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How To Edit Drums & Not Suck While Editing Drums

July 6, 2006
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As with everything in life, the key to recording and editing drum tracks comes from a visceral sense that I can’t easily explain. My overall intention is to take a basic track and tighten up the timing without affecting the dynamic texture. For example, the playing on a second verse might be more in the groove than the first; by analyzing the rhythmic patterns in that verse — when the drummer was really in the pocket — I can then apply that swing to the whole song, but with the same feel that the drummer achieved on the session. In fact, drummers who have heard my work are amazed at the clarity and precision I can bring to their tracks, but without taking away anything from their studio performance. My production catch phrase is “Nothing is Wrong.” And I just work to achieve a consistent drum feel for the whole song.

But remember that drum and microphone selection and placement can make or break your record. While editing can clean up and help you achieve a better sound, without a great performance you will not get a great finished track. I have found that the use of good trigger pickups — preferably ddrum — is a must. This way, even if the producer is not planning to use samples, the intricate transients and edit points can be located more easily, either by eye or using my favorite tool: Beat Detective for Digidesign’s Pro Tools TDM systems.

Usually, I track anywhere from four to 10 drum takes, recording trigger outputs from the kick, snare, and toms, as well as all the microphones. Comping is done with the artist — finding the right feel in a verse or fill makes them comfortable before the real editing starts. Once the various takes have been comped, normally I use Beat Detective. If the beat is more straightforward, I select the kick and snare triggers for analyzing. But if the toms are used as more of a backbone in the beat, I’ll select the kick, snare, and tom triggers.

I have found that selecting small sections — between eight to 16 bars at a time — works most efficiently. You also need to log the start and stop points of each selection to make sure that the audio at either end of the selection is not being pushed nor pulled. As can be seen by Figure 1, if the session was recorded to a click generated by Pro Tools, I start at the Region Separation Page and set the sensitivity anywhere between 26% and 43% on high emphasis and sub-beats, depending on the velocity of the triggers, making sure there are markers at my desired edit points. I then turn on my “Drum+Triggers” group and select those tracks. This will place the analyzed markers on all drum tracks, including the triggers.

Then I separate the tracks using the SEPARATE function provided by Beat Detective, at which point I switch to the REGION CONFORM screen. As can be seen from Figure 2, usually I conform the selection to 100% strength, which will place each piece of cut audio onto the Pro Tools grid. Because this will not necessarily give you a desired feel, I then move each piece to where my ears want it to be. I have noticed that, even if the performance is completely gridded, the drummer’s velocity will still keep a good amount of feel. Once each attack is where I want it, I then use the EDIT SMOOTHING function to fill the gaps and cross-fade — usually between 3 and 7 milliseconds, depending on tempo. Faster songs need shorter fill and cross fade times, while slower songs need longer fill and cross fade times.

Beat Detective is a great tool, but should not be used as a crutch. Editing is an art form, and a good editor can add to a good performance by focusing on original intent and groove, and applying a more consistent and clear interoperation of it. The idea is to have the drummer come in the next day and say: “Wow, I knew I nailed that track!”

Session Time: “Drown” from Opiate for the Masses’ The Spore.
This song has a tempo of 163 bpm. As can be seen from Figure 3, I have used kick and snare and toms for analysis, since the song is pretty fussy and contains sixteenth notes — so I might choose to miss ghost notes, for example. I always listen to the results of each stage in the process, and re-apply a change if I think it isn’t working on the feel — it’s only a computer after all, and cannot take the place of human interpretation. You need to check for double attacks on tracks, for example, which can produce false hits. If you get into trouble, it’s not a bad idea to use Beat Detective on regular tempos and let it make the cuts you will need between individual notes. That way I can go back into Pro Tools and apply the swing I want, since all the difficult (and time-consuming) segmentation was made for me.

And I always leave the hi-hat alone, because Beat Detective doesn’t do a great job of locking into hi-hat tracks, and any automatic adjustments it applies take away from the drummer’s feel. In my experience, our ears are much more forgiving about off-tempo hi-hat strikes than with bass, snare, and tom tracks.

Practice = Perfect.
You can’t be practicing on the job. In today’s professional recording environments, there are many pressures: limited time, limited budgets, artistic control, production and label approval, and so on. In order to enter the world of editing fully prepared, an aspiring drum editor should practice off the job, or at home. A great way to start is by using a limited amount of tracks, essentially a kick mic, snare mic, and stereo overheads. Select the kick and snare tracks for analysis and generation of markers, and then apply the markers to the overhead tracks before separating, conforming, and smoothing. Using a small amount of tracks will seem easier to the novice editor although, in actuality, this is not true. Analysis of key tracks to find edit points can be applied to as many tracks as you need.

Another essential method of practice and improving your skill is to listen to records that have been pivotal in the history of drum editing. Anyone who is serious about learning how to master the art of drum editing should become very familiar with such records as Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Alice In Chains’ Dirt, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, Tool’s Aenima, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik — remembering that four out of those five records were edited on analog tape with yard sticks and razor blades. Today’s digital editors have it a lot easier.

Before the guitars start on Alice In Chains’ “Sick Man” (from the Dirt album), there are 144 cuts made to the drums — I know because I discussed the project with the engineer who tracked the sessions at Eldorado Studios here in L.A. What used to take six months can now be done in two days, giving us a huge opportunity to save time and money. That being said, today’s drum editor should take advantage of these technological breakthroughs and not take them for granted. We should strive for better editing by looking closely at every cut and every cross fade. We should rely on our ears and not our eyes. Most of all, we should always keep in the front of our mind that it is our job to preserve the integrity of the drummer’s style and performance, not to sterilize or over-exaggerate it.

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