Using Headphones For More Intimate Mic Placement Decisions -
(Producer, engineer, mixer & musician David Bianco)
Whether he’s recording the latest hit Norwegian rock song
or working with the likes of Tom Petty, Danzig, and Primal Scream, you’ll
find David Bianco trying any number of innovative mic selection and placement
ideas to make each record the best it can be. If he isn’t planted deep
in an upright piano with a pair of ribbon mics in hand or listening closely
on headphones for the unequalized spot of a 4 x 4 Marshall cabinet, you can
be sure David is trying something new somewhere in the studio.
Bianco was an engineer on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, the 1996 Grammy winner
of the coveted Best Engineered Album (Non Classical), and he’s been busy
ever since then. He’s mixed records for heavy rock bands The Damned, Coal
Chamber, T.S.O.L., and Failure and worked with a wide range of mainstream pop
and rock artists, as well: Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger, Teenage Fan Club, LL
Cool J, John Hiatt, and The Posies, to name a few. Recently in 2006 Bianco—a
very talented musician and vocalist himself—has completed new projects
for Janet Robin, the Low Stars, The Wreckers, and Aussie band The Offcuts.
VM: Regarding your work with the Norwegian rockers Madrugada, can you comment
on any differences in mic selection or production style you might keep in mind
when making records for them or other bands who are most popular outside the
David: In late 2004 and early ‘05 I recorded an album for Madrugada here
in Los Angeles at Sound City [The Deep End, winner Best Rock Album, Artist of
the Year, and Hit Song of the Year Norwegian Grammies in 2006], then I mixed
a live record for the band called Live At Tralfamadore in Oslo [album went platinum
in Norway on first day of release.] As far as the production style being different
in Europe, the primary difference in the European production style is that it’s
a lot more open minded and fearless. I would also say that European bands seem
to have—and this is something I’ve experienced many times over the
years—a pretty broad worldview of music and art. Their influences seem
to come from all over, and in respect to America they find very specific artists,
sounds, and production techniques that excite them. For instance, Madrugada
is completely impressed by composer/arranger Angelo Battlemente, whose work
with David Lynch really resonated with them. Songs on the record were inspired
by him, as well as American country, Scandinavian folk, Spanish flamenco, and
British punk rock.
VM: Using one track from Madrugada’s albums as an example, describe
a unique microphone selection or placement you tried.
David: On one piano part I used an ambient pair of mics in an X-Y configuration
in tandem with a normal microphone set up inside the piano. It was an upright
piano with the top lid removed. I dropped a pair of ribbon mics inside and had
an additional set of condensers set back in a really large room. The effect
was a dreamy barroom style piano with a very natural, sweet sounding ambience
VM: Some engineers don't like to give away "secrets," but is there
one very unique microphone trick or technique you've used that you can share
with the readers? Something you've used over the years you've not seen many
others use, perhaps?
DAVID: Yes, listening to microphones in headphones to get the best character
of a variety of mics. It’s kind of an intimate way to get in touch with
the different attributes and limitations of each one. I recently was using this
technique of finding the unequalized spot on a 4 x 4 speaker cabinet with headphones.
You plug a guitar into an amplifier with the volume of the guitar off, then
crank the volume of the amp up to where you want it and stand back from the
speaker cabinet about 15 feet or so. Get a mental picture of the sound you’re
hearing—the basic hum and hiss from the combination of all four speakers.
Then, with a live dynamic instrument mic up in a pair of headphones, listen
to the individual speakers with the microphone pressed right up against the
speaker grill cloth of each of the four speakers. Move the mic around until
you find the spot that sounds most like the amp did when you stood back 15 feet
from the amp: That will be your spot to place the microphone. You will be surprised
to hear how different each speaker sounds, and this will most times get you
around the typical guitar player’s comment of, “Well, it sounds
really good out there.”
VM: Like most good producers, you’re also known for your talents as a
musician. Not that it’s an either/or, but how do you know when to let
an artist play their part, and when to offer your own playing instead?
David: If I play the part a lot better, usually the artist will say “Why
don’t you just do it.” These days in the studio time is money and
most logical thinking artists just want it to be done quickly and well. I usually
don’t breach the subject unless I’m confident I can do it better,
of course, and feel it will improve the record.
VM: Describe what you’re specifically listening for in the elements of
an instrument’s sound and timbre before recording it. In terms of character
and tone, what stands out most to your ear as you’re deciding what type
of microphone to use?
DAVID: I think everyone has in their mind an “ideal” sound: The
perfect snare sound; the greatest, deepest bass; the sweetest bright acoustic
guitar, etc. It’s like what a golfer sees during a putt where he looks
at the hole, lines it up, and then looks down at the ball—he sees the
hole and the perfect path in his “mind’s eye.” I think musical
instruments and mixes are like that. You have a template in your mind on what
it should sound like and how it should move you, and that’s what you strive
for. As you work with microphones on a regular basis you start to quickly understand
the colors you can get. You start to have a pretty good understanding on what
frequencies are going to be accented and which ones are going to be downplayed.
As you gain a bit more experimentation time, you start to figure out which mic
fits a particular situation. Sometime you need a mic that rejects well; other
times, one that can be opened up to record an entire room. You learn also over
time the limitations of microphones. The absolute obvious sometimes is ignored,
but you really have to work on your source: Drums that are in good condition
and tuned well will sound good; a microphone won’t help your situation
if the drums are in a sad state. This, of course, carries on to every instrument
along with technique. You can have the great Les Paul Gold Top with the vintage
Marshall JCM800 with the Plexi speakers, but if you have poor playing technique
going into those, it’s not going to sound good.
VM: Ditto for tracking vocals—how does the specific timbre and range
of what you’re hearing in the singer’s voice determine your choices
about which mic you’ll use and how you’ll use it?
DAVID: You want to enhance the positive attributes in a singer’s voice.
You don’t want to, for example, boost the mids on a voice that is very
heady or nasally. You would move to a warm sounding tube microphone when a voice
is reedy. Sometimes just from an SPL level perspective there is a place for
a dynamic when the power translates to harshness with a condenser. It’s
a combination of choice and placement. I years ago had the opportunity to record
Pavarotti at the San Francisco Opera house and had to set the mic on a boom
so that I could pull the mic back from him. He was extremely powerful. For a
natural warm unprocessed sound, a ribbon can be great; or, If a voice is lacking
peak, FET microphones can boost that 3 or 4 kHz to give it that “already
mixed” kind of sound.
VM: When have you tried a really weird, fun studio idea that seemed at first
it absolutely wouldn’t work, technically or creatively, but then it did?
DAVID: Even before the big home recording boom I used to get demos from bands
that were mind blowing in their sonic experimentaion. I’ve met a lot of,
I guess, what you would call “tweakers” in my time, including a
band I worked with about ten years ago who got this amazing tom sound. They
used to mic it with a dynamic instrument mic running through a guitar sustainer
pedal and then record it on a Yamaha 4-track recorder. They said they were never
able to duplicate their tom sound in a real studio, so we did it by bringing
in the actual machine they used and transferring it to the main multi-track
I also remember during the time when loops were like “the thing”
that I’d try every bizarre way of creating loops so that what was used
in the song was a one-of-a-kind loop not used by anybody else. We would find
a strange place to put a mic, near or away from the drummer, compress it to
bits, run it through an Echoplex, a Marshall and then blast it back into a room
and re-record it. Another one I remember was building a track with a drum machine
triggering a crazy syncopated pattern into the key of a gate that a guitar was
running through. It was then sent to a delay and the nucleus for the groove
of a song was set up. I’ve got a million of these, but that’s a
few examples of exploring the studio space.
VM: Is there a specific “wish list” feature or technical innovation
you’d like to see implemented in new mics?
DAVID: Remoting patterns on mics was a big one, but that wish has come true
already with a few manufacturers. I would also like to see a filament or some
shield that would act as a built-in wind filter for open diaphragm mics, as
well as a lo pass and hi pass that could work independently and be more frequency
specific. I would like to see more split or dual capsule mics that have independent
patterns. A tri-calpsule mic would be killer, a three capsule mic that you could
do MS applications and ambient recordings—three separate outputs, somewhat
based on the original Calrec design.