It All Starts With Drums
It goes without saying that I consider drums to be the most important part of most current rock-oriented music. Starting out my career as a drummer, I pay a considerable amount of attention to the specific details of drums and cymbals and the individual technique of the drummer.
Anyone who’s attended SeedsConf or SeedsU has no doubt heard us mention the importance we place on getting (and keeping) the drums under control. This serves as a precursor to what we hope to achieve with both our audio and musical product. Whether we’re talking about the particular style of the drummer, the actual acoustic volume of the drums in the room, or maybe a combination of both—figuring out how to get the drums to sound right can be a real challenge.
We’ve discussed at length in previous blogs our opinion regarding particular drum and cymbal selections, sticks, mics, heads, and the like but here’s a few points that can apply to almost any drum situation. Even if it’s not time for you to upgrade and/or replace drums and cymbals right now, the following can be done at no cost.
Aside from decent equipment, the biggest part of improving any drum situation is maintaining proper control. This applies to actually controlling the drum sounds in the room and the control of the drummer. If your drums are so loud in the room that the audio mix is at the mercy of the drummer’s volume and style, you cannot hope to make things sound better. It’s quite frustrating to think that the hours of rehearsal and preparation for an event can be held hostage by a drummer playing too loudly. Getting control of the drums themselves can be fairly cut and dried as it’s only gear, but getting control of the drummer is a much bigger deal as it involves being critical of the artistry and technique of the individual musician.
Every drummer must understand where they fit in the mix, both figuratively and literally. If they are unwilling to discuss realistic ways they can improve or change their playing to make the end result better, they may not be the right person for the job. I work hard to have some level of personal relationship with all of our drummers and it’s helped considerably to establish both rapport and trust. As an audio engineer, I also try to make sure they have some base knowledge of how the drum mics work in relationship to our audio systems, venues, and recordings.
STONE PYRAMID SCHEME
This one is easy to understand and I won’t even ask you to buy into a multi-level marketing scheme. The Stone plan is the only marketing scheme I’d consider getting on board with.
Look at the drum kit overall as a pyramid: anything located near the bottom of the pyramid needs to be played harder than the things located at the top. So for most standard drum setups these days, the kick can be played the loudest, then the floor tom, then the snare, hat, and rack tom, with cymbals being played the lightest. This has been a good rule of thumb for me for many years and works well both onstage and in a studio setting. Pyramid schemes aren’t all bad.
It should be noted that this may be a bit hard for some drummers to deal with but this is where we go back to the control issue. I submit that you could use this pyramid scheme as the first aspect your drummer could use to improve the way their performance translates to your room.
This one kicks things up a notch and requires the drummer to really have a good grasp of what it takes to blend all the drums and cymbals together into one cohesive instrument. How many of us have had (or have) drummers slay the hats like they’re beating them to death and then barely play the kick and snare? Self-mixing requires one to play the drums not only from a musical vantage point but from an audio one as well. A well-known producer in Nashville explained this to me many years ago and it made perfect sense. By me beating the crap out of the cymbals, I was just completely overwhelming the other microphones. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as fun to play his way and not just bash away at everything. But it did change my viewpoint on being a professional drummer and it gradually helped make me think more musically on how I was playing the drums.
Now that I don’t make my living playing drums anymore, but mixing them, I will say that in a live setting it’s nearly impossible for an audio engineer to chase a drummer who doesn’t utilize some degree of self-mixing. This means the drummer has to feather the hats instead of killing them. Playing “through” the snare drum to achieve a satisfying “oomph” instead of bashing it like a child hitting a trashcan. Easing into the cymbals with control so you can actually hear the tone vs. flat out destroying them. Hitting the toms while paying attention to the tone elicited from them, not just hitting them because the church bought them.
Listen to almost any good live or studio recording (what makes a good recording is another blog topic) that has real drums and pay close attention to the different volume levels of the various drums comprising the recorded drum kit sound. I’ll bet money that the drummer was in complete control of his playing and the drums were controlled to the nth degree. I’ll also bet that there was a tremendous amount of attention given to the volume relationships of all the drums and cymbals on the kit (hello Stone Pyramid Scheme and self-mixing).
Getting the drum mix isn’t always up to the audio guy—it starts at the source.