Every once in a while a friend will ask for some suggestions on things like how to improve their show, or just how I do certain things. I find it incredibly flattering when someone asks for my opinion on things, because truly, I’m just a guy that enjoys his job, and I feel like there are so many people much better than I. Rather than just answer in an email, I figured I may as well post the answer as a blog, because maybe someone else I know (or don’t) has the same question… I really do like to share the little knowledge I have.
I’m going out as TM/FOH with this band #########. Their music is much heavier than what i have mixed in past tours. In your experience are there any good tricks for getting a good beefy guitar sound as well as drum sound. We are going to be doing mostly HOB venues and the occasional shithole. Also any good recommendations for tuning a room? Not going to have the luxury of SMAART but i was thinking of getting the IRIG and a cheap RTA mic and using my Studio Six Iphone app as a FFT reference. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated man!
So, truly the difference between heavy music and anything else, is often simply density of mix. With most heavy bands I find that pretty much all elements of the mix are intended to be aggressive and in your face, and thus everything must be very present. This can get complicated when the arrangement is busy, but it’s all about finding a space for everything.
As usual, I’d say start at the source. My last tour with a heavy band, we sat in rehearsals for a while, and went through a pile of guitar amps til we found the amp that fit their sound perfectly (an Engl RItchie Blackmore, which is STILL my favorite high gain amp). You’ve got to remember that gain in an amplifier is compression, and the more of it the guitar player uses, the less clarity there is in the articulation, and more particularly less definition in each note that builds the chords they use. Work with your guitar player to find something that sounds clear and intelligible FROM the amp itself to start. This often ends up being way more complicated than you’d think, because (as a guitar player myself) most guitar players feel like they already have the perfect tone, it’s why they own the guitars and amps that they do. Thing is, they might, but more often than not, every musician can use an outside ear. This is also a bit odd, because you need your musicians to trust you completely, so be smart about changing anything that your musician uses/loves.
This also translates to for drums. You may not be able to change shells or anything extreme, but you can likely try a lot of different drum heads. Snares are extraordinarily sensitive to head changes. With your drummer, try some different things out, but since this is live, remember that durability matters almost as much as tone. My personal favorite for snare is the Evans HD Dry, it’s really lively and sensitive, and tends to hold it’s tone and tuning for a reasonable amount of time, but of course it’s different for every drummer, every band, every genre, find what works for you. For toms, coated heads tend to have a lot more overtones than clear, and tend to be harder to tune, but when you get them right, it’s glorious. The thicker head you use, the less decay and likely the less top end you’ll have in the tone. You can do the same for cymbals, find what works best for both you and your drummer.
The idea of “big guitars” is often a bit deceiving, as the ‘biggest’ sounding guitars are usually that way because the bass is filling out the low mid. Generally I have guitars high passed around 100Hz, and low passed around 4-5kHz, between these two, it’s all a very relative game. Every guitar sounds different, every amp sounds different, every player sounds different, but that being said, the fundamentals are all about the same. When it comes to metal, low mids tend to get muddy fast, just because of how busy the parts often seem to be. Because of that, you need to be relatively picky about what instruments you let take up the low mids of your mix. I tend to cut a lot from kick, toms, cymbals, keys, samples, and bass between 125Hz and 315Hz. I save that space for the snare and the chunk of the guitars. High gain guitars are also very wide bandwidth, they’ll take up all of your spectral space fast if you let them. So you need to be very aware of what they’re sitting on when they’re ‘big.’
In terms of specifics, I have a few favorite mics for high gain guitars, and a few things I pretty much always do. My favorite mic is by far the Audio Technica AE2500, which is a dual element mic. The dynamic and condenser capsules, being encased in a single frame, are phase aligned, so you don’t need to worry about any comb filtering like you would with having two separate microphones. With that mic, I tend to simple HPF and LPF the channel, and use the two elements level wise to EQ the overall tone. The dynamic element is has more low mids, and the condenser element has more high mids, so instead of reaching for an EQ you can just level one up, or down to change the tonality of the amp. This combination is the best guitar high gain capture I’ve heard so far. If that’s a bit out of price range, the ATM250de is the same concept with a slightly different capsule for the condenser element, also sounds amazing, but can be a teeny bit brittle here and there. With this combo I’ve sometimes boosted a bit of 250 on the dynamic element, and left the condenser flat, and been blown away by the intensity and size of the tone. I’ve never liked panning both out to opposite sides, but rather I like both elements panned together. If you’re in a small room, and have a lot of stage volume, try panning the amp to the opposite side as it’s actual stage position, since the people on that side can already likely hear the stage volume rather well.
Another odd trick I tend to do, which is much easier on a digital desk than analog, is parallel compression on the guitars with a sidechain input from the vocal. Might sound a bit ridiculous, but if you listen to a lot of hardcore records, you’ll notice this isn’t that strange. Run your guitars to a stereo group (or pair of mono groups panned out), set an EQ on that group that basically cuts everything but the girth (125-250Hz ish), and the upper clarity (2kHz-4kHz ish), put a compressor on that group. Route the lead vocal into the sidechain input on that compressor, and set it so that whenever the singer is going, that compressor clamps down reasonably hard. This will basically allow you to set your static guitar levels to be a bit hotter than otherwise, because when the singer starts, the guitars will back off in the frequency areas that the vocal will need to cut through, and also allow your guitars to take up a ton of sonic real estate and sound huge when there are no vocals. That’s a weird one, and takes a bit of tinkering to get right, but it’s pretty cool when it works.
With drums, I’m quite strange about my mixing techniques, I do some things that I’m not sure most people seem to do. I use a lot of groups, and I don’t use anywhere near as much compression as most people seem to think. I honestly think drums hit harder when they’re not compressed, which I feel may be contrary to a lot of other opinions.
My primary kick tone is usually from the inside mic (I tend to use a Shure SM91, with an Earthworks KickPad, the KickPad does 90% of the EQ work for you before it ever hits the desk). The low end from a 91 is much tighter than the low end from an outside mic, it may be LESS, but (to me) it hits harder, even though there is less of it. I gate this very accurately. My outside mic I actually where I tend to get the beater click, it seems to sound more natural from that distance. This outside mic I also gate tightly, but it’s also usually keyed from the inside mic, so that they both open at the same time and also close together, you can either do this with two gates and key the second off of the direct output from the first kick mic, or just use a gate that has a stereo link function and link the two. I also get the sub lows from this mic. WIth metal you’ve got to go easy on the sub lows, because double kick eats up subwoofer headroom very quickly, and will sound messy if there is too much sub in the kick tone. I tend to (using the 91) get the kick to hit in the 90Hz region, and set the top end just outside of the way of the guitar, around 4-5kHz. Both of these input channels then are routed to a group, and not the main output bus. This way I can put a compressor on them and have them compress together, this compressor really is barely hitting this kick, it’s simply there to catch anything crazy, usually set somewhere around a 6:1 ratio, reasonably slow attack as to not cut off the transient, and maybe hitting 1dB of gain reduction on kick hits.
For snare I absolutely love the Heil PR31bw on the top, it sounds big, yet is sensitive enough to catch the details of a good drumme, while also not picking up bleed from the hi hat. Under the snare I use a Heil PR22, because it’s off-axis rejection is amazing. My snare top is very lightly gated, and often the EQ is completely flat with a HPF around 100Hz, and a LPF around 5kHz. My snare bottom is where I get the girth of the drum, and sometimes boost 250 to fatten up the overall snare tone. Check the polarity on these two, usually the snare bottom inverted sounds much bigger. These are both routed to another group, much like the kick. There’s a compressor on here that hits the snare reasonably hard, again 6:1, reasonably slow attack, and probably hitting -6dB of gain reduction on most hits. Plenty of people route both kick and snare to the same group, so that they ‘breathe’ together, I have yet to find that to work with the artists for which I’m working, but I’ve heard it sound great for others.
Toms, I tend to cut a lot more lows than you may think, just because tom fills are often very busy in metal, and you can’t have them taking up too much sonic space. Gate these very tightly and accurately, definitely use the key on the gate to set them as frequency specific. The easiest way to do this, is to take an eq on the tom, boost it, and set it to a narrow width (Q). Sweep around until you find the spot wherein that tom just really takes off. Turn that eq band back off, and then set the gate’s key frequency to that same frequency. My toms are routed to both the mains output and to a parallel compressed stereo group, with settings much like the kick and snare, this makes them really cut, and due to the slow attack on the comp, the attack of the drum really cuts without you having to boost much top end, and thus can clean up the cymbal bleed from those mics.
In heavy music you tend to not need much from cymbal mics, so find the place that works for you, and if you truly use the overheads as cymbal mics, and not ‘whole kit’ mics, you may be able to clean up even more.
Regarding tuning the system, you may not have the time that you want, so truly you’ll have to get really quick with rough tuning. Usually the systems in a lot of the smaller clubs are poorly implemented, simply due to limited budget, or space. They also tend not to have as much in the output processing department as you may want, so you might just have a 31 band EQ to play with, and that’s all. Most smaller clubs also have limiters on their systems, because they see a lot of engineers that either are inexperienced, or simply don’t care about the life of the PA they’re using. Make friends really fast with the house engineer, remember his or her name, be kind, be thoughtful, and ask politely for everything you need. This person is your link to having a good show, and having an awful night. You’d think that would go without saying, but I’ve seen plenty an engineer cuss out a house FOH tech, and lets just say, it’s never a fun night. You’re going to want to have a great set of headphones with you, and some genre relavent music to test your system with. Be sure that whatever you’re testing your PA with isn’t heavily compressed in mastering because then it honestly is near useless, because your show won’t be. For the most part you can still follow the guidelines I normally use in system tuning, which I had outlined in my previous blog post. The only problem is you may be locked out of processor settings in a lot of places. So instead use the 31 to get it as good as you can. If you get that PA sounding good with an album, then that (usually) means you can get your show sounding good. Having StudioSixDigital’s FFT app, is a great bonus tool, if you can’t really figure out exactly what you’re hearing, you can take a look at it potentially get an idea of what’s going on.
I figure that’s a solid starting point, if you have any questions though, definitely feel free to hit me up!