Tech Tip:Mastering Your Music - Secrets of the Pros, Part 2

by John Vestman of John Vestman Mastering


Part 1 | Part 2


John Vestman

Secrets Of Mixing (Or What Phil Ramone Won't Tell You)


Rule #1. There are no rules. Where have I heard that before? (See: Secrets of Mixing)


The idea of great miking is to get a better sound, right? But consider that the source of the sound is even more important than the kind of mic you use.


So let's get down to business by letting go of the idea that you have to get the most expensive mics in town. If Bruce Swedien can use an SM57 on Michael Jackson (ref: an old R/E/P or Mix article), we know it's about tone matched with talent, not a name brand. Once I bought some cheap AKG condenser mics that years later brought a hefty asking price because they sounded sweeter than 451's, so consider keeping around any mic that's in good shape.


Let's start on drums. I'm not going to go over the obvious stuff like the closer the mic is to the drum, the less cymbal leakage you'll get. I'd rather give you the insider stuff like Secret #1: The secret to a great drum sound is a great sounding drum. So before you mic the set, direct the drummer to someone who knows the ropes about tuning. In the meantime, here's what you can try: use new heads, preferably Ambassadors or Pin Stripe heads. Do NOT use those DOT things! If the only drum heads you can get within 400 miles are dots, carefully take a straight edge razor (I know... I come from the times of analog tape splicing) and slip the blade under the dot and slowly peel it off the heads. Who thought of dots anyway? They mute the very part of the head that contains the most fundamental tones of the drum!


Next, put the drum on the floor and carefully stand on the head. Yes, you heard right. Assuming you have tightened down the head reasonably, you must stress the heads so that it won't stretch out when you're playing in the session and lose their intonation. Yep, you'll hear a kind of cracking sound when you step on the head. That's normal. I'm also assuming you don't weigh 300 lbs. and you know that the drum isn't a trampoline. Less stretching is needed on the bottom heads.


Tighten the head some more, and stand on it again, carefully. Bounce a little just to exercise it. Now, put it on the kit, and tune each lug tapping with a stick by the lug you're tuning. Get them all to have the same pitch. After getting them all the same pitch, de-tune one lug a lot, hitting the drum repeatedly in the center while you're listening to the pitch. You'll start to notice less of a "boiiing" and more of a "Kthummn" sound. If it doesn't quite work at first, tune that lug up and try de-tuning a different lug. Generally, pick a lug that isn't exactly where the mic will be. Some detuning of the bottom head (2 heads is better than one... except for the kic drum) can be cool, and generally the pitch of the bottom head should be higher than the top head... but... experiment.


Next, get some duct tape, and take a six-inch piece and curl it into a sticky-side-out donut. Stick the donut on the head about one inch or less from the rim, trying different places while hitting the drum. You may not even need padding like this, but often it helps. Floor toms sometimes need more padding, like a small amount of cloth taped directly on the drum. Try to use the least amount of padding possible.


Snare drums are different in that you don't want to de-tune your lug a lot, and the two lugs surrounding the actual snare wires should be tuned higher than the other lugs on the bottom. Much of the snare tone depends on how loose or tight the snares are, so invest in a good set of them. Padding helps sometimes, and if one pad (or donut) doesn't do the trick, add another one. Don't use those big foam tires to stick on the inside of the kic drum head. Just add a small or mid-sized pillow pressed up against the bottom quarter of the inside head and add weight to hold it down firmly.


Weren't we talking about mics? Yep. Secret #2: The drummer is more in charge of mixing the drum sound than you are. In other words, if he/she hits the cymbals super hard and the toms super soft, guess what? You'll have a nightmare on your hands trying to get the toms to sound big and the kind of mic won't be as significant. The drummer literally should think of the attack volume applied to each instrument (like cymbal, hat, snare, kic) like a separate channel of a mixer. Physically raise the cymbals as high as comfortably possible, and hit the toms hard. Easy on the hi-hat.



Sounds that are mixed (acoustically or electronically) are RELATIVE TO EACH OTHER. Hitting a cymbal softer gets the same result as hitting a drum harder in the context of the whole kit. So if the toms aren't sounding loud enough, hit the cymbals softer. Trick: You must be good at Zen. That is, to hit the cymbal softer and still have ATTITUDE and EMOTION takes experience and discipline. The best drummers in the world can hit a cymbal softly and love it and produce intensity just as much as if they hit it like a home run. If all else fails, don't hesitate to put duct tape on the cymbals to mute them a bit. I know. They won't sound as pure, but the toms, kic, and snare will almost magically come forward in the blend.


Ahem. Back to the mics. Secret #3: Measure the distance from the center of the snare to the capsule of the left overhead mic, and then match the distance to the capsule of the right overhead mic. Chances are it won't look even, but the sound of the snare will be in phase in the overheads and the snare will have much more punch and clarity.


Secret #4: Add hi's at around 12K, cut (peak mid-band) at around 400hz, and add bottom to taste to the toms. Gate the toms slightly to taste. Million-dollar bonus secret: bounce the toms to separate tracks. Then spot-erase (think analog) all of the cymbal/kit leakage, leaving only the toms on those tracks. You can also mult toms in mixdown and skillfully turn them on/off using (automated or non-automated) mutes... and you can even get pickier with the eq on those channels.


Secret #5: Room sound is your friend, even when you're going for a cool retro drum-booth-room thing. Experiment. Try different mics. For instance, I liked using a Sennheiser 441 deep in toward the center of a kic drum, while at the same time I used an SM7 back about 9 inches and off-center about 6 to 8 inches. I then put the SM7 out of phase on the console and summed both mics to one track. This came about by using Rule #1 (see above) and gave me a more unique sound. Sometimes a parametric eq helps find a sweet spot for the lows too.


Let's move on to recording vocals! The secret to a great vocal sound is a vocalist who knows how to work the mic, and an engineer/producer who can keep that vocalist motivated. I know. You thought I was going to tell you that the mic should be 6 to 9 inches from the singer (or 4 feet for classical) but if they're hot closer is cool. You thought I was going to recommend using a Popper-Stopper or other pantyhose deal. You thought I was going to mention going from that $2,800 mic into that $1,500 tube pre into that cool $1,900 compressor into that (very very important) de-esser, then eq'd with NO effects onto tape. You thought I was going to tell you to keep the gain reduction from 2db to 6db and setting that (very very important) de-esser so that the sibilance is controlled and sounds natural, not peaky or spitty (enabling you to add more highs without glaring SS's).


Nope. That's not the secret to getting a great vocal sound. Key: Vocalists reach a sweet spot in their energy and in their sound when singing, and it can occur on a scratch vocal when the band is pumping, or it can occur after five hours of singing. Your job is to recognize the sweet spot and maintain it so that the performance is it's best. If the performance lacks, it doesn't matter how expensive the mic is! A great performance on a cheap mic will get you signed much sooner than a so-so performance on a Telefunken.


The Million Dollar Vocal Secret:

Specific motivational language will keep a singer fresh longer and get you a way-better performance. This idea applies even if the singer is the most radical dude (or dudette) in town. It's simple, but it's overlooked nearly ALL the time. Here goes. Use positive language. I call it the Perfect End Result. It saves the singer mental and emotional energy that can be put to good use in the lyric and melody.


What is the Perfect End Result? Here's some examples: "Dude... sing that note a little higher." vs. "Dude ... you're FLAT on that note." - "Tina bring your energy up a bit more." vs. "Tina, your energy is dragging down too much." - "It will sound great if you sustain that note longer." vs. "It sounds lame when you drop off the end of that note."


Every creative person PRIDES themselves in their performance. It creates a mental uphill battle when you give the person a comment about what you don't want vs. what you DO want. (This... by the way is a great tip for parenting your kids, too.) Key: no... BIG KEY: The mind does not understand the word "don't". Why? Because the mind works in pictures, not letters. If I say think of green jello wiggling in a bowl in front of you, what do you think of? Now, let's experiment. Picture that green jello for a minute. Now ... DON'T think of dark red cherries in that wiggly green jello. DON'T think of bright yellow sprinkles on the jello and spilled on the table. DON'T think of your best friend taking your jello and dumping it on the floor. DON'T THINK OF IT! Don't think of your friend's shocked face as the jello splatters all over the floor! DON'T think about what I'm saying! DON'T sing that note SHARP again... DON'T SING SHARP!


Do you get it? I guarantee that while you were reading that paragraph, you were NOT thinking of an elephant. Ahem. Up until now. Now you're thinking elephant. But no matter how many times I said the word DON'T, you pictured what I said. Your mind automatically locked onto the image/idea no matter what - it was instantaneous and effortless.


If you tell your singer she sounds like her energy is low, she will have to FIGHT off the energy drain since attention was brought to it's lowness. It's easier for her to increase her energy if you say the Perfect End Result - "Bring your energy up!" If you tell your vocalist what you DO want vs. what you DON'T want, that person doesn't have to mentally process away the mistake - they only have to aim forward at the bulls eye. If you tell your kids "Stay on the sidewalk, you'll be safer." - they will do it easier and more instinctively than if you tell them "Don't go out into the street, you could get killed."


I promise you. No matter what style of music you're into or what instrument you play, if you LOCK this technique into your method of music, you will accelerate your success and increase your staying power in delivering the passion and magic that music is all about. If you want more techniques on motivation for musicians, check out my web page on Life Success for Musicians - an audio tape series with tips like this that applies to musicians like you. Meanwhile, trust me. It's not the mic. It's the performance that will get you signed. Once you find the pocket, you'll know that groove is everything. LOCK IT in the pocket. Be committed to singing in tune! BIG KEY: Practice DOESN'T make perfect - Practice makes progress. PERFECT practice makes perfect. Remember that idea every time you play or sing. It will make a huge difference in your musical skills and presentation.


Use common sense and read all the recording magazines you can get your hands on. If you're an engineer, it simply takes time and experimentation to discover what works. There are no rules. Try everything. Set up 10 mics around the guitar amp in different distances and combinations and phase settings. Study gain structure so you know how and where to eliminate distortion. Use good cables, good monitors. Look to the source of the sound as the main ingredient for great results.


John Vestman has been a Engineer/Producer/Studio owner for over 24 years. Experience in Rock, Jazz, Classical, Country, R&B, Hip-Hop, World Music, Film Sound, Spoken Word, and Industrial productions. Presented with Gold and Platinum Records for rap artist, Candyman and Capitol Records artists Great White