Saturday, January 26, 2013

preparation for Song A Day 2013

I've never been satisfied with the sound of my SAD (Song A Day) recordings from 2008 through 2011, so I decided to spend some time improving the drum, vocal, bass and guitar sounds.

Beginning with acoustic guitar, I realized that the biggest problem was that the guitar wasn't set up properly, which made it practically unplayable. I took my Martin M3SC to 5th String in Berkeley, CA, where I originally purchased it. A guitar tech adjusted the truss rod to flatten out the fingerboard and filed down the bridge slightly. The result was a playable instrument with good intonation. He recommended that I switch from Martin brand strings to D'Addario medium bronze, which sound fine to me.

I spent considerable time working on the Rickenbacker 4003 bass. There were a number of problems to address:

1. Weak, wimpy tone.
2. Can't get a proper 'thump' out of the strings when plucking

After creating a series of recordings intended to bring the problems to light, I realized that the A string wasn't resonating properly and the overall tone was lacking low-mid punch. After researching the A string problem online, I learned that adjusting the dual truss rods slightly to change the neck resonance characteristics can often solve this well-documented problem. But this wasn't enough to improve the tone, so I invested in a set of Pyramid Gold Flatwounds ( 040, 055, 075, 105) to replace the Thomastik-Ifeld Jazz Bass Flatwounds (043, 056, 070, 100) that were currently installed. That made a HUGE difference! After adjusting the truss rod and fine-tuning the intonation and mute settings, I was on my way to getting a decent sound.

I also worked on my playing technique. To get a thumpy attack, I used down strokes with a guitar pick (rather than a heavy bass pick, striking the strings between the neck and the rhythm pickup. I experimented with strips of foam padding and cloth to mute the strings, but ended up just using the built in mute mechanism. It turns out that I have to carefully adjust the string height and mute settings to work together properly, then apply just the right amount of pressure when striking the strings with the pick in order to get a 60's sounding bass tone.

A series of experimental recordings showed that the 10" Ampeg speakers produce the best sound over all, as the 15" speaker has a dark, midrange heavy tone that doesn't sit well in a track. The only remaining weak link in the recording chain was the mic setup. The old 414C finally died (diaphragm tension issues or dried out capacitors? ), along with the GrooveTubes mic pre (bad tubes? dried out caps?). The U87 can't cut it as a bass mic, lacking both the headroom and the ability to capture sufficient low end to do a proper job of it. I need another mic.

For the electric guitar, I decided that the U87 was too prone to clipping and distortion, even at relatively low volumes. Clearly, I had to purchase another mic that can handle loud sound sources. Nevertheless, I bought a LemonDrop fuzz box, whose circuit emulates the solid state preamp and tube power stage combo of the Vox 4&7 series amplifiers. These amps were used heavily on the Led Zeppelin 2 album as well as late '60's Beatles recordings. They have a pronounced midrange bump and a grainy, punchy fuzz tone. This stompbox doesn't really succeed in replicating either, but it sounds great all the same.

Most of the vocal recordings I've created are weak in the lower mids and have an aggressive, nasally midrange peak. This is of course due to the fact that the U87 doesn't flatter voices very much - what you hear is what that voice sounded like in the room. I would have to use a different mic to get a different kind of sound. Oh, and doing a better job singing would help a bit too.

After recording my voice using all of my preamps in hopes of finding one that would be best for the U87, I settled on the Millenia Media HV-3B. No other pre-amp could beat it, though the RME Babyface preamps came in a close second in the shootout. However, the recordings revealed a lot of room ambiance, tone and reflections being captured along with my voice. When compression was applied to the recordings, the room sounds were degrading the overall fidelity. Cleaning up the mic signal would certainly help improve the vocal recordings.

I purchased a Bock Audio 195, an FET large diaphragm condenser mic that can handle loud sources. It also has a 'fat' switch that boosts low and low-mid frequencies while attenuating the high mids, resulting in a 'vintage' kind of sound. This will be used for drums, guitar, bass and some (if not all) vocal recordings.

To solve the issues with the room acoustics, I bought an SE Reflection Filter Pro, a large, heavy curved screen that surrounds the mic and reduces room reflections. I tested it out and it really works.

Some quick tests with the Bock 195 showed that it excels as a bass amp mic and as a drum overhead. The fat mode is really great! It seems to work well with my voice too, though the U87 has smoother highs and an aggression in the upper mids that can help the voice cut through a busy mix. I'll have two mics to choose from when recording voices, each with different characteristics that will suite some songs more so than others.

I turned my attention to the drum sound and settled on a classic Glynn Johns mic arrangement. The Bock 195, in fat mode and with the pad engaged, is positioned roughly 3-4 feet above the kick drum. The U87, with pad engaged, is adjacent to the floor tom and facing the hi hats across the snare. Both mics, which are run through the Millennia HV-3B preamp, are equidistant from the snare and the tracks are panned left/right.

The AKG D112 is aimed at the hole in the kick's front head about 1 inch from the hole and the signal is sent to the GA Pre-73 preamp. The Sennheiser e906 in 'flat' mode captures the top of the snare and is sent through the RNP preamp. I'm using the Shure SM81 (with pad engaged) under the snare (roughly 8-10 inches) and sent through the RME Babyface's preamp. That's it! No other mics seem necessary.

I replaced the somewhat dead-sounding Evans Genera HD Dry snare head with the much livelier sounding Remo Ambassador head, which is better for this kind of micing arrangement. The kick sound improved when I removed the padding and let it 'breathe', though I'm using the Evans EQ pad and the resonant and beater foam rings that come with the Evans kick drum heads to control sustain. Some fine tuning of the resonant head resulted in a respectable kick sound, both in the room and captured by the mic.

I'm ready for Song A Day 2013.