A question for musicians: After a recording session, how often are you left feeling unsatisfied with the results? A common complaint I hear is that something gets ‘lost along the way’ between the conceptual and the actual. This is never more true than for the drummer who, with such a multifaceted instrument, is often left perplexed as to how the engineer could have got it so wrong. I want to use this article as a plea in defence of the sound engineer.
The list of people I would consider experts in achieving a great drum sound is dominated not by drummers but by engineers. They’ve learnt how to preempt any sonic discrepancies and can harness the anomalies of the studio environment to their own ends. A good experiment is to place your ear in the position of an SM57 over the snare drum. You’ll quickly notice how misleading things can be from the perspective of the drummer’s throne. Learning to take notice of whats really going down the microphones is an important place to start.
Produce the Goods
Having worked with some great technicians over the years i’ve made some unusual observations. Ostensibly their methods can seem illogical or even random and at first I struggled to find any useful tips. What I began to realise is their decisions are actually being guided less by a preconceived methodology but by something much more straightforward: their ears. Learning to really listen is a vital lesson for any studio musician and one that’s often overlooked. Too often studio decisions are made for ideological reasons: which brand of drums to use; choice of microphone; micing technique etc. Historically some of the worlds best drum sounds were recorded on cheap kits, using poor microphones in completely unsuitable rooms. They worked because the drummer or engineer in question was wiling to use their ears. Who cares if it’s a £100 drum kit as long as it sounds good! In fact sometimes using unusual gear or recording methods can give the sound an individuality that would otherwise be missing in the £800 per-day-faux-swiss-chalet-mega-studio.
So whats the process for realising a good drum sound? Firstly you need to decide on a sound that you’re aiming to achieve. Listen to Jeremy Stacey’s snare on this track ’Jamais’ by Charlotte Gainsbourg:
Showing up to a session with a snare sounding as fat and full bodied as this is bound to put the engineer in a very good mood. For my spin on this I like to use an old 80′s Tama Superstar 14″x8″ snare. I tune the resonant head fairly high and the batter side low. I then put plenty of dampening on the batter side head (depending on the room you can use an O-ring or even a wallet or mobile phone to add some weight). You don’t necessarily need an 8″ deep drum as i’ve heard a Ludwig 400 sound just as ‘gushy’; its just about knowing the sweet spots and using your ears. The key here is to be as adaptive as possible. If you go through the tuning process and things still aren’t sounding right (a common occurrence) then it’s important to keep tweaking the tuning/dampening/head choices until you hear the drum reach a ‘sweet spot’. Don’t be afraid to go to extremes, even if it breaks drumming conventions. In the past i’ve resorted to tuning my snare so low that the tension rods are almost off.
Put on the Red Light
It seems to me the ultimate aim of any recording is the realisation of an idea. Inevitably that idea gets diluted or distorted along the way. If we as drummers take the same level of care as producers over the micro-sonics and learn to adapt to the eccentricities and unpredictabilities of the studio then maybe that treacherous journey from concept through to concrete will bear much more fruit.