Drums in the Studio - part 1 (part 2 here)

performance advice and recording tips - by PDG



Drums in the Studio: Tips from the Top
1. Listen to the song, play for it
2. Hit the drums consistently
and in the right places
3. Mantain a consistent tempo
4. Don't Overplay, serve the song
5. Think abou the dynamics of the song
6. Tune Skins according to the song's need
7. Learn how to play with the click
8. Don't rely too much on editing
9. Be gentle on the cymbals
10. No thick heads with built in dampening

The Producers we interviewed

Martin Bisi
Started in the early 80's working mainly with avant-guard and hip hop artists. He later moved into indie and hard rock. He specializes in size and aggression. He worked with Sonic Youth, Swans, Dresden Dolls, Material.

Chris Ribando is an independent producer/engineer from New York City. He has worked with Diamond nights, The Fever, The Black Crowes, and Cadillac.

Chris Zane is aNYC Producer who has worked with Passion Pit, The Walkmen, Ambulance LTD and Asobi Seksu among others.

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 still happens?

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 good enough?

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 matter.
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 voice.
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 room struggling.
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 who can.
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.

(next page...)