How to properly check the phase when recording drums

Phase, phase, phase. Ahhh, what can I say about phase? We all love phase! Not.

In my earlier years of recording I used to post mixes to home recording message boards with the hope of receiving positive feedback. These early recordings were done at home with a small interface I’d purchased, which came bundled with an early version of Cubase. After finally getting the hang of using a DAW and after a few unfinished demos, I eventually had a track ready to post for mix critiquing. The first reply I got back was,  “drums sound phasey.”

I knew I forgot something… except, I didn’t know what the hell phase was. Did he mean the CAD drum microphone pack I got for Hanukkah didn’t yield major label results right out of the box?! I wouldn’t have put it on my holiday list if I had known that!

All kidding aside, I went to google and searched for “What is audio phase?.” After reading a few websites I still had barely any idea of what the hell it was and definitely had no idea on how to prevent it. Sure, I understood why it happened, but how was I going to fix something that I couldn’t even hear? I thought the mix sounded pretty good, I certainly didn’t think it sounded phasey like recorderkid442 on the home recording message board had said.

I’ll start by saying that asking for advice on a message board can be good and bad. Regardless, you must proceed with extreme caution. Posting my question did introduce the concept of phase to me, something that would have otherwise taken me longer to learn about. And the person was right, my recordings were out of phase. But you should still be careful. With every correct answer there are so many more wrong answers.

Since starting Audio Hertz I’ve had wonderful interactions with a lot of people but I’ve also had some interactions with people that are not very knowledgeable and have no problem arguing their incorrect point. Now this is okay, I understand it is just a by product of the internet and anonymity, however, it can do damage to your learning process if people are giving you bad information.

I’ve seen terrible cases of this in real life scenarios as well. I had a friend that went to our local Guitar Center to buy a small interface. The Guitar Center employee talked him into purchasing a Presonus preamp, EQ and compressor by saying it would dramatically improve his sound. The salesman told him if he wanted to have a professional quality recording he needed to have this unit. What the hell is a compressor going to do for my friend who just moments before didn’t even know what one was? Nevertheless my friend bought it and couldn’t shut up about how it was the best thing he’s ever heard. The truth is he really didn’t know what the hell he was listening for. And that, my friends, is how bad information gets spread around.

I’m going to skip any technical explanations or definitions and just give you the information that I feel you need to know. Phase cancellation happens when you combine more than one signal of the same source such as using multiple microphones on a drum set or using a two microphones on one acoustic guitar. As sound waves reach different microphones at different times, phases issues can occur, which will make certain frequencies vanish from your mix

First, we need to find out if your over heads are in phase with each other, then if everything else is in phase to the overheads, then if the individual elements are in phase with each other.

The easiest way to tell if something is in phase or out of phase is if when you flip the polarity it should sound worse (when a phase relationship is worse you’ll hear less low end and smearing of frequencies). That means that the microphones have a good phase relationship and when you flip the polarity it puts turns that good relationship into a bad one.

David Silverstein

David Silverstein began engineering at the age of 14 when he purchased a Fostex four track cassette recorder. After high school he enrolled at Five Towns College where he graduated with a Bachelors of Professional Studies in Business with a concentration in Audio Recording Technology. He has worked under renowned engineers and producers Jim Sabella (Marcy Playground, Nine Days, and Public Enemy) and Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Spacehog, The Ramones and The Lemonheads). David currently works out of Sabella Studios in Roslyn, NY.

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