Recording Signals Midwest’s ‘Westside Summer’
I had fun recording Signals Midwest’s new single, ‘Westside Summer’, as the latest installment of our video series ‘Live From Bad Racket’. Overall I am really happy with how this track turned out, both sonically and visually. Hunter and Evan have been killing it on the videos! If you haven’t seen the video yet, give it a listen:
The reason I think this track turned out so well is a little bit of pre-planning. Having them very well rehearsed, with new strings, and new drum heads goes a long way to improving recording quality, as well as a little extra time in the setup phase. Knowing the band has good dynamic control, I really wanted to play with the Z-axis, and not just the X and Y axis.
We spent a little extra time to make sure it could be as good as possible from the source. With the essence of this video series’ concept being a band playing live in a room, we try and retain that as much as possible while also using some studio techniques to really perfect the audio side of the video’s experience.
Having new heads on a drum kit helps unbelievably with getting a great drum sound. Having a great drummer on the kit helps even more. Steve does a great job of this, but I encouraged him to beat the shit out of his shells, while barely touching the cymbals. This does two things, increases the attack and punch of the drums, as well as decreasing the bleed of the cymbals into every other mic. That way the drums sound closer to where you want them to sit in the final mix already. We also spent a fair amount of time tuning his kit, after all how can an out of tune drums sound their best?
Full drum kit from mix.
Drum Mics & Preamps
Overheads, The Full Kit, & Cymbals
I like to start with overheads when micing drums. The pick up the overall picture of the whole kit, and contribute to every element of the drumset, not just the cymbals, but snare, toms, and even the kick. For this I used a pair of Sterling condenser mics in a spaced pair with a stereo image little wider than you’d normally expect, that way my mono room mic fills in the center of the stereo image. I ran these through a pair of Hairball Audio Lola mic preamps that are very transparent, big, and clean sounding. To tighten up the drum sound a little I put two rock wool acoustic gobos on either side of the kit that was approximately halfway down our large live room. The hi-hat and ride cymbals were also spot mic’d with CAD e70 Pencil Condenser Mics, which have a very clean sound with incredibly fast transient response. This helped the attack of the ride and clarity of hats come through in the mix.
Overheads solo’d up.
For the kick drum I used a Shure Beta 91a inside the kick, this mic picks up a great overall picture of the kick drum, but with an emphasis on getting the attack of the drum. To add a little more body, I complimented this with a Shure Beta 52, which is a large diaphragm dynamic, so it’s great at picking up lots of body. I ran both mics through Classic API VP26s which have a very nice low end, and saturate beautifully on kick, giving them just enough lift to really punch through a mix while evening out the transients.
Kick drum solo’d up.
On the snare drum, I used a Beyerdynamic M201 on top. The reason I chose this mic over something else like an SM57, is it has a more even response as well as being hypercardioid which helps it focus the mic on just the snare, and have less cymbal bleed. This also went through a VP26 for the same reason as the kick, it thickens it up beautifully though subtle saturation. The bottom mic was a Shure SM57, which complimented the top mic.
Snare drum solo’d up.
Tom drums got the standard Sennheiser MD 421s which I personally love on toms, they are fat, but retain plenty of attack to cut through a dense mix. If placed well, they will deliver a great balanced tom tone, with minimal bleed.
Toms solo’d up.
I placed our Neumann U87 in omnidirectional mode, and approximately 15-20 feet from the kit, in the middle of the open live room. Those previously placed gobos also help downplay the cymbals slightly in the room, though not by much, but every little bit helps. For the room, I like when it adds a little bit of movement to the drum kit. So in the mix, I used Kush Audio UBK to compress and distort the room, giving it all kinds of pumpy moving goodness.
Room mic solo’d up. Listen to that pumpy distorted goodness.
The guitars are I feel a very essential part of a good mix, they add texture and tie the drums, bass, and vocals all together. If not tonally where they need to be, can wreak havoc on a mix, making it harder to hear all the other elements, clogging the low mids, obscuring toms and snare, and many other mix ruining issues. Alternatively, if captured in a way so they sit well in the mix in the first place, very little processing is required for them to sound amazing. Isolating them in a separate room from the drums keeps both the guitars and drums clean, and easier to work with.
Guitar close mics and room mics solo’d up. Listen to how the Z-axis changes depending on dynamic levels.
Amp, Pedals, and Guitar Setup
Getting a good guitar tone all starts at the source. I personally like guitars playing primarily on bridge pickup only, and for this kind of music especially. We then fired up Max’s amp, and set it to a nice mid range heavy crunch and dialed it back till we got a clean tone, with the volume cranked in order to get a little power tube saturation. Playing with max’s pedals, we kept his clean boost in a range where if he played light it would stay clean, but laying into the strings would add a bit of bite. His overdrive gave a fair amount of drive into a nice moderate distortion, and both boosts gave a nice blitzed out goodness. We then tweaked the EQ’s a little more, till we found a nice mid range heavy sound that worked well with all drive levels. The process was then repeated for Jeff’s amp. Max played through a mid 70s Ampeg guitar head through my custom made 2×12” closed back Bad Racket Cabinet, while Jeff was through a 4×10 Fender Hot Rod Deville.
Mics, Placement, and Preamps
I like just off the speaker’s dust cap, backing mics off slightly in order to help them sit tonally with the bass and drums, not to far, but like 6” or so. For max’s guitar I used just an AKG 414 run through a Classic API VP312 with a subtle drive, which has been my go to guitar chain of late. Guitars just seem to sit where I want them to in the mix with this chain, and I don’t need another mic to complement it. It gives me everything I want. For Jeff’s guitar I used an SM57 in conjunction with Shure KSM27, through an API VP312 and VP26. Placed in a similar manner to the other guitar.
Reamping the Room
I really wanted guitar room mics for this song, since I know Signals Midwest often drop down their dynamics drastically through sections of their songs, and I thought room mics panned a little the other way from the close mics would sound cool and allow me to play with the z-axis a little bit. This obviously presented challenges, when doing a live recording, so I ended up taking DIs in order to re-amp their guitars later through an amp, then take room mics later.
For bass we used a Musicman Stingray through an ampeg amp and speaker cabinet, with a sansamp to give a little extra drive. I hit the bass with a subtle saturation every step along the way, the Sansamp, the amp itself, both the DI and mic preamps, and even more in the mix. Having a distortion on bass can bring out harmonics that help it kit through the mix and sit with the drums clearer. Both the bass DI and Mic got Classic API VP26 preamps, which sound freaking killer on bass might I add.
Bass DI and mic solo’d up from mix. Love that grit!
For the lead vocals, and more importantly max’s voice, I used an AKG C414 P48 through a Hairball Audio Lola. Because of how flat this mic and preamp are, it takes EQ, Compression, and other processing very smoothly. I additionally also had a vocal room mic that was our Neumann U87, that got automated up and down for each section of the song, adding more interest to the vocals.
Lead vocal’s solo’d, see how the room mic and close mic volume differences play with the z axis position.
Thanks for reading,