In The Studio With Shadows Fall

Jason Bittner is pacing in the control room of Studio 606. Shadows Fall has been holed up here in the Foo Fighters’ private recording Shangri-la for a while now, making a new album, Threads Of Life. The facility is completely locked down, the schedule is flexible, and the down time is driving our award-winning drummer crazy.

Really, though, it’s his own fault: Bittner nailed his drum tracks in only three days. And now there’s nothing for hima to do.

“I got sounds the first day,” he says. “The second day, we started tracking, and I did five [songs]. I did three songs on the second day of tracking. I’ve listened to all the tracks, and I’m 110 percent [happy] with everything. I did what I wanted to accomplish on this record. I don’t think I can play the parts any better. I gave the band the foundation to build a house on, so now the rest of the work is up to them. I did my job.”

Helping Bittner get the job 110-percent right was the recording team of producer Nick Raskulinecz (co-owner with Dave Grohl of this astonishing enclave) and engineer Paul Fig. Raskulinecz has worked with a lot of big-time beaters − including Matt Sorum, Taylor Hawkins, Neil Peart, and, of course, Grohl − and when he was formally hired on as producer for Threads Of Life, he hoped to direct Bittner in what will be a true landmark performance for this genre of music. Indeed, Raskulinecz embraced the possibility.

“I love metal,” he confesses, “and I’m a drum freak … I’ve spent more time and more energy trying to get a good drum sound than anything else. If your drum sound sucks, you’re f****d. It doesn’t matter how much you put on top of it, it starts with that.”

Sound Search

What did Bittner want to hear sound-wise on this new album? “Wide open,” the drummer says. “That is definitely one of the characteristics. My kicks, I like them with good low end with a really good punch and attack, which I have achieved on every record, I think. As far as toms go, I like them wide open. I don’t like to muffle them at all. Maybe a little piece of moon gel here and there, but I like to keep them as open as possible. We did put a little bit of tape on the bottom heads on this record because we found that this kit was ringing a little bit too much in the studio. But it still sounds great. The snare drum fluctuates; it depends on what I’m feeling at the time. I like to have a really good crack and I like to have some body there. I like it a little bit more higher-pitched than lower. I don’t like muddy-sounding snare drums. And it really depends on what I’m feeling at the time when I write the drums parts and what I’m using at the time.”

Sweet Spot

Raskulinecz realized that in order to capture Bittner’s sonic suggestions, he had to start with step one. That is, was, and always will be finding the “sweet spot,” that magic location in a studio where the drum set resonates and sings and responds to a player’s particular style. This precedes all the miking, masking, and muffling. Every drum studio has one — you just have to experiment and search for it. And that’s exactly how Raskulinecz uncovered 606’s secret spot.

“[It] comes,” he says “from the last two-and-a-half years of recording other bands here and saying, ’Okay, let’s do the drums over here for this record. Okay, for this next record, let’s do the drums over here. Okay, well over here has this and this and this. But over there has this and that.’ It’s basically putting the drum set all over different spots. The sweet spot [at 606] is that center position in the room, not quite in the middle. I’d say [it’s] about maybe a third of the way into the room, center, about 15 feet off the glass.”

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Bass Drums

Once Bittner’s Tama Starclassic kit and Meinl cymbals were set up in the studio’s sweet spot, Raskulinecz and Fig went to work on the foundation of a perfect drum sound — the bass drums. They opted for Sennheiser 602s placed on the inside of the drums and Neumann U47s situated externally.

Simple enough. But they also introduced a little bit of audio abracadabra by positioning a mini MS10 right up on each drum and reversing the polarity. That way, no other drum hits — whether from snare or toms or cymbals — could find their way into the mike.

“It’s like a little ’70s trick,” the producer confesses. “I think Geoff Emerick invented that actually for The Beatles.”

The 602s impart a big, sharp sound; the internal MS10 brings out the point and body of the bass drum attack; and the outside Neumanns provide a midrange punch not present on the inside mike.

“I actually built a collar around them so you can get them a little closer to the drum,” Raskulinecz describes (FIG. 1). “You can zero in on more of the drum and get less outside interference. It’s useful to get low end with having to add EQ. It’s a natural sub. Instead of reaching for the EQ knob and cranking 60Hz, which also affects your inside and outside microphones, you get a natural 60Hz.”

Jason Bittner

FIG. 1. One Neumann U47 (with custom collar) placed externally on each of Bittner’s bass drums

The twin kicks were also baffled tightly — one lengthy strip running along the side of the set, one across the front, two on the corners. The objective was to tighten up the room so that, in essence, there was not a lot of room.

Built on the fly, the baffles were inexpensive partitions cobbled together in just a few hours. This philosophy — a parsimonious approach to constructing what might add extraordinary value in the final drum assessment — must always be followed. If money and/or materials are not available, figure out an alternate work-around. These muffling panels were stitched together with scraps of leftover 703 fiberglass insulation when Studio 606 was initially constructed. A solid piece of plywood runs down the center, and Plexiglas surrounds that on either side. Then there’s Plexiglas on either sides of that. Two layers of 703 are covered by fabric stretched around the outside. Necessity, don’t you know, is the mother of percussion.

“This music is really fast and brutal and intricate and articulated,” says Fig. “[If] you’ve got a big roomy drum sound, you’re not going to hear that stuff. I wanted to make sure we heard everything Jason did because he does a lot of little delicate, articulate things. If those things are washed out by the room, you’re never going to hear them.”

Snare

Making certain that Bittner’s snare drum cut through the morass of multiple toms and thunderous kick drums was not an inconsiderable task. A variety of snares experienced the lash of Bittner’s sticks, including Tama copper and bubinga drums, as well as some Pearl, MRP, and Ludwig models. They were all recorded with Shure Beta 57 hyper-cardioid mikes positioned above the drum (FIG. 2) and an Audio Technica ATM 25 underneath. The 57 is ideal for tracking the dynamics of a snare drum because it rejects cymbal bleed, typically from hi-hats.

FIG. 2. One Shure Beta 57 placed above the snare

“You want to crank the high end; you like the snare to be nice and bright, cracky and crisp,” Raskulinecz describes. “But when you do that, every time Jason hits the hi-hat between the snare hits, the hi-hat is louder than the snare mike because of the high end that you’re adding. That’s one of the reasons we use a lot of the hyper-cardioid mikes. It’s a narrower pattern, and the reason for that is because of all the cymbals. There are 14 cymbals versus 8 drums. And he plays a lot of cymbals on all the songs. So the point of the hyper-cardioid mike is to get more cymbal rejection to get more drum.”

Typically, an overhead snare mike hovers about “a half-inch over the top of the drum,” according to Fig. Raskulinecz, though, amends this: “Half an inch, a couple inches,” he says, and this variation in mike distance was actually a technique he borrowed. “I had this friend engineer the drums on a record, and I noticed that he was doing something I really liked. What he was doing was moving the mike off the drum to get a little more of the shell, a little more of the impact. I’ve kind of been doing it ever since.”

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Cymbals

Bittner’s playing style involves crashing, splashing, and riding on a vast array of cymbals. Radiating around him, his cymbals occupy the space roughly related to 11 to 1 o’clock and approximately 5 to 7 o’clock. Originally, there was a plan in place to utilize four overhead mikes. This would present monumental phasing problems, but with a little bit of common sense mixed with a lot of experience and no little amount of dumb luck, the configuration was simplified. A pair of Sound Deluxe 251s (cardioid-style units) were positioned above the kit (FIG. 3). These were probably the finest pieces available at 606; they run about $10,000 each.

FIG. 3. A pair of Sound Deluxe 251s positioned above the kit

“You can see how the mike is kind of just pointing right in the center of the group,” says Raskulinecz. “Honestly, I just kind of stood up above his snare drum and looked at the groups of cymbals, and I just kind of put them where my eyes were. To be totally honest, there was no rhyme or reason about it. I just thought about taking a picture of the cymbals and kind of looked at where he was going to be hitting the most and kind of positioned the mike right in the center of that. We didn’t even move them.

“A lot of people don’t think about this: Overhead mikes aren’t just for cymbals. That’s the way I do it; that’s 50 percent of your snare sound. Because what gets hit more than the cymbals? The snare and the kick — there are even toms. That was part of the deal with the whole Bonham drum sound; there was just one overhead. But that one overhead was taking a picture of the snare and the toms and the cymbals. That was back in the day when you had to do your own volume rides. Bonham was the master at that. That’s why on the Zeppelin records you can hear the drums − because he’s not wailing on that cymbal. And Jason does the same thing, which is fascinating because I don’t record many guys that play that way. Most guys just get in there and bash the hell out of everything. But you’ve got to have finesse.

“I just kind of eyeballed it, but the one thing that was specific is we made sure with a piece of string that they [the 251s] were at the exact same distance from the snare. They’ve got to be the same distance because if one’s lower, then the sound is going to be getting into that one before the other one, which is going to make them out of phase. So they’re exactly the same distance from the snare drum.

“With those two overheads we did, they took a really nice picture; the stereo imaging was perfect. You could sit right between the speakers, and the cymbals that are at seven o’clock sound like they are at seven o’clock. And the ones at seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven, you can hear that in the imaging. So that’s kind of what we went for; I wanted it to be really wide but really clear.”

Additionally, the hi-hats were fitted with Royer ribbon mikes, a configuration where sound enters both ends of the unit. Again, function dictated form.

“The reason we picked the Royer is [that Bittner] does a lot of hi-hat work,” acknowledges Raskulinecz. “I didn’t want the hi-hats to be too bright, too brash. And the ribbon is famous for not being very bright.”

And Fig adds, “It’s really natural; it’s a smooth high.”

To ensure an even smoother high end, Fig built a little hood to slip over the microphone (FIG. 4). Building baffles and mike muffles is nothing new; engineers have been working for years in fashioning little gizmos in order to reject cymbal bleed.

FIG. 4. A Royer ribbon mike (fitted with a custom hood) placed above the hi-hat

“I’m sure you’ve seen people build bass drum tunnels to keep the cymbals out of the kick drum. My original idea was [to] build a little cardboard diffuser, but then Paul was like, ’It would be cool to have something that absorbs instead of reflects.’ So we searched the studio and found a piece of foam in a garbage can or something. I noticed it was really dense. So I kind of cut it out and shoved a couple Q-tips through it and gaff taped it all together. There’s one on each hi-hat. These hi-hats are on opposite sides. The reason we built that was to reject all the cymbals coming back in to the hi-hat mikes.”

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Toms

Besides hi-hats, snares, and even bass drums leaking into the overheads, mounted toms are constant problems. In order to make them sound huge, Raskulinecz and Fig double-miked them so they would absolutely cut through the cymbals. In the past, they have fallen back on one mike, but Bittner required a pair on top and bottom to make for maximum punch. AKG 451s with a 10dB pad and hyper-cardioid capsule were placed above (FIG. 5), and Sennheiser 604s were set below. These latter pieces are clip-on dynamic mikes, whereas the AKGs are condenser styled. Condensers provide for a wider frequency range allowing for stick attack, while dynamic mikes assist in removing cymbal bleed. Again, keeping cymbals out of the drum tracks was paramount.

FIG. 5. One AKG 451 placed above each rack tom

After much thought, Raskulinecz and Fig chose a pair of AKG 414s for the floor toms (FIG. 6). These hyper-cardioid mikes sport hefty condenser capsules, and two of them were fitted above the drums. Another set of Sennheiser 604s (dynamics) were seated underneath with the pads set to —10dB. In fact, all tom mikes were spiked with the —10dB pads.

FIG. 6. One AKG 414 placed above each floor tom

What did the —10dB pad add to the sound?

“Jason hits hard,” answers Raskulinecz. “Condenser mikes are very sensitive; if you hit it too hard, it’s going to distort the capsule.” The pad made sure we get to hear every tom-pounding lick, no matter how brutal Bittner plays.

Room Sound

Capturing the overall dynamic elements of Bittner’s kit were Cole 4038 ribbon mikes situated in the studio itself. These, like the Royers, are ribbon mikes and grease the entire kit with a darker, punchier sound that combats the naturally bright and harsh-sounding cymbal wash. Actually, the Coles might better be defined as kit mikes since they are in proximity to the set itself, albeit in a wide, far-ranging arc on the sides (to create a fuller imaging picture).

“Yeah, [the mikes are] close because these songs are pretty quick and brutal,” defines Fig. “ So you don’t want something with a big, long throw. These have a nice, dry sound.”

There is a small amount of room sound caught up in the Coles, but the overall texture is captured with an AKG 414 Omni placed approximately 15 to 20 feet away from the kit. And an RC44 ribbon microphone is situated low behind the kit. This is the most vintage unit at 606, dating back to the ’30s, and it provides warmth, big body, and is mainly utilized to pick up snares and floor toms (FIG. 7).

FIG. 7. One RC44 ribbon microphone situated behind the kit

The RC44 antique runs headfirst into modern technology when it’s plugged into a “super-duper” GT2Q mike preamp. For the most part, all the EQs were set wide open and natural − no compression. In the past, Raskulinecz has compressed kick and snares, but recently he’s eschewed the process in order to ramp up the potential dynamics during the mixing process. “You can do it later because if you commit to it then, it’s done.”

No turning back. And when you’re dealing with a player like Bittner, you don’t want to limit your options. “Jason is like a drum hero,” Raskulinecz says. “I’ve got a responsibility to his fans and the kids that love Jason Bittner to make him sound huge, larger than life, enormous.”

Post Script

Bittner, the drum hero, is still pacing. But you get the sense that underneath the restlessness is intense satisfaction. After all, he was able to complete his tracking responsibilities in a matter of days because his perfect drum sound was in place. And he, Raskulinecz, and Fig could then concentrate on the real matter at hand — trusting each other to get the perfect take.

“It [felt] like three people [who] have known each other for a long time,” Bittner says. “It doesn’t seem like we just met these guys and just started working with them. Nick shoots a lot of ideas out, [and] I’ll try them. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we go back to my own idea. It’s a very easy, relaxed atmosphere to work with.”

Bittner makes his way upstairs to the studio’s sound room, where Raskulinecz and Fig are in the midst of tweaking EQs and establishing monitor volumes for the first day of tracking with Shadows Fall bassist Paul Romanko. Only a couple channels need to be engaged for recording Romanko’s deep bottom end. On the other hand, when Bittner was beating the hell out of his shells, 25 of the board’s 28 faders were in motion.

Romanko limbers up, tunes up, and flashes a thumbs up when he’s finally ready to groove.

A rough mix of the song being worked on comes through the monitors. It is vintage Bittner, all furious double bass exploding in an unholy pattern and at an unbelievable tempo.

The burly console chief tosses Bittner an almost imperceptible nod, a visual exchange lasting but a moment. “I know, dude,” it says. “We killed these tracks.”