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Nora Inu – Band Recording at Upaya Sound

Having finished studio construction and acoustics in autumn of 2021 I was very keen to get the first bands in and experience the band recording process “in real life”. A new space can take some time getting used to, and I wanted to make sure my workflow, my gear and band recording process was acceptable before bringing in paying clients.

I put out a request on social media for bands looking to record a song in a day which I would then edit and mix free of charge. One of the first to respond was Jens from the Kiel post rock/post metal band Nora Inu. Two guitars, bass and drums make up the line up of the instrumental band. Incidentally, Jens also organises the alternative rock festival Woodbunge.

Jens sent me a few demo recordings and we quickly decided on a candidate to record. Am Fear Liath Mòr is an atmospheric post rock / shoegaze track which builds into a fierce barrage of guitars and drums. Throughout almost the entire song, a droning guitar is heard in the background, ominous and foreboding. The track immediately caught my attention as it was right down my alley regarding musical tastes.

We exchanged a few emails to determine the sound the band was after, and they sent me some links and names of bands they were looking to emulate. I like to get a feel for a band’s inspiration before recording, because once you record an instrument a certain way, you have a tough time changing the overall feel, despite the myriad of effects and plugins available in these modern times.

We locked in a date and the four guys arrived with their gear mid-morning on a Friday in early January. I had recently purchased a drum kit and cymbals from a friend looking to minimise his kit. So the band decided to save time setting up and use my new Mapex Saturn Series. I had taken the time the day before to tune each drum to my liking and also dampen any ringing that might be difficult to remove from the recording afterwards.

Some Great Microphones For A Great Drum Sound

I had a number of quality microphones to choose from to mike the kit, having  borrowed some from a Tonmeister friend to supplement my own collection. Some Neumann and Schoeps condensers, a pair of Microtech Gefell M930s and Sennheiser MD421s really gave me some nice options to get the drum sound I was after.

Drum Recording: Kick Drum – Beta52, C414 and a DIY Speaker Mic

I was looking for a punchy, dry and direct kick sound with a good amount of low end. I wanted the listener to feel the power of the kick with a good portion of body, but not too much slap.
I placed my Shure Beta52 inside the bass drum and about 2 thirds to one side. I find the Beta52 gives a good, solid, no-nonsense sound. It formed the fundament of the bass drum sound.
Outside the resonant head I placed my AKG C414 B-ULS at the point where I could feel the greatest movement of air. I wanted to capture the low bass frequencies here to add to the mid-range body sound of the Beta52. In order not to overload the mic, I switched in the pad of -10dB, as that was some serious pressure coming out of the kick.

More as an experiment than anything else, I placed a speaker I had wired with an XLR cable on a guitar stand in front of the bass drum. Trying to emulate a Yamaha Subkick mic, I wanted to see how much low end I could capture with the large speaker cone and if it was usable later in the mix.

I was pretty much immediately happy with the blend of the three kick mics and once the rest of the kit was miked, the band mentioned how much they liked the bass drum sound. So we were off to a good start!

Drum Recording: Snare – 3 Mics and Pre-Tape EQ

An SM57 clipped onto the snare is pretty much a no brainer for recording drums, yet it did take a bit of time before both the drummer and I were happy with the sound of my Sonor S Class Maple snare.

I had tuned it the day before and was happy with the overall sound, yet the ringing bugged me so I dampened it with some moon gel. The problem with this was that in doing so it killed the resonant sound and made the snare sound a bit lifeless in comparison.

So we went back and forth a few times before settling on an un-dampened snare with the SM57 on top and a Neumann KM184 underneath. The signal on the latter was very hot so one of the first things to go on my shopping list from this first session was a set of XLR pads to put inline with the mic signals, as my mixing desk doesn’t have buttons to reduce the input level on each channel.

I EQ’d the SM57 signal to bring in some high end and high mid snappiness and also high-passed the KM184 channel to remove any bass below 100 Hz. Equalising the signals before recording really helps to achieve the sound you’re after BEFORE you start mixing. You always want to try and create the desired sound at the source, which includes adjusting any frequencies on the way in.

It wasn’t until later while re-adjusting some of the mics that I realised there was something missing in the snare sound that I really needed to capture. I had my head down by the snare and the drummer gave it a whack. The fullness of this piece of air at the side of the snare between the crash cymbal stand and the first tom really hit me and I decided to put another mic there. An Røde NT55 did the job and turned a decent snare sound into a full-bodied beast. Suddenly the drummer was beaming and ready to go!

Drum Recording: ORTF Overheads With The Silky Smooth M390s

I went with the Microtech Gefell M930s as a stereo pair of overheads as they were the only pair I hadn’t previously used for drum recording. I don’t have the most expensive cymbals, but my Masterworks Iris set do sound very silky and smooth and punch way above their price range. The M903s really captured this smoothness with their very open high end.

Due to the modern music consumer listening to music predominantly on headphones, I like to create spatial recordings that sound naturally open, like the listener is sitting in the room watching the band perform. I find the ORTF microphone technique is perfect for creating drum overhead recordings that give a very coherent stereo image with the cymbals crashing left and right whilst also minimising any phasing issues between close miked drums and the overheads.

So I placed the stereo bar with the M930s as high up as possible (in my room with limited height!) above the kit and on axis with both the snare and kick drum. This skewed axis also places the hihat in the centre of the stereo image. For rock band recordings like this, I usually don’t mic the hihat separately as it is just an extra channel with an extra mic (causing phasing issues?!) that gets thrown out in the mixing stage anyway.

Drum Recording: Hair-Raising Toms with an MD421 Each

The toms were quickly mic’d with a Sennheiser MD421 each,  feeling for the right sound pressure space with a finger over the front of the mic. Feeling the air move with the hairs on your finger means you have found the sweet spot, or as Michael Stavrou says in his book Mixing With Your Mind “the flame”.

As with the snare, it is of upmost importance to EQ the toms on the way in. A wide dip at around 800 Hz removes the direct, cardboard box sound of the lower toms, and slightly boosting the fundamental resonance of each drum gives it more body and depth. Adding too much top end attack can be risky once the cymbals get going and bleed into the tom mics, but a little will give some extra definition. You want to accent the sound to give it a bit more definition at the recording stage without going overboard and trying to mix ahead. Removing stuff later on can be as much a pain as trying to sculpt a sound you didn’t record, so a dab here and there will usually suffice.

Drum Recording: Room Mics

More as an afterthought than anything else, I put up the remaining Schoeps CMC 6 MK4 on a stereo bar at the wall opposite the drum kit. My live room isn’t the largest so there wasn’t much reverb to be captured and the signals didn’t end up making it into the final mix. But it was an option I could have gone for later on.

Checking and Double-Checking the Drum Sound

We recorded some passages, had a listen and went back and forth adjusting microphone positions here and there until  the drummer, the band and I were satisfied. The kick was solid and full-bodied with a lot of low end, the snare was thick but with good presence and attack, the toms were booming and the cymbals were silky smooth.

We then began tracking, the drummer playing along to a guide track the band created beforehand and a click at 100 BPM. After 2-3 takes he found his groove and nailed some very good versions of the song and we were happy we could move on to the other instruments.

Recording Bass – Dark Glass Direct

Once the drums were out of the way, it was easy sailing with the bass guitar. We recorded direct with a passive DI and also through the Dark Glass Microtubes effect pedal.
Lennart had brought along his bass amp head but the direct signals from the DI and the Dark Glass were cleaner so we ended up taking the direct route. I do usually prefer to record an amp and capture the air moving in the room, but due to logistical issues with the band travelling 1.5 hours from Kiel, we took the more comfortable approach.

It took only 2 or 3 takes to nail the bass part despite the length of the song being over 6 minutes. Lennart came prepared, sat down and delivered!

Recording Guitars – Amps vs Simulation

Recording guitars was relatively straight forward at the time, but had I known at the time, what I know now, I would have taken a different approach. The problem only emerged at the mixing stage once I had sent the first mix to the band. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t like the recording, it was just the sounds they wanted to hear weren’t there.

The band does a lot of pre-production in their respective home studios, building sounds with lots of effects to create the atmosphere of their tracks. They rely on software effects and plugins to create their sounds “in the box”.

Being an analogue guy, and as a guitarist, my usual approach is to create my guitar sounds with the instrument, the effects pedals and the amp I use. I then try to record this as purely and naturally as possible, leaving final tweaking of the sounds for the mixing stage.
The difference in approaches caused some confusion at the mixing stage, yet nothing we couldn’t overcome after a bit of discussion.

In the studio, we began with Jens’ baritone guitar which we recorded directly out of his Line6 Helix amp simulation rig, through my Fender Reverb Deluxe II amp with a Sennheiser MD421 up close to the speaker and a AKG C414 B-ULS backed away a little to capture more air and dynamics in the room.

Patrick’s guitar sound was a little more difficult to capture, as his instrument had a much darker tone than the baritone, despite it’s normal scale. The Cannabis Rex speaker in my Deluxe Reverb really tames the presence of a chimey guitar and does wonders for distortion pedals, yet darkens the mood for any instrument that already has a dark tone.

I ended up switching to my backup amp, an Engl Squeeze 50 that has the Alnico Gold speaker in it that was originally in the Fender. There is much more mid range presence in the Engl and it wasn’t the perfect match for Patrick’s guitar, but much better compared with the combination before.

I usually prefer the natural sound of a recorded guitar amp over an amp simulation, and so mixed the track according to my tastes. It turned out the band preferred the direct, effect-laden amp simulation sound that they had painstakingly developed during pre-production. Producing music is all about communication and we went back and forth a little before we finally touched on this difference of tastes as the problem. And as an audio engineer giving creative input you have to know when to put your own musical vision on the backburner if it doesn’t quite fit your client’s.

Once we had tracked all the main guitar parts, there were bits here and there to overdub. It took us most of the afternoon to finish tracking, but we were all done by about 5pm, time for the band to hit the road back up the highway to the coast.

All in all, we had a great day together creating some interesting and innovative music. Check back soon for a post on the mixing process.

About The Author

Nick Braren is an audio engineer and musician with over 15 years experience in the studio, on stage, back stage and front of house. He is the owner and operator of Upaya Sound, guitarist and vocalist of Vandemonian, father of 2 and husband of 1. When he’s not in the studio or in the band room he’s either travelling in his van or at the beach – or both.

Mixing Engineer

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