Shure Notes Issue #39--Miking a Rhythm Section

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BarryL.A. recording engineer Barry Rudolph has worked with just about everyone--from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Pat Benatar. We tracked him down, between sessions, for a discussion on the basics of recording a rhythm section. Here's how our conversation went.

In the hierarchy of recording instruments, where does the rhythm section fit in?

There is no hierarchy. It's usually the first thing recorded because the rhythm section acts as the foundation in pop music songwriting and that includes rock, country, Gospel music.

"The rhythm track's sound identifies the production style and the record's musical genre."

The rhythm track's sound identifies the production style and the record's musical genre. Think of it as to the foundation of a house: you can't build on a weak base.

Many of our readers are going to be recording in home studios or small studios. This means it may be tough to get the entire rhythm section together, if we're talking drums, bass and maybe an acoustic piano or a Hammond organ. What's your opinion about "recorded live" versus "one track at a time"?

Back in the old days, you had to record everything at once because there wasn't a simple way to overdub. An engineer documented and captured a musical event. Everyone got in a room and played and the engineer recorded it.

"Still, if you're looking for an authentic recording of a musical event, you record everyone at once."

The next evolution was to record a track on one machine and, while playing back that recording, mix the singer's mic audio with it and record the composite to a second machine. You lost a lot of sound from one analog machine to the next and picked up noise. Les Paul came along after that and pioneered multi-track recording--where all the tracks were captured on one a single piece of tape running on one machine.

Still, if you're looking for an authentic recording of a musical event, you record everyone at once. Think about the first magical Beatles album. They recorded an entire album in one day. That's how records were made in the early 1960s.

Technology has changed the process today. An artist may not have a band. Musicians aren't all available to do a session on a specific day. The artist may want to scrutinize and use a drum machine or a computer sequencer to lay tracks one at a time. There are no rules and that songs are recorded in combination of ways from studio recordings and a-track-at-a-time to whole orchestras in front of live audiences and every way in between.

Isn't the vibe of playing together missing, though?

Barry"Vibe" or the feeling in music is conveyed in many different ways--thus the beauty of the art form. A hip-hop or rap song conveys a feeling by way of the rapper's verse and meaning and the overall sonic backdrop of the backing track. There isn't any sense of musicians "vibing" together--for the most part, one person programmed the backing track beforehand.

Obviously, if its jazz quartet, you're probably going to record all the instruments live with maybe just a few overdubs or embellishments. People want to hear the ebb and flow, the interaction and improvisation.

What are the unique challenges of miking a rhythm section?

If everyone's playing together and you're trying to capture all these great individual sounds, you're going to be dealing with leakage.

The drums are always the loudest instrument in the room and if you're trying to record an acoustic guitar in the same room, you're going to run into some leakage. Same thing for a loud Marshall stack--leakage is ONLY a problem when you want to replace an instrument later on.

But if it remains an organic whole and sounds good--again, think about the early Elvis and Beatles records with leakage all over the place. If you want super separation between all the instruments, you have to take steps to isolate those instruments from one another with gobos or specific miking techniques.

What's your approach, then?

For me, the real challenge is to set the musicians up properly to get the best performance from them. This set up might be a compromise between good visual sightlines between players and some negligible leakage. I never rely on, as producers and artists some times do, that I will re-record some of the musicians later--replace their parts by overdubbing. I try to record as much music and good performances at the same time.

Let's break a pop music recording session down--instrument by instrument, starting with drums. Where do you position the drummer?

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 set up around the drummer for good eye contact and easy communication.

Unless I am familiar with the room beforehand, I start out putting the drums in the middle of the room away from walls.

What if isn't enough room to place the drums in the middle of the room?

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!

How about mic techniques?

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.

"One way to conserve microphones and inputs is to know what the drummer is going to play beforehand."

I get a great drum sound 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. Some of the coolest "dialed-in" drum sounds I ever recorded was the result of the drummer and I working on the actual drum part in the song and tailoring each microphone's position and processing together to precisely "fit" the groove.

Bass Player

In the studio the electric bass is almost always recorded direct. And often, we'll mic the bass amp at the same time. The bass player and the drummer are the bottom end of the track and they have to be as together as possible.

Guitar Player

We're talking here about electric and acoustic guitars and all kinds of other instrument--mandolin, Dobro, steel guitar. Electric guitars are played through amps, of course, and sometimes we isolate them in another room if there's a concern that loud amp leaking into the piano mics. Some people even record the electric guitar direct.

The most popular mic for this application is the SM57--it's a known quantity. It does a certain thing and we usually shove it right into the grille cloth on the speaker.

So you wouldn't use a condenser for recording?

Well, sometimes we'll use three or four different mics and record them on separate tracks. Or we might even use a ribbon, which sounds nice with guitar amps. I've used the KSM313 and the KSM353, both of which I reviewed for MIX Magazine.

You'd have three tracks and some people even take the guitar direct for four tracks--the SM57, KSM313 and maybe Shure's KSM44 or KSM27 condensers. All of those signals would be on four tracks and you have a wide latitude of guitar sounds post recording--which is the real reason for multi-tracks.

Keyboards

Another member of the rhythm section is some type of keyboard instrument. If you have a direct signal--be it from the electric guitar, keyboard or bass, you can do something called re-amping. After the recording is complete, you can take those direct signals and run them through an amplifier an use them just like they were coming directly from the instrument.

It's really popular with young rock bands. Here's an example: Let's say you've recorded a guitar player direct and miked his amplifier. A month later, a new amp comes out and the musician laments the fact that he didn't have a chance to use in that recording. If the producer is prescient enough to have recorded the direct signal from that guitar, he can take it and re-amp the signal with the new amp and get a whole 'nother guitar sound.

What about acoustic piano or Hammond organ?

With a Hammond organ and a Leslie cabinet, I usually use three mics and record in stereo so that I can get both of the horns in the recording.

For acoustic piano, you can use anywhere from one to four mics depending on what you're trying to do. Shure's KSM44 is a good mic to use for this application.

Percussion

This can include anything from congas, vibraphones, marimbas, chimes, and tubular bells--all those percussion instruments.

In the 70s, a typical rhythm section was a drummer, two guitar--one electric and one acoustic, a bass player and two or three keyboards--a piano, a harpsichord and an organ and percussion instruments--vibraphone, marimba, bongos, congas, tambourine, shakers, chimes, triangle, tubular bells.

Condenser or dynamic? Name brand or knock-off?

The thing about a name brand is that it's a known quantity. You have to look at mics as tool as an investment in your career. Mics don't really wear out or go out of style. You want mics that are well constructed and have a great reputation. And if you have to sell you mic, the resale value is going to be better.

"You can never have too many microphones. They're like the colors in an artist's palette."

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, Daryl Hall and John Oates, was a big hit and the song "Sara Smile" was a top-ten 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.

What can you do ahead of time to produce a better result?

Be a good Boy Scout. Be prepared. If you're going to have five musicians in a room playing and you want to get the best out of them, you've got to have it all set up, all the mics tested, music stands out, proper lighting and good sightlines so the musicians can see one another. Make sure all the headphones work. All I want them to do is go in sit down, plug in and play. Then I'm ready to record.

People should look at any recording project like preparing a meal. You have to do the requisite prep work, start with good ingredients find the right blend of spices. It's a simple way to look at it.

"What you get out of it depends on what you've put into it. It's that simple."

Be prepared and know what needs to be done in a short amount of time, whether its preparing charts, making sure the performers are rehearsed--whatever. What you get out of it depends on what you've put into it. It's that simple.

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 with the best sound.


I started in 1969 and my first gold record was just three years later in 1972 with Al Wilson's "Show and Tell".

As a staff recording engineer in the early part of my career, I would work on a jingle in the morning, a demo in the afternoon and a record in the evening. Long days. In fact, I worked with the Beach Boys only because I was the lone staff member willing to start working at midnight--a directive from the band. I ended up leaving at ten o'clock the next morning.

I've also worked with Waylon Jennings, Keith Moon, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Johnny Mathis and more recently, Pat Benatar, and a number of jazz artists. Right now, I'm working with a producer Tommy Faragher on Galia Arad's album recording and I found out recently that a track I mixed for producer Bobby Watson and artist Madoka is a Number #1 single in Japan on 9 Muses Records..

Shure Notes thanks Barry for taking time between sessions to talk to us.

You can learn more about him and what he's up to at: www.barryrudolph.com

Barry



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