A lot of people start out in small towns with very little to do beyond playing music, but few of us ever succeed on that track to the degree Alex Pappas has. The drummer for legendary post-hardcore legends Finch, Pappas started out like a lot of other musicians. “In Temecula [California], where we lived, there wasn’t much to do. You either partied or played in a band,” he says. Given the choice, Pappas opted to play in a band that initially took off with the title track from their debut full-length album, What It Is To Burn, which garnered heavy rotation on MTV2, Fuse, and the like.
Growing up, Pappas had an uncle that worked in film post-production, sound engineering, and was an experienced Foley editor. That family experience combined with his passion for music, computers, and creativity lead him to work in all stages of recording music. He runs his own freelance production company now, AJP Recording (ajprecording.com). Through his travels around the great studios of California, Pappas has learned that one of the most prominent keys to getting a great drum sound is the secret of drum sample replacement.
Drum sample replacement is exactly what it sounds like: the art of replacing a recording of live drums with previously recorded samples or sounds. There are two basic ways to go about achieving sample-replaced drums: automated techniques and manual. Automation can be done in several Digital Audio Workstations (DAWS), often Pro Tools or Logic, where the software uses plug-ins to analyze recorded audio and automatically replace them with samples using an algorithm. Pappas prefers the manual method using the features of Pro Tools.
“[The manual method] starts off with recording a good drum kit with the best tools you have – microphones, preamps, room, and so on. Get a great drum sound and get the basic drum track recorded, then keep all the microphones in the same place so nothing has changed. I then record multiple strikes of every part of the drum kit. One hit, let it all ring out, and do it again one drum at a time. If I’m doing the snare drum, I’ll put a blanket over the toms and cymbals, mute the kick, and do my best to make it just snare. After that, you record each type of hit: left hand hard, left hand soft, right hand hard, right hand soft, and so forth to try to get every hit as cleanly as possible at different velocities.”
The benefit of doing this is that pure isolation removes all bleeding onto the other microphones, which will make things a lot easier in post-production; when applied to each type of hit, it allows every strike to be edited as necessary to get the right sound. “Turn up the snare all you want – that hi-hat is staying right where it is.”
Recording the samples may not be the easy part, but it isn't really the most time-consuming part, either. “After our samples are now tracked, I listen to the drum sounds in as many different settings (rooms, speakers, etc.) to develop a neutral opinion. The artist and I then pick out which ones sound best and most fitting for the track. I create what I call a ’tree,’ grouping all the samples on separate tracks together.” The original drum track acts as a map, guiding you where to place the samples. “In Pro Tools, there’s a command called 'tab to transient' that is really helpful; every time you hit tab, the cursor will jump to the next big drum strike relatively reliably. At this point, you’ve got your sounds set up in Pro Tools and you'll spend your time pasting every single strike in.”
The concept of replacing drums with your own samples may instinctively make you think of drum machines, sloppier hip-hop beats, and tinny preprogrammed sounds, but it’s actually a good way to get the opposite out of a session. “It’s cleaner because there’s no bleed from the other drums when you record them one by one.” The cleaner recordings allow for more editing, mixing, and effects. Recording each drum from a multitude of volumes, speeds, and microphone positions is sometimes called “hyper-sampling” because of how it provides an ultra-real sound when mixed correctly; Pappas refers to the sound created as “hyper-real.”
“Replacements often sound fake because if you play them live, the drums have resonance. You hit the drum, the attack goes out all over the room and the room responds. With drum machines, they play a drum sample. When the next hit occurs, the sample replays, often cutting off the decay and the rest of that sound. When you sit in a room with the snare, all the resonance isn’t going to stop or cancel itself out. There are all different things about the real world that act as variables in recording, but when you digitally replicate the sound over and over again, it just sounds the same.” Thus, one of the keys to getting a good sample is to use extra tracks to allow the decay to resonate and the room’s sound to remain.
This in itself creates a second problem for most home studios: a lack of spare tracks. “My rule of thumb is if I have two kick drums, I kick in two sets of samples. If I have one snare drum to represent, I put in at least two, maybe three sets of the samples.” Double bass drum recordings require different groupings sometimes due to the density of the fast playing. Pappas often burns 24 or more tracks on just the drum kit alone. Without doing this, the samples are known to sound inorganic. It can be avoided in some styles of music, but drum rolls are notably a problem unless you layer things correctly. “[On a low-voice drum machine], a thirty-second-note snare roll sounds more like you had one hand bash the drum that hard and fast rather than having two hands working together. When you think about limitations, you can make it sound like a robot by not doing a bunch of work. If you accurately record all the different samples, sounds, and velocities, put them all in the right place, and layer them for proper resonance, you can get it to sound completely real.”
Live recording still has its place, of course. Pappas never uses drum triggers and samples for actually playing live, although it has become a common practice. For studio work, he lives and dies with the method; rarely is there a time where he doesn’t replace with samples. “Once in a while there’s a situation where the drummer does play it with a feel I like on the live track, and it’s more than just good enough. Save some time, save some money, and that’s fine, too. But when we want to get weird, wild, and get it perfect, this is the way to do it.”