It seems more and more recordings are suffering from brittle-sounding cymbals. Several years ago, I moderated a panel at the Tape Op Conference called “Preparing Your Mixes For Mastering.” We presented a list of the ten most common technical problems. One of the top offenders was “harsh cymbals and ice-pick hi-hats.” From my experiences and in speaking with my colleagues, this problem hasn’t gone away. In fact, the only time I don’t experience this issue is when one of two people are involved on a record: an experienced recording engineer (e.g., a full-time person with more than ten years experience) and/or an experienced drummer (e.g., someone in his or her thirties and up who has gigged more times than you have songs in your iTunes library). So what do these cats know that the rest of the world doesn’t? Well, there are several things, and I’m going to spill the beans for DRUM! readers. In fact, many recording engineers are in the dark on some of these techniques, so get ready.
The best way to understand the source of this problem is to appreciate how we got here. Not to start a story with “uphill and in the snow both ways,” but the truth is there used to be much less selection in terms of cymbals. What Zildjian currently calls its “A” series was pretty much representative of the market: traditional finish, visible lathe marks, all in medium to medium-light weights. Whether you played in a rock band or a jazz trio, there was a good chance that some of the same cymbals were used.
At the same time, recording engineers were tracking to analog tape, a format that was more forgiving at higher frequencies. Cymbals sound smoother for two reasons: one is that there is an inherent compression in tape recording; the second is due to a phenomenon called “self-erasure.” Mike Spitz of ATR Magnetics explains, “All tape oxide formulas are subject to a small amount of sell-erasure soon after recording. How many times did you hear a respected recording engineer say, ‘That tape sounded awesome when we laid the tracks, but when we played it back the next day, the top end sounded darker.’ Well, that’s right, and it can be expected to occur.” Savvy technicians overcame this by purposefully over-saturating the top end during recording, but many did not. Either way, drums and cymbals generally sound more pleasant when recorded to tape.
To parallel the cymbal market, recording engineers faced a similar selection when it came to microphones. With only so many brands to choose from, and certain models proving to be better overheads than others, recording engineers got lazy. Again, whether you played in a rock band or a jazz trio, there was a good chance that some of the same mikes were used to record the same cymbals. While this may be painting an entire industry in broad strokes, it’s not far from how things were (Fig. 1).
So, how did we come to harsh-sounding cymbals? Simply put, everything changed. Drummers wanted to “cut through the mix” at shows and in practice. Cymbal makers started offering heavier, brighter, louder cymbals. (To be fair, entire product lines expanded, including effect-types, limited-quantity artisan, and jazz lines).
On the recording side, digital recording became more affordable. Unlike tape, which imparts a character to everything it records, digital is a machine: What you put in, it gives back. And how were engineers feeding the machine? They were using the flood of cheaper Chinese-made microphones. (When a stereo pair of import small-diaphragm condensers costs under $300, how many engineers can afford to shell out $3,000 for a hand-matched European set?) But there are some limitations to cheaper mikes. First, they are often voiced to boost high frequencies. In standalone tests, these mikes sound more present, crisper, and sexier than a traditional “flat-response” mike. Second, the electronics in economy mikes do not have the headroom found in pro models. Complex sources like cymbals can go from silent to explosion in a millisecond. Lesser electronics distort in these situations, or at minimum clip the output, feeding the digital recorder a nasty square-wave representation. Nearly any cymbal recorded in this situation is going to sound overly crisp. Add one of the new “cut through the mix” models and the results become the topic of engineering conventions and magazine articles.
The solution to shrill cymbals can come from both drummers and recording engineers. Depending on your job, here are some suggested approaches.