Drums - what a wonderfully complicated instrument. Not only about the fingers - like any other instrument - and not only about the arms, either. It's about the entire human body moving with perfect coordination and timing. And how many sound sources are there? 3? 7? 12? Sure, and even more if the guy behind that kit is a real maniac. And what about that extra invisible instrument called "The Room"?
Drums are the most challenging
instrument in the recording studio. They often require a
dozen microphones. They occupy frequencies ranging from
20 Hz (kick) to 20 KHz (cymbals) - and every single one
in between. They are also a very dynamic instrument, and
dynamics can make or break a recording. And what about the
tone? What's the right snare tone for that particular song?
We gathered a bunch of NYC-based
producers to inquire about this fascinating topic, hoping
they could help us out with some advice.
Engineers say that
drums are the hardest instrument to capture on tape (or
hard disk), but how important is the performance element
for a good-sounding recording?
Chris Ribando (R): It should be the most important element;
I think the best-sounding drum recording is useless, outside
of the context of a song.
Chris Zane (Z): The drum performance, I would say, is anywhere
from 60-80% of it. A great drummer can make anything sound
good. The trashiest drums can sound awesome if suitable,
and played by someone who hits everything just right, and
in all the right places...
Martin Bisi: Different takes can have a different sound,
affected by hardness of hitting, tempo and hitting the sweet
spots on the drums. Consistency can make for a better sound
too, 'cause it's then easier to dial in a perfect tone in
the mix, instead of having to find a middle ground where
different kinds of hits sound okay.
Many top producers
from the past have forced bands to change their drummer
just before recordings. Why is that? Is this something that
B: Probably still happens. Might sometimes be a good idea,
but you would want the new line-up to do a lot of playing,
even gigging before recording. Otherwise, the results might
be conservative or lacking personality.
Z: Drummers get the boot, because honestly, when it comes
down to it, there just isn't time. The whole record starts
with the foundation that a good drum track provides, and
producers don't want to take the chance of messing that
up. I have definitely been involved in situations like that.
R: Dealing with the pressure of a big budget recording and
a producer who can fire you can make recording difficult.
I’m not sure if this still happens, especially now
when an engineer can spend all day editing the drums to
perfection with a computer.
Do you spend any
time choosing and tuning the drum kit for each song in pre-production,
or do you end up recording the band's kit most of the time?
Do you have your own drums in your studio to give you more
options, just in case?
Z: I am extremely involved with the selection, tuning, and
even the parts, but I feel that I'm a bit of an exception.
I played drums myself for about 15 years before I started
making records, so my knowledge is a little more then average.
I own a bunch of vintage drums, snares and cymbals...I'm
very vocal about trying things in the studio, and often
run back and forth switching drums and tuning...most of
the time drummers are very appreciative...I think its one
of my greatest advantages.
B: I would tune drums only on the day of the recording,
and in the tracking room because of temperature, etc. There
may also be small, necessary tuning changes for each song.
In pre-production, I'd make sure we have 2 or 3 varied snares
to use on different songs, and great cymbals, especially
ride. Those are the most signature sounds.
P: In most cases I ask the drummer to show up with whatever
kit they are comfortable playing and any others they like.
If changes need to be made, studio drums can be used, and
if the budget allows, options can be rented.
Would you work with
a band you really like if you found out the drummer is not
B: You can make a so-so drummer sound better by making sure
the band is locked to him or her. Making the drum sounds
more consistent in the mix makes a drummer sound better.
P: Yes, as long as everyone involved knows the limitations
of the drummer - and every player in the band, for that
Z: Yes, but I would just get that out on the table ahead
of time, and be clear about it. Make sure to let him/her
know we were going to work especially hard on it, and get
the takes we need, one way or another.
It seems like many rock drummers think that the
harder they hit the kit, the better the kit is going to
sound. Is that true?
B: If you hit harder, you're more consistent, so it's sometimes
a good idea in loud sections with kick and snare. But it
might not be a good idea with cymbals, in part because of
bleed. One crucial thing is that the volume of the snare-hitting
keep up with the volume of the hi hats, or the snare will
be overwhelmed by the hi hat in the mix. Hard hitting is
fine as long as they have dynamics, and come down in some
way during verse type sections where there's more exposed
Z: Hitting the kit really hard. Yes and no. I think that
there is definitely a certain volume that will make a particular
drum 'sing' better, but don't get it confused; most things
that drummers think, smashing the drums, duct tape all over
the heads - wrong. IF it’s a good ol’ rock song
though, you don't want the drummer playing too soft either,
because everyone has to build on that. The important thing
here, I think, is for the drummer to hit CONSISTENT. Even
hits on the snare; really focus on where you're hitting
the drum each time, etc.
P: Also, check the drum tuning often and keep an eye on
the heads. They can wear out pretty quick with a drummer
that hits hard.
What about the skins?
How important is it to tune them properly? Do you find most
of the drummers know how to deal with that?
Z: Tuning drums is one of those mysteries in life. NO, most
drummers don't know how to tune. And YES, of course it’s
important - extraordinarily so. The more time you spend
IN the room tuning, the LESS time you'll spend in the control
P: I think the drums should be tuned to suit the song. This
often includes switching to a different type of head or
drum. If the drummer cannot tune them well enough, get someone
B: Some heads are a bad idea in the studio, like snare heads
with built-in dampening - you're better off dampening with
tape, etc. as needed. Too-thick heads on the snare isn't
great either. Biggest mistake is ancient heads.