Crash. Sizzle. Splash. Crash. Crash. Sizzle. Ting-ting-ting. Crash. Splash. Ah, the distinctive ringing attack of hi-hats and cymbals. If you’re listening to a drum solo, the percussive cacophony of a frenzied wildman slamming sticks into brass spheres can be thrilling—if a bit loud and hearing-damage inducing. But fire off a non-stop high-frequency barrage into a verse or chorus, and you risk obliterating the vocals, the guitars, the keyboards, and any hope of a pleasant listening experience. It’ll be a slaughter, and the saddest victim of the tonal massacre will be your song. So whether you record drums yourself or use samples, if you want balanced, dimensional, and dynamic mixes, keep those cymbals at bay!
Arrange & Conquer
One of the main benefits of cymbals—beyond keeping time—is that they can instantly spike excitement levels. A fabulous crash into a chorus or bridge can really ramp up the intensity, help separate song sections, and assist in charting the emotional journey of a song. But big gestures should be used sparingly to ensure crashes, ride cymbals, and hi-hats don’t overwhelm other critical aspects of a song’s dynamic range and frequency spectrum. You also don’t want to cause listeners to wince when the hammer comes down.
The simple trick is to arrange the drums so that they blast and drive when they need to, and take a back seat when other elements of the song need to slip into the foreground. In a sensitive orchestration, each drum part will enhance the song narrative, rather than act like a petulant bully who plows over his playmates. Unfortunately, some drummers may take affront at being asked to, say, run closed hi-hits through a verse, instead of leaning on the ride and smacking the crash every other downbeat. Now if you can’t get the drummer to cool it on the cymbals, you’re kind of hosed, but there are a few tech tactics you can employ to clear the air of abusive high-frequency blitzkriegs.
• Mute the overheads. This is a relatively organic approach. You simply remove the overhead drum mics from the drum mix and depend upon the snare, hi-hat, tom, and kick mics to document the cymbal work. As those mics are not pointed directly at the cymbals (with the exception of the hi-hat mic), and tend to be dynamics rather than condensers (which can be more sensitive to high frequencies), the overall sizzle should diminish somewhat.
• De-ess. An old trick from the analog-tape era is to route the overhead and hi-hat tracks to a de-esser. As de-essers were developed to diminish vocal sibilance, they can sometimes calm the more searing frequencies and bright stick-to-cymbal attacks from your drum track.
• Compress. I don’t recommend this strategy wholeheartedly, but Who producers/managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp often compressed the crap out of Keith Moon’s drums until lows and highs were pulverized into a raging fireball of percussive energy. Now, Lambert and Stamp didn’t really know what they were doing—a small problem—but the massive compression did keep the cymbals from swallowing up Pete’s guitars, John’s midrange-heavy bass, and Roger’s vocals. If you’re brave enough to try this hostile takeover, dial in a 10:1 ratio at a threshold of –10dB.
• Tone it down. This is a last resort, as messing too much with EQ can compromise other aspects of the drum sound, such as the snare crack, tom impacts, and kick-drum smacks. Sometimes, you can even “threaten” a drummer with treble-reducing EQ tweaks. Just say something like, “Hey, your cymbal crashes and hi-hats are really throwing the high-frequencies over the top, so here’s how I’ll need to deal with the EQ to ensure the track is balanced.” Then, activate the EQ, and when the drummer hears how neutered his or her drum sound is, they’ll probably beg you to let them go back in the studio and cut a less-cymbal-intensive performance. Sometimes, an audio picture is worth a thousand nags!