Ask Abbey Road: Chris Bolster shares tips on recording orchestras and kick drums

In our new Q&A series, we put your mixing and production questions to Abbey Road’s in-house engineering talent. First up – in-house audio engineer Chris Bolster. Here, he shares his best recording tips and tricks.

We’re proud to partner with Abbey Road Studios to present Ask Abbey Road, a brand-new series where you get to put your pressing production questions to the experts at what is almost without question the world’s most famous studio.

In our first instalment, we call on the knowledge and expertise of Chris Bolster, an in-house engineer at Abbey Road with over 21 years of experience at the legendary recording complex. He has worked with pop, rock and electronic royalty including Foo Fighters, Kate Bush, Oasis, Matthew Herbert, Maroon 5, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Ray LaMontagne and Take That.

His impressive CV also includes work on orchestral film soundtracks such as 12 Years A Slave, Harry Potter and Beyond The Sea… which is where we begin our questions.

Irving Aguirre asks: For orchestral recording, do you use the Neve console’s onboard preamps? How much of your setup is standard and how much is experimental?

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Chris Bolster: Yes, I’m mostly using the Neve 88RS pres depending on the programme material being recorded. Sometimes, I may use some of the other preamps we have here: Neve 1081, Neve Montserrat, SSL, EMI TG, Telefunken, Avalon and GML. These are useful if you are looking to add a different colour to specific microphones.

Orchestral sessions run very fast, it’s not like you can work on ‘getting a sound up’. The red light goes on, and that’s it – you’re off! So, not much time for experimenting. That means a fair amount of ‘basic safe presets’ are at play in regards to microphones and additional processing.

Ask Abbey Road, Chris Bolster, recording
The control room of Abbey Road Studio One is home to a 72-channel AMS Neve 88RS console

Mostly, it’s good to keep it tidy and simple in case any studio gremlins arise. That way, they can be worked around quickly without impact upon the recording chain itself. There can be a lot of people left waiting otherwise.

But also, I always like to try out a few mic’ing ideas in addition to the primary selection and have some nice, additional processing on the side added in to help beef things up a little. But I make sure it can all be removed without too much fuss.

MusicTech: What are your ‘basic safe presets’ with orchestral recording? Do you have any specific EQ curves, compression or other processing that you use as a matter of course for particular instruments?

CB: There’s a few, as no two sessions are the same, so no two are likely to be treated the same. You would be choosing different mics, placements and processing the audio sympathetically for the desired tones.

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Mostly, it’s going to be a combination of additional top- and low-end equalisation and possibly some stereo buss processing. But, again, primarily for monitoring and not printing into any live mix stems. It’s nice to have super clean, but representative mix stems. So, a basic preset is just using the same tools that you know are effective in the same environment and situation. Then, you are free to try different things on the side.

Abbey Road Studio One is the world’s largest purpose-built recording studio, comfortably seating a 100-piece orchestra, and was the recording venue for iconic scores to blockbusters such as Avengers: End Game and Harry Potter

MT: What additional processing have you found to be successful?

CB: This is incredibly programme-dependent. Mostly spatial enhancements and lengthening. Sometimes, some parallel compression or saturation. Or something old and funky, just to add some classic warmth or fuzz.

Chris Ishoy asks: Do you record directly into Pro Tools? If so, what is your most commonly used sample rate/bit depth, and why?

CB: Yes, Pro Tools is now the most common format here, but analogue tape is also used every now and then. The most commonly used rate is 48kHz, 24-bit. Sadly, we still live in a world where music/audio is unlikely to be heard above this rate in most situations. For most people, MP3 or ACC is the most commonly listened to format/quality.

Personally, I prefer 96kHz, 24-bit. It’s high quality, you’re not fighting the conversion for a great sound, and you’re helping maintain that visceral effect – like standing in the room with the artist – a bit more. We are still some time off having universal access to audio of this standard for consumers, but I do look forward to the day when audio playback is of a higher quality and standard for the general public.

pro tools group mixing
48kHz, 24-bit recording is the norm at Abbey Road, though Bolster prefers tracking at 96kHz.

Tom Barnes asks: Could you give us some kick drum tips?

CB: The best tip is simply to get a great-sounding bass drum. Shells, sizes, tuning, skins and any damping are the keys to a great drum sound. And don’t forget a good or sympathetic-sounding space to record it within.

Hopefully, you have an idea of a basic sound or vibe that you’re looking for. Also, you have possibly heard recordings made within the space that sound good; perhaps you’ve listened to an instrument played in the space, giving you an idea of tonality, reflections and decay time. This is based on size, shape, building materials, and so on.

A microphone and processing are only there to capture and excite the sound and not the key to achieving a desired tonal outcome. But, placed correctly, ie, put where tonally the microphone and its personal character sounds best, you will be off to a great start.

I have tried loads of ideas over the years; AKG C547 BL, Neumann U 47 FET, Beyerdynamic M 88, Neumann U 67, Neumann TLM 170, DPA 4006, AKG D30, STC/Coles 4038, Audix D6, Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser MD 421 and loads of variations of the NS-10 speaker idea [This is a classic studio trick where a Yamaha NS-10 driver is wired as a microphone and placed in front of the kick. The signal is usually blended with another mic to enhance the low-frequency thump of the drum – Ed]. Mic choice is always dependent upon the sound of the instrument and any additional production notes.

I suggest always using a good amount of processing to sharpen or soften transients with compressors. Boost missing frequencies and cut exacerbated frequencies. Also, just try a few crazy ideas every now and then. For me, this sometimes involves using ribbon mics – just having them close enough to overexcite the ribbon, but not blowing them up. Or over-use of hard compression to achieve low-level saturation or distortion.

But mostly, I’m excited about achieving monster sounds through the selection of drums, skins, dampening and tunings. Mostly, I go through a Neve or SSL preamp or channel with a Neve or SSL/Smart compressor, 1176, 660, or dbx-160. For EQ, I use Neve or SSL again, or an API or Pultec.

My choice of compressor is mostly based on what’s available and/or best for achieving the type of compression desired. Mostly, I would use something with adjustable attack, release and ratio. The thing to remember is that you constantly need to be improving the overall sound, not adding something that degrades the transients or tonality. Just listen, try lots of different things and then recall these ideas in different scenarios.

Ask Abbey Road, Chris Bolster, recording
Bolster favours Abbey Road Studio Two for big drum sounds with stacks of room ambience

MT: What’s your favourite space to record drums in Abbey Road, and why?

CB: All the studios have different acoustics and characteristics and I enjoy them each for their respective anomalies. So I generally choose the studio for the character best suited for the project. As in, big drums with stacks of room ambience – so nice low end, Studio Two. Something a little smaller sounding, with strong early reflections – so a bit brighter, definitely Studio Three. Something small and tight with no reflections, any studio with some acoustic dampening or any of the smaller studio spaces or isolation booths available here.

Ben King asks: Is hiring studio time necessary if you have the right home-studio setup?

CB: Whether you need to hire studio time depends on what you’re looking to record and how. I don’t think most home studios could handle a large-scale recording situation. Nor do they necessarily have the time, investment and knowledge offered by larger professional recording studios. Think about how many players you have, the number of microphone inputs/monitoring capacity and whether your home studio is acoustically sympathetic for the desired sound and ensemble.

Next up on Ask Abbey Road, we have the studio’s Senior Recording Engineer Andrew Dudman to field your questions.

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