Flying mics and ominous cymbals

I recently read an article on the flying mic technique – not sure where, may have been TapeOp – but being a fan of the more esoteric side of recording, I thought I have to try that out.

The idea is simple, you suspend a mic from a pulley via a length of string which allows you to smoothly raise and lower the microphone. You then record a source and vary the mic position as the source sound decays, allowing you to pick up more of the detail in the decay of the sound.

This technique is particularly interesting with cymbals. If you have the mic too close, the initial attack will likely overload it so you won’t capture the detail in the moments immediately after the transient, but with the mic far away you can’t readily pick up the fine details of the decaying sound. And it’s in that decaying sound that a lot of the interest lies; cymbals produce lots of non-harmonic tones, i.e. frequencies not related to each other nor a fundamental pitch by integer multiples as we find with strings or pipes.

I set up a mic stand over my ride cymbal and improvised a makeshift axle from the clamp for a reflection filter, this would function as a pulley and allow a length of string to travel freely over it and up and down over the cymbal. For the microphone I chose my trusty Oktava MK-012  (modified by Micheal Joly) with an omni-pattern capsule so that I could get really close into the cymbal without the proximity effect. I tied the mic to one end of the string and made sure there was enough free XLR cable to allow the mic to travel freely up and down.  With the other end of the string in my left hand and a drum stick in my right, I practiced striking the cymbal whilst simultaneously lowering the mic. It took a few goes to get the timing right but eventually I could ride the mic in just after the initial hit and get it very close to the cymbal surface for the decay.

I also experimented with moving the mic around the cymbal surface to capture different harmonics. Monitoring on headphones also allowed me to get the movement right in terms of riding the volume.

So here are some results:

I think there’s some great scope for sound effects and soundscapes using these. With that in mind, here are a pair of hits reversed, hard panned and with an added splash of reverb to create an eerie, ‘something bad is about to happen’ kind of sound:

Happy experimenting…..

 

Piano Re-Amping

I recently watched a brilliant online recording masterclass with Sylvia Massey courtesy of Creative Live, very inspiring and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of, the spirit of experimentation. During the class she records a band live and demonstrates some of the techniques she uses as well as her creative process. What struck me was how playful it was. Among the many things she did (including vocal feedback delay using 2 mobile phones a mic and a monitor speaker,  and passing a guitar signal through a power tool), she re-amped a snare by passing the recorded track back through a speaker with a snare strapped to it. The recorded sound of the re-amp was blended with the original snare to get fatter drum sound. This got me thinking, what else could you apply that too?

I’ve been doing a few tracks recently where we’ve used midi piano, I’ve been using the sampled grand piano in Ableton which isn’t bad at all (to my ears at least), however, it’s still a sampled piano and lacks a little dimension. I had the idea of re-amping the piano by passing the sampled piano track back through a speaker playing into the body of the upright piano I have at home, then micing the piano to get a new piano track. The idea being that this new track contains the string and body resonances of the real piano. The final piano track would then be a blend of the 2.

I set about doing this, it was relatively simple. A spaced pair of AKG C414s aiming inside the top of the piano, close in on the strings, and then a speaker placed at the bottom of the piano aiming into the body (I used my Avantone Mix Cube for the job).I removed the lower panel of the piano so the speaker could play into the body (see photo)

Using a real piano to enhance the sound of a sampled piano
Using a real piano to enhance the sound of a sampled piano

Once all this was set up, it’s just a case of pressing play and record. In the mix, just blend the original with the re-amp track according to your taste.

Here’s the original sampled piano track:

 

Here’s the re-amped track:

 

Here’s a blend of the 2:

 

You can hear how it adds a depth and dimension to the sampled piano without recourse to loads of plugins.

I’ve also tried passing other signals through it, including vocals and guitar tracks,it lends an interesting colour.

I’m liking the natural colouration you get with re-amping, it’s something I’m definitely going to explore more.

 

 

Comparing Convertors

I regularly review music gear for Sonic State, it’s an interesting job as I have to look in detail at a particular piece of hardware or software. Often when you are just using a piece of kit, you don’t get time to delve into all the subtleties of it and learn all its’ full capabilities. I recently had a look at the new range of Apollo audio interfaces from Universal Audio, the full video review will be coming out in due course over on the Sonic State website, but in the meantime I thought it would be interesting to post up some audio illustrating the performance differences compared to the previous generation of interfaces.

The new Apollo thunderbolt-only interfaces boast different cosmetics and some enhanced functionality, but what I was most interested in was the sonic differences due to the revised A/D and D/A signal paths. On paper the specs show improved SNR, THD and Dynamic Range. Given that the previous generation of Apollo interfaces were already very well specified in this department, I did wonder how much of an audible difference these improvements actually made.

In order to test the differences I set up a simple drum recording session: 4 mics on a 1950’s Premier drum kit (EV RE20 outside kick, AKG C414 on snare, Oktavamod Oktava MK012’s for overheads) and my good friend and ace drummer Mark Whitlam laying down some funky yet consistently repeatable grooves. We tracked first through the 4 preamps on the older generation Apollo, then immediately switched the mic cables into the first 4 preamp channels on the Apollo 8P. Mark layed down the same groove again (clicked for ease of comparison) and that was it. Admittedly, this is more a real-world test rather than a carefully controlled scientific experiment, there will always be slight differences in the playing between each take no matter how consistent the drummer, but it gives a good indication of the differences.

Here are the audio files, listen for your self and decide if you can tell the difference:

First, the old generation Apollo Quad:

And next, the new generation Apollo 8P:

Can you hear a difference?

You can download the 24bit 44.1kHz audio files yourself from this link, load them into a DAW and flip between solo’d tracks to get a more direct comparison.

To my ears, I hear a different emphasis in the mid to high range, I can hear it in the hi hats and ride cymbal. I also perceive a bigger stereo image somehow, the the whole thing sounds a little smoother, more open and less boxy compared to the old generation. These are very subtle differences, but good monitoring or headphones do show them up.

 

 

DIY preamps continued….

As promised in the previous post, here are some sound samples to demonstrate the sonic differences between the DIY EZ1290 Neve-style Mic preamps and the stock preamps on the Universal Audio Apollo firewire interface.

The setup for this was pretty simple, a remote drum recording session where the drummer (the fabulous Mr Mark Whitlam) was given a score and a backing track to record the drum part to. The session was carried out in Marks garden studio cabin, a compact but decent sounding purpose-built space that has been acoustically treated.

Listening to the stye of the track and how the drums sounded in the space I decided to go for a simple 4 mic setup: 2 overheads placed more out in front of the drums to get a more balanced picture of the kit as a whole, supplemented with kick and snare close mics.

The drums themselves were:

Vintage 1960s Zildjian A 14″ hi hats, 22″ Istanbul Agop Azure ride (next to hats), Bosphorus 21″ medium thin ride and an 18″ bosphorus thin crash. Drums …. Snare: Canopus Zelkova, 1960’s premier Olympic 20″ bass drum and 12″ Tom, modern premier 14″  Tom

Of course, all properly tuned…..

On the overheads I used 2 Oktava MK-012 modified by Micheal Joly at Oktavamod, on the kick an Electrovoice RE20 and on the snare a cheap and surprisingly cheerful Audio Technica AT2020 (high SPL handling, nice response, good rejection).

On the following audio examples you are listening to just the overheads so you can hear more clearly the differences between preamps. Note that these are different takes, although the drummer is incredibly consistent, so the comparison is not entirely precise.

Firstly, through with the UA Apollo preamps

 

And then with the EZ1290 preamps

 

You can hear the subtle differences, especially when you listen to that ride cymbal from about 10 seconds in. The Apollo preamps are very good, very clear and crisp, but the EZ1290 has a smoother sound, more open and somehow with a better sense of space.  What do you think?

This is the only direct comparison I’ve done but I’ve been working a lot with these preamps on voice and guitar and really like the sound I’m getting, I’m finding I’m using less processing further down the line to shape the sound. I’ve particularly enjoyed the combination of this preamp and the modified Apex 460 valve mic mentioned in a previous article.

 

DIY Sub Kick

The concept of a sub kick is very simple, take a large speaker and use it in reverse as a microphone specifically for picking up low frequency information, from a kick drum for instance. This can be used in the mix to reinforce the sound of the kick alongside another kick drum mic,  providing additional depth to the sound due to it’s focus on the sub 100Hz frequency range. The subkick won’t pick up much spill from other parts of the kit either, and a good trick is to use it to trigger a gate on the internal kick drum mic, to get a very tight and clean kick sound.

Various companies make them, the  Yamaha SKRM100 for example, which is essentially a 6.5″ woofer mounted in a small drum shell, with mesh either side and a built in stand. The price, £350, quite a bit for speaker on a stand! Over the years I’ve seen various DIY versions in studios around the way including an NS10 woofer clamped into an old worktop vice as a base, all these incarnations functioned well, and cost significantly less than £350 to make. Time to get the tools out I thought.

This is an easy DIY project, it involves mounting a woofer speaker into a suitable frame (in this case a tambourine shell), and then a little soldering to attach an attenuator and a male XLR connector.

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First start with a speaker, I went for an 8″ Wharfedale woofer of EBAY (approx £18), you can use anything from 6″ up, though some say it doesn’t work as well with larger speakers. I’m not sure about that, the 8″ seems to work pretty well. Most important is the speakers frequency response, it should go down to about 20Hz to get all those sub bass frequencies.

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I thought a lot about how to mount it, I wanted something that would isolate it and look good, but not cost too much. The cheapest and most elegant solution I could think of was to use elastic hairbands to suspend the speaker within the circular frame of a tambourine (without the jingles of course). So I ordered a 10″ tambourine (£7 Ebay) and removed the jingles by pulling out the nails holding them in place.

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Slip the elastic hairbands through the screw holes in the speaker, then feed each end through one of the slots in the tambourine rim and push the upper loop (the one that goes over the rim) round and under so the 2 loop ends overlap. Take the nail that used to hold the jingles in place, push it back through it’s location hole so that it pegs the 2 loop ends of the elastic in place. Push all the way in so it’s secure. That was probably the trickiest step in all of this, required a lot of patience to get the elastic and the nail to all go in the right place. Repeat this for the remaining screw holes.

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The next challenge was figuring out how to mount the the subkick using a normal mic stand. I happened to have a broken mic stand lying around so I took the pivot mount from it (the bit that screws onto the top of the vertical part of the stand and allows the boom to attach to it and swivel up and down). The advantage of using this was that it had a standard screw thread on the end which meant I could attach it to a regular mic stand (as shown in the picture above). The pivot mount itself attached to the tambourine rim with a nut, bolt and a couple of washers (through one of the existing slots in the tambourine).

Next step is connecting it up to a mic pre-amp. The output of the subkick is pretty hot, an attenuator (or pad) is recommended to bring the signal level down to the region expected by most pre-amps. You can buy an inline attenuator that connects between the subkick and the XLR cable to the pre-amp, or you can knock together a basic potential divider circuit to do the job for you. I opted for the latter as you probably guessed. Another point worth mentioning here is that I’m going to use an unbalanced connection, providing the environment isn’t to (electrically) noisy and cable runs are short, this shouldn’t be an issue. If you wanted to go for a balanced connection, you would need to wire in an audio transformer, and to get one that has good sub-sonic frequency response isn’t going to be cheap. You could also use a DI box, again, a good quality one with good bass response would be preferable.

Circuit 1

The schematic for an attenuator circuit is shown above, I used a simple potential divider, the values I chose for the resistors R1 and R2 are:

R1=680 Ohm , R2 =150 Ohm

There are many combinations you could use and they also depend on your speaker, Google “attenuator for Subkick” if you want to get lost in that world!

 

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With the resistor values chosen, I soldered them directly to the speaker terminals and covered them with heat shrink. Easiest way I found was to solder one end of R2 to the speaker – terminal, and one end of R1 to the speaker + terminal, slide a sheath of heat shrink over each resistor then twist the exposed ends together, before applying heat to shrink the insulation (see above).

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I then soldered a short length of guitar cable to the speaker – terminal and the exposed resistor ends, ensuring I had a sleeve of heat shrink in place to insulate the connection.

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Finally I soldered the male XLR connector onto the end of the cable, (Pin 1 to Speaker -, Pin 3 to the resistors, Pin 2 unconnected). I had a retaining clip lying around so I used that to secure the connector to the frame, so as not to put too much mechanical load on the soldered joints.

So there you have it, a fully functioning subkick that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, doesn’t look to shabby, and is not to difficult.

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Here is a quick audio example of the subkick in action. The audio is as follows

Bars 1-2 : Internal kick mic only

Bars 3-4 : Subkick only

Bars 5-6 : Internal mic + Subkick

Bars 7-8 : Internal mic + Subkick (with gate on subkick)

Bars 9-10 : Full kit, no subkick

Bars 11 – end : Full kit with Subkick

https://wijproductions.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/example-subkick.mp3

Zen and the Art Of Microphone Modification

 

 

 

After much standing on the side procrastinating, reading various websites, blogs and how-to guides, I decided to get my hands dirty and take on a microphone modification. I had recently bought an Apex 460 valve mic from the states, and an upgrade kit from the very helpful people at Microphone-parts.com. The kit comprises everything you need to convert the stock Apex 460 into a very nice sounding mic. The stock mic sound is nothing special, but it’s only when I did a comparison with the modified version did I realise how big a difference the mod really makes.

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Basically, the modification involves changing the tube to a better quality, lower noise one, removing the RF filter circuit, swapping critical capacitors, diodes and resistors with higher quality components, and changing the capsule for a better quality version.

I spent the best part of a day doing this, but I was going slowly because it was

a) My first time, particularly doing desoldering work

b) I was ultra paranoid about wrecking the mic

Here’s what I got, where I got it and how much it cost:

– APEX 460 Tube mic from Ebay (MegaToneMusic) Total cost including shipping to UK and customs = £205

– Apex 460 mod kit (The Fox SG version from Microphone-Parts.com), approx £140

– Thermostatically controlled soldering iron and desoldering pump – Ebay – £15.99

– Desoldering Braid – Ebay – £3.49

– Helping Hand crocodile clip and magnifying glass (for holding PCBs whilst soldering) – Ebay – £2.88

– 4% silver solder (1m) for audio connections – Ebay – £1.99

– 99.9% Isopropyl alcohol – Ebay – £3.95

These items I already had lying around:

– A clean toothbrush and some cotton buds

– regular solder for de-soldering

– wire cutters, screwdrivers

– clean containers for storage

So you can see that it’s actually quite cheap (compared to spending several hundreds of pounds on a valve mic). I’m not a particularly experienced solderer, I know how to do it and have done the odd repair job, but nothing major, and I’ve never desoldered and replaced components on a board before. I found the overall process of moderate difficulty, once I got the hang of desoldering it was actually quite quick. The kit recommends using the vacuum pump to desolder, but I also ended up using the braid in some places because it was easier and cleaner.

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The first task is to swap out a pair of diodes in the power supply, this is fairly straightforward and a good way of easing yourself into the job, you have to make sure the power supply has been disconnected from the mains for at least 1 hour so all the caps have fully discharged and you avoid the risk of electric shock. Once this swap is done, fire up the mic and check all is ok, then it’s time to work on the mic itself.

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Opening up the mic, firstly you remove the old tube, which is held in place by a spring loaded pad at the bottom, once done you can unscrew the 2 PCBs from the frame, desolder the capsule wires and open up the 2 PCBs to access the joints on the underside. The very detailed and comprehensive instructions tell you exactly which components to desolder. A useful tip here is to always bring the soldering iron in from the edge of the board, to avoid burning any wires or components on it by accident (as I did!). The “helping Hand” tool was also quite useful here, allowing me to hold the PCBs at the best angles to facilitate access to the joints.

Once the necessary components had been removed, it’s time to repopulate the board with the new components (taking care to observe correct polarity for certain capacitors). The FOX SG kit comes with a bit of 4% silver solder (audiophile grade apparently), however I bought a meter of the stuff off Ebay, probably my soldering but I ran out of the stuff they provided before the last component was done. Once the components are in, time to clean the boards with the alcohol to remove flux and other contaminants (taking care not to get any on the polystyrene capacitors).

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At this stage, they recommend testing the mic, probably wise, so put the new tube in, reconnect the capsule wires and plug in. Providing this goes successfully it is then time to remove the headbasket and swap the capsule. This was the bit I found most fiddly, probably because I was so paranoid of touching or damaging the new diaphragm that I ended up being over cautious. Suffice to say, it was actually quite straightforward in the end, and the new capsule was on in no time at all. The wires onto the PCB need to be trimmed as short as possible to reduce capacitance, but be careful here, I cut mine a little too short and had real trouble accessing the joints to reattach them.After a final clean and inspection it was time to reassemble and test.

Initial results were very encouraging, on vocals the mic sounded big, warm and deep, listening to the pre-mod version it sounded thin and harsh, this new mic is very smooth indeed, looking forward to putting it too work in the coming days. I did a quick comparison with a few other mics to get an idea of how it sounds:

I had been lent a Sontronics Aria for a few days to play with, which was perfect timing as it gave me a high quality reference to compare with. Although the Aria ultimately performs better (slightly quieter and smoother), it is over twice the price and the 460 holds it’s own very well.

As a final mod, I decided to remove 2 of the 3 layers in the headbasket, this took a bit of patience and fiddling with a pair of pliers to get them both out, I found using a sharp pointed object to prise up some of the mesh before getting stuck in with the pliers worked best.

So there you have it, if you are thinking about doing this and are reasonably handy with a soldering iron then I would thoroughly recommend it, the mic is quite easy to work with and the upgrade kit is great, well documented and the choice of components really makes a massive difference. I’ll be doing this again I think!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A location recording case study – The Duval Project

Here’s the first of 2 videos from this superb Bristol-based Nu soul / R&B outfit. Location recorded and mixed by Wij Productions.

This was an intense job, we had a small time window to make use of the venue during the day, 5 hours in all to get in, get setup (audio and video) and capture 2 tunes plus some string section overdubs.

Upon arrival, first thing to do was to assess the space and work out the best location for recording. As this was a simultaneous video shoot, the choice of location would have to be some compromise between the best visuals and sound.  The venue is a long vault, the acoustics could have been awful but there was enough treatment and choice of position to work with. We opted for the wooden floor in front of the stage, with the band arranged in a semi circle. The video guys set up a track to allow them to slide 1 stand mounted camera back and forth into the middle of the semicircle, with another hand held camera for alternative shots. In this kind of setup, there will always be a compromise between the best setup for acoustics and separation, and the best setup for visuals.

The band line up included keys, bass, drums, flugelhorn, 2nd keys, vocal and 3 string players (cello and 2 violins). I used a Universal Audio Apollo Duo and an MOTU 828 mk3 (as an ADAT slave to the Apollo) to capture the full set up, with Universal Audio Solo 610 external preamp to give me another mic channel. The band was mainly electric so I didnt need that many mic channels, just for the flugel horn (with an EV RE20), the drum kit (Audix overheads, RE20 on the kick, Audix D5 on snare, AKG 414 on the high hat) and the voice (Oktavamod Rode NT1a running through the UA 610 preamp). I put a couple of mics on the string trio but we decided to overdub them for the final audio as there was too much spill from the band. Everyone played live through their amps, and a foldback monitor was used for the vocalist. In the end we decided to overdub the vocal as there was a bit too much spill. Part way through the recordings I noticed someone had put the ventilation on, always one of the little things you have to look out for on location recordings in these kinds of places, only becomes apparent when you have a very quiet section (as 1 of the tunes here did).

The band we’re a joy to work with, slick, tight and super well rehearsed, they banged out 5 or 6 takes of each tune just like that, which is exactly what you want when time is tight. Once the video guys were happy that they had enough footage to work with, we quickly set up the mics for a more intimate recording of the strings. Acoustically they sounded absolutely gorgeous, the space served the sound very well. I used 4 mics, two Oktavamod NT1a’s as overheads, another facing the cello from behind and to the right, and a TBone ribbon mic in front of the cello. Some may argue that that is a slightly odd setup, but it gave me good results in the mix, I had been reading about how different acoustic instruments project different frequency ranges in different directions and I wanted to explore this.

Again, the string trio being seasoned pro’s laid down a few alternative takes of their parts and then we were done and dusted, just half an hour over schedule which was fine as it turns out.

The first thing to do when I’m back in the studio is back up the session, you never know! The vocalist came by another day and recorded a couple of perfect takes for each track (I say perfect as they synced up with the original vocal track word for word), then the mix began.

I used mainly Universal Audio plugins on this, the concept was to keep it warm and acoustic. Close micing and direct sound from the electric instruments gave me good control over the overall acoustic, I had to do some careful reverb and subtle edit tricks on the overdub vocal as there was some spill from the original vocal on the drum and trumpet mics, it worked out well though. I used a bit of SPL Transient Designer on the drums to help control the ambiance and shape the individual tones.  I was really pleased with the way the strings came out to, bussed them through the Fairchild compressor plugin to smooth them out and add some of that fabled valve and transformer warmth.

The final mix was mastered by Richie Blake (the bass player in the band) before being sent to the video guy for final integration into the finished product.