Tips From The Control Room
Fig. 3. Your great sounding live cymbal might be the worst choice for the studio.
4. Live Cymbals Are Not Recording Cymbals
Avid DRUM! readers won’t find this to be a surprise, but this is not commonly known: not all cymbals record well. Now, back when I was a kid, when we had to walk to the music store – in the snow, uphill, both ways – the U.S. market had lathed cymbals or lathed cymbals. Finding brilliant, raw-finish, hand-hammered, or machine-hammered variants was uncommon or very expensive. How times have improved. Today’s market is a veritable cornucopia of weights, finishes, and crafting techniques. That’s super cool, but many drummers choose cymbals optimized for live use. These cymbals are designed to project in a live situation to cut through large tube amp stacks. On stage is one thing, but in the studio a more nuanced sound is often more appropriate.
In general, shiny “metal” type cymbals are better for live sound and dark, dry “jazz” type cymbals are better for studio work. (Fig. 3.) That said, experienced drummers will tell you cymbals are like people: stereotyping them based upon appearance isn’t the best policy! For example, a set of my favorite recording hi-hats is brilliant finish, named “metal hats,” and is pretty heavy. But put them in front a mike and they are silky, smooth, and controlled. I got them used because I’m sure the original owner purchased them based upon their appearance and name. It all comes down to the voicing of each plate. In this example, the name and appearance have little to do with the sound.
If you do play heavy, loud, bright cymbals, and that’s the only way to get your sound, discuss that with the engineer. There are ways to change microphones, microphone types, and placement that can help capture what you like about those cymbals. Sorting this ahead of time will avoid freaking out the engineer.
5. Set Up Time Is Not Free
Back when studio time was super expensive and you had to buy all of your tape media, some places started a “free set-up time” policy. They more than made up for it on the back end. Somehow, this urban legend is still out there. Unless the studio explicitly tells you set up time has no cost, I do not advise assuming it. Free set-up usually means rushing and doing a bad job.
Grammy winning engineer Trent Bell (Flaming Lips, The Chainsaw Kittens, The Sugar Free Allstars) puts it best: “Set-up time, especially for drums, is the hardest part of recording. It’s when I do the most important part of engineering.” A corollary to this note is not to rush the engineer while you are getting sounds. The drums and bass are the founda- tion of a song. The better the foundation, the more stable the end product. Ideally, all pricing – be it hourly, daily, or by the project – is handled before you start the session. Some places have a studio manager or office manager who handles all the billing. Most recording engineers want to focus on the creative process and do not like talking about money anyway. Since drummers are the Marines of any band (first to take the beach) I wanted to warn you about this possible conflict topic.
6. Recording And Drumheads
Many drummers I talk to are concerned about heads. Most of the advice they’ve been given comes from bandmates or web forums. Here’s my take. First, talk with your engineer about what type of heads you use. Responsible engineers should be familiar with general head types: coated, clear, single/multi-ply, as well as the various muffling lines on the market. As with cymbals, some heads are better suited for the studio than others. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the tuning and the player. Since head type affects stick response, be wary of an engineer who insists you abandon your favorite brand for a vastly different thickness. Find a compromise, if possible.
The age and state of heads is probably the biggest concern. There is a myth that you must buy new heads for the studio. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The condition and timbre of the head is more important than its age. If the film resonates a consistent tone that’s good. If the head has impact dimples that’s bad. Coated heads that have lost their surface can be okay, unless you’re a brush player. So do not assume you must buy new heads. I definitely recommend you evaluate your resonant (bottom) heads. I once had a client who had never changed his bottom heads – and he purchased the kit in 1986! Yes, they last longer than batter heads, but don’t let a presidential cycle change without inspecting them.
If you have your heads off, it’s always a good idea to run your finger along the bearing edge. The best drums and heads won’t matter if the contact point is damaged or otherwise compromised. Small issues can be “patched” with wax or chalk, but serious issues may require a recut. If you’ve never done an edge, ask around town for a respectable drum tech. You want an experienced person on that task.
Fig. 4. Never move a microphone. If it's in the way say something.
7. Live Engineers Are Not Recording Engineers
Most drummers have played a bunch of live shows before they ever step into the studio. That can be good and bad. Do not base your interactions with live sound engineers as a model for how to handle your recording engineer. Yes, live and studio cats do similar jobs. But we’re like cousins who see each other at weddings and funerals then never speak between.
The reason deals with objectives and constraints. Live engineers must get everything correct under a brutal time crunch. There is almost no margin for error, or they could lose their jobs. The easy part of the live gig is people hear the performance once, in a space controlled by the live engineer, and then it’s done. (Live recordings are a different discussion). Compared to live sound, recording engineers have no time concerns. However, the recording will be played back figuratively forever, under vastly different playback conditions. Consequently, while both are “audio” engineers, the demands, conditions, and end products are vastly different. Hey, pandas and grizzlys are classified as “bears” but one is a big raccoon and the other is a killing machine.
Here are some tips for interacting with your recording engineer. First, never ever, ever (did I say ever?) move a microphone once he or she has placed it. If a mike is in your way, you need to speak up immediately. (Fig. 4.) The correct process for mike placement: First the drummer sets up to his liking. Then microphones are placed where they can fit. If you are not comfortable because the engineer moved gear, or if a tom is out of place, these changes will probably have a negative impact on your performance. Remember, the recording engineer has a job because you need a recording – not the other way around. Com-fortable drummers make fewer mistakes and give better takes.
If you want to be good to your recording engineer, do it with food. Beer might be good for the live guy, but shows are typically late at night. Sober recording engineers are better for you. Feeding your engineer by picking up lunch or dinner is always appreciated. Remember: your recording engineer has great discretion on how your hourly billing is calculated. You want him or her on your side.
Recording microphones are usually very different than live sound counterparts. Live sound mikes need to withstand wide ranges in temperature, moisture, and abuse. Heck, you can hit many of them with a hammer and they will work good as new. But don’t try that in the studio. I suggest you spend extra time making sure you and the engineer are content that a stray stick isn’t going to nail a mike. Again, if you’re nervous about hitting a mike, that will affect your playing. In the event that you bump a mike, or kick a stand, do not hide the fact. Speak up. Even a centimeter’s movement will have a large effect on a recorded drum’s sound.