the CV output of a vintage Korg was being used to control the image on an old Commodore video monitor. (After an afternoon of keeping levels to a minimum, you just can’t help but crank it up before tearing everything down to go home!)
Modular systems represented this year included new ones (Buchla 200e, Synthesis Technology MOTM, Doepfer, PAiA, Analogue Systems, Analogue Solutions, Blacet), and vintage ones (Delta Music Research and EMS). Vintage keyboard synths (Oberheim OB-1 and Matrix-12, and Roland System 100 and Jupiter-4 Compuphonic) and modern synths (Dave Smith Evolver Keyboard) were also present, as were a few drum machines. Mike Brown of Livewire Electronics brought along his vintage tube-based oscillators and noise generator, a small portion of the system he uses in his music. Although I usually bring something from my own collection, this time I brought some boutique instruments that I’m currently reviewing: a Bleep Labs Thingamagoop, a Monotonic Labs Type-U73 oscillator, and an Eowave Persephone ribbon-controlled synth.
Instrument designers visiting the show included Don Buchla, Dave Smith, Mike Brown, and Eric Barbour of Metasonix. Composer/performer Robert Rich was kind enough to bring along his large MOTM system. And San Francisco-based retailer Robot Speak was also present with plenty of Moog-related hardware and software items on display.
List member Brian Comnes, who coordinated the gathering, set up a raffle to raise money for the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation. The donated prizes included hats and shirts from RobotSpeak, a Metasonix TM-6, a gift certificate to Analogue Haven, and a vintage Korg MonoPoly synth (donated by sound-designer and EM author Nick Peck).
Personally, the most interesting aspect of an AHCali meeting is hearing what people have to say about their instruments, finding out what they like most about them, and hearing how they use them. I was particularly interested in learning more about the Buchla 200e, and Chris Muir was patient enough to explain some its deep feature-set to me.
Images from AHCali 2006 participants can be found here, here, and here.
The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.