Steve Albini wields a microphone
Recording engineer Steve Albini is a bit of a rebel, working outside the music industry’s modus operandi. Having recorded well over 1,000 albums, including works by Page and Plant, Nirvana, Neurosis, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, and PJ Harvey, Albini has developed an engineering style that reflects his determination to keep the band’s sound as pure as possible. When it comes to recording the kit, for instance, his goal is to be true to the sound of the drums, rather than trying to force them to fit into some idealized archetype of the perfect drum sound.
For a less dramatic and more unified sound, Albini may use as few as two mikes: a single or stereo mike overhead (preferably a ribbon or a condenser) and a mike either on the bass drum or a couple of feet out front and in-line with the top of it to pick up the low-end energy. But for edgier rock bands where the drums are the driving force, he’ll opt for a multiple, close-up mike approach.
Fig. 1. Position microphones on both the top and bottom heads. Adjust angle and distance to get the sound you want. You’ll need to flip the polarity on one of the mikes to negate phase issues.
Perhaps Albini’s most distinctive method is miking up the “whole drum” by putting condenser mikes (the Josephson e22S in particular) on both the top and bottom heads — especially on the toms. “Once you hit the drum, it’s working as a resonant system,” explains Albini. “That resonant part emanating off of the bottom head is what makes the drum sound better and more realistic when you mike both heads.” When employing this technique, it’s necessary to flip the polarity of one of the mikes to negate any phasing issues. According to Albini, sometimes it sounds better with the top mike reversed, or vice versa.
On snare, he’ll sometimes mike the bottom head, but not always. He’s been known to strap together a dynamic mike with a condenser and use them at the same time on the top head for sonic variety. For the bass drum, he’ll place a large-diaphragm dynamic mike either peeking just inside the port or up to 18" away, depending on the sound, and will sometimes opt for a batter-side mike as well (usually a dynamic mike like the Sennheiser MD421 or 441) to pick up the attack. Overhead mikes for minimal setups should always be coincident (Blumlein, XY, or mid-side) for a good stereo image. But for multimiking setups he may go for either a split pair or spot mikes on individual cymbals. Interestingly, Albini rarely puts a mike on the hi-hat. “The hi-hat is a satanic instrument,” he says. “It doesn’t need a mike. It’s on every other mike in the room.”
All told, Albini tries to keep an open mind and adapt his miking approaches for each individual setup. “When I first started out, I didn’t have a lot of mikes,” he says. “The more I added, the more experimenting I was able to do. I think it’s worth it to take the time to experiment.”