In the early 1990’s I was freelance producing rock records. There were still big studios and big consoles. Digital recording was taking off but there was still plenty of nice fat analog tape. New, great sounding equipment was being released all the time, and you could still find vintage stuff gear with a bit of poking around. It was a great time to be an engineer.
And the big thing was drum sounds. Everyone was mic’ing the room and gating everything, and triggering samples and doing drum replacement… it was really cool. The Red Hot Chile Peppers released “Blood Sugar Sex Magic” and GASP! They were feeding drum samples into the room and then recording the room sound! Mind blown! And then Steve Albini was making records and Nirvana’s “In Utero” sounded like a wonderful live mess. Drum sounds were the holy grail in the early '90s.
I was doing a lot of work out of a studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, called Water Music. It had two rooms: The A room was nicknamed “Heaven.” It was HUGE, with a Neve 8088 console in it. The other room was affectionately called “Hell.” It was much smaller, and at that time had a ramshackled bunch of mismatched equipment, not even a proper console. Heck, Hell didn’t even have a control room — everything was stuffed into one space. You’d set the band up, take a guess with the mics and settings, record a bit and then play it back to see what you got. It took a bit but you could get great sounds. I loved working in Hell. And Hell was a lot cheaper than Heaven. Typically, smaller budget/Indie projects worked in Hell, and the big money sessions worked in Heaven.
One day I came in with a band — I think it was a punk album I was working on — and everyone at Water Music was excited because in Heaven, cutting an album with some band, was Eddie Kramer.
If you don’t know who Eddie Kramer is… he recorded Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin — enough said, right? In the late '60s, using maybe four microphones, a pair of compressors and whatever EQ was on the console at that time — we are not talking about sweepable parametric EQ’s or anything like that — think high and low shelving and that’s it — Eddie Kramer managed to invent rock drum sounds. And rock guitar sounds.
SO… the God of Rock Drum Sounds was in Heaven cutting an album… and he locked the doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. The word got around that he didn’t want anyone to see his drum mic set-up. It was super secret. Even the main studio assistant, Jim, wasn’t allowed into the main live room where the drums were.
I would see Eddie in the morning walking in a courtyard between the studios — he wasn’t talkative but he would always flash a friendly smile. He made the assistants sweep the courtyard constantly. The whole thing was a big, weird mystery.
What the hell was he up to in there????
It really didn’t take much to stay late one night and wait until the lights were out in the residence part of the studio complex. Water Music was residential, with rooms and suites and a kitchen for artists working in the studios. I once recorded an all girl band in Hell and we all slept together in one huge bed stuffed in a single room. It was platonic.
SO… Jim and I waited until Eddie’s lights were out, and we got the master keys for the studio and burgled our way into Heaven to see the top secret Eddie Kramer drum set-up…
It seemed pretty typical. 421’s on the toms, top and bottom, a SM-57 on the snare top, I think a Neumann KM-84 on the bottom. A Neumann U-47 FET — often called a FET47, stuffed into the kick, and then there was an AKG D-12 outside of it. The overheads were U-87’s or U-67’s. He had KM-84s out in the room maybe twenty-five feet away from the kit, but he had them tucked behind gobos — big absorptive panels. This was a cool trick — the gobos kept the mics from from getting any direct sound from the drums. This was an idea I took.
But so far, the big secret set-up was nothing special. But there was one really weird thing…
Five feet out from the drum set, about chest high, centered on the kick and pointing towards the snare, was a Shure VP-88 stereo microphone. I remember it being a VP-88, but I could be mistaken. It was definitely a stereo condenser mic.
Throwing a stereo mic in front of a drum kit was nothing new. I had inherited a little money and blew most of it on a vintage AKG C-24 and used it all the time as a stereo drum mic. But what Eddie Kramer was doing with the VP-88 was something different.
A VP-88 is an MS stereo microphone rather than an XY. MS (Mid Side) stereo mic’ing is really awesome and someday I’ll write a whole thing about it, but basically, the VP-88 uses two capsules, one set to cardioid that picks up the center (the middle), and the other set to figure 8 and picking up the left and right (the sides). The two signals are combined in a particular way, lots of phase cancellation ensues, and the net result is really nice stereo with a strong, clear center. It’s a very useful technique and I think better sounding than XY.
So, Eddie Kramer had an MS stereo mic in front of the drum set.
That still isn’t weird.
What was really weird, was that he had the left and right side of the stereo mic oriented vertically — down towards the floor and up towards the ceiling — rather than to the right and left of the drum set. Picture rotating a stereo mic 90 degrees, so that the left side picks up the ceiling and the right side picks up the floor.
It made no sense. Jim and I had no idea what the hell was up with the VP-88 pointed at the floor and the ceiling. How would you pan that signal in the mix?? I experimented with it on a few subsequent sessions, turning my C-24 up and down rather than left and right, and it always sounded like ass. There were all sorts of weird cancellations caused by things bouncing off the floor and the ceiling. In a small room it was dreadful. Really, it seemed to me to be an awful idea.
In hindsight, maybe it was a red herring. Maybe the VP-88 was plugged in but not even routed anywhere. Maybe Eddie Kramer came up with that doofy mic set-up just to fuck with anyone that snuck in to steal his secrets. And that there was really no secret other than use good mics, use a good drum set, and most of all, record a great drummer. Like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham.
Or maybe the secret was to have access to a huge room with great acoustics, and a giant console fourteen feet long, and a two-inch 24 track Studer tape deck.
Maybe the secret… is to claim there is a secret! After all, it worked for Eddie Kramer.