Prices for digital audio and quality recording processors and microphones have been falling for years. It’s now possible for many musicians to record and mix their own pro-rivaling releases in the comfort — or discomfort — of their rehearsal spaces, garages, and basements.
That was the good news. On the flip side, just as many — or to be more accurate, far more — musicians have spent countless hours fumbling or guessing their way straight toward an unintended destination: not a great final mix, but a time-consuming aural mess. Just as any master carpenter should advise a construction neophyte, having great tools doesn’t mean that you can build a house. You must know how to use the tools, when to use the tools, and — often most importantly — when not to use them.
In this feature, we will examine ways to insure that well performed and recorded drum tracks can complement and enhance a self-mixed recording project. Providing invaluable insight on the subject is Rob Tavaglione of Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, North Carolina, who offers the worthy perspective of a professional engineer/producer and active musician.
A great drum mix isn’t simply completed at the very end of a recording session. It’s built up throughout the entire recording process, always adjusted and corrected in tandem with a given song’s accompanying instruments. Completed successfully, a thoughtful and appropriate drum mix will nicely complement a song’s vibe, artistic merits, and overall quality, while discreetly showcasing the drummer’s own sound, taste, and abilities.
Got Gear? Simplicity is a virtue during the recording process as well as the mixing stage. Luckily for home and project recordists, the essentials can be as simple as few quality microphones, a PC- or Mac-based recording program [a.k.a. DAW], and corresponding hardware (most often consisting of an input/output device with several mike/line pre-amplifiers and FireWire or USB computer connection options). Virtually all DAW software includes frequently used types of effects (equalizers, reverbs, and compressors/limiters); so extra outboard processing isn’t really a necessity.
“As far as engineering tools are concerned, the most important things involved in capturing the kit are the microphones,” offers Tavaglione. “Today, all the recording programs sound pretty good. Used judiciously, even inexpensive processors sound good, too. So if you’re going to spend a little money, spend it on the mikes. Make sure you have an actual kick drum mike; it doesn’t really matter who makes it because most of them are very nice. Also, try to have a nice pair of something — preferably a pair of small diaphragm condenser mikes — to use for overheads. With a pair of overheads capturing everything and a good kick mike anchoring those, other microphone choices aren’t nearly as critical.”
From there — and if your recording system’s available inputs allow — you can then expand to using a snare mike, individual tom mikes, and individual hi-hat, ride, and other cymbal mikes, respectively. For overheads, options abound in the realm of small diaphragm condensers, as well as capable bass drum microphone options. If you’re at a loss for what microphones to buy and are on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the Shure SM57, an industry favorite for snare and toms, and even for cymbals and bass drum.
While less preferable because of the loss of flexibility, using a simple two-input system (such as Digidesign’s proprietary Mbox for Pro Tools LE) is a workable option. With the use of a small external mixer and a bit of experimentation, multiple drum tracks can be “pre-mixed” to stereo on their way to your DAW, where they can then be treated with effects and equalization (see Fig. 1 below). This means that the mix of your kit is complete; now it’s just a matter of mixing it with other instruments. To avoid these limitations spend a bit more on your DAW’s I/O system; having three or four available input channels should be more than adequate.
While high-quality “studio” monitors are great to have for such critical listening purposes, they can also be quite expensive, significantly dipping into your budget for other non-negotiable necessities. If the extra funds are available, then certainly purchase a set of nice nearfield monitors — preferably powered ones to avoid the need for an external amplifier. But if you’re really on a budget, there’s no need to fear; there are other listening options available to meet your goal of a great drum mix. Stay tuned for more on the subject.
Mixing is all about control. Completing a great mix means that the mixer had the right amount of control over every sound source and balanced them to best suit a particular song. As we all know, being in control of a situation is easier when control is always maintained, rather than having to “reel” something back from the throes of chaos. This means that drum mixes are easier and more effective when the drummer self-mixes — hitting each sound source of the kit at close to the same velocity as it should be heard on recorded medium.
While playing with control is important, offers Tavaglione, getting the superior tone often requires hitting a bit harder and more solid than many drummers may be used to. “Drummers are often told to ’hold back’ while rehearsing in small spaces or while close together,” he explains. “Because of that, we often learn to play lightly. Drums sound best when hit with a good, solid smack and a snap of the wrist, so I say play a little harder, a little more consistent, and with a little less dynamics than we might normally do in order to give consistency in volume and attack. It’s a lot easier to bring a fader down if drums are a bit loud than to raise the volume of a recorded kit and give it more tone and excitement.”
Some would argue that playing with appropriate dynamic levels is simply part of being a good musician. But in the studio, self-mixing is a bit more complicated. Cymbals, for example, are often hit with too much force by studio newbies. Hi-hats, because of their sonic characteristics, also seem to bleed into everything — especially nearby snare microphones. “Oftentimes, a hi-hat can be played so loudly that it can destroy a snare sound,” Tavaglione says. “Even though you’re playing the kit consistently harder — go a bit easier on the hi-hat and cymbals.”
Often equalization, gating, and other effects are used to get more and better quality levels from each individual microphone, while reducing cymbal presence in a weak drumming performance. To be blunt, doing this to extremes almost always results in bad sounds. Try not to even go there. Learn the art of self-mixing.
Not sure how good of a “self-mixer” you are? Record yourself to a two-track (left/right) stereo pair of microphones placed several feet in front of your drum kit. Upon listening back, imagine that this is the final drum mix of a song. Ask yourself, “What sound sources are too loud? What’s too soft?” then adjust your playing accordingly. In this exercise, don’t worry if the sounds aren’t exactly what you want — for instance, if the kick isn’t punchy enough or if the snare doesn’t have enough attack. Later in the actual mix session, kick and snare levels, equalization, and effects can be adjusted to augment overall sound.
Let’s assume you have a great sounding and well-maintained drum kit situated in an acoustically pleasing environment. While much can be done in the final mix stages to alter and adjust sonic characteristics of recorded audio, it’s usually best to get as close to the sound as you can via instrument and room.
“Rather than approaching this with a highly stylized kind of finished product in mind — which often means getting very, very complicated — I think that a good place to start is just recreate your kit in a recording, capturing the reality of it, and translate that to your mix,” Tavaglione explains. “If you do want to get stylized, that usually involves things like triggers, quantizing, heavy automation, and possibly multiple drum kits. All of that is too much to bite off at first, and besides, it’s also risky. You might end up with something really stylized but not up to par or even competitive. Go for the natural approach.”
Begin by choosing a mix perspective, a precursor to mix session panning. Either audience perspective (what the audience sees to the left is audible in the left channel) or drummer perspective (what the drummer sees to the left is audible in the left channel) are equally used. Panning should be carefully considered while placing microphones to record.
“Using panning — and certainly mike placement — effectively can create a sense of space to the kit,” continues Tavaglione. “Use a good, solid miking technique for your overheads, such as the X/Y or ORTF placement techniques. If you use one of those and pan them out fully in your final mix for maximum stereo width, it contributes a lot to the overall picture. Relying a lot on the overheads brings a lot of realism to the sound.”
Close miking other sound sources (bass drum, snare, toms, cymbals) can then be done to best capture the depth, presence, and tonality that only up-close-and-personal proximity can provide. Through the availability of realistic room imaging via overhead mikes and a few essential close-miked items, a realistic yet powerful balance can be created in mixing.
When mixing, the act of drastic panning — although sometimes interesting — can destroy the natural sound of your complete kit, so pan and balance the mikes carefully, Tavaglione recommends. “Sometimes people have a tendency to put toms way out to the extreme sides, which can be interesting, but it can blow any perception of reality that you have created. Try to mirror reality: not from the perspective of an audience member from 50 feet away where everything sounds mono, but from the perspective of someone six feet away or from your own position, where left and right imaging can always be heard.”
Finally, recording in a room full of musicians — a performance environment that is certainly “natural” for most drummers — may be a requirement, especially in non-studio situations without intricate headphone monitoring systems, isolation booths, and multiple rooms. This can provide a few challenges in controlling bleed from other instruments. Again, bleed isn’t the end of the world, but go the extra mile to minimize it.
“Get the amplifiers as far away from the kit as possible,” says Tavaglione. “If you can, place some kind of sound barriers in between all amps and the drum mikes; a number of things, such as cases, can be used as makeshift acoustic barriers. Even though there will be bleed from the amplifiers into the drum mikes because of the room, you can eliminate the direct sound from the amps to the drum mikes. In doing so, you’ve made a big improvement for your upcoming mix.”
In theory, effects are generally used in the mixing process to enhance the sound of an instrument as well as the “air” that surrounded the instrument during its performance. Frequently used effects for drum tracks include equalization (the adjustment of particular frequency bands), reverberation (the decay of sound), echo (the repetition of sound), and compression (automatic volume control to keep audio at a more even volume). While each of these are fine to use while mixing, they should never be used while recording; that is, unless you’re 100 percent sure that you’ll be pleased with their presence later — effects can be added in mixing, but not easily taken away if recorded during basic tracks.
With luck, little equalization will be needed during mixing if the recorded drums sounded great in the room and the microphones were positioned to best capture their natural sounds. As a rule, try to avoid drastic equalization; it can destroy much of the appealing characteristics of the drum or cymbal in question, which essentially makes their use irrelevant.
Reductive equalization is a less destructive process where “bad” frequencies (ones that may be interfering with other instruments or making it difficult to blend instruments and/or sounds) can be reduced in level, rather than absent or lacking frequencies being boosted. As a second rule of thumb, always attempt reductive equalization first, only boosting select frequencies if the problem cannot be solved. So before grabbing that EQ to drastically boost surrounding frequencies — and drastically changing the tonality of the sound in question — try subtly reducing a few surrounding frequencies first.
Used correctly and carefully, effects such as reverb and delay can add realism, excitement, and texture to the individual and overall sounds of a drum set. Used carelessly, such effects can all but ruin a mix. “In home recording, drums aren’t usually recorded in rooms that have a lot reverb to them,” says Tavaglione. “Therefore, most of the reverb is often is added in the mix.”
Tavaglione insists that a little bit of effects usually goes a long way — especially considering today’s comparatively “dry” drum sounds. “Although we always use reverb in today’s modern drum sound, it’s used fairly sparingly,” Tavaglione explains. “Reverbs should be applicable to the style of music and, in particular, the tempo of the song. You can’t use a long reverb on a fast song without ’blurry’ results. My suggestion is to immediately begin thinking about reverb in your mix, and try to emulate what is a typical reverb level for your style. Overall, today’s reverbs tend to be a little smaller, tighter, and more focused than in the past. So don’t look for halls or arenas in choices, but rooms and chambers. Even though you use a reverb to fit the song and the tempo, make sure to use it judiciously. You’re much better off to under-reverb than to over-reverb.”
Compared to reverb, compression is used to extremes on drums these days. Regardless, Tavaglione suggests being conservative in using extreme compression levels. “If you’re going to use compression, use it in your mix and, if you can, on individual elements such as kick and snare for consistency,” he explains. “While mixing, try grouping your drums all together into a buss, then compress the grouping of the kit. By using a combination of both individual track compression and buss compression, you’ll be able to achieve that somewhat in-your-face drum style that’s so popular today.”
Whether working from studio-grade monitors, headphones, a home stereo, or the worst-sounding computer speakers commercially available, it’s a good idea to use every source you can reference while deciding upon effects, balance between drum voices, and balance between other instruments. Because mix tendencies and expectations vary widely from one musical genre to the next, it’s nearly impossible to offer hard and fast rules for mixing drums. However, Tavaglione feels that one drum mix idea is always applicable, regardless of musical style: keep all drums audible at all times.
“At some point, you’re going to go to each part of your kit,” Tavaglione reasons. “At any given moment, what you’re playing may be critical to your timekeeping as well as maintaining the groove and feel. We can’t have certain percussion sounds drop out, even momentarily, and expect listeners to stay connected to the beat.”
Again, says Tavaglione, balance is the key. “In doing this, make sure that no one drum gets preferential treatment, nor any one cymbal. If you can hear everything in balance, nothing is dominant, that’s a really good place to start.”
Once you’ve achieved even balance, then pop on the headphones for a revealing and accurate examination of your kit’s panning. Headphone models that cover the entire ear are preferable, as the extra coverage helps block outside aural interference. While listening via phones, fine tune specific details of sound source placement. “Panning is so articulate and exact in headphones,” says Tavaglione. “Using headphones is the perfect way to check where things are and that nothing sounds improper in placement.”
Other than a nice pair of studio monitors, the best monitoring source that most people have readily accessible to them is a home entertainment system, often “the highest fidelity system that is nearby,” explains Tavaglione. “That’s a real good place to check for overall balance. While listening, focus on whether all the drums fit together in a natural way to form this overall thing known as ’the drum kit.’”
For confirming the level, fatness, and attack of the kick drum, Tavaglione swears by listening to mixes in an automobile. “An ever-present problem is, ’How much kick drum, bottom, and boom do I need in the mix?’ and normally, with every system you listen to, the bass may sound different. With that in mind, I would recommend checking on those issues by listening in the car. Cars are really good environments for checking accuracy of low end — like kick drums — because they don’t have the standing waves [uneven sound level distributions] present in most rooms.”
Although all computer speakers sound very different — some good, some bad, and some ugly — they can act as “worst case scenario” listening sources, much like monitoring via boom boxes — still a frequently referenced audio source for many recording engineers. “They are useful as yet another listening source and are often so low in its fidelity, you can hear what your stuff sounds like in less-than-ideal circumstances,” Tavaglione explains. “That’s very important, too.”
Mixing drum tracks can be a lot like riding a bike. Sure, there’s the part about never forgetting how to do it once you’ve mastered the art, but in the meantime, there’s a lot of pratfalls ahead of you. Never fear, though; through the process of mixing — a process far more involved than simply “mixing” — every error executed is also a lesson learned.
“Don’t lose faith,” Tavaglione encourages. “This can be a tedious process, so hang in there. If you become really frustrated with your mixing, reconsider your choices during tracking and performance. The whole process is very closely related, and any one step of it can greatly influence the other steps. So have at it, have fun, and keep your nose to the grindstone.” n