FEATURE/ADVICE: Sound Reasoning Part 4 – microphones for jazz recording, contd.

Positioning overheads can be tricky
Photo credit: Ru Cook

Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, two All About Jazz Best Albums of the Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great. This is the fourth part of his special advice series for LondonJazz News. 

Here are: Sound Reasoning Part 1 – the set-up and Part 2 – monitoring levels and listening

This is the second part of a two-section article on microphones (for the first part click here).

Instruments, mic choice and positioning

The right type of microphone, positioned correctly is vital for a great sounding jazz recording. Here I outline one way of achieving a good sound which doesn’t require any difficult miking technique or setup. Unless your recording engineer has a good track record with jazz albums, it’s best not to leave everything up them. They might not have a huge amount of experience with jazz. Don’t be afraid to step in and make changes to how they are miking things up if the results you hear in the control room are less than amazing (see the previous article on listening levels which are also important).

If more than one instrument is being recorded in the same room, you will get some “leakage” between instruments. In a shared space, the piano sound, say, will get recorded by the bass microphones and vice versa. If you have a large, beautiful sounding studio room, leakage might actually be a good thing. The sound of the room will mix with the instruments in a pleasing way. Mic leakage can, if captured correctly, preserve this effect. However for most jazz musicians, such a studio busts the budget.

Large rooms can be good, but take care
Even if you can afford it, recording in a large room can be a bad idea. Clap your hands and you will hear a room’s ambient properties. Large rooms tend to be more reflective. Some refer to this as sounding “echoey” or “reverberant”. If you hear much of an ambient sound when you clap your hands, this should be a warning sign. Rooms like this are not necessarily a good place to record jazz.   Reverberant rooms differ greatly from each other. One room can sound great for recording rock and another can sound great for classical music, but it doesn’t mean either one will sound great for jazz.  Don’t risk using a reverberant room unless you have listened to jazz albums recorded there and you like the sound. Even if you have heard something recorded well in an ambient space, if the engineer hasn’t achieved the results you like before in that space, it’s a risk. Recording jazz in a reverberant space takes very specific miking techniques and experience. Too much or the wrong kind of ambience can ruin your recording. Even if it’s not actually spoiled beyond repair, it may not sound as good as it would have done recorded in a properly treated (not reverberant) studio room.

Reducing leakage
Studios within the budget of most jazz groups have small rooms. Here, there is no advantage to leakage. All it will do is make your album harder to mix well. Here’s why. Imagine that listening through the bass mic you can hear the piano loud and clear. Now you want to apply some EQ to bring out the sound of the strings on the fingerboard of the bass or a different EQ to bring out the woodiness of the tone. This EQ, or any EQ on the bass, is going to affect the sound of the piano as well, because part of the piano sound is coming through the bass mic. So by the time you have a great bass sound, you’ve ruined the piano sound (which maybe didn’t need any EQ or if it did, it would be very different from the bass). This can happen with any two instruments in the same room. In a large beautiful sounding room, with great sounding instruments, miked skilfully, not much processing is needed during the mix. However music recorded in small rooms almost always needs adjustments to the sound. This calls for as little leakage as possible.

Here’s how to check for leakage. If the piano and acoustic bass are in the same room, record 30 seconds of them playing together. Then listen back to the recording and turn off the piano mics in the mix to see how much piano is picked up by the bass mics. If you can hear the piano fairly clearly that’s going to be a problem. Check this with any instruments recorded in the same room. You’ll never completely eliminate leakage. Your aim is to minimise it by how you position the instruments and the microphones. Ideally put every instrument into its own room with windows so that everyone can see each other, but most small studios won’t allow that.

Which mics to use for specific instruments?

The most common choice of snare mic for recording rock and pop music is the Shure SM57. This dynamic mic is ubiquitous in studios large and small. However it is often not the best choice for recording the fine detail or quiet intricate snare work in jazz.

Many engineers put an SM57 on the snare regardless of the style of music, so you should watch out for this. The SM57 does not represent higher frequencies at all well, especially at low volumes.  That’s far from ideal for jazz drums. A jazz drummer will typically have a lot of information in those higher frequencies in the form of intricate ghost notes, quiet rolls or brush work.

A better choice is a high quality condenser mic. Any decent studio will be able to offer you a variety of these (make sure it’s one that can handle the volume of the snare). I suggest a high quality, small diaphragm condenser mic on both the top and bottom of the snare.  

Make sure the snare mic is positioned so that it doesn’t pick up too much of the hi-hat, with the back of the mic pointed at the hi-hat as much as possible. Similarly, make sure the hi-hat mic doesn’t pick up too much of the snare. Angle it down towards the top hat but away from the snare.  Check for leakage between the snare and hi-hat mics during the setup. It’s impossible to remove all leakage from mics this close to each other, but try reduce it as much as possible. Ask the engineer to turn off the hi-hat mic and see how loud the hi-hat sounds listening through the snare mic. If you can still hear the hi-hat clearly, it’s too loud and you need to reposition the snare mic. Then check the overhead mics. In this case you’ll hear the hi-hat clearly, but look out for how loud it is compared to the snare and cymbals. You should try to position the overhead mics so that the hi-hat is as quiet as possible.  Remember if the hi-hat sounds loud enough without the hi-hat mic turned on, the overheads are picking up too much of it.

Like snare drums, hi-hats also do well with high quality small diaphragm condensers.

Kick drum
The kick drum is hard to get right, so spend some time on it. I suggest using a Shure beta 52 mic, one you’ll find in most studios. It’s good at capturing the tone but also has a tight low end. There are other options, but the beta 52 is always a safe bet. You need to experiment with positioning. Seven times out of ten, halfway into the hole in the kick drum head is a good place to start. Using the wrong mic or the wrong position can give you a flabby toneless kick drum. Or it can give the kick too much ring and resonance which will crowd out the acoustic or electric bass. Generally speaking, the further inside the drum the mic is, and the closer to the beater, the more click and attack the sound will have.  The further out of the drum the mic is the more very low sub frequencies you’ll get. But there’s no strict rule for mic positioning, it varies from drum to drum.

Don’t kill the ring of the kick drum with too much damping. For most styles of jazz you want some ring and tone on the kick. However, if you listen back and the kick is noticeably sustaining a note, you probably need to damp it more. If you have too much sustain, you’ll end up with a muddy low end on the faster tunes because the drum will be ringing constantly. This can make it very hard to hear the bass and piano clearly. Too much damping and the kick can sound dead and more like a rock kick drum. Your choice depends on the sound you are after. Listen to the kick drum sounds on your favourite records as a reference. If you have time it might be worth changing the damping on the kick drum to suit the tune. A slow ballad might call for a longer sustain on the kick, with less damping.  For faster tunes you’ll want less sustain so use more damping.

If the kick drum is tuned so that it has a definite note to the sustain, that may not fit every tune, in which case you might want to damp it more. Some lightly damped kick drums sustain a constant note that rings from one hit to the next. Even if the note fits, is that what you want? I have been given sets to mix where the kick drum is effectively sustaining a drone note on every tune on an album, because nobody thought about it during the recording. That may well suit some types of music, but I’m guessing it’s not often what people were after .

Overhead mics are another tricky problem. Cymbal work in jazz is more about tone and intricacy than about smashing them on the down beat. Rock and pop need the mics a good distance above the cymbals because the drummer is probably going to be bashing them hard. In jazz that means you can’t hear the detail on the ride cymbal. The higher the overhead mics, the more they pick up the snare, kick drum and toms. So by the time you turn up the mics enough to hear the detail in the ride cymbal, you’ll be hearing the snare louder than you want.

To avoid this, make sure the engineer keeps the overhead mics down close to the cymbals. How close is a matter of taste. Again your set-up time can help. I suggest overhead mics 30-40cm from the cymbals if you want to clearly hear detailed ride work, perhaps a little higher if you prefer a softer ride sound.

Use high quality small diaphragm condenser mics for overheads. Large diaphragm condensers can work too, but if you are close miking the cymbals you really don’t need the low end of a large diaphragm condenser. Small diaphragm condensers offer a lot of detail in the high end. Finally, even if you have the mics down close to the cymbals, it’s very important to make sure the mics are equidistant from the centre of the snare. Use a mic lead, or tape measure to check.
That’s the drums sorted
Photo credit: Borislav Kresojević

Reeds and horns
Large diaphragm condenser mics are a good choice for sax, they offer plenty of detail but also a rich low end. Ribbons can sound good but I caution against them for reasons explained in the previous article. For trumpet and other brass you might want to try a ribbon but a large diaphragm condenser is always a good option.

Acoustic bass
There is more than one way to get a good acoustic bass sound, and some of these include using more than one mic. But to keep things simple, here’s one that I find always gives a decent acoustic bass sound and with care can give a great sound. Put one high quality large diaphragm condenser mic in front of the bass pointing slightly above the level of the bridge 20-30cm away from the strings. Try varying the exact position and distance to get the sound you are after. Hardest to capture on acoustic bass is the mid range and upper midrange. This is where the articulation and singing tone of the bass resides. If you don’t capture that, you’ll be left with just the low end. Then all you’ll hear in the mix is “fumm, fumm, mumm, mumm, fumm, fumm…”, it will be very hard to hear the detail. So experiment with mic position and brand of mic until you can hear detail in the bass when the drums and piano are playing. A good acoustic bass sound is essential if you have one in the session. But be wary of using more than one mic on the bass unless your engineer understands how to avoid phase issues.

There are numerous ways of miking piano and each gives a different sound. In a busy uptempo jazz tune you generally need close miking for the piano to be heard clearly. Distant miking can sound nice on a solo piano piece, but is unlikely to cut through in an up tempo or even medium tempo tune. In most small recording studios, using mics outside the piano may pick up too much of the room sound.  Also, in a small studio you’ll probably need to put at least one other instrument in the same room as the piano, quite close by. This rules out anything but close miking. There are dedicated piano mics, but most small studios won’t have these. High quality large diaphragm condenser mics are the obvious choice, placed a few inches above the strings. Try one towards the back of the piano pointed at the bass stings at about a 30 degree angle relative to the strings and 20-30cm above the strings, and another near the front pointed at the treble strings at a similar angle and distance. There are variations which all sound good in different ways. Miking nearer to the hammers will give you a brighter more percussive sound if that’s what you’re after.

Electric bass
Always, always, always record a dry direct signal from an electric bass along with the microphone in front of the speaker. The bass amplifier you love on stage rarely sounds good in a mix. More than any other instrument, electric bass has a tendency for some notes to ring out louder than others and amps accentuate this. For example you can play a low A and it sits very nicely with the other instruments but when you hit the C the note rings out much louder (or vice versa depending on the amp or bass).  This difference often isn’t apparent over headphones when you’re recording and in performance these differences are often masked by the acoustics of the venue. Amps also have a strong tendency to create resonances which muddy the low end of the whole track. In a studio recording these problems can ruin the bass. It’s a problem with rock bass too, but in rock significant amounts of compression and EQ are used to even out the notes and remove resonances. For a jazz bassist that can ruin the dynamics and tone of a performance. This is why you must record a direct signal from the bass along side the amped signal. Then you have the option to use software amp simulation on the direct signal.  These days amp simulation software sounds amazingly good, and this DI backup can save a recording. When you do mic up the bass amp, use a large diaphragm condenser and in particular check for boominess when listening back in the control room.

Electric guitar
In my experience guitar amplifiers are much better at translating through when recorded with a microphone than bass amps. So recording a DI track of the guitar is not as important, but might still be worth doing just in case. Electric guitar can be recorded with a variety of microphone types, dynamic, large condenser or ribbon. Each type of mic will give you a different result, so it may be worth experimenting or use two or three mics, all recorded on separate tracks. If you line up the diaphragms of each mic so they are exactly the same distance from the speaker, you can combine them in the mix for a kind of “natural EQ”. This won’t work if the diaphragms aren’t lined up exactly however as you’ll get phase cancellation.

In the next article we look at microphone preamps.

Mark Wingfield
Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio

Categories: Features/Interviews

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