Room Mics

or, the redemption of Lyin’ Rick.

I was on a miserable train coming home from London and I remember reading an article in our then-weekly music bible, the NME - about the recording of the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album in which Rick Rubin was saying that they “didn’t use any reverb on the drums so far”, and then later hearing the record and this drum sound with massive reverb all over it. “Lyin’ Rick!” I thought. Every time Chad Smith hit the snare - kerrrblamm!

What I didn’t realise was that reverb was in fact the sound of the huge ballroom of the mansion they recorded it in. At that point I hadn’t recorded in a room that HAD a decent room sound, or realised what a big difference it can make. I’d just been going crazy with my reverb units trying to get somewhere close, frustrated with hi-hat bleed, dicking round with gates, just no matter what I did - not getting THAT sound. Nobody told me this at recording school.

The reality is most small rooms are dead, and a lot of bigger rooms are surprisingly dead too. And don’t even mention drum booths unless you are making a disco record. For all you budding studio owners, if you ask me the single biggest thing you can offer as a commercial studio, I’d say space - and NICE sounding space. An SM57 2” from a speaker cone doesn’t care where it is. Room mics on drums, now that’s a different ballgame.

Most drum tracks I get to mix have a pair of room mics, or a room mic that add pretty much nothing to the drum sound. The standard thing is to compress the snot out of these, or distort them which adds a certain “space” and excitement. As an alternative you can add a nice convolution reverb to those channels which simulates being in a space about as accurately as we can hope for ( think Waves IR-L, Altiverb, or UAD Ocean Way) then compress the snot out of it. EQ doesn’t hurt either, maybe to tame those cymbals, or add some beef. But - recording in a room that sounds like a great room is the best way to get that sound. You may have to baffle off the kit so the close mics remain on the drier side to retain control, but that room sound is golden. I even tracked in a church once, and that four second reverb was epic!

I worked at Rockfield’s coachhouse quite a lot and the room is quite a long barn shaped affair, probably an old stable block, and looks nothing like it did in that Bohemian Rhapsody movie in case you were curious. It’s a very controlled room, dividable into different sections and not really live at all but the secret to drums in that studio is placing a pair of mics in the nasty tiled hallway next to the toilet. There are probably dozens or records out there with a flush or two in the room mics, I guarantee it. Half of those 80’s hair metal tracks have the sound of a mic’d up loading bay propping them up. Bryan Adams “Run To You”, Aerosmith’s “Pump”, Metallica’s “Black Album” Bon Jovi’s “Slippery when lubed” - exact same drum reverb, right? ( because you studied these kind of things even though you had no interest in them) Yes! The same loading bay sound as pioneered by the legendary Bob Clearmountain. Apparently someone wrote down the session setup and the rest was history! So, really… Lyin’ Rick wasn’t lying and was duly forgiven.

The third, more modern option given the inconvenience of building a loading bay onto your studio is using a drum trigger plugin to trigger a sample which is pretty much ONLY room ambiance; this has been possible for a while since you could use a delay to play a sample but now it’s super easy and most samples even come with adjustable ambiance. It’s super effective. All of the boom, none of the bleed. Then compress the snot out of it.

The only drawback is the cohesiveness that an actual room provides, which is hard to beat. If you’re in a small room, try putting the room mics low to the floor minimise cymbal bleed, and try to get the kit in the centre if its a pair. Or look for the “most live” place, and try that. Try facing the mics to the wall, or even behind the drummer. Trying all these options are part of the process of becoming a great engineer, and fun!

Yes, the guy who writes this is Bald, English and mixes records at baldenglish.com