Room Mics: Adding Depth to Home Recordings

One of the first things I learned to appreciate when I built a home studio on the lower level of a cramped Chicago coach house was the virtue-in-disguise of using smaller, tighter spaces to record things like drum kits and vocals.

I’d already had a few experiences recording in huge, airplane-hangar style spaces. And – if I didn’t end up trashing them completely – I mostly remember wasting hours wildly EQing and compressing all of those so-called “cool extra room mics.” I tried desperately to get them to add anything useful, only to keep nudging them farther and farther down in the interest of clarity as the mix slowly took shape.

Not every session calls for room mics.

More often than not, embracing tighter and more controlled sounds in favor of a lower noise floor, fewer tone-sucking phase and proximity effect issues, and less smearing and mic leakage from other instruments solves more problems than throwing up lots of extra, “just in case” mics. And that doesn’t mean you’re making concessions, either.

Embracing tighter and more controlled sounds solves more problems than throwing up lots of extra, “just in case” mics.

For instance, if you’re making rock records and you love huge, roaring guitars, one of the best ways to help create the illusion of hugeness is through scale. In other words, actually eliminating some of that mushy decay and slap-back room ambience by keeping the drum kit and vocals on the tight and punchy side will bestow power and control on your mixing ability that you never thought you had.

But what about those times when your song’s arrangement does call for more room sound? Can you do it tastefully and creatively in the confines of the home studio? Absolutely – you just have to be creative. Let’s take a closer look at a few strategies.

If you have a little extra space, use it correctly.

Let’s say that whatever room in which you’re endeavoring to capture a loud instrument (e.g. a drum kit) with microphones is spacious enough to warrant experimentation with “far away” mic sounds. Great. Now what? Which mics will work best for your purposes? And in which configurations?

As with most artistic pursuits, the answer is “it depends.” But whenever I’m gathering more sounds than are absolutely necessary, I like to go out of my way to make sure that there’s going to be as much interesting contrast going on as possible.

Choosing Your Mics

If I’m using a lot of bright, quick condenser microphones close up on a drum kit (say, AKG 414s as tom mics and Neumann KM184s as overheads), a big, fat ribbon mic like a Coles 4038 or AEA R84 (my personal favorite) makes a fantastic option in the room – the picture it takes of the composite kit is comparatively dark, silky, and smooth. Especially if I know I’m going to be compressing or otherwise mangling this track in the mix, the darkness of the ribbon sound ends up being a real virtue.

If I’m going stereo for drum overheads, I’ll likely stay mono for my room mic so that the overheads and room mic sounds don’t step on one another’s toes aurally too much in the mix.

But if you’ve got two mics to spare for a room setup, combining a far away, mid-side-configured pair with a mono overhead also makes for some very interesting contrasts. (I generally avoid using dynamic mics for room micing, as I personally don’t think they capture far away sounds very well, but your opinion may vary.)

I use this same approach with vocalists a lot, too. If they’re singing into a large-diaphragm condenser (like a U-87), I’ll throw the AEA R84 up behind them or off in the corner of the room. Vice versa if the ribbon is the close mic.

Placing Your Mics

Since I am usually trying to capture the boom of the kick and the thunderous pop of snares and toms, I’ll stick room mics for the drum set low to the ground. Generally, this means one to two feet high (at kick drum height) and probably a good 12 feet out in front of the kit facing either straight on for the most kick oomph or angled out between the kick and the snare to grab a little more snare thwack.

If you’re worried about cymbals, don’t be. There will be plenty of those either way – I promise.

Sometimes I’ll even leave the room entirely with my room mics. I have had awesome success putting a spare mic at the other end of the hallway where my drum room is, as well as in the stairwell a floor above where an entire live band was recording.

For guitar amps and/or vocalists, I usually keep the room mic(s) in-line with the sound source and slightly closer to the the close mic (maybe six to eight feet), but that’s only because I’m usually after slightly less dramatic ambience with those instruments.

Sometimes I’ll put a room mic behind amps or vocalists instead of out in front of them just to add a different sort of color to the proceedings. You should feel free to experiment with every square inch of your space to find what you like.

Caution!

While you’re experimenting, however, resist the urge to use too many room mic sounds at once, as you’ll almost certainly end up with a mud pile and nothing else. Also, be sure you’re paying attention to how phase is affected by the mic combinations you’re creating.

Remember: your sound should be getting fatter with the addition of a room mic, not thinner."

If you’re using a DAW, you can even zoom in on the two waveforms to see how they’re playing with each other. If you see the two lines moving in pretty opposite directions from each other, or if you hear unpleasant comb-filtering or thinness, flip the phase on one of your mics and/or move your room mic around a foot or two at a time until you find a sweet spot.

Remember: your sound should be getting fatter with the addition of a room mic, not thinner.

If you don’t think you have the space, think again.

These relatively “conventional” tips might be all well and good, but what if – due to the very small size of your room, the non-acoustical nature of the music you’re making, or a lack of inputs or microphones in your rig – they just aren’t feasible options for you? Don’t worry: we’re talking DIY home recording here. There are always a few clever workarounds.

The most obvious option lies in the creative utilization of reverb, delay, compression and doubling. Note the use of the adjective “creative.” That’s because I’m not talking about just throwing a plugin reverb on your snare drum and lead vocal and calling that “some space.” I’m talking about getting down and dirty inside your DAW and under the hood of some of these plugins.

For example, when you’re going for a “room sound” on a track (as opposed to a more literal reverb), I’d suggest steering clear of plate and spring-emulating reverbs and going for a room modeler or something digital.

I love using UAD’s Lexicon 224 for this purpose. Try making the decay time super short and using the pre-delay to “create” the ambient room reflection. Then, grab a highly tweakable EQ (such as UAD’s Cambridge EQ) and just get weird with it.

Try rolling off all of the highs or all of the lows or everything except the tiny, tinny 500-2khz band to see what kind of crazy sound you can invent with which to augment the original dry track. Then tastefully mix the two together.

Or maybe try auto-doubling your guitar or vocal track, EQing it completely oppositely from the original track, then literally scooting it back in your DAW to offset it by as many milliseconds as you like. Perhaps while you’re at it, you can use an 1176-style compressor in “all-buttons-in” mode to completely smash the transients of your doubled track, emphasizing its decays and inherent “roominess.”

The possibilities are endless. And since we’re working in the digital domain, these experiments will take you 30 seconds and can easily be trashed if they’re not providing the magic.

If you’re still after a more “analog” option, consider reevaluating the room in which you’re tracking these parts in the first place. Granted, this is easier said than done for drum kits, but I love tracking electric guitar amps in my tiny, tile bathroom because of the much more lively room reflections in there. And I’ve definitely cut my share of “boomy” vocals standing in the bathtub, outside in an open garage, and even hollering into a front-loading basement washing machine.

No matter what you try, always remember that there’s no such thing as the “right way to go” when you’re adding room sounds, space, ambience, and color to your home recordings. The latest hot trick in capturing spacious drums or thick guitars might very well come from the glorious limitations and weird idiosyncrasies of your own humble home rig.

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