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Absolute Digtial Perfection

Studio Drumming In The Age Of Pro Tools

The art of recording has seen steady refinement since Thomas Edison first unveiled the phonograph in 1877. From the priciest of world-class recording facilities down to the bedroom project studio, today’s digital audio workstations (DAWs) have opened up amazing avenues of quality, efficiency, and flexibility to the recording process. By combining dedicated software, hardware, and an audio interface in a personal computer or laptop, DAWs put pro quality recording within reach of almost anybody who wants it.

Like Xerox did for copiers and Q-Tips did for cotton swabs, the name of the Pro Tools system from Digidesign has become practically synonymous with DAWs. There are many terrific solutions from companies like Steinberg, emagic, and Cakewalk, and the range of strengths, capabilities, and prices they offer make them all worthy of consideration. But as the standard-bearer for DAWs, this article focuses on what Pro Tools means to today’s drummer.

Whether you’re simply being recorded into Pro Tools as the drummer in a group or as a session player, or managing the session yourself in your own studio, the system can prove addictive. “Once you get into Pro Tools,” says Butch Vig, the drummer for Garbage, as well as the producer of essential albums from Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and, of course, Garbage, “there’s no coming back.

“I dove into it to record [Garbage’s album] Version 2.0, and I think I was skeptical because I was such an analog freak when I first started out. I was afraid it would sound crunchy, not transparent enough, and the first [versions of Pro Tools] did sound that way, but the 24-bit system is very transparent.”

As one of the busiest hired guns in drumming for the last two decades, Kenny Aronoff has seen how the gradual evolution to digital can change the way music is recorded. “In the ’80s and early ’90s, it was easier just to have the whole band [together in the recording studio],” he comments. “But with Pro Tools and the ability to edit anything — any instrument, any note — on the computer, you have the ability to fix things and move them around.

“So if the drummer plays this amazing thing but the guitars and bass aren’t locked up with the drums and you don’t want to lose the drums’ magic, you can edit all the other parts to lock up with the drums. You can do this all by working with just the computer, and you couldn’t do this prior to all this technology. Actually, you could — it just took a painfully long time.”

Available today in configurations that cost nothing (a free, basic version of Pro Tools is available at digidesign.com), $1,000 for digi 001, and on up to $50,000 for a fully-blown high-end system, Pro Tools has brought the sprawl of the analog recording studio into a self-contained unit. “Historically you had a tape deck that recorded the audio, mixing board to mix, and effects,” says Andy Cook, manager of training and education for Digidesign. “Pro Tools covers all five areas of the process: creation, recording, editing, mixing, and mastering.”

By allowing people to record multiple takes on the hard drive and then compare them side-by-side, by both listening and viewing the wave form on the computer screen, Pro Tools gives drummers more room to take chances than if they were recording onto expensive audio tape. “It opens up the door to try new variations on things,” Cook points out. “You can have two sets of tracks all the way up to the final mix, so a drummer in a group can get more involved in creative aspects of the product.”

“Once drummers realize they can play and perform, it frees them up,” Vig agrees. “It allows people to experiment with what they’re doing, then I’ll take the best bits. With Garbage I’ll put together drum performances that I couldn’t possibly play live. It really just frees up drummers to go for performances and not have to worry about playing so perfect, technically. That’s the freedom that Pro Tools gives you as a drummer.”

With its ability to complete complex edits with a few mouse clicks, instead of the time-consuming tape cutting and reassembling of the analog world, Pro Tools enables an engineer/producer to hone in on the best few seconds of a drummer’s performance, copy it, and paste it across the whole song. The result is an impeccably consistent-sounding performance, but is that really such a great development?

“You can save a brilliant take from any instrument by editing,” Aronoff says. “The only thing is that you can get so carried away with fixing and editing that you can almost Frankenstein everything. You can take the life and individualism out of the music. I can hear tracks on CDs where I know the drummer has been edited in Pro Tools. I can hear the feel, and I know a lot of the drummers aren’t as good as their tracks sound.

“If anything, they’re too inhuman. The big thing I can hear is going from an aggressive chorus right down to a soft verse, and the fills and dynamics are flawless. It’s like going 100 miles per hour in a car and stopping with not one skid mark — it takes the most experienced studio drummer to pull that off. There are a lot of drummers out there that are sounding better on record than they really are. That can be very misguiding and misleading.”

Butch Vig (far right) with Garbage

Of course, that’s open to debate. “There’s this sense that you can take bad drummers and make them sound good,” says Vig. “Sometimes you take people to see a band and they say, ‘They were terrible. Why’s the record so good?’ Because you can edit in Pro Tools and make it tight, so there’s less emphasis on musicianship and playing ability. But that’s not a bad thing, because someone may not be the greatest drummer but may have a good vibe that you can capture, and make it work. At the end of the day, it’s about the song blowing you away, not about the drum chops.”

“Pro Tools doesn’t work magic,” Andy Cook says. “It doesn’t make somebody who can’t play drums sound like they can. It adds benefits to drummers and makes it easier for them to do their work. Setting up the mix, doing the recording, doing punch-ins, adding effects, different variations by trying different takes are all ways Pro Tools has helped both session drummers and drummers in a group.”

Pro Tools’ digital nature also affects the actual drum sound you get. “I think a lot of people are shocked the first time they work with it,” Vig notes. “Analog tape compresses in a lot of good ways, and the tape hiss glues things together. You have to be careful the first time working with Pro Tools — you don’t want to hammer the toms. You have to be careful of levels.

“You’re not getting the sound of tape coloring, so it’s important to make sure you’re happy with the sound going in. So, as always, the first thing in the signal path — the mike — is very important. Make sure you’re happy with the sound of the room, the mike, anything else in the signal path. But the great thing is that once it’s in there, there’s so much you can do with the sound: filtering, plug-ins, distortion effects, replacing can all affect kicks, snares and toms, which was really a pain in the ass to do on an old-style analog machine.”

In addition to the basic tools that make Pro Tools function, there are a number of optional software packages called plug-ins that can be used to enhance drum performances even further. Among the highlights are Beat Detective, which can quantize not only drum parts but also accompanying audio tracks; Strip Silence, which removes noise (like bleed from overheads) from drum tracks by editing the wave form; and Sound Replacer, which adds samples to a live drum track in a way that allows the dynamics of the performance to be retained, but with completely different sounding drums.

Besides affecting the sound of the drums, Aronoff has seen how songwriters’ use of Pro Tools to compose a song can guide a session players’ approach to recording a track in the studio. “Often when I walk in, there’s multiple tracks of loops, sequencers, and parts that limits me as to what I can add,” he says. “I have to ask, ‘Are you going to keep all these sequences?’ If they are I have to leave room for those rhythms, but I can do more experimenting if the stuff isn’t there. In ways, this defines the domain of what you can do and what you can’t do.

“Another aspect that can screw up the creativity is producers saying, after three takes, ‘That’s good enough. We’ll fix it.’ I could go, ‘I really screwed up this section,’ and they’ll say, ‘I’ll fix it.’ With Pro Tools, people tend to be satisfied. They tend to say, ‘That’s good enough.’”

As a producer, Vig acknowledges that can go on, but to him it’s a good thing. “In some ways I worry less about having to get a perfect take and go for more feel. I sometimes encourage the band or the drummer to try some things, do a different fill at the end.

“Case in point: On the new Garbage record [Beautifulgarbage}, there’s a Phil Spector homage called ‘Can’t Cry These Tears.’ I did some live drums and programming, but I really wasn’t happy with the feel. I had Matt Chamberlain come in and play it with much more swing and I encouraged him to try different things. Then I cut the sections that I wanted, and moved them around in verses and choruses until the song made sense. But he didn’t have to worry about that when he was playing. He just did a couple of takes and I took the best parts.”

With Pro Tools and other DAWs here to stay and guaranteed to make up a larger and larger part of the recording scene, it’s a good idea to start getting comfy with it, if you haven’t already. Knowing how to approach recording drums to Pro Tools will help you make the most of your studio time, and being able to work it yourself for composing, mixing, and more can only increase your value to yourself and others.

Still, don’t forget to try to apply the technology to something that actually sounds good. “The public doesn’t care whether or not something was recorded in Pro Tools, and why should they?” Aronoff points out. “They want to be entertained. If it feels good, sounds good, and they like the way the band looks, that’s all that matters.”

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