Prepared Percussion: Recording Tricks

Drum Substitutes

Although you’ve spent a lot of time and money getting your set to sound just right, sometimes a song needs something that gives it a bit of attitude or “adds the eyebrows,” as Frank Zappa would say. The perfect sound might be as close as your kitchen, basement, or garage.

Drummers have a natural inclination to substitute everyday items for real drums. Elvis’s drummer, D.J. Fontana, says he cut a number of classic tracks by slapping cardboard boxes. Crickets drummer Jerry Allison also played the drum parts on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and “Baby, I Don’t Care” on boxes. Singer/songwriter Nick Lowe has mentioned his love of the “telephone-book snare.”

The trick is to keep an open mind about the sound potential of mundane household items, because it’s not the relative pitch of the item that matters, but rather the part it plays in the groove. You might think you want to hear a high-pitched, metallic sound to fill the backbeat role of a snare drum in a song, only to find that the punchy and dark thump of a drum stick on a pizza box delivers the goods. The effect can be further enhanced by using dynamics processing, such as compression and gating, to extract an even more powerful tone.

The sound you get from a box, tub, phonebook, or trashcan is greatly influenced by what you hit it with. If a drum stick gives you too much of a click, try using a yarn or felt mallet. For bigger items, I like to use something with weight and mass, such as a large super-ball stuck onto a chopstick. On really large items, such as 50-gallon oil drums or dumpsters, I sometimes use the side of my fist because it helps bring out the low-end.

Although engineers often use a sampled sound in a rhythm part, it’s more fun as a drummer to actually play the instrument so that the timbre varies naturally rather than remaining static (unless that’s the effect you are going for). If I’m substituting a tub or box for the snare, I’ll actually place it on the snare stand and incorporate it into the entire kit. However, when the replacement instrument is too big or fragile to be played at the same time as the rest of your kit, you’ll have to overdub it. To do that, you will need as much isolation between your drums as possible when you record so that the instrument you’re replacing doesn’t bleed into the other mikes. One way to do this is to substitute something very soft and quiet in the kit as you play. For example, if you plan to replace the snare part with a sample, try putting a pillow or some other quiet object on the snare drum when you do the main take. This gives you something to hit, so you can get your groove on, but the result is quiet enough that you can easily swap it out for the sample later on.

If you’re recording and editing with a digital audio workstation (DAW), you can use a drum-replacement plug-in, such as Drumagog 5 or Slate Digital Trigger, to replace the drum hits with samples. (That’s drum-replacement software, not drummer-replacement. We still want a live drummer laying down the feel so we can enhance the part with sampled sounds at a later time.)

If the sound you want to use is so fragile that it can only be hit a couple of times before it breaks, no problem; all you need to record are a few hits. Then you can duplicate the best ones and lay them into a track, whether you’re using Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic, Cakewalk Sonar, MOTU Digital Performer, or some other DAW.

Overall, the most important thing is to listen to the new sound in relation to the song, rather than on its own. What might sound dry and dull when soloed might be perfect once you hear it within the mix, whether it’s supporting one of the drums in your kit or replacing it all together.

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