Drum Heads: Dave “Dizzle” Aron On Recording Hip-Hop Drums

Dave “Dizzle” Aron is one of the biggest names in hip-hop recording. He has worked on big albums by top artists such as Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, P. Diddy, and Tha Dogg Pound. He’s also no stranger to other kinds of music, having recorded with U2, Prince, Sublime, and Dubb Union. If there’s a guy to ask about how to get phat, organic beats to go along with your drum loops, it’s him.

What’s the main challenge to recording live drums for a typical hip-hop track?

It’s that you’re often dealing with a sequenced version of a song. So, if you’re adding drums, you’re adding them to something sequenced, or you’re going to loop the drums, or you’re going to match those drums to a loop or a sequenced drum pattern. Initially, it’s about choosing the drum sounds to match the song.

Are there other considerations?

It’s also important to make sure the drummer is locking to the loops. When I was working on the Gridlock soundtrack, Steve Ferrone came in, and he’s a fantastic pocket drummer. There was no doubt he would match the loop exactly, and there would be no flams. I don’t like moving the drums in the computer to match the loop. Having a drummer being naturally locked in is what gives a live feel to the recordings.

When you’re putting live drums on a sequenced track, do you prefer certain types or sizes of kits to deliver the sound you want?

It doesn’t really matter if the kit is small or large, because the focus is typically on the kick and snare. I might go for a clean, dry recording of those elements alone, and then overdub toms and cymbals later. There’s no rule that says you have to do it that way, but I’ve taken that approach many times. Now, if I’m going for a more old-school feel for the live drums, I might go with more room mics, and record the kit as a whole. As I said earlier, the most important aspect is ensuring the drum sounds match the feel of the song.

How do you prep the kit for recording?

You have to start off with a goodsounding acoustic kit. If the kit is rinky-dink, it’s going to be much harder to get a good sound—even if you have excellent engineering skills. I’ll stand next to the kit, and listen to what it sounds like in the room. Then, I’ll add tape, padding, a ring on the snare, or even a little tissue paper to dampen the ring and resonance if necessary. Even before the mics are set up, 90 percent of the job is already done. Of course, if you have a bad-sounding kit, you can always use something like Drumagog Drum Replacer to change out the drums for some samples. I don’t like to go that route, though, because it means I wasn’t able to get good sounds to begin with. If I use samples, it’s to supplement the acoustic sound—not replace it.

What size room do you find works best for tracking hip-hop drums?

A medium-sized room—nothing too large. I’d rather lean toward something more dead for hip-hop drums, because the lack of ambience works better with driersounding drums.

What’s your usual approach to miking?

For close-miked sounds, I might position an Electro-Voice RE20 or a Shure SM57 pointing directly at the top of the snare, moved in as close as possible to the center of the drum, and sitting about two fingers from the head. I’ll also put a Shure SM81 on the bottom head of the snare. I like to put a mic away from the kick drum to get the standing waves as they develop, and mix in that sound with a close-miked kick drum. I might even delay the closemiked kick, because it’s good to play with the phase relations when you’re trying to get a big drum sound. As far as mics go, I like the AKG D112 for clicky and direct kick sounds, and the RE20 for warmer, beefier sounds, and I never fight with the drummer if he wants the front head on or off. For room mics, I might throw up some Neumann U87s or AKG 451s. Those are sensitive mics, but they capture a good low end. I like them on toms, too. I generally use a stereo pair of AKG C414s as overheads. For the hi-hat, I like to use a Shure SM81, a Shure SM51, or an AKG C451.

You mentioned playing with phase relationships—which is something that recording engineers seem to talk about a lot. How do you determine when your mics are in proper phase?

You have to listen, but it’s more about whether the sound you hear is the sound you want. For example, if you’re bringing up a second kick-drum mic, and it has a fully developed bottom end, that’s all that matters if that’s what you’re going for. It might be out of phase, but it sounds good. Now, if you hit the Phase button on your console or mic preamp, and the low end goes away, then the signal might be in phase, but the sound isn’t what you want.

How do you like to mix drums?

I like mixing on the same board I track with, and then busing straight to tape. Ha! When I say “tape,” it’s straight to Pro Tools [laughs]. My preference is an SSL 4000, but if I don’t have access to the SSL, and I have to use plug-ins, I’ll run the drums through an 1176 emulation. I might run the kick drum through a dbx 160x or a Pultec EQ, and the snare tracks would go through a 160x, as well, or maybe an API EQ to add some snap.

What’s your position regarding EQing drum tracks?

A long time ago, a guy told me if you take 500Hz out of the kick drum, it seems to tighten it up a lot. But, with hip-hop, I might not want that attack. With hip-hop, it’s often better to go for all the low end you can get. For the snare, there are no basic EQ moves. I’ll just use a high-pass filter on the snare and toms so they won’t rumble through the whole song. I rarely like to gate drums, as the gates always seem to cut off the sound at the wrong times.