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Drum Heads: 7 Common Pitfalls of Recording Drums

January 15, 2008
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Underbelly Ugliness

Some engineers mic the top and bottom of the snare, but the best mixes use the bottom signal solely as a reserve source for additional attack. Keep in mind that nobody actually hears the drums from the perspective of the bottom snare mic, so it should not be prominent in the mix. Turn that bottom mic up, and two problems arise: The warm and wooden tone gets buried, and every snare hit starts to sound like paper (which serves to give ghost notes a new and undesirable characteristic). Add that bottom mic with caution, and remember that one well-placed mic is more valuable than three poorly-placed mics.

Gagged Snares

While there is a time and place for both harsh, ringing snares (as on any Soul Coughing album) and dead, cardboard-box snares (as on Neil Young’s Harvest), many engineers are terrified by ring. Now, while it may be a safer route to record a muted snare, the annoying ring that drives engineers up the wall is actually a vital element of the snare tone. Try and work with the ring rather than killing the tone with duct tape.

Stylistic Ignorance

A typical jazz kit and a typical rock kit are drastically different in how they produce tone, dynamics, and attack. Engineers who only listen to rock should do some homework if they have a jazz session coming up, and vice versa. Jazz drumming doesn’t sound too good when it’s played on a rock kit, and it won’t sound good if it’s recorded and mixed like a rock kit, either. Sadly, many home and studio engineers default to the same methodology no matter what kit—or what type of player—they are recording. Before you dive in and destroy the nuances of a jazz kit, or neuter the attack of a rock kit, listen to the sound of the drums in the room. You should also reference good recordings in the appropriate style. Then, set up the mics to best capture the tone in front of you, rather than the tone your assumptions and biases are playing in your head.

Remixing

Drummers are very aware that timbre wiil change depending on the force they use to strike a drum, and, as a result, they become their own four-limbed mixing machines. While it’s common practice to boost the kick and snare, and keep the other drums in the background, it’s also important to capture accurate volume levels of the individual drums as the drummer plays them. The drummer plays something hard or soft for a reason, and when a part of the kit is turned up or down, the blend can start to sound lopsided. Just imagine what would have happened if someone cranked Stewart Copeland’s kick and snare, and buried his genius hi-hat work on those classic Police hits.

Over-Compression

Many engineers binge on compressors. While compression can certainly fatten up the tone, over-compressing can cause the loss—or over-amplification—of ghost notes, which alters the drum performance. This is bad. And if you haven’t matched the release setting of the compressor to the song tempo, you’ll likely have sustained tones and decays stepping all over the groove. A little compression goes a long way if you want a natural and organic drum performance that captures the player’s dynamics and tone.

Triggering Samples

Replacing natural drum sounds with samples can be much like a breast implant that’s a few sizes too big. It might sound good at first, but, ultimately, it can easily become cheap and tacky.

Controlling the Control Room

Making a record takes cooperation, but some engineers think the control room is their place to be in total control of the tonal landscape. It should really be called the “listening room,” and everyone should be able to share ideas and be heard. Above all, everyone should be listening critically to the tracks, and seeking ways to make all the instruments and voices sound wonderful in the context of the musical work. A good engineer with sonic defaults and a god complex can absolutely craft a good, conventional drum sound. However, a great engineer who really listens—and who seeks to manifest the sounds the musicians hear in their heads—can improvise around stylistic and tonal idiosyncracies to deliver magic.

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