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Can you record a drum kit entirely with Shure SM57 mics? Barry Rudolph can.

If you record an entire drum kit with SM57 mics, the total cost of the mics is around $300. That's pretty cheap, but is the sound cheap too?

This story goes back a few years - to 1975 in fact. But since vintage sounds are popular these days, why not? And in fact they were trying to get a vintage sound from a 1975 perspective, so its like two layers of vintage. Vintage on vintage.

The artists are Daryl Hall and John Oates and the album is also Daryl Hall and John Oates, which many people know as 'The Silver Album' because of the silvery finish of the cover. One of the engineers on the project was Barry Rudolph, who describes his work here...

Motown feel

In summary, the producer - Chris Bond - wanted the feel of certain classic Motown tracks and was prepared to experiment in order to get what he wanted. So although recording technology was well advanced in 1975, they wanted to look back to an earlier era.

If I had been given this challenge, or if someone were to challenge me now, "Fewer mics and fewer tracks" would be my first response. They used fewer mics in the classic Motown era, and recorders had fewer tracks available, thus necessitating a simpler and more direct approach to recording.

Sara Smile

Barry Rudolph took a rather different view on the song Sara Smile however, which wasn't to use fewer mics on the drum kit, but to use only the Shure SM57 model, for snare, kick, toms, hihat AND overheads. Yes, the SM57 on overheads. A total of $300's worth of mics were used, when probably tens of thousands of dollar's worth of mics were available.

You can read the details in the original article, linked above, which goes into other interesting factors concerning the drum sound, but I'd like to add my own view on the selection of microphones.

Opinions entrenched

I've found over the years that people tend to develop very entrenched opinions on microphones. When you first start recording, it's natural to emulate what you see people who are more experienced doing. There's nothing wrong with that, if it works. A classic example is that a big instrument needs a big mic. At least it is thought to. Another example is the aforementioned Shure SM57, which is commonly thought of as a rock vocal mic, a toms mic, or as the mic you use when all the 'better' mics have already been taken.

But if you start from the point of view that if a mic has a reasonably flat frequency response and reasonably low noise, then the recording you make with it is probably going to be at least OK whatever the instrument, then you can start to free yourself from preconceptions, and try out mics that wouldn't be the conventional choice.

It doesn't always have to be wonderful

What you will find is that strange microphone-instrument combinations can often result in interesting sounds. Not necessarily hi-fi sounds, or the 'best' sound all the time. But there is room in a finished recording for a variety of textures. Not everything needs to sound 'wonderful'. The minor instruments might work better in a mix with a sound that doesn't make them seem larger than life.

In summary I would say that however much you work to refine your microphone selection techniques, there is always scope for trying something new. Sometimes the best sound in isolation isn't the best sound when heard in context. Sometimes what is conventionally thought to be the best mic for a particular job can be beaten by the interesting texture of another mic that would normally be used for something else.

By David Mellor Friday March 29, 2013
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