Once upon a time back in days of yore, I was asked by Terry Tompkins to record an album for his band The Now Feeling. It featuring guest vocals by Lisa Boudreau. We made the album, my first, Lisa and Terry got married (the abbreviated version of this story) and now one of their progeny, Jody, works in audio. He asked me some questions:
JT: For me drums seem to be my weakest point in the mix, lets say we
have a well recorded rock drum kit 2 kick mics one in, one out ,Snare
top and bottom, a mic on the top head of each tom overheads and a stereo
room pair. The Kicks a little pillowy and the snare is lacking that
beautiful crisp crack that are in all the big records. Is there anyway
to explain your process of starting to tackle that whole beast. (let me
know if it would even be possible to answer ahah its a loaded question).
OM: Someone asked a well known engineer ( don't recall who) how he got a great drum sound, and he answered: "the three critical ingredients are a good drummer, a good, well-tuned drum kit, and a good room." I agree. Start with the source. If those three elements are in place, and it's recorded well then you almost have to do nothing more than turn up the faders.
My process of rescuing a poor drum sound would start with seeing what I could do with gating, compression and eq. I would also try parallel compression. Sometimes I'll mult the snare and/or kick to another channel, heavily gate, compress and eq that channel and blend it in. Reamping the drums in some way can help. One trick is to place your reamp speaker underneath another snare and mic that snare. Last resort would be to replace the drums with samples or add in triggered samples. I rarely do that.
You're right, it's not really possible for me to answer the question except generally and vaguely, you just have to do it .... a lot! Animators have something they call pencil mileage - skill at drawing comes from doing it over and over again. So I recommend getting mixing mileage. When I started mixing recordings I felt all my mixes sucked. One day they stopped sucking. I don't know why except maybe for mixing mileage.
Also don't recommend getting fixated on any one component of the mix. Maybe the drums don't sound good on their own, but can they work in the context of the whole track? Bob Clearmountain, a mixer I highly respect, once said that he doesn't listen to the tracks in solo. He brings up all the faders then makes adjustments based on the overall picture. I'm not that extreme, I listen to the individual tracks as a staring point but always consider them in the whole context.
The real power of a rock drum sound lies in the room tracks. You can try triggered gating, phasing, flanging, pitch shifting, and/or distorting them with something interesting like an old reel to reel mic preamp or a boom box but with subtle taste so it doesn't sound unnaturally processed. The classic, ultimate, rock drum sound, according to many, was played by John Bonham in Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks recorded by Andy Johns with one mic at the top of a stairwell. One mic, a top rock drummer, good drums, and a great live space made music history.
JT: Favorite Hardware and plugin Compressor for Vocals
OM: Hardware - Fairchild or Urei LA2A. Plug-ins - Not familar with all the plug-ins as I still mix mostly out of the box. I like the Massey compressor and also use the "Fairchild" plug-in from the Pro Tools pack.
JT: When you have a session with 7-8 guitar tracks how do you go about
placing them around in the stereo field. I always seem to end up with
just this wall of guitars. but not in the good metal kind of way it just
becomes a noise. I've tried carving Eqs and other techniques but
nothing seems to give me that strong and powerful guitar while still
allowing the vocals and drums to come through
OM: I hard pan all of them evenly to begin with. One might go in the middle or off to one side not hard panned if there's an odd number of tracks. I'm also not afraid to mute tracks if they are not contributing. When sound waves interact with each other you get either destructive or constructive interference. If it's destructive, then taking out that track will make the rest sound bigger. Short delays (50 ms or less) will make muted string parts sound bigger and add to the rhythm. Sometimes subtle chorusing, phasing or flanging can help depending on the parts but you never want it to sound artificial. I've haven't heard any plug-in frequency modulators that I've liked that much, and a lot of those programs in multi-processor effects boxes like TC's M2000 sound very cheesy to me. The best phasers/flangers are the old MXRs. You'll find your best tremolo in a pedal or a vintage amp.
JT: Is it truly
possible to get that console Warmth and summing capabilities through the
plugins such as Waves NLS, Waves ReDD and the various UAD plugs. ( The
UAD stuff sounds AWESOME)
OM: This reads as a bit of a strange question because I'm not aware of any plug-ins with summing capabilities. I don't recommend mixing in the box. The sound starts to get smaller and flatter with more tracks because the summing bus in DAWs don't do well with lots of tracks. If a console isn't available then I suggest an outboard summing box like the Dangerous D. Neve makes a good one too though more expensive.
I like UAD plug-ins, Waves are ok but don't have experience with those particular ones.
JT: Favorite Reverb and Delay
Different favorites for different kinds. Favorite small room reverb: reamping the Waits room at Prairie Sun Recording where I work a lot. Reamping into a good live room, stereo micing for the room sound ie mics in the corners or focused away from the reamp sounds better to me than any kind of digital or analog processor. I like the old EMT plate reverbs, Prairie Sun has two. Masterworks makes a very beautiful sounding Spring reverb. As for digital reverbs, Bricasti sounds very natural. I still like the old AMS and Lexicons 224 and 480 a lot.
Favorite delay is a Studer A80 quarter inch tape delay. Tape delays in general - the old Roland 201 Space Echos ( but not their reverb). Fulltone makes a good modern tape delay. Best digital delays are the Lexicon PCM 41 and 42s. I like some of the weird reverbs, delay and modulation programs from the Eventide H3000 series.
Question for you: what processor or piece of equipment in a recording studio would you spend the most time learning and studying to optimize your mixes?