The Secrets Of Recording Cymbals
What Can Be Done As The Drummer?
Ultimately, the representation of the instrument starts with you. Approach the studio like any gig, and prepare accordingly. First, realize that there are “live” cymbals and “recording” cymbals. David Throckmorton, a session player and Sabian endorser, says, “I bring at least ten different ride cymbals to a gig, because I never know what the client is going to need.” Of course, few of us have that kind of cymbal budget, Throckmorton continues, “most guys should realize they need a set of cymbals for shows, or situations where the PA might not be there — you’re responsible for being loud enough — and a second set of thinner cymbals for practice or acoustic gigs. You’ll end up using the thinner ones in the studio, so you get three uses out of two sets.”
Regardless of your gear, playing style will have a major influence on your sound. Micah Dunn engineers the recorded sessions for Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. In that capacity, he has his pick of players and gear. “I look for a candidate that knows how to play his cymbals. We have a guy now, even though he uses what I would term brighter-than-optimal rock crashes, because he plays with finesse — he strikes with glancing and softer blows — that’s why he has the gig.”
Throckmorton adds, “Drummers starting out need to learn how to mix themselves. They have to control the volume of the cymbals in relation to the drums. That’s your job. Don’t rely on the soundman.”
Returning to gear, some low-cost solutions include playing wood instead of nylon tips at a session. Nylon tends to emphasize attack, and can be louder on hats and rides when played on the tip. Another concern is the choice to clean your cymbals or not. This is especially true for lathed cymbals, as dirt, grime, and finger oils tend to settle in the grooves. Some traditionalists never polish their gear, while others are fastidious about it.
… As The Engineer?
Approaching cymbals as the recording engineer, you have several options. First, you can purchase cymbals you trust will record well. At Treelady Studios, we have about two dozen assorted rides, crashes, and hats. Dave Hidek, our senior engineer, puts it best, “We simply have no idea what people will bring in terms of equipment, and our name goes on every recording. We have to be prepared.” For the most part, we work with newer artists, but the problem isn’t contained to independent bands. Even the big labels deal with this. Todd Burke, who has mixed and engineered for Foo Fighters, Aimee Mann, Ben Harper, and many others, has the same experiences. These days, Burke won’t show up for a session without his personal collection of (Bosphorus) cymbals. He explains, “If the drummer has thrown up the usual assortment of machine-stamped tin, I’ll do what I can to get things together in the control room and record a little bit so we can all listen. We’ll scratch our heads, talk it over, and make some adjustments. Somewhere along the line, I’ll suggest we swap out the crashes for a couple things I’ve got and see how that’d be. Every single time, shock and awe. Seriously. It’s far from subtle. Suddenly the kit is 200 times more listenable. You want to turn up the speakers, probably because it doesn’t hurt anymore. Suddenly I can wheel a bit more snap into the snare and toms as the whole top end of the kit isn’t overpowered by harsh sizzle-y noise — same story, every time.”
If you have a bashing drummer with bright cymbals, the next line of defense is altering your mike technique. Moving the mike is always preferable to re-tweaking equalization. Here are several possible solutions. For overhead placement, most engineers spend all their time on the left-right axis. They forget there are two other axes: height and front-to-back location of the mikes. If the cymbals are too bright, consider moving the pair higher. Next, move the mikes toward the back of the room (bringing them toward the front of the kick usually accentuates cymbals). If you end up over the drummer’s head, it can become an acoustic shadow, and mess up XY-placement, so test recordings will be needed. If you have a pair of ribbon mikes, give them a try. They could be a better choice than brighter condensers.
If moving the overheads is not helping, it’s time to move to alternate techniques. A rarely used option is to mike the space above the cymbals. It looks weird but can be the right approach sometimes. Set up a spaced pair of large-diaphragm condensers in front of the kit. Make sure each mike is equidistant from the snare/kick. With the diaphragms about 8' off the ground, point the mikes as if the kit were actually floating 2' higher than it is. The mikes will still pick up bounce from the floor and ceiling, but the center of their pickup will be aimed at the air above the cymbals. Depending on your room, this can be your new secret mike technique or just a pair of room mikes. But it’s worth a try.
Another technique uses a boundary microphone (sometimes called a pressure zone or “PZM” mike). In this example, we tape the mike to a piece of Plexiglas and suspend it from the ceiling (Fig. 2). Any hard surface will work. I prefer wood or Plexiglas, as they seem to give “rounder”-sounding results. Feel free to experiment. Other than the mike, this rig costs under $30 at your local hardware store. Since this mike is a mono setup, at mix-down the stereo image will come from panning of the close drum mikes, artificial reverb, or adding room mikes.
If the real recording is still not quite pleasing, there are still options. Grammy-nominated engineer Trent Bell has gone as far as recording the drums separately from the cymbals. “On the Starlight Mints’ CD Drowaton, [producer] Allan Vest wanted the ability to compress the drums independent from the cymbals, so we had Andy Nunez play two separate takes, one for cymbals and one for drums. For the drum takes we taped over his hi-hats with big carwash sponges or towels, just so he wouldn’t make noise.” [Author’s note: Drummers, don’t write in. I’m with you. But I have to report the news.]
A final option deals with replacing the recorded cymbals. This technique has been used on drums for decades, but now it’s becoming more convincing on cymbals. There are now ways to replace the recorded cymbals with those from prerecorded collections. Sure, there have been cymbal samples for a long time, but most of those sounded like afterthoughts. But the newer libraries were recorded by drummer/engineer John Emrich (instead of a robot, or Joe the intern). Additionally, consideration has been given to specific cymbals in the collections. One of the first pro-level libraries was the Stanton Moore Bosphorus pack for the BFD line. Recently, Zildjian launched the Gen 16 Digital Vault, which gives you access to top-selling Zildjian models as well as prototype and never-before-heard models from its exclusive master vault. (See DRUM! November 2011 for a full review). Although my preference is to record the performance, these applications simply replace the cymbal hit by your artist with the same intensity hit using top-of-the-line cymbals. If that serves the song and the artist, then it’s the right call.
Drummers and recording engineers have more choices (at better prices) than any time in history. Yet, it could be argued that the quality of our recordings has declined. With this bounty comes responsibility. The unflinching honesty of digital recording means every choice we make affects the end result. Knowing which cymbals to use for a specific application, the best technique for striking those cymbals, and how to record them impacts our product. Keeping this information in mind can help improve the quality of our musicianship, engineering, and hopefully sell more music!