The Secrets Of Recording Cymbals

recording secrets

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.

Changing Historical Precedent

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).

recording secrets

Fig. 1

The Times They Were A Changin’

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.

{pagebreak}

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.

recording secrets

Fig. 2

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.

Conclusion

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!