When it comes to producing music involving bands, properly setting up the tracking stage is critical to capturing the right sounds while recording. We’ve all heard the expression “garbage in–garbage out,” and this has never been more applicable than in the current age of home studios. Our recording setups are often less than ideal, both in terms of room acoustics as well as access to a wide choice of microphones and preamps. It is instructive to learn from professional producers like Romesh Dodangoda, whos rock and metal credits include Motorhead, Bring Me The Horizon, Funeral For A Friend, Kids In Glass Houses, Twin Atlantic, Bullet For My Valentine, Lower Than Atlantis, and many more. Romesh’s workflow bridges the divide between recording in big tracking rooms with lots of outboard gear down to mixing in-the-box, with a predominantly software based setup. In a recent master class, he shared with Sonarworks some tips on getting the right sounds during a live tracking session. His thoughts and tips will provide guidance for every recording and production environment.
About Tracking Live
Many artists consider live tracking an entire band somewhat anachronistic in this day of multitrack home studio setups. However, we have learned by now that the best way to attain the elusive “analog” sound we are all striving for is to get the musicians all in the same room, playing together. Perfection is not the ultimate goal, so much as is simply capturing an excellent performance and cohesive vibe.
On the debate about tracking live vs. recording by overdubbing each instrument, Romesh puts it this way “I sometimes start like this, and then dub [at home] on top of it. This is a good way to get the vibe and the foundation down. It’s a great inexpensive way for a band to record very quickly, and then you can dub stuff on top if you wanted to.”
Romesh pays special attention to the sound of the live room–the role it plays in the sound of each instrument, and how best to capture it. Microphone choice and mic placement play a critical role, as does the SSL console-based processing he uses during his tracking sessions. It’s interesting to observe how an experienced producer like Romesh assesses and approaches a new recording environment.
In the current recording session, Romesh first observes the room size and shape. He notes that proper microphone placement is worth spending time on, since we will capture not just the direct sound of the vocal or instruments, but we will also wind up capturing the sound of the room. This becomes even more important when recording in irregularly sized, untreated, or very small rooms. In Romesh’s words, “High ceilings are brilliant for recording. The lower the ceilings are, the more reflections you’ll get.”
The room is particularly important when tracking loud instruments, like drums. Romesh explains that “Half the drum sound is in the room track, even in small studios.” While it may be difficult to get great drum sounds in small rooms, it’s not impossible. It is essential to take advantage of whatever creative mic placement options your environment has to offer.
“With room mics in a small drum room, you’re going to get loads of cymbals, and it’s going to be very washy. But if you can wedge a door open and put a mic in the corridor, you can get some amazing sounds” suggests Romesh. One objective for the room mics is to reduce the amount of cymbals as much as possible, so, when recording in a small room, Romesh suggests positioning the mics close to the floor or behind a screen to capture a darker tone.
Furthermore, Romesh suggests using ribbon microphones for room mics, as they have a naturally warmer tone. While setting up drum room mics, Romesh states “You’re always looking for where the drums sound fat and deep.” To find the sweet spot for a room mic, he suggests simply walking around the room while the drummer is playing kick and snare and listen for the spot where you can best hear the low-end building up. He continues, “If you put the room mics in the thinnest part, you’re just going to get loads of cymbals. I’m constantly thinking about how can I avoid cymbals.”
Romesh prefers a stereo pair of room mics to capture the width of the kit and the stereo ambience of the room. He adds a mono room mic for depth and a strong room sound down the middle of the kit to help reinforce the kick and snare.
For capturing the kick drum, Romesh uses three mics: kick in, kick out and a sub mic. For the sub mic, he prefers the Yamaha SubKick, but when that is not available he sometimes uses the old trick of wiring a Yamaha NS10 woofer so that it will act as a microphone. The Shure Beta 57 is his mic of choice for snare top, along with a large diaphragm condenser for snare bottom. For toms, he prefers Sennheiser 441 or Josephson mics, and Neumann U87s, or AKG mics for overheads.
For bass, Romesh likes to record direct and reamp through an amp afterwards, if he needs to. “The thing with bass amps is there is so much low end that it will just bleed everywhere” Romesh explains.
Recording Electric guitars
An essential aspect when tracking live electric guitar, independent of the room size or quality, is how hot to run the amp. Romesh has some useful tips on this as well. “A lot of people think, oh we should just turn the amp up to ten, that’s the best sound. It’s not, because the speakers are struggling to keep up. I find there’s a spot where it’s loud, but it’s not too loud. The speaker’s got to move. If the amp is on ten, it’s got no time to come back. I just go for a kind of medium level. Not too quiet because you want the amp to drive its tubes. Not too loud so that the cab is struggling. There’ll come a point where the mic is struggling as well to keep up with the sound. It’s not going to reproduce it that well. Back it off a bit (from ten) and you can get a crisper and more detailed sound that way.” He often uses a Royer ribbon mic, for their low end warmth, however, during this master class session, he chooses an SM57.
Romesh is unequivocal about capturing a “safety recording,” by simultaneously tracking the guitar DI with no amp or processing onto a separate track. He explains this is “for two reasons. In case we misjudged and need to go back and redo the [amp or effects] balance. Also for editing, it’s a great visual tool to be able to scan through and see the transients. Sometimes there will be a lead guitar part where a software guitar thing is actually cooler for this. If I have the DI in the session, it’s easy for me to just click an amp sim and do something cool with it. I always take them and then just hide them in the session.” He also likes to blend multiple mics on a guitar amp and print that blend to one recording track.
The venerable AKG C12 serves as his mic of choice for vocals, along the Blue Stripe 1176 for vocal compression.
In The Control Room
Once microphone choices and placement decisions have been made, the next vital part of getting the right sound is setting up the input channels. Processing the microphone signal can be achieved either with a dedicated recording console, hardware channel strips, or in an audio interface’s analog emulation software, such as in UAD’s Console or Apogee’s Maestro applications.
While recording drums, Romesh applies high pass filtering to the overhead mics. He always monitors the drum mics panned to the drummer’s perspective from behind the kit. Romesh commits to the blend of the three kick drum mics by bussing them to one record track.
Phase relationships between mics are so critical for a solid drum sound, and with so many mics in close proximity, some are inevitably out of phase with others, which often results in a thin or distant sound. It is especially important to reverse the polarity on the bottom snare mic so that it is in phase with the top snare mic.
Romesh explains the importance of checking the phase relationship between the hats and the snare “If the snare is out of phase in the hat mic, you can end up actually killing a lot of the snare tone. The easy way to check this is to boost the snare drum in the hi-hat mic so that I can then check the phase.” If there are problems, it’s best to simply reverse the phase of the hi-hat mic.
While he’s not shy about committing to EQ and compression while recording, Romesh cautions against over compressing drum room mics. “Everyone makes this mistake,” he says. “It sounds great on its own, but won’t sound good with the kit because you’ll just get all this cymbal wash, and there’s no body to the sound. What we really want is to capture the room. That’s what gives you the big size. If you compress them too much, you’ll actually make the drums sound smaller.”
A fan of outboard gear, Romesh likes the old Yamaha reverbs on drums. Sometimes lower fidelity imparts a unique vibe to a track. Romesh says this about the Yamaha SPX 90: “It’s really great on drums because it’s so rubbish sounding. It just sits in the drum mix really well, because it’s not got so much high-end detail. I think its because the resolution is so low, it just kind of works for drums really well. The bandwidth is super limited.” As far as compression, along with the Urei Blue Stripe 1176 for vocals, Romesh also likes to have Distressors and DBX 116s on hand.
Before hitting record, Romesh finishes adjusting the compression and EQ on various tracks, sets up a SansAmp plugin on the bass channel, and a slap delay and short reverb for the vocals.
Romesh has demonstrated the importance of proper setup for a successful tracking session. Place the mics in the best spot, dial in the tones that are appropriate for the song and provide a good monitor mix for the band and producer. Attention to these details allows him to create his signature sound and vibe while tracking.