Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting the Right Drum Sounds

Today's blog post is inspired by a reply I made on Gearslutz. The question was basically about "what preamps should I use on my drums?" Very common question, but I sort of...well...ranted on for a while. I thought maybe this would help some of you understand the planning and process of a drum sound -

"One of my biggest fascinations in my job is the planning that can, will, and should be involved with each project. The idea of "we want drums to sound huge" is not enough. Everybody wants rockin drums, rockin guitars, huge vocal, huge we know music in the production side is all an illusion. It's about recreating some sort of musical event, either realistic or imaginary, honest or impossible, and putting it between two speakers to somehow create this representation in our mind's eye...or really, our ear's mind.

So if the drums are sitting in a very dense mix, you will probably need to prioritize the close mics. As much as I hate to say that, it's true. The denser the music, the less "roomy" stuff you can often get away with. Track counts of 120 don't lend themselves to tons of room mic. I often find myself riding the room mics and overheads CONSTANTLY in these types of songs to push them in and out of focus when there is room. Instead, the kick, snare, and tom mics poke through, while the rooms and overheads provide the "overall kit" sound, but in a production this massive, you cannot have tons of cymbal wash anyway, because this usually involves a wall of other midrange instruments like pianos, strings, and guitars. My point there is that the denser the project, the simpler each part can and probably should be.

If the drums CAN have a large palette of space, and they have more room to breathe and fill out the music, I would prioritize the room mics and or overheads. Get those to sound as good as possible - and again, not just "good" but RIGHT. It is my contention that 9 times out of 10, getting drum sounds that are RIGHT for the production is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than getting drum sounds that are GOOD. Now I'm not saying "you have to make dirty lofi drum sounds" and "distort all the mics and run through amps." No, no, no. I'm saying that if you go for a typical setup of 2 OH, kick/snare/tom/tom close mics, a room mic or two, and outside/bottom mics on certain drums, you're going to get that typical sound. In the right context it can work great, no question! In the wrong context, it sounds "bad" to our ear because it's wrong for the production. Make careful note of what your ear is hearing as "wrong" versus "sounding bad." Believe it or not, your gut is right most of the time. If something sounds "bad" it's probably not because of the mic pre, I can guaran-damn-tee that.

When you're sound checking the drums, it's so easy to say "man that kick sounds huge" or "man those toms sound good." This is a slippery slope that will lead you to add way too much everything to everything. Too much low end, too much attack, too much compression, too much gating, too many mics. One of the things I learned that helped me a lot was, when getting drum sounds, don't get them to a scratch track. Get them to the whole band. It's impossible to really understand how the drums should sound unless you hear the whole band. The range of the vocalist, the key, the other instruments, the midrange content, will determine how much space the drums take up, how big the snare sound can/should be, how massive or small the kick can/should be, how long the cymbals can decay. Don't get them in solo or you will be enamored with wow factor. A great cymbal can sound great in solo, and terrible in a song. No question.

What is the span of the drumkit? Is it wide? Is it narrow? Is it big bass and bright treble? Is it more midrangey and woody? Again, this will also depend on your production. If the drums are supposed to be wide, you will probably want two overheads. If they're supposed to be narrow, you might want a mono overhead. There is NOTHING wrong about narrow drums - Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Van Halen, Train, Queens of the Stone Age, Michael Jackson, almost any artist you can think of has had major hits with narrow if not mono drums. The same goes for VERY wide drums. Both work - but again, don't necessarily think that it worked because the mixer just happened to be very good at making it work. Now sure, most of the mixers and engineers who worked on these records are some of the best in the world, but the production side of the music determined what sound was RIGHT for the production.

Don't get caught up in this romantic idea of "drums sounding amazing and huge" and instead focus on "what can I get away with in this production" or worded differently, "what's surrounding the drums that will define the drum sound?" Does the drum sound define the sound? Without that drum sound would it sound like a different genre? Is there going to be a wall of guitars? Is is an acoustic-based production? Is it a piano-based song? What IS the piano playing? How much distortion is on the guitars? Are there a lot of vocals? How loud is the lead vocal going to be? All of these factors can determine the drum sound. I cannot stress enough the importance of understanding the song as a while before putting up a single mic.

If you're wanting the drums to sound as though there is a drumkit 5-20 feet in FRONT of you, it doesn't make much sense to worry about the close mics as much. They are the fill-ins to the rooms/overheads. If you want it to sound as though you're sitting AT the kit, surrounded by drums, the close mics seem to be a viable way to get that sound.

The point is, if you view your overheads as cymbal mics, then that would drastically change what mics you use, what position you place them in, and what preamp you choose. If you go for the same drum sound every time, or if you specifically work in one genre that demands a certain sound, then you can probably get away with using set-and-forget type methods of placement that "work" for you in your space (metal for example seems to demand a specific sound that EVERYONE uses and without these norms it doesn't sound like metal drums to us). Granted, I said it would work, I didn't say it would be interesting.

I used to "experiment" a lot more and say things like "let's just try to get a weird drum sound, something totally different!" When in fact, what I learned is that only certain productions lend themselves to a lot of experimentation. That sounds very anti-hero of me, but it's true. Sometimes the typical setup is what the production NEEDS. Sometimes you need that multi-mic'ed hyper-real drum sound, not only because that's what the band likes, but because that's what fits the song and serves the song best. It's no mistake that those types of drum sounds are generally associated with dense rock - it works very well in that style of production. It's not selling out, it's logic. Now sure, if you have a production with a lot of space and subjectivity for the drum sounds, something that not only has a nice hole for the drums, but something that also lends itself to be a more "arty" sound, there's no reason not to experiment . One of my favorite drum sounds of all time is the 4-mic drums on Fiona Apple's song "Criminal." Brilliant! Fits the production so well. Speaks for itself. Serves the song. Serves the mood. Makes you feel a cohesive feeling from every instrument.

So. In summary, just figure out:

a) what do I want the drums to sound like
b) where do I want the drums to sound in the production
c) where am I placing the listener in relation to the drums
d) how big / important are the drums in this production
e) what sound best serves the song
f) what is logical for my setup