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MORE COWBELL - EMusician

MORE COWBELL

When many people think of drum recording, they automatically envision certain standards like the following: a dedicated kick-drum mic mounted inside of
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When many people think of drum recording, they automatically envision certain standards like the following: a dedicated kick-drum mic mounted inside of the bass drum; a few drum-kit-specific mics close-mounted near the heads or on the shells of the snare, toms and hi-hats; a pair of overhead mics; and perhaps an ambient room mic. But none of this is etched in stone. In this era of DSP indulgence, experimentation may boil down to slapping a plug-in on whatever suits your fancy. Although the vast abundance of available quality plug-ins is indeed an invaluable gift, there is plenty of room for other approaches, like blowing the dust off those crusty old stompboxes and Radio Shack microphones, substituting cheap household items for drums or simply trying out different miking angles and distances.

RHYTHM RUBBISH

The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” certainly can be true — unless the garbage going in is deliberate. There's one fact about recording any analog source that is just simple truth: The microphone plays the most crucial role in the resulting sound because it is the first link in the recording chain and therefore responsible for capturing the original signal. Unfortunately, most musicians and producers cannot afford a closet full of Neumann mics, but for creative recordings, experimenting with unconventional or just plain cheap mics can be rewarding — and it's also a trick that the pros uses from time to time, as well.

For example, to capture an interesting frequency-focused snare (especially with the snare flipped off), a higher-pitched tom or a similar percussion element such as a pandeiro, try miking them with a Shure 520DX Green Bullet. This mic is a reasonably priced gem exclusively designed for harmonica, and it sports a rare limited frequency response of 100 Hz to 5 kHz. Try borrowing or renting one if you don't own one; it's a fairly common mic. For a more raw, radical approach, go to your local pawn shop; pick up the cheapest mic in the showcase; and try it out on any percussion instrument, drum or cymbal in your kit. If nothing satisfies, set it up to record some typical kitchen utensils, such as glasses of various sizes struck with forks or chopsticks, the bottoms of saucepans smacked by large wooden salad spoons or various seeds from your spice rack played as shakers. Recording common kitchen items through a cheap mic can often add satisfying colors to your mix, and at the very least, you can chop up the sounds and use them as one-shot samples.

MOVING TARGET

Breaking the mold in mic positioning can also have its rewards. Do you like using a pair of overheads? Try setting them up as underheads. The tone from drums emanates heavily from the bottom, so why not try placing the mics there? With the underhead mics spaciously placed and used in conjunction with closely mounted mics on the heads, you can capture some unbelievably full drums; this can be especially true with floor toms, snares and cymbals. In the case of cymbals, placing a mic close to the underside of the bell can achieve some far-out effects rich in harmonics. As any seasoned engineer can tell you, good musicians know the merits of moving closer to and farther from the mic during a live performance. Although drummers and drum mics are typically static, in the studio, they don't have to be. How about taking those overheads in your own hands and moving around the drummer during a solo? You could circle around the kit to create a Leslie-speaker-type effect, or you could stand in one place and move your arms in concentric circles — or any concoction that you think will render interesting results. The name of the game is trying something unusual.

Effects, when artfully applied, can really make drums shine in strange ways. Just as virtual Marshall and Vox amps have infiltrated the guitar scene, that old Boss or RAT distortion pedal hanging around your rehearsal space may breathe fresh life into your digital drum recordings. Using an old hardware effect or even a sleek new plug-in on select drums or an entire kit can spin some powerful spells on recorded drums, but I recommend a certain conservative approach. It is always good practice to add effects in the mix, post recording, while always keeping a dry copy of the original recording on hand. I emphasize this for two reasons: You can always remove an effect, back it off or try something different if it doesn't work (you can't if it's applied during recording), and separately mixing in the dry version with a wet one often yields the best results.

As for specific effects, adding simple reverb mixed on its own track can produce cool results. For example, try bouncing down your drums to a new track through a reverb with short attack and decay times. Then, try bumping the reverb track forward on the timeline for a deliberate delay effect. (Good reverbs often have a predelay control that essentially does the same, but this approach can sometimes provide more obvious results.) Another approach is to make a copy of the reverb track, place it on yet another track and pan them hard left and hard right while boosting one of them forward on the timeline. You can achieve amazing special effects this way, but it can make things quite muddy, so experiment with care.

FINDING INFINITY

Just as seemingly infinite as the percussion instruments and drum types out there are, so, too, are your options for recording them. The key is to use your imagination. It helps to know the rules before breaking them, so if you don't have much experience recording drums, read plenty of articles and look for the common threads.