Mixerman, author of Zen and the Art of Recording, Zen and the Art of Mixing, and Zen and the Art of Producing, had a great discussion with Mike Levine of Audiofanzine. Read the rest of the interview here!
Audiofanzine: You talked a lot about recording drums in the book, including the concept of “top down” drum recording. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, for a lot of people, the first thing they’ll go for is the kick drum and then the snare drum, and they’ll make those sound fantastic on their own, without any thought about how the entire thing works. Even I used to do that. And then I realized, “Why do I do that when 90% of the information is on the overheads and the rooms [room mics]. I probably accidentally had my overheads in some fabulous spot when I had that “ah ha” moment. I then I realized that. The top down method keeps you from getting in trouble, because your close mics work in relation to the overheads.
Audiofanzine: So when you’re tracking drums, you start by listening through the overheads and getting a good blend without listening to the other mics at first?
It’s the difference between getting all your drum tones and then miking your cymbals, rather than trying to mic the entire kit. Sometimes you do want to just mic the cymbals, like if you want a very, “in your face” kind of sound. Let’s say it’s a metal album, I know I’ll have an “in your face” kick and snare and the cymbals. I don’t necessarily want the whole aggregate of the kit, rather I’m just going to mic the cymbals. Which means I’ll have the mics lower to the cymbals, and try to put the kit together that way. With the aggregate method, however, I’m capturing the image of the kit, and then I’m filling in the missing information. I’m going to actually spend time getting those overheads so that my aggregate balance is the best it can be. If I have the mics up here, and I’m getting a ton of room information and I’m really not getting a good balance, I’m going to bring the mics down a little bit so that everything comes into focus to the point where if I had to live with just those two mics, I could do it.
Audiofanzine: So you just spend a lot of time trying to get the overhead sounding great, and then the other mics are icing on the cake.
Or the room mics — depending on the room. Sometimes the rooms give you the aggregate picture.
Audiofanzine: For people who have a limited amount of gear. What would you say is a good minimal kind of setup? I’ve had some luck with 4-mic setups, two overheads, kick and snare.
I would never use 3 or 4 mics on anyone but a great drummer. That only works if the drummer really has great balance. The greater the balance of the drummer, the less mics you need.
Audiofanzine: Because the drummer has good dynamics?
Yeah. Because their dynamics are good, but more importantly because they play the instrument in balance. If I put two microphones over JR [studio drummer John Robinson] or over Matt Chamberlain — they’re perfectly in balance – you listen to them and you go, “Wow, that sounds really good like that.” You put it over a band drummer and you go, “I’ve got a big problem on the kick drum,” or “I’ve got a big problem on the snare drum.” And you start adding microphones and compressors and you’ve got to create a balance that he’s not capable of creating on his own at this point in his career.
Today is the 10th anniversary of Mixerman’s first book, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. Since then, we’ve gone on to publish his books Zen and the Art of Mixing and the new Zen and the Art of Producing. Check out his website to join the conversation!
The following is an excerpt from the just-released Zen and the Art of Producing by Mixerman (Hal Leonard Books):
Since Homo erectus first thought to stretch an animal skin tightly across a hollowed tree trunk and then cleverly bang it with a stick, music has been an important force in human existence. Music became a way for early humans to convey their deepest thoughts, feelings, and intentions, all while celebrating life itself. The medium was certainly useful, whether performed to win over the opposite sex for propagation, to curry favor with the gods for rain, to warn nearby tribes of imminent war, or to express thankfulness for life itself, including the inevitable passing of it. Music was not an arbitrary expression—it had a purpose. It still does.
It seems that the act of sharing music is important to us as a species. It is human interaction and societal culture that propels music, not the needs of any given individual. Music is a communication tool, and as such is meant to include others. Oh, I can hear the arguments now. But what of those who acquire great solace playing their instrument alone? Why, that’s nothing more than preparation for an audience. And what of the teenager who listens to sad songs alone in her bedroom? That might be a good point, were someone not actually singing to her. A successful performance creates an inherent connection between singer and listener, even in the form of a reproduction.
Of course, long before the drum was invented, man most certainly sang—whistled even. We couldn’t live among the birds for very long without attempting to mimic their songs (although it seems to me that song is as instinctual to man as it is to bird). Singing was certainly an important step where the creation of music was concerned, but it was really only half the equation. Man needed something more. Man needed a beat. A pulse.
Oh, I’m sure some of you might bristle at the suggestion that a pulse is a requirement for music. Depending on how you define “music,” it would certainly be debatable. But if there’s a melody involved, there must be a pulse. Without one, note duration is undefined within the melody itself. Perhaps a rubato melody lacking any semblance of time falls within the definition of “music,” but unless that melody can be repeated, there is no song— an important distinction—and without a performance of that song, there is no production.
The moment man first combined improvised singing and drumming, he made a great leap forward where music is concerned, but without some organization and repeatability, that first attempt would travel only as far as the sound itself—perhaps a few miles. Improvised music could not be reproduced, and was therefore local and transitory. But once someone set a definitive melody to a drumbeat, the whole game changed. Not only did we now have a song, but we had a production of it as well. With the production of a song came repeatability. Now a song could travel beyond the scope of its initial performance. A song could be reproduced.
Passing a song from one person to another by rote is admittedly a rather crude form of reproduction fraught with problems. If you’ve ever played the game of “Telephone,” you understand it’s unlikely that a song survived many generations of hand-me-down reproduction without undergoing some kind of metamorphosis. The first successful songs were likely nothing short of open-source projects subject to constant changes down the line. There’s no telling how a particular song might have changed over time. Further complicating matters, as a song morphed, so too did its production. After all, drums were mostly limited to rhythmic function. Eventually, harmonic instruments would come into play.
As man developed tools for hunting and war, his capability to produce musical instruments expanded tremendously. It probably didn’t take long for early humans to figure out that they could produce a tone by blowing across a hole in a hollow stick, or by plucking a stretched vine. The creation and construction of scalable instruments, however, required tools. As our tools advanced, so too did the complexity and quality of our instruments. Once ore could be successfully removed from rock, all bets were off. Metal allowed artisans to shape instruments with absolute precision and stunning quality.
Just as the technology of the written word developed, so too did the written language of music. Using reliable, ergonomically precise standardized instruments in conjunction with Western scales and notation, composers were able to write more complex works. A single composer could not only designate who played what when, but also notate it in a manner that allowed for consistent repeatability. This was a major advance in reproduction technology. Now a record of both the song and its production could be preserved and reproduced centuries later, without requiring a direct transfer from one human to another. All that was left to reproduce was a particular performance. That would require electricity.
It’s remarkable when you think about it. Thomas Edison wasn’t just responsible for harnessing and delivering electricity; he also invented many of the early products that used electricity. This included his 1877 invention of the phonograph (of all things!). With the phonograph in conjunction with the microphone, the world had its first practical recording and playback device. Now, man could reproduce a song, a production, and a particular performance. Granted, the recording was a distorted facsimile of the original, limited in bandwidth and smothered in scratchy noise, but that didn’t matter. Poor sound quality was irrelevant given the convenience (sound familiar?). Music fans were no longer relegated to localized live performances. Music could now be automatically reproduced by the consumer, and therefore sold. Enter the Music Business.
The phonograph wasn’t the only popular reproduction device of the time. The player piano was invented in 1876, and proved to be a remarkably popular form of entertainment. The great thing about the player piano was that it allowed families with limited musical ability to gather around it and sing together . . . but then, so did the phonograph. And the player piano, with its programmed mechanical reproduction, required human power, while the phonograph offered automatic reproduction. It’s no mystery then why the phonograph ultimately won the battle for dominance. Regardless, they were both exceptionally popular forms of entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, up to 75,000 player pianos and 1.5 million piano rolls were produced. Mean- while, phonograph records were selling in the millions.
With the invention of the phonograph, composers no longer required sheet music to convey their vision of a production. They could record an actual performance. Of equal consideration, the end user could automatically reproduce that performance on a later date, at any location, as long as there was electricity available. While this new recording technology opened up the scope of music and the distance that it could travel, there were still physical limitations. A piano and corresponding roll, or a phonograph and disc, were needed in order to reproduce music. Given the times, it seems unlikely that such technology was available to anyone but the very wealthy. Even so, it had to have a stunning effect on how a song was spread.
Before recording technology came into play, a song would have to be passed from person to person—traveler to traveler—over the course of many years in order to reach human consciousness. Even with the public’s limited access to phonographs and records, a song at the turn of the 20th century could reach every corner of the Western world in a matter of months. This must have been nothing short of miraculous from the standpoint of art and commerce—that is, until radio came into play.
The first experimental radio transmissions occurred in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the first commercial public radio station—KDKA of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—started broadcasting. Few people heard that maiden broadcast, mostly due to a lack of receivers, but this changed dramatically in a short time. Receiver manufacturers had difficulty keeping up with a radio craze so widespread that nearly 60 percent of households had a receiver by 1930. Now a musical performance could be reproduced and broadcast to people separated by thousands of miles. Music could travel the world, not over the course of years or months— but in a matter of days. If the inventions of the phonograph and the player piano led to the creation of the music industry (and they did), the accessibility of radio exploded it wide open. Isn’t it ironic that the Internet, for all intents and purposes the 21st-century equivalent of the radio, may have caused an equal and opposite implosion of the complacent, century-old music business?