ROB LONG SNARES – ER,WEMEANSHARES – A FEW INVALUABLE TIPS FOR PRODUCING SOME QUALITY DRUM SOUNDS.
In the last issue, we took a brief look at the evolution of drum sounds through history, and discussed different ways to approach your microphone count, choice and placement. There are, however, countless factors influencing the way drums sound on a recording before the mics even come into the equation. As a home producer, the more of these variables you're aware of, the more chance you’ll have of dealing with issues, chasing tones, guiding musicians and being able to produce an outcome, rather than simply throwing mics up in front of the kit and hoping for the best.
Fair warning, this article isn’t actually aimed at drummers; it’s aimed at the people who work with them and want to learn how to tweak the sound at the source. Getting a great tone is a team effort between the drummer and the engineer. Rather than reaching for plugins, effects or replacement samples in order to rescue or completely rework drum takes after the fact, engineers should make decisions about the final sounds before the drummer has even played a beat.
HERE KIT-Y KIT-Y !
The evolution of the drum kit is well documented, from the late 19th century when multiple drums were played by multiple people to create rhythms, to the invention of the bass drum pedal, which allowed one person alone to build similar rhythms, but in a new way. Thus, an industry was born, and drum design is ever-evolving to this very day. Unless you’re hiring in tailor-made kits, it’s unlikely you’ll have the chance to choose the perfect kit for every session – a little background knowledge is still handy, though.
Most drums are made from some type of timber and are constructed of plywood (layers of sheet timber glued together). But as you’ll soon find out, that’s just the beginning! The shell material, thickness, construction style, diameter and depth all play a part. For example, mahogany shells are generally softer, warmer, and produce deep lows, whereas birch shells tend to be louder a brighter with a stronger attack. Thinner shells are more sensitive and tend to provide a richer tone, but less volume and attack. As you'd probably come to expect, thicker shells are the opposite. Obviously, larger diameter drums produce lower tones – as do deeper drums.
Snare drums vary the most. Generally, wood is warm, full-bodied and rich, while metal is louder, brighter and sharper. Snares are typically a signature element in a track, so nailing them is critical. Most experienced drummers have their favourites, but as a producer, it’s often necessary to suggest changing things up in some way – especially if you're working on an EP or full-length album. Hearing the same snare on every song is a little monotonous and fairly limited creatively. I have about six different sounding snares in my studio, and I strongly encourage their usage.
The key is to be aware of a range of tones and subtle differences. Are you chasing a ‘crack’ or a deep, fat thud? A short hit, or one that's long and resonant? Dry? Wet? Is there too much snare rattle, or not enough? Audition a set of snare samples and picture what kind of song each would suit. As an exercise, listen to snare drums across a broad range of genres and eras (rock, country, jazz, metal, '60s, '80s and so on) and see if you can find a sample that matches a specific tone. This valuable ear training familiarises you with what’s ‘typical’ for various situations.
TUNE IN TO TUNING
This brings us to the ‘black art’ of drum tuning. With a stringed instrument, you’re tuning for pitch, and it’s either correct or it’s not. With drums, you’re tuning for pitch
and tone. Two drum heads – top and bottom – equal double the complexity. The top ‘batter head’ is generally thicker than the bottom ‘resonant head’, which resonates in response to the top head.
There are as many ways to tune a drum as there are drummers, but the general conventions are that the top skin is looser, and also that the tension on each lug is as consistent as possible. Each drum tends to have a sweet spot where it ‘sings’. The top head controls attack and ring, while the bottom head controls resonance,
sustain, overtones and timbre. If the bottom head is too tight, it will tend to produce longer overtones which can be boomy and generally unpleasant. If it’s too loose, you tend to get an unnatural and choked ‘donk’ with little resonance and clarity. With kick drums, many people will tune the front, resonant head lower that the batter head to get a deeper note.
DON’T BE A WET BLANKET!
Next, let's look at the other dark art: dampening. Reasons for dampening a drum include the minimisation of ringing, overtones and sustain, or to cut high-pitch frequencies, tone or volume. Remember, drums naturally resonate, and a well-tuned drum has a pleasing resonance! When any instrument is put under studio mics, it inevitably sounds different to rehearsals or a gig – every little rattle and overtone is amplified.
Thus, too often a badly tuned drum ends up with the top head covered in tape before any attempt is made to deal with the tuning – usually because it’s an ‘easy fix’. Over-dampening may leave you with a lifeless sounding cardboard box, in which case the drum should be retuned from scratch.
Of course, the type of drum head heavily influences the sustain and resonance of the drum, and it’s not ridiculous to keep at least a couple of snare heads at hand in the studio.
There’s a wealth of heads available with built-in dampening effects, including double ply heads, heads with inlaid rings around the edge, hydraulic heads with a layer of oil
between two skins... The list goes on.
Minimal dampening is totally legit, and there are many ways to approach it. Duct tape is cheap, and one strip toward the edge of the head can be enough to tone down the sustain; a small piece of paper towel or felt taped to the head can also be effective.
Commercially made Moongel is a great product to keep in your studio. It’s a non-toxic and self-adhesive gel that sticks to drum heads and doesn’t leave residue. Muffling rings are pre-cut out of drum skins that run the whole circumference of the drum and sit neatly inside the rim. Similarly, an old drumhead with the metal rim cut off can be placed directly on top of the skin to act as a dual layer dampening system. Then, there's a personal favourite: the wallet on the snare.
By default, when you strike one drum, any other drum in the room will make a sound as well through ‘sympathetic resonance'. Sometimes you’ll be going for a nice, open, resonant sound with lots of ‘room’ in the mix. In this case, the resonance is generally your friend and adds colour. But there are times when it can get ugly – the most common situation is when a rack tom is triggered by a snare, or vice versa. This usually happens when drums are tuned too closely together. Tuning one a little higher or lower should help minimise this.
Of course, there are many genres that call for each drum sound almost as if they are completely isolated from the rest of the kit. Generally, noise gates can deal with this in mixdown. But little things can help – a blanket laid out over the front half of the kit that also covers the kick mic; a piece of foam straddled over the snare and tom mics behind the capsule to narrow the pickup area; setting the hi-hat pedal abnormally high about the snare drum to stop hats spilling into the snare mic (most drummers will hate you for changing their setup, though).
Either way, make sure you listen to the kit as a whole as much as you listen to each individual drum. Monitor your tom mics and see how much spill you are getting from the kick and snare, for example – many engineers will literally delete or mute the tom tracks when they are not being played.
BRUSH UP ON YOUR STICKWORK
Last but not least, choosing the right implement to hit the drums with can really turn a track around. While possibly 90 percent of tracks call for typical matched wooden sticks, it’s nice to change things up every once in a while. Heavy sticks are a ten and steel brushes are a one on the loudness/attack scale. The options in-between are worth looking at, and it's crucial to know what they sound like. I love the sound of ‘hotrods’, which are almost like a bunch of kebab sticks taped together – you’ll still plenty of attack, but still not trigger a drum to the same velocity as a full stick.
Nylon brushes are heavier than steel; they’ll give more attack and be easier for non-jazz players to use. Finally, a set of mallets is great for cymbal swells and atmospheric tom tom work (think timpani). Likewise, check out the range of different kick beater options – these are typically wooden, plastic or felt. They all have their place. As for the kick drum, the old "20 cent piece taped to the kick skin trick" is great for adding some extra ‘click’ to your sound!
Every engineer and producer should spend time with a drummer and completely pull down a kit, tune and retune each drum, swap out snare drums, and just generally get their head around some of the possibilities before a microphone even comes into the room. It’s the only way to really isolate issues and get to know the possibilities.
ABOVE: THE LOUDEST THING ABOUT THE SILENT FILM ERA
LEFT: STACKS ON STACKS ON STAAACKS!
ABOVE: DON'T SLEEP ON THIS TECHNIQUE
ABOVE: A TRICK WORTH PAYING FOR RIGHT: A FULL KIT FOR YOUR FULL KIT