Creating a Big Room Sound with Plugins

A lot of modern recording sessions don’t take place at big budget studios like they once had. These days, it is hardly a limitation any more, compared to when consumer recording interfaces first hit the market. CPU processing and plugin algorithms have come a long way in just a short amount of time. We have access to some incredibly vibrant reverbs, colorful compressors, and amazingly well emulated outboard gear in our computers now. I used to love recording drums in a great sounding huge room, but these days I find myself almost always doing my best to record drums as dry and tight as possible by dampening and diffusing the room I’m working in (Discussed in another article). This way I can decide how big the room sound comes across in the final mix when everything else is tracked. Let’s take a moment to discuss how we can get that final room sound with a chain of plugins.

Recording the Right Source Material
Even though we’ll be dialing up our huge room sound with plugins, we need to make absolutely sure that we’ve recorded the right source material to feed to this software. Time and time again I have come to find that the most important tracks to capture from the drum kit on recording day are the overheads and room positions. I won’t even direct mic the drums if I’m working on a budget with a band and we only have 2 channels to work with. You can always meticulously program in some direct trigger sounds if necessary, but you absolutely need to capture the kit as a whole with the mics if you expect to get something versatile to work with in the mix.

I prefer to work with stereo positions for these angles, but it’s even more important to setup the mics so they are capturing all elements of the kit as balanced as possible before using compression (even when confined to mono positions). This means coming in from a bit of an angle over the player’s shoulder when placing overhead mics above the kit at times. Other times I have to center the mic and lift it a bit higher than I normally would. Each player has a slightly different sweet spot.

I know you may not be recording in a very flattering space, but it’s still very important that the room mic position is capturing the space more than the drum kit itself. This is why it’s important to treat the room as much as possible without breaking the bank. Instead of trying to set up your session in a great sounding room, consider minimizing the unflattering aspects of the mediocre room you are using. Again, make your priority the goal of capturing a good balance as the individual elements of the kit spill into the room. Be sure to check for this before hitting record. For example, if the kick or a crash cymbal seems absurdly loud compared to the other elements, you should reposition the mic.

Working in Parallel
You’re going to want to feed these overhead and room positions to a separate auxiliary channel in post mode. Don’t send any direct channels to this parallel aux channel if you recorded them during the recording session. We want to work with the carefully balanced overhead and room channels that we so diligently managed during the tracking session.

It’s incredibly important that you have your session setup so that you can change the fader level of your processed auxiliary channel separate from the raw microphone recordings. While we’re going to generate the sound of a large pro studio environment with plugins, we need to make sure we’re always keeping it in perspective with the actual recording of the kit. We need to work hard at making sure that this big space we create doesn’t seem to stick out like a sore thumb and sound like a bunch of effects. You may find yourself changing the fader level as you tweak plugins and working in parallel makes this easily manageable.

Starting the Chain with Some Colourful EQ
We’re going to want to use an EQ or two in order to focus this parallel channel on the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum (highlighting the sparkly highs and big lows). It’s important to start with this step so that we clean things up and feed the most important aspects of our recording to the reverb and compressors that will come next. It’s okay to get a bit aggressive with some of these EQ moves since this channel is working in tandem with the original unprocessed channels. It’s for this reason that I often reach for an EQ that emulates a colorful analog unit. Many plugin companies such as UAD, Slate Digital and Waves offer emulations of Neve, SSL, API and more. These EQs add a bit of harmonic saturation and phase tilt as you turn the knobs, romanticizing and manipulating the effect of their curves more so than a transparent EQ will.

I usually focus on boosting the lowest and highest frequencies with shelf EQs at 100hz and 10khz. I’ll then use 2 or 3 parametric knobs to hone in on boosting the high mids (usually around 2khz-5khz) as well as cutting the low mids (usually around 400Hz-800Hz).  Again, remember that you should be referencing the way things sound while both the original and parallel processed channels sound together. The processing may seem too extreme if the parallel channel is in solo. Be sure to listen to the big picture and consider the fader level of the aux channel as you tweak the EQs.

Adding Reverb to the Process
Now the channel will be ready for a reverb plugin after all that focusing. It’s important that we choose a reverb sound that isn’t too “over the top”. While we were aggressive with our EQ sounds, we’re going to want to be a little more conservative with the length of our reverb tails. I will usually try to pick a more acoustical sounding reverb that emulates a room sound with a tail of 300ms to 1 second in length. This usually results in a more authentic room sound that we can “sneak” into the mix with the fader level of our parallel channel more so than a mechanical reverb such as plate or spring can get away with. That being said, there are no hard set rules. If the song you’re creating is going for a dreamy, surreal or over the top aesthetic… then go for it! Just remember to keep the vision of the entire mix in perspective with this artificial space that you’re creating.

Keeping the Artificial Room Consistent
The final icing on the cake for our plugin chain comes in the form of 2 very particular compression processes. We want to take the sound that we’ve created in parallel and go out of our way to remove much of the dynamics from it. Our original unprocessed channels will give the impression of dynamics while our parallel channels keeps the impression of the room we’ve created on a consistent basis.

I always start with a colourful compressor. Again, I prefer to use a plugin that will emulate analog gear in order to add some “hype” or “vibe” along with my dynamic control. There are some very important settings to keep in mind while setting this compressor. You’ll want to use a compressor with a high pass filter option so it doesn’t react to the big lows that we dialed in earlier. This unit should be reacting to the higher frequencies more than anything. Use a midrange ratio to accomplish this, somewhere from 5:1 to 10:1. We want to let the initial attack of the drums through more than anything, so use a medium attack setting along with a *very* fast and aggressive release time. This is it was important that we got a good balance on our microphones during tracking day.

The real trick to this approach is finalizing the chain with a De-esser since we’ve boosted our highs so much with EQ. Sure, the high pass filter on the first compressor avoided responding to the low-end, but now we want to control specifically the high frequencies separately. A lot of students often ask me why we should bother boosting high frequencies early on if we’re just going to compress them later. Remember that de-esser is doing more than just turning the highs back down. Instead, it is setting those high frequencies to a consistent volume that we can then dial in as a careful final level with the auxiliary channel’s fader. This is so much more productive than having cymbals that are difficult to set in the mix because they’re jumping around in volume so often.

In Summary
Modern technology now gives us the ability to create the exact space we’re looking for if we diligently control the unflattering aspects of the space we’re recording in. I find myself constantly taking this plugin approach these days, rather than hunting for a great sounding space and hauling all of the gear into it. Even when working in some great studios, the room sound for the drums isn’t always all that riveting. I’d much rather erect a bit of acoustical treatment in a makeshift room or setup the drums in an isolation booth so that I can devote more time to discussing the overall aesthetic the band is looking for. Why not sculpt this vision in the computer, where the final mix will be taking place anyways? Drums excite the reverb in a room more so than any other instrument and I hate being stuck with a sound that doesn’t lend itself to the band’s vision because we were stuck with a weak space on tracking day.

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