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Recording & Mixing Tips

General

  1. Use two room mics on the kit as well as conventional close mics and overheads- one in front of the kit for a bass drum heavy sound (positioned 50 cm in front of the bass drum at head height- move closer or further as is required) and the other above the drummers head pointing to the snare (for a snare heavy sound)
  2. Unless its the desired effect don't over compress bass drum, snare and hi-hat microphones when recording. Save it for the mix.
  3. Remove any cymbals or toms that are not being used so as to avoid extra resonance.
  4. When using two microphones on the snare (one on top & one underneath) remember to check/reverse the phase on the bottom microphone. Avoid having the microphone's too close, the top mic should be 2-3 inches up and out aimed at the centre of the head. The mic under the snare should be aimed at the centre/snare band and no closer than a couple of inches.
  5. When a microphone is placed too close to the head, it doesn't pick up as much of the "crack", it catches more of a timbale sound and will sound unnatural. Listen to the snare in the room as the drummer is playing - and then listen to the snare on tape - are they the same ? If not, they are probably too close.
  6. Experiment with the microphone beneath the snare, if it's too close to the snare band it wont sound natural.
  7. Use the bottom snare microphone as an FX send (a spring reverb always works for me!).
  8. If the snare is buzzing find the cause of it and retune it, usually it's the toms. If that doesn't work try gaffer tape over the snare band (bearing in mind to stay close to the rim).
  9. Between 5khz and 6khz is always a good frequency to EQ/boost on snares.
  10. If you want a fat snare sound, keep the bottom skin low pitched - regardless of the pitch of the top skin.
  11. If you want a more cutting snare sound, tune the bottom skin up in pitch and keep the top skin lower in pitch than the bottom.
  12. Use two bass drum microphones, one close to the beater (for attack) and the other just outside the outer skin(for depth). If you mix the two microphones together to create one killer bass drum sound, remember to check the phase. (check www.littlelabs.com for tools to help with this technique).
  13. Movement of the microphone as little as a few cm in the bass drum can make big changes. Closer to the inner head results in more definition and less "boom" from the drum. Careful not to get too close to the beater or the mic amp will overload and distort and/or you will damage the mic. Wooden beaters are my personal favourites as they give a good natural definition.
  14. Try to keep the amount of tracks to a minimum. If you take care whilst setting up the sound, and by mixing 'overhead', tom and room mics together into one big stereo pair you will be able to achieve great drum sounds and never use more than five tracks - (taking into account a separate track for kick, snare and hats). If you are unsure of your sound/balance you can always bounce once you have your take recorded and you are happy with the sound.
  15. If you are recording on tape, (which is what we prefer to do), record any clicks/loops or guide music to tape before you record so you don't have to wait for sequencer to catch up if doing any drops and to minimise any sync problems. Syncing machines to tape is one of the things we don't miss about the old days! If your clicks/guide music are on tape, you can experiment with the vari-speed whilst recording. If the song is too fast for the drummer try slowing it down as it may help them achieve a better feel. I do this a lot as I like the way it affects the sound and helps to iron out any laziness in the delivery.
  16. When bouncing the toms, ride them up in the fills. Louder is always better and if later on you find its too much use a compressor (often a nice effect in breakdowns).
  17. If the hi-hats are too loud in the natural balance (i.e in the live room) try making the drummer use a lighter drumstick (or nylon tipped) on hats and a heavier stick on the snare.
  18. If you're using clicks on a sequencer - make a simple percussion pattern and even a bass line/tambourine as opposed to a brain numbing vibe killing blip. (Quantized of course). Alternatively, loop up a bit of a track which you like the vibe of and get your drummer to jam to that - much more fun!
  19. Get the best sound you possibly can before recording - always think like your mixing and give the drummers a good headphone balance- check and ask if they want or need something louder in their headphone mix.
  20. Be adventurous with the low frequency, especially with room/ambient mics and kicks.
  21. If possible quiet cymbals are always best for recording, so the older the better. Raising them high above the kit works best, might look funny and the drummer might complain, but the sound is better as you will have less spill on tom mics. Jazz drummers and Buddy Rich fans will fight you on this one!
  22. If like me you like compressed sounding drums but don't like the way it always affects the crash cymbals- overdub them later on and then bounce them into your stereo room/overhead track. (Dave Grohl often records like this).
  23. Spend time making sure the tuning of the drums is as good as possible. If the drums naturally sound good then getting them recorded is a breeze. Once you have a rough sound together record a minute or so, then play it back whilst vari-speeding both faster and slower, so as to check whether the sound of the drums are better up or down in pitch.
  24. Assuming you're working on analog tape, record drums loudly and don't be scared to rock the meters so as to guarantee maximum tape compression.
  25. If you're working on analog tape with SMPTE (and are in-sync with sequencers) prepare 3 takes for each rhythm. All three sharing the same SMPTE time (i.e starting from 0 min on each take). By having the same sync/smpte reference you will be able to edit between takes and still be in sync (as long as you replace the same sections from one take to the other i.e Verse 1 on take 1 for Verse 1 on take 3 (and your edits have to be clean of course !).

For this technique to work there are a few simple things to be aware of:

  • Make sure the drummer plays the same arrangement on each take.
  • Choose the best take and then replace relevant sections. Don't be overly fussy about it, but you will need a good drummer!
  • Use natural places to edit from - snares, the start of fills etc. The key is to edit on the cleanest hits - cymbals, open hihats, flams (slap the drummer!) etc will cause you problems, headaches, stress, grumpiness and delay.
  • Be careful when editing after a cymbal (listen out for the decay) it might sound Ok at low volume or on the close mics but when you compress the room mics and overheads, the decay becomes longer and more audible, and a chopped cymbal is not often good. They often are audible for quite some time after the hit (4 bars or more depending on tempo).
  • As you are recording make notes - as you have three takes you can make sure you get exactly what you need. If you've got it in two takes let the drummer know and let him go mental on the third take, you might get something extra.

Recording on Digital or PC

  1. Keep it simple. It's far too easy to waste time at the screen while your musician is sitting getting bored and losing the great idea he/she had when you first played the track!
  2. Yes you can keep a million takes of everything and edit them all together, but it's very tedious and uses lots of drive space. Don't accept the 'Oh well you can always ProTools it' attitude. If they play it right in the first place, the feel is better and it doesn't take hours to put together.
  3. Try and use some analogue gear (compressors/EQs/pre-amps) when recording as once you're in the digital realm nothing will give you that warmth and depth (and yes noise!). Music that is purely digital sounds sterile and thin.
  4. Give your session a start time of 10 seconds or start your sequence at bar 3 or 5. This means that if you need to synchronise any tape machines, drum machines or other DAW there is time to lock up and your first bar will not sound rushed or clipped.
  5. If you hit the clip/ overload on the meter, you can get away with it up to a level, like tape. But hit it too hard and unlike tape, it sounds horrible. If your level is hot or very dynamic, either back off the level or use an analogue compressor on the input path.
  6. NAME THINGS! Life is so much easier if all your audio files aren't called 'Audio 1#blahblahblah'.
  7. Just because you can run 128 tracks simultaneously doesn't mean you have to! Mono can be a beautiful thing....

Mixing Tips

  1. For bass drum look for punch (1.5-3 KHz boost) as well as depth (60-100 Hz boost).
  2. For snare drum look for presence (4-5 KHz boost), attack (1-2 KHz boost) and watch out for low mid mud (200-600 Hz cut)
  3. For hi-hats and overheads look for high top end (12-16 KHz) for Hi-Fi and RnB sound
  4. For Dub and King Tubby sounding hi-hats try filtering top end off or boost midrange (1.5-3-Khz) or find some nasty old hi-hats.
  5. Try not to share/equalize the same frequencies on each track, find the sweet spot for each drum/microphone.
  6. Turn up the overheads and room microphones on fills and instrumental breaks for extra dynamics.
  7. Try taking a mastering approach when sub-mixing drums i.e. listen out for possible EQ and compression improvements, experiment whilst listening at low levels.
  8. Instead of individually compressing everything try just a stereo compressor or EQ on the sub mixed drums.
  9. Use different combinations of room / ambience in the arrangement, e.g. more ambience in the chorus of a song can help in dynamics / energy.
  10. If in doubt turn the drums up in the mix, too loud is always better than too quiet as far as I'm concerned (watch compressor settings).
  11. No room or ambient tracks? Send sub mix of drums to an amp or speaker and find desired ambience texture by microphone selection/placement, try a ribbon microphone, fuzz pedal or some crazy compression to impress your friends!
  12. Try radical compression and EQ on the input of reverbs and FX.
  13. Don't over mix reverbs-usually the snare and overheads are enough for subtle production values.
  14. Want to go crazy! Compress or filter FX returns-make them pump and scream!
  15. The bass drum and bass line need to work together, usually it helps if they do not share the same sound/frequency i.e. if the bass is very low/sub sounding the bass drum typically will have to have some attack or you will lose energy / movement. The opposite will also apply, if the bass is bright or melodic try a lower sounding EQ or tuning on the bass drum.
  16. If you're mixing in a digital environment, try using spare inputs/outputs on your interface for analogue FX sends and re-amping. If you don't have a zero latency interface you can always record the return to an audio track. Your crusty old guitar amp reverb might not sound big and posh like a high end plug-in, but it will quite likely sound cooler. Cassette machines can be used for sub-mixing, giving an exaggerated tape saturation sound that's great for big retro drums as well as making things like soft-synths and keyboard emulators sound more lifelike!!

The 70s Sound

  1. Detune drums all the way down. Yes, ALL the way ! But not too far with the snare.
  2. Tape Gaffer tape in a criss cross fashion over all the toms.
  3. Take off the bottom skins on the toms and place the mics inside (on some makes however the lugs will rattle, so keep the skins and tune low, but not as low as the front skins.)
  4. Take out inside padding if you have any in the bass drum-try using a small cushion or bits of soft foam instead of pillows.
  5. Use wooden beaters on the bass drum.
  6. Try and find old and big 15" hi-hats.
  7. Try and use both wooden and metal snares at least 6" deep-preferably old and dirty.
  8. Replace your skins with Calfskin, can be expensive and tedious but it's worth it.

Want to be a Jedi?

  1. Look for interesting sounds by experimenting with the tuning, different beaters, sticks and skins.
  2. Look for cheap old drums and cymbals, military snares or toys for extra character.
  3. Don't be scared to experiment!
  4. Apply your mixing experience to your drum recording.
  5. Don't be scared of drummer's. Let the drummer know your looking for a good drum sound, most players will be co-operative.
  6. Record and play back the first take so as to let the drummer hear the sound, check the feel etc. If it sounds good the following takes will be better.
  7. Learn how to edit for extra freedom but don't over-edit performances. If you have a "Fix in the Mix!" approach you will never be a Jedi!
  8. If a drum track needs a lot a work it means its not good! Push for a great take
  9. Energy and vibe should always be at the forefront of your objectives.
  10. Listen and discuss the other instruments to record or overdub for drum tuning choice.
  11. In the grand scheme of things remember that the snare tuning defines the sound of the drum kit more than anything else.
  12. Always check the phase relationship between your microphone set up, use your ears and in general keep it simple - less mics will have less phase cancellation when you mix them together.
  13. Remember the drummer, if he or she are inspired and made to feel good they will deliver a better take and in doing so they will make you sound better.
  14. I always recommend setting up the drums and sound the night before your session, leaving your ears fresh for the recording and saving energy for the drummer.

Troubleshooting

  1. If you are not getting good tom sounds, take the bottom skin off and try the microphones inside for extra retro quality (see 70s sound).
  2. Use new snare skins for the top if you are missing natural brightness or attack and old heads if you are after a warmer more dampened sound.
  3. If your bass drum is not sounding fat enough it could be because the microphone is too close to the beater or the bass drum itself is too dampened i.e check your cushion or pillow isn't resting on the beater head and listen to the tuning.
  4. If the bass drum is booming try taking the front head off or try more dampening.
  5. Listen to the drums in the room, do they sound good? If you have placed the drummer in the centre of the room and the sound is too ambient or coloured try facing the drum kit into a corner close to the wall as the microphone stands will allow. If the walls/floor are reflective i.e brick or shiny surface try hanging up heavy curtains or quilts and use carpet on the floor.
  6. Is the room too dead or lifeless? Try building a wooden platform for the drums for extra resonance. If there is a hallway leading to the live area or another small room/vocal booth try and use them for extra ambience and vibe. If it's a two room set up try a microphone in the control room and monitor on headphones whilst recording.
  7. Do your drum sounds lack dynamics? check your compression settings are not too extreme.
  8. Listen to your favourite sounding drum recordings before and during the session to compare, if the results are encouraging you will feel better about what your doing.
  9. Are you looking for a heavy sound and not getting it? Try heavy sticks, bigger and deeper snares and encourage the drummer to be an animal.
  10. Let the drummer know what you want by either playing him an example or encouraging the right direction, they will feel better knowing they are playing the right thing and in doing so will deliver a better performance.

Compression

  • A compressor reduces the dynamic range of audio material: i.e. it makes the loudest bits quieter so you can make everything louder, keeping the level more consistent.
  • A limiter stops the output of a signal/audio going above a pre-determined level (threshold).
  • Attack and Release settings determine how much the compressor pumps so experiment.
  • Threshold controls the level above which compression/limiting occurs
  • Ratio settings determine the amount of gain reduction (usually expressed as a ratio 2:1 etc.)
  • Make up gain or output level determines final output level of the compressed signal.

In use

  • The ambience/room tracks tend to be a good starting point for the typical big room sound, start with high threshold and low compression ratios, experiment with the attack and release settings for pumping sound.
  • If you have applied Eq try alternating between pre and post and choose the best sounding.
  • If you are going crazy and pumping the drums at obscene levels then listen out for cymbals and if you are monitoring on small speakers remember wild compression will affect your over all bottom/bass end so when listening on large/club speakers it might sound muddy or undefined.
  • If when you've compressed, you find there's not enough of a hit, back off the attack or raise the threshold.
  • If you've got a cool sound but you want more 'boom', try using a heavy compression on an aux, group or bus send. Use a fast attack and release, low threshold and high ratio. Feed it up a channel (or 2 if stereo) and balance it in to your mix or record it.
  • Use your ears and not your eyes i.e. don't worry about the meters and listen at low levels for reference.

Different types

  • VCA: tend to be fast so they are popular such as DBX 160
  • Optical: still reasonably fast and tend to have more character (than VCA) and are more expensive.
  • Tube: The most expensive and depending on the model tend to be the best such as Fairchild 660 ( if you are rich) or Altec 436c (if you're on a budget) for character and warmth.
  • Others: The ultimate in our opinion are Vintage Pye Compressor/Limiters or BBC AM6, Telefunken/Siemens U73b and original black face vu DBX 160. We also love our EMI compressor, as well as our Chiswick Reach tube comp.
  • Plug-Ins: There are many different software compressor plug-ins available, as well as software simulations of many famous and popular analogue compressors and generally they behave like the hardware originals, have all the same functions and have the huge advantage of being able to use any number of the same compressor at one time. The best ones look ahead slightly, or have a 'smooth' setting which prevents the nasty click you can sometimes get when using heavy compression with a fast attack. However, all plug-ins have an inherrent delay involved in the time it takes to process the signal. This varies from plug-in to plug-in, but it can affect the phase relationships of the different tracks. If this becomes a problem, you should use the same plug-ins across all of your kit, giving them all the same delay.
    While they are cost-effective, we have yet to hear the plug-in that actually sounded the same as the real thing; they don't colour the sound or give it the same body and warmth as real analogue circuitry.

Tips by M.Pelanconi and N.Coplowe