I was deeply honoured to be invited to Studiya Igorya Matvienko recording studios in the Russian capital, Moscow to lead an audio engineering workshop in association with Soyuz microphones and APS monitors. During this one day event we would record a four piece band then mix the track. You know the way records used to be made. This is the story of new found skills, great music and new friends.
The Lay Of The Land
The recording studio environment is not known for it’s early starts but I arrived at Studiya Irorya Matvienko, which is about 20 minutes outside the Moscow city centre through some of the heaviest traffic I have ever seen, yes it even rivals London’s grid lock, at 9am. The engineers and producers who were attending the session were to arrive at 11am so I did not have long to get the “lay of the land” and get instruments and mics setup ready for the session. At this stage all I knew that there was band coming for me to record consisted of female vocals, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar and drums and their musical style was acoustic folk rock. This was just enough information to get me going so I started to get my head around the studio’s SSL 6000 series console and Pro Tools 10 system with Avid and Prism converters, and get the tracking session set up and microphones roughly in place.
Setting Up The Drums
The studio had a good selection of 5 drum kits, everything from modern Tama and Sonor kits to a lovely vintage Ludwig, and after some discussion with William the house engineer about where the “sweet spot” for drums was in the ample sized tracking room I chose the Tama Maple StarClassic. We went for 2 toms (1 rack tom and 1 floor tom) and set the kit up roughly in a standard right handed configuration, however, it didn’t stay that way for long as you can see from the pictures below.
The smaller the drum kit the less mics you need, the bigger the kit the more you need. Makes sense to me. So with a 4 piece kit we chose the following microphones. Remember if you will that this event was being co-sponsored by Soyuz Microphones, so we had a very large stash of the lovely handmade Soyuz mics to choose from. In the end we went with the following choices:
Kick In - AKG D112 (Reversed)
Kick Out - Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet
Snare Top - Soyuz SU-013
Snare Bottom - Soyuz SU-013
Hi Hat - Soyuz SU-013
Rack Tom - Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet
Floor Tom - AKG C414 EB
Overhead Hat - Soyuz SU-013
Overhead Floor Tom - Soyuz SU-013
Stereo Room Mic - AKG C24
Mono Room Mic / Crush Mic - Soyuz SU-017 Valve Condenser
There are three things I want to point out about this selection.
These days I always name my Overhead (OH) mics Hat (H) and Floor Tom (FT) rather than left and right as it doesn’t matter from whose perspective you are looking from, these are always correct. Left and right depend very much of from which side of the kit you are looking. Thanks to Steve Genewick for this tip.
You might have noticed the Kick In mic has ‘reversed’ next to it. This is a tip that was passed on to me by engineer Dax Liniere. If you point the back of a D112 to the batter head and flip the polarity on the recording channel you get an amazing punchy Kick drum tone. Much better than pointing the front of the mic at the head. I have tried it a couple of times and really like it.
Any of you who listen to the Pro Tools Expert Podcast will probably have heard that I am not a fan of the AKG C414. I should clarify this, I am not a fan of the new AKG C414 mics. The old ones like the EB that were used on the Floor Tom are great. Sadly AKG don’t build these mics with the same CK12 capsules anymore so if you find an C414 EB with Brass or Nylon capsules on an auction site, snap it up.
In diving into the studio mic locker (which was impressive) I found a old Neumann U67. Also, having just reviewed the Soyuz SU-023 for Production Expert, and found it to be very good on acoustic guitar I wanted to try it here. So I put a new $1500 mic up against a vintage $10,000 mic. I know which one and the assembled audio pros liked the best!
For vocal we used another Soyuz SU-017 Valve condenser. I have used this mic before on female vocals and found it to be just about perfect with a sweet top end and rich smooth bottom end. It should work well on a dark sounding female vocal.
It’s a little unfair but the running joke of the day turned out to be “Oh yes, and there’s a bass DI”. We did however spend quite a long time talking about quality DI boxes verses cheaper ones. In the end, to get a really nice fat bass tone we swapped the DI box for an Ampeg valve bass head that had a DI output and the difference was stunning.
Getting To Know You
As you can see from the picture below we had quite a turn out and at times the decent sized control room felt very crowded. The other issue we had was that, sadly my Russian is not up to much and while half the group did understand most of what I was saying, even the stories and bad jokes, some of the guys were left a little in the dark. Fortunately, we had a translator and Phil was on hand to get the rest of the attendees up to speed. However, I’m not sure if the jokes translated well.
Setting Up The Band
Once the band has arrived we set about getting them comfortable, settled in and ready to record. Oddly the drummer for this session was left handed so we had to move the mics around to work with this setup which was a kind of hybrid kit format. For me setting up the band is not just about the technical stuff like headphone mixes and mic position but getting the vibe in the room right so everyone feels good and ready to perform at their best. We spent some time going over my ideas and reasons for why I put the mics where I do and demonstrated some good, and some not so good practices for mic placement. This included a little experimenting with the position of the outside kick mic. I tried 3 different positions to get the best blend between power (bass) and attack. In this case about 15cm from the resonator head above the tone hole pointing slightly down worked really well.
We then went back into the control room to set the gain for each mic channel on the SSL console and set the send level to Pro Tools. This second step is one that many of the attendees were not familiar with as most, if not all of them did not work on large format in-line consoles like the SSL we were working on or in my case my Audient ASP8024. Both consoles have a ‘short fader’ that you can configure to be your send to the DAW. This means you can hit the mic pre harder to get more tone but not overcook the input into the DAW.
The Luxury Of Time
On a commercial session (where you are getting paid) there is very rarely time to experiment and just try things because you want to. Well, in this situation we did have time and after the first take I wanted to change some things.
As a drummer I am normally over critical of drum sound and for me, the kick drum we selected was not working. It was far to modern and punchy sounding for this track. The studio had a selection of kits and we swapped the Tama out for an old Ludwig kick drum. Much more retro sounding with less of that modern punchy sound. We tested it and as a group decided this was more a fitting anchor for the track.
My original idea was to have the acoustic guitar and drums in the same acoustic space and have only the vocalist in a booth, but it became very obvious after the first take that this was not going to work. The bleed from the drums was just far too much on both the acoustic guitar mics.
At this point in proceedings we spent a lot of time playing with the position of the studios sizeable moveable gobo panels. This was the part of the session that took the most time but we ended up with the drums in the main space and the vocalist and the acoustic guitar in there own closed off little booths that we constructed using the gobos. This made the AKG C24 our drums stereo room mic, not a bad choice I think you will agree. This meant we could use the mono room mic as a drum crush mic. I placed the Soyuz SU-017 between the rack tom and the ride pointing at the kick drum. We would not monitor this mic but it would give us some creative options when we came to later mixing.
In total with recorded 4 takes of the song, each one getting progressively better from both a feel and technical prospective. The band joined us in the control room for to listen to the final take and liked what we had captured. The mantra of the day was very much along the lines of “Record like there is no mixing and mix like there is no mastering”. I think these are wise words in any kind of recording or production environment.
In my own studio I like to mix in what I have come to call a hybrid fashion, using the EQ and routing/summing of my console along with some outboard gear and DAW automation and plug-ins. However, none of the guys and girl on the course worked in this way. They all mix in the box, so with a handful of stock PT10 plug-ins and a selection of my favourite UAD-2 plug-ins we brought the mix together. As you can see from the screenshot there is really not that much going on, just some extra reverb and some buss compression here and there to keep the drums and guitar under control. Nothing is being slammed hard at all, this kind of music does not need or want it. I talked about my ideas for the track and how the whole “Track like your mixing” thing has made the mix process very easy.
You can listen to the finished mix below (not mastered) that was bounced in real time live at the studio. Sadly I'm not entirely sure what the song is about but I’m told it is something along the lines of “I’m fine with you, but better without you”.
I would like to thank the guys from APS monitors who took the time to come out and install some of their new monitors in the control room for us to use on the session. A massive thinks to Pavel and the team from Soyuz microphones for their amazing sounding handmade mics, and for being my guide while in a far-off land.
A huge thank you goes out to local producer and engineer Ilya Lukashev for putting the event together and getting us all in the room at the same time.
Thanks to Valeria Rozhuk for some great photos of the event.
Finally thanks to Anna and her band without whom everyone in the studio would have had to listen to me play and sing all day, just the talking was enough.