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.

 

 

Modifying the T.Bone SC1100 mic

Modifying the T.Bone SC1100 Large Diaphragm Condensor Mic

T.BONE SC1100

I bought one of these mics a while ago on the recommendation of a vocalist friend. Considering it cost about £100 from Thomann it was a good deal; 3 patterns, transformer coupled and smooth-sounding with none of the top end harshness of other mics in this price bracket. It also came with a nice metal case and decent shockmount. However, it is still flawed, there is a distinct scooped sound to it which can be flattering but also leads to lack of clarity, and the low frequency response is muddy or ‘woofy’, which is probably a lot to do with transient response.

I did some research to see if anyone had performed a mod on it, but very little came up, until I came across a this thread on the Advanced Audio Europe forum:

“…The SC1100 has a discrete class “A” transformer coupled circuit based on the original AKG 414 from the early 70’s. This circuit has 14db more headroom than a U87.

The capacitors in the SC1100 are already high quality tantalum and polypropylene. R10 can be changed to a 2.2K which will increase the output level and headroom by 3db.

The SC1100 has a dc to dc converter board similar to the U87AI in order to polarize the rear diaphragm via the pattern switch with 110 v dc for FIG 8.

The SC1100 has a low tech single winding transformer that works remarkably well when driven from the much lower output impedance of the 414 circuit.

We can supply a 2.25:1 transformer with dual bobbin windings and bi-metal laminations for $59. Our 2.25:1 transformer will take 6db more level than the stock transformer and recover much faster from percussive transients.

The SC1100 has no pre-emphasis and there is lots of room in the head grill for either our AK47 or AK67 which will both work well with that circuit.

The AK47 will give it a more U47fet tone but with 3 patterns and the AK67 will give it a more U87 tone but with more headroom….”

Looks like someone else had the same idea, I contacted Advanced Audio and they supplied me with a new capsule (AK67), transformer and resistor to perform a relatively simple upgrade to this mic.

The result? A clearer, more precise mic with nice tight bass response. You can opt for a different capsule of course, and this will change the character of the mic, they recommend their AK47 or AK67 capsules. I found the AK67 added back the mids that seemed scooped in the original, giving a lot more presence to recorded sources, I’ve included some quick audio examples at the bottom of this post.

The basic cost of this mod was 145 Euros plus p&p for the AK67 capsule BV2.25 transformer, and they very kindly threw in the 2.2k resistor as well.

If you’re interested in performing this mod yourself, then I will outline the procedure I followed. I would say this is an easy to medium mod, you will need to be confident with soldering and desoldering components (see here for some good tutorials), and not be squeamish about completely dismantling the microphone!

Disclaimer: Be aware that you could damage your mic if you get this wrong! I am in no way responsible for any damage that may occur as a result of following my guide. Use common sense and take care and you should be fine, if in doubt or lacking confidence, find someone who can help!

You will need:

  • Suitable replacement capsule , transformer and resistor (many suppliers can provide these components, I found Advanced Audio Europe to be very helpful in recommending the right parts, get in touch with them here)
  • A temperature controlled soldering iron with a fine tip
  • Desoldering pump
  • Audio quality solder (4% silver)
  • 1mm dia. heat shrink
  • wire cutters / strippers
  • Set of small Phillips screwdrivers
  • 99.9% Isopropyl Alcohol, a toothbrush and / or cotton buds (for cleaning the solder joints afterwards)
  • (optional) A crocodile clip to use as a heat sink when soldering near heat sensitive components.
  • (optional) A camera

Time required is about 1-3 hours depending on how skilled you are (took me about 3 and I’m not that skilled!)

1) Prepare your workspace

Not essential but this is how I like to work: have a clear, clean workspace with good lighting ready, warm up the soldering iron and lay your tools out. I grounded myself for ESD protection, not sure if it’s strictly necessary but I did it anyway, I have a wire connected to the radiator pipe which I wrap round my finger.

I took photos every step of the way so I could refer back to see where wires were connected or how things fitted together, very useful and no hassle these days with camera phones.

2) Dismantle the mic

– Unscrew the base of the microphone, slide off the body sleeve and put both parts to one side.

unscrew the microphone body

-With an appropriate screwdriver, undo the 2 screws either side of the head basket and then remove the basket and he plastic locating ring that mounts the headbasket to the inner metal runners.

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– I’m not sure if it’s strictly necessary, but I found it easier to completely dismantle the mic to work on it, so I removed the 4 screws on each PCB that hold them to the frame, and the 6 screws holding the transformer case and XLR connector to the frame too.

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– desolder from the PCBs the 3 wires coming from the capsule. I found it better to do this than cut them as the blue wire on the replacement capsule was not quite long enough so I had to exchange it for the one from the original capsule. (Use a heat sink on the leg of the capacitor to prevent damage when desoldering). If necessary, ensure you take a picture(s) of where the wires connect so there is no confusion when reconnecting.

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3) Remove the existing transformer

– As you’ve seen, the transformer is located in the metal can at the bottom of the mic, open this and pull the transformer out, it is usually stuck to the lid with an adhesive pad.

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– cut the wires to the transformer fairly close to the transformer itself, the replacement has short wires and you will need to splice them to the existing wires in order to reach the PCB.

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4) Install the new transformer

-The replacement BV2.25 transformer is dimensionally quite different, you will need to install it lying on its side in order for it to fit in the can. I wrapped the metal core of mine in electrical tape, not sure if it’s necessary but the original was wrapped up too so I figured it might be useful to do. Route the wires through the 2 entry holes on either side of the transformer can.

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– Prepare the ends of each sets of wires for soldering (strip and tin where necessary), place a sheath of heat shrink on the long wires leading to the PCB and push down out of the way.

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– match up the colours of the wires from transformer to PCB and solder them together, you may need some clamps to hold the wires in place as you do this.

– slide the heat shrink sheaths over the joins and apply heat till they contract, ensure no bare wire is exposed.

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– relocate the wires in the metal runners and assemble the transformer can and XLR connector back into the frame. Replace the 6 screws taking care not to pinch any wiring in the metal runners.

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5) Swap the resistor

– Locate the resistor labelled R10 on one of the PCBs, flip over and locate the solder joints corresponding to this component.

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– using the desoldering pump, desolder and remove the resistor (I will assume you know how to do this, but if not sure then here is a good guide: http://www.tangentsoft.net/elec/movies/)

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– fit the replacement resistor, solder and trim the terminals

6) Capsule swap

– If your not intending to re-use the existing capsule, then you don’t have to be so careful about handling it. With the new capsule, only hold if from the sides and don’t pull on the wires connecting to the front and rear faces of the capsule.

– remove the existing capsule from the plastic saddle by removing the 2 holding screws either sideScreen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.59.53

-Take the new capsule from it’s case and locate it on the saddle so that mounting holes are aligned with those on the saddle. Using the screws provided with the capsule, screw the new capsule in place and tighten, ensuring there is no play.

– feed the capsule wiring through the holes in the top plate of the microphone leading to the PCBs. If the blue wire appears to be too short, then you can remove the blue wire from the old capsule by undoing the retaining screw and swap it with the wire on the new capsule.

– to avoid accidental damage to the exposed capsule, I slipped the metal sheath from the mic body over the capsule, this is particularly usefull when it comes to soldering the wires onto the PCB as any spurts of solder could potentially damage the diaphragm

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– resolder the capsule connections, the blue wire goes to the shared terminal with the capacitor (use a heat sink to protect the capacitor), and the red wires go to the terminals on top of the other PCB. To avoid confusion, the PCB with the 3 way pattern select switch is mounted on  the front side of the mic, the wire from the front side of the capsule goes to the right hand side connection when looking at the back of the PCB.

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– clean the back of the PCB and all new solder connections with the isopropyl alcohol20140829_145823

 

7) Re-assemble and Test

– re-attach the PCBs using the screws, be aware of the capsule and avoid damaging it, replace the plastic ring and headbasket, now you can relax a bit as the capsule is protected! slide on the body sheath and tighten the base, the black backing plates to the pattern select and filter switches are likely to have come off and will need inserting before you put the body back on.

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– plug it to your preamp, apply phantom power and test, speak into it first and make sure you are getting signal, then try it on a range of instruments or vocals and see how you like it.

Good luck, I hope you enjoyed and / or have found this useful, I’ve made 2 of these mics now and am very happy with the recordings I’m getting from them. Here are some quick audio examples to illustrate the change in character of the modified mic compared to the standard version:

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.

 

 

 

 

Recording a 9-piece latin band (in layers) – Timbaterra Salsa EP

This recording of the Bristol-based latin band Timbaterra comprises 4 tracks covering Reggaeton, Salsa Romantica and modern salsa styles with influences from Cuban Timba. Recorded in Bristol and featuring vocals of Indira Roman and Sandra Lord, and the piano and vocals of Raimundo “El Nene” Fernandes. Rhythm section features Rory Francis playing all percussion, myself on bass and the horns were played by Ralph Tong (Trumpet) and Dave Smallwood (Trumbone).

The aim of this recording was to get the full sound of a 9 piece latin band, but doing it in layers rather than everyone playing together live. The key to this is having a good, grooving rhythm section  foundation to build the rest of the tracks on.  Thus we first layed down bass, piano and percussion together, the percussion was done timbales first to get all the breaks marked out, then we overlaid the congas, bongos, guiro and cowbell. I borrowed a set of Audix drum mics for the percussion, mic’ing the timbales with a pair of overheads and 1 dynamic under each drum, then individual mics on the snare, kick and bell tree.

Vocals were done next, fantastic performances from everyone made this very quick and easy. I used an Electrovoice RE20 for all the lead and layered background vocals, worked very well on these voices.

Finally the horns were done, we couldn’t get both players in at the same time so had to go with layering each part individually. This makes things a bit more tricky in the mix when it comes to making it sound like a section, but not impossible. Again, the RE20 microphone did the job of tracing the horns, I used it about a metre away and it seemed to capture the tone nicely.

Once recorded, the mixing began in earnest. Although I’d played in latin bands for years, I’d never recorded and mixed latin music, the learning curve was steep! Thankfully Raimundo was there to bounce the mixes off, he patiently listened to a lot of iterations before he finally said, “yes, that’s it!”.

In a nutshell, the cowbell needs to be prominent (but obviously not too prominent, unlike here), the congas driving and the rest balanced. Obvious right? Took me a while to get it though. A lot of work went into gelling the horns together to sound like a section rather than individuals playing in separate sessions. I used sample replacement to reinforce the kick and snare drum sounds too, adding more punch than was available in the original recorded sounds.

I also go the opportunity to trial a Universal Audio Apollo system, and used the UAD analogue emulation plugins to mix the songs with. Specifically, I used the Studer A800 tape sims on each instrument bus, the EMT 140 plate reverb as a general reverb, the Neve 88RS channel strips for the percussion, Cambridge EQ and LA-2A and 1176LN compressors for vocals and horns. The overall effect was amazing, I got closer to that sound I was searching for than I ever managed with all the other plugins I’d been using. So blown away was I that I decided to invest and bought an Apollo and a bunch of plugs, haven’t regretted that decision!

I’ve been studying Mastering courtesy of Ian Shepards Home Mastering Masterclass (which I thoroughly recommend by the way), I thought I’d put some of that knowledge to the test and do my own masters on these tracks too. Still learning on that front, there is a lot information to absorb and experience to gain. During the mix process the band had a regular gig at a salsa club, so we had opportunity to test out the mixes on a larger sound system and get an idea of how people responded (they danced!)

All in all I’m very happy with the way this recording came out, it took a while but I had a lot to learn, I’m  looking forward to doing a lot more latin music in the future.