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Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Tribute To Ricky Lawson

Ricky Lawson image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
The great drummer Ricky Lawson has suffered a severe stroke that has him clinging to life, and as a tribute I thought I'd post part of an interview that I did with him for The Drum Recording Handbook (written with the excellent engineer Dennis Moody).

It just might be easier to say who Ricky Lawson hasn’t played with rather than list all of his credits. Having performed with the likes of Quincy Jones, the Brothers Johnson, Phil Collins, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Babyface, Lionel Ritchie, Anita Baker (The Rapture), Whitney Houston (I Will Always Love You), not to mention as musical director for Michael Jackson, Ricky was also the original drummer for The Yellowjackets, where he won best R&B Instrumental Grammy in 1986 (And You Know That). There’s obviously a reason why these musical superstars used Ricky on a first-call basis, and that’s not only because he's so massively talented and guaranteed to provide a giant grove, but he's so exceedingly humble and helpful to others as well.

"Can you describe your kit? Do you take a different kit on the road than you use in the studio?
I’ve been with the Pearl company for about 3 ½ years now and use a Pearl Studio Master kit with maple shells. I use a different kit on the road from the studio because the studio is such a detailed environment and everything has to be precise since it’s always under a microscope. On the road things don’t need to be so precise so I do take a different kit. With the economy being what it is these days, we can’t always afford to take equipment with us on the road so we get backline companies to supply us with equipment. I just order what I have at home and they supply it for me. 

What size are your drums?
I generally use five toms in the studio - 8x8”, 10x10”, 12x12”, 14x 14”, and a 16” over on my high-hat side.  The bass drum is usually 22x16”.  I’ll use a host of different snare drums depending upon what you’re going for. For a hip hop or R&B kind of vibe I’ll use a snare that’s 14x6” or 6 ½”.  Something that’s reasonably deep.

Sometimes for something that’s a little on the pop side, I may use a 14x4 ½” piccolo snare or maybe even a 13” snare which has become very popular because it has the weight to it but it still has the snap because of the smaller diameter. I’ve used snare drums as small as 10” in diameter and maybe 5 ½” deep for jazz projects and hip hop projects. Usually I enjoy the wood snares better because they have a tendency to sound a little warmer than the metal snare drums, but it’s all a combination of drum heads and microphones and processing and the engineer to make things sound good. You can have a $10,000 drum kit and he can make things sound like cracker boxes, and you can have cracker boxes and he can make it sound like a $10,000 kit. There are a lot of little factors that make a difference and what we try to do is cut down as many as possible or turn them to our advantage.

I have my own kit tuned the way I like it, with the heads that I like and with the kind of microphones and the kind of engineer that I know can capture it, because a lot of engineers cannot capture what a real acoustic drum set sounds like.  

What do you like to use for mics on your kit?
I always use Shure mics because they’re consistent and always work.  When I toured with Steely Dan those were the mics that we used. We used the KSM’s, the VP-88, and the Beta 52. If a guy pulls these mics out I know it’s usually going to be great. 95% of the time they use an SM-57 on the snare drum. I’ve seen some teeny, tiny mics where the guy got a killer sound and I’ve had a session where the guy used $30,000 worth of mics on the drums and it sounded like $500 worth.  I’m telling you that the sound is in the engineering and the studio environment. It’s not really what I like to see on the drums, it’s who I see engineering because you can get a cat that doesn’t know what he’s doing and it can be a nightmare. Back in the day, they might have only used three or four mics tops, but if a guy knew what he was doing, he got a killer drum sound. It’s the engineering factor that plays such a big part in the situation.

How many snare drums do you bring to a session?
Usually anywhere from five to six. At my studio I have about eight that’ll I’ll regularly choose from. You’d be surprised. Different drums bring out different spirit in the music. I used some snare drums that were as big as a coffee can and it sounded huge just by backing the mic away and capturing more of the sound with the overhead mics. If you play a fatter drum you have to get in a little bit closer so it can capture that meat, that body of the drum. I went through four snares on the last session that I did, not because they sounded bad but because the client wanted to blend my snare along with the electronic snare drum they had going on.  We changed them until we found the right one because my job is to give them what they’re looking for and in this case, that’s what they wanted.

Sometimes people think that a snare drum is going to sound a particular way because of the size of it, but it all depends on the tuning of the drum. I always tell them, “Hey, let me know what you need and I’ll get you there,” because that’s our job, to get them exactly what they need.

Do you tailor the kit that you bring to the session to the type of music?
Yes, sir.  If we’re doing pop stuff I’ll make sure that I have some big toms and if we’re doing jazz stuff the toms will be a little bit smaller so the sound isn’t as bombastic. A lot of times I choose a kit that’s pretty general that I can use it on just about anything. With the 8”, 10”, and 12” with 14” and 16” floor toms, I can do pretty much anything that’s going down. I can play Jazz, I can play funk, I can play Pop, I can play Gospel with that kit. Whatever is necessary.

At my studio I use four toms but I have the ability to add two more to that configuration, but I bring five toms to an outside session.

Any advice for someone just starting to record?
Yeah, come over to the Ricky Lawson studio and take a quick lesson (laughs). I enjoy teaching and I wish I had someone do this with me when I was a young kid, so if someone wants to come over to my place to watch a session, great. Come on over, because a lot of it is not only the playing but the fellowship and how you talk to people and get along with people and comprehend what someone is saying. 

As far as advice, the first thing is to play good time. Secondly, you have to make it feel good.  If you don’t, you’re going to get beat up from having to play it over and over again.  I usually try to get stuff done in one or two takes. Hopefully I can get it done in one (laughs), but if not, two or three is not bad.  But job one is to play good time.  

Do you have any tricks to making things feel good?
No, man, I just listen to the music and I try to play it as if I wrote it. When you think like that you have a tendency to play it a lot differently than if you just got it cold. A lot of time we haven’t heard the music or seen the artist before. That’s the biggest drag. It’s hard to get the music cold, figure it out, and then play it as if you’ve been playing it for years. Then you have to make it happen in the least amount of time on top of that. Usually a session is three and half hours and you’ve got to get it done in that time, and that’s if you’re by yourself (overdubbing drums).  

Sometimes the other drag can be if you have other musicians involved because you may have to pull them into it as well, which adds another factor to what’s going on. But if you have good guys, it’s almost like a good basketball team. Once the music is counted off they know exactly where they’re supposed to go and how to get there. They just come in and take everything to the next level, and that’s a hit when you can do that.

What’s the most magic gig you’ve ever done?
Michael Jackson’s gig was the ultimate just because of the quality of the musicians and the dimension of the show. That was one of my best. Also, working for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). Working with those guys you cannot help but kick booty. And of course The Yellowjackets, where writing your own music and then have it win a Grammy and be recognized at that level felt so good. The thing is, the Yellowjackets were just a band playing music that we liked. It wasn’t like “Let’s go out and change the world.” We were just having fun and it really worked out. Now I hear that music somewhere every day."

More about Ricky, as well as his enormous credit list, can be found on

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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Trouble With Cheap Mics

U87 clone image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
Chinese U87 Clone
In many ways we're in the golden age of audio gear. On the whole, inexpensive audio gear (under $500) sounds better than ever and is a much better value than even a decade ago and way better than 20 years ago. The same can be said for mics, as there is a large variety of cheap mics that provide much higher performance for the price than we could have imagined back in the 70s and 80s.

That said, there are some pitfalls to be aware of before you buy. Here's an excerpt from The Recording Engineer's Handbook 3rd edition that covers the potential downside of inexpensive mics.

"One of the more interesting recent developments in microphones is the availability of some extremely inexpensive condenser and ribbon microphones in the sub-$500 category (in some cases even less than $100). While you’ll never confuse these with a vintage U 47 or C 12, they do sometimes provide an astonishing level of performance at a price point that we could only dream about a few short years ago. That said, there are some things to be aware of before you make that purchase.

Quality Control’s The Thing
Mics in this category have the same thing in common; they’re either entirely made or all their parts are made in China, and to some degree, mostly in the same factory. Some are made to the specifications of the importer (and therefore cost more) and some are just plain off-the-shelf. Regardless of how they’re made and to what spec, the biggest issue from that point is how much quality control (or QC, also sometimes known as quality assurance) is involved before the product finds its way into your studio.

Some mics are completely manufactured at the factory and receive a quick QC just to make sure they’re working and these are the least expensive mics available. Others receive another level of QC to get them within a rather wide quality tolerance level, so they cost a little more. Others are QC’d locally by the distributor with only the best ones offered for sale, and these cost still more. Finally, some mics have only their parts manufactured in China, with final assembly and QC done locally, and of course, these have the highest price in the category.

You Can Never Be Sure Of The Sound
One of the byproducts of the rather loose tolerances due to the different levels of QC is the fact that the sound can vary greatly between mics of the same model and manufacturer. The more QC (and high the resulting price), the less difference you’ll find, but you still might have to go through a number of them to find one with some magic. This doesn’t happen with the more traditional name brands that cost a lot more, but what you’re buying (besides better components in most cases) is a high assurance that your mic is going to sound as good as any other of the same model from that manufacturer. In other words, the differences between mics are generally a lot smaller as the price rises.

The Weakness
There are two points that contribute to a mic sounding good or bad, and that’s the capsule and the electronics (this can be said of all mics, really). The tighter the tolerances and better QC on the capsule, the better the mic will sound and the closer each mic will sound to another of the same model.

The electronics is another point entirely in that a bad design can cause distortion at high SPL levels and limit the frequency response, or simply change the sound enough to make it less than desirable. The component tolerances these days are a lot closer than in the past, so that doesn’t enter into the equation as much when it comes to having a bearing on the sound. In some cases, you can have what could be a inexpensive great mic that’s limited by poorly designed electronics. You can find articles all over the Web on how to modify many of these mics, some that make more of a difference to the final sound than others. If you choose to try doing a mod on a mic yourself, be sure that your soldering chops are really good since there’s generally so little space that a small mistake can render your mic useless."

You can read additional excerpts from The Recording Engineer's Handbook or my other books on the excerpts section of

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Lesson In Drum Ambience

Here's a great video that provides a unique look at drum ambience. It's of a drummer playing the same beat but in different ambient locations, then smoothly edited together into a seamless piece.

It's a great lesson on what real ambience actually sounds like. Remember this the next time you're dabbling with reverb presets. You can read about reverb basics here.


You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Gifts For The Musician And Engineer

We're just a few days away from Christmas 2013, and many of you may still be looking to buy some audio or music-related gifts. Here are some books and programs from my catalog that would make great gifts for that musician, engineer, songwriter, producer or music exec in your life.

Social Media Promotion For Musicians cover image

Social Media Promotion For Musicians - If you don't have the online presence that you think you should, or you're not increasing your fan or client base through your online efforts, then this book's for you. Covers Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, bookmarking sites like Digg and Delicious, as well as your website, blog and mailing list. (Kindle version is also available). See the table of contents and read some excerpts.

Deconstructed Hits - If you're enjoyed my song analysis on this blog, you'll love the Deconstructed Hits series. Designed to look deep inside the hits from different genres, you'll get some real insight as to why songs are hits and how they're both the same yet different. Each book looks at song facts, song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production. There are three volumes: Classic Rock Vol. 1, Modern Rock and Country, and Modern Pop and Hip Hop. You can read more about them, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

Mixing Engineer's Handbook 3rd Edition - Are your mixes not sounding the way you think they should? The latest version of the Mixing Engineer's Handbook (written especially for the home or small studio) can come to the rescue. New interviews and a new "advanced" chapter that looks at automation, sound replacement, pitch correction techniques and more make it a must-have for any musician or engineer. Also available in a Kindle edition. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here. online training tutorialsVideo Courses At - Have you ever wanted to learn a new piece of software, but hated the "how-to" videos you found on YouTube with their bad audio and lighting and people that barely know what they're doing? Try, with more than 1500 courses with super high production values by experts and in small digestible bites. Check out my courses on mixing, recording, mastering, studio building, and social media, and get 7 days free of unlimited access to

Recording Engineer's Handbook 3rd Edition - Not sure how to mic a tabla, marimba or fiddle? Here's the book that will show you not only one, but multiple ways how, as well as the techniques you can use for getting a great recording every time. Invaluable to the recording musician. Also available in a Kindle version. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

The Studio Builder's Handbook (with Dennis Moody) -  Every musician has a home studio these days but the product coming out of it can be disappointing, not so much because of the gear, but because of the acoustics in the listening position. The Studio Builder's Handbook shows how to improve any listening area for as little as $100, as well as showing you everything you need to know to keep your neighbors from hearing what you're doing, and you from hearing them. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

The Music Producer's Handbook - This is the book you need if you want to be a producer, but aren't sure how to get there. Covers everything from getting a production gig, to handling a budget, to getting paid, to working with musicians, to making sure that the recording is great. Also available in a Kindle version. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

How To Make Your Band Sound Great - If your band isn't quite where you want it to be musically, if you don't sound as tight as the records you love, or if you're stage presence isn't knocking your audience dead, then you should read this book. Also comes with a DVD that shows a band in rehearsal as they get a song tight and together with tried and true techniques that always work. Also available in a Kindle version. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (with Rich Tozzoli) -  For most all guitar players, the quest for the perfect tone is like looking for the perfect wave. The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook shows you why electric guitars, acoustic guitars and amplifiers sound the way they do, why the tone varies, and how to zero in on the perfect tone for your playing. There's also a host of great interviews with some real kings of tone that you won't want to miss. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

The Touring Musician's Handbook - If you want to know what it takes to get a gig as a touring musician, this books for you. Covers the essentials like gear, chops and attitude required to get the gig, how to pass the audition, how to prepare for the road, what to bring with you, and how to stay healthy. You can read more about it, look at the table of contents and read some excerpts here.

There are other books on being a studio musician, music business, creating videos, recording, mixing and mastering in my library that you might like as well. Check them all out at

You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

New Music Gear Monday: Ear Trumpet Labs Microphones

While so many boutique microphone manufacturers go for the retro look, most try to copy the vintage Neumann look of the 60s and 70s. Ear Trumpet Labs has gone for the ultimate retro look however, with it's line of condenser mics looking like the mics seen on black and white movies of the 20s and 30s.

Like so much vintage technology that we take for granted, there was usually a good reason for the design. In the case of a mic like the new Myrtle, the look is a direct result of the spring suspension system that isolates the capsule from the mounting, eliminating the need for an expensive isolation mount that needs to be purchased.

All of the Ear Trumpet mics share a distinctive retro look, but they're also meticulously hand-built in Portland (for those of you who prefer to buy USA). What's more, company founder Phillip Graham uses recycled metal parts to make his mics, which makes them totally unique compared to anything else on the market. You can hear him explain how he does it in the video below.

The Ear Trumpet Labs mics are prices very reasonably and can be purchased directly from the company.


You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.


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