Rubix Group co-founder Alexandre Monnier shares his thoughts on the best sounding rooms for drum tracking...
When I was training to become a sound engineer, my teacher (a veteran mastering engineer from Decca) asked the class: “What is the most important industry standard in music production?”
We all had a go at guessing before he brushed our answers aside by writing the following letters on the whiteboard: S.I.S.O. As we all looked puzzled, he shouted: “Shit in, shit out!”
A great master cannot be made from a poor mix, a great mix cannot be made from a poor recording and a great recording relies fundamentally on great instruments in a great-sounding live room.
If you let that sink in, you may realise that fancy microphones and outboard gear, although very helpful, are somewhat secondary to how you use them and where. Being able to perfectly record a bad sounding room or a bad sounding instrument is quite useless.
Of course, you can always process heavily and turn knobs for hours on your favourite EQ or delay when attempting to “fix it in the mix”. At the end of the day, some things cannot be polished so you might as well save yourself time and money by getting them right from the beginning.
What exactly do we mean by “good acoustics”?
When building a professional recording studio, a large part of the budget is allocated to its architecture and structure. Top acousticians are hired to help design and “tune” the live room to ensure that it does not get in the way of recording good music, but instead enhances its quality.
A Stradivarius will sound how it sounds because of its proportions and the nature of the wood chosen, how its angles and surfaces affect the movement of the air and the resonance of its body to give that balanced, rich and beautiful tone. Much similarly, a good live room requires care in the making.
To avoid confusion, let’s clearly identify soundproofing and sound treatment. One of the first functions of any live room is to keep the noise outside, this is what soundproofing does. Nobody wants to hear a plane or a train passing in the background.
The second step is sound treatment, designing a room that helps the recording by offering a harmonious frequency response - free from standing waves and striking that delicate dry/wet balance. A good room should not be too dead or too reverberant. Some basic rules include avoiding large reflective parallel surfaces and controlling the build-up of certain frequencies in various parts of the room by adding diffusers, traps or reflectors as appropriate.
Obviously the size of the room will affect the decay of its natural “ambiance” or reverb. Actually, before physical reverb units (spring, plate, digital) or plugins were invented, long acoustic tunnels were used to re-record tracks and add some natural reverb to the programme material. Thick mobile panels would allow the engineer to vary the reverb time as required.
Of course, you could reasonably ask me why large studios invest so much in building and treating a live room when many good recordings can be done from a laptop in a home studio. The thing is, tracking a synth or a bass, an electric guitar or some vocals can be done reasonably well in a small booth with the use of some foam treatment to reduce reflections. And with the use of effects and processors, decent results can be achieved.
This is because the space in which those instruments are recorded does not impact the recording so much or can be controlled fairly easily. They also usually require a maximum of one or two microphones - if any at all. After all, a DI signal from a good bass amp often sounds pretty decent.
However when tracking a drum kit, a string quartet or a grand piano, you really need a larger room. There, slapping a few foam tiles around simply will not be good enough. A well-balanced room with good acoustics is necessary, especially as “room mics” positioned at a distance from the instrument are precious to provide an immersive sound stage and to capture the character of the instruments in that space.
Recording the subtle acoustic details of a drummer’s performance is often considered simultaneously one of the most difficult and one of the most important parts of a song recording. It drives the song and delivers power as well as detail.
Tracking drums is particularly delicate due to the fact that several microphones are usually required, which can cause phase issues to creep up if the mics are not positioned properly. To make things more complicated, the worse a room sounds, the more a kit will require a large number of microphones placed very close to the drums in an attempt to have as little “room” as possible going into the recording.
Worse, a standing wave in a bad live room will likely excite some of the drums and when you hit that floor tom, the whole room may resonate and go “whooooommm” for a split second. This brings some engineers to reach for various gel pads, mufflers or even tape in an attempt to keep that in check, resulting in a dead-sounding drum sound. That is why getting the right drum kit, tuning it properly and setting it in a perfect acoustic environment is the only way I know to get the awesome sounding drum tracks that the artist relies upon.
If you go to Abbey Road, you will often see engineers spend a couple of hours building a wall of acoustic panels around the drum kit and moving microphones about. This is partly to reduce bleed between drums and other instruments, but also to manage the acoustics within the space where the drums are being recorded.
I suppose one could compare the importance of acoustics in sound recording to the role played by light for a photographer or a painter. This is true for the live engineer (good concert halls are designed with acoustics in mind) and even more so for the studio engineer: the acoustics of the studio will impact quality, the ease, the speed and therefore the cost of achieving a great sounding master.
Alexandre Monnier is co-founder and director of the Rubix Group, a London-based facility offering live events production, studio recording sessions, education programmes, artist management/AR and backline instrument hire.