Recording Drums, December 1998

TIPS FROM FOUR TOP PROS 5/17/2004 8:00 AM Eastern

Tips From Four Top Pros

Ask anyone in music which instrumentalist gets the brunt of the jokes, and most would say, “the drummer, of course.” Most drummers don’t seem to mind, though, probably because they know that there is precious little popular music that would function properly without them.

There are plenty of recordings that rock or groove without any combination of vocals, guitars, keys or horns, but imagine the Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts, “A Night in Tunisia” without Art Blakey, Rush without Neil Peart or hip hop without drum loops.

Whether it is Stevie Wonder’s playfully funky grooves, Tony Williams’ wondrous, lyrical phrasing and sense of dynamics, Keith Moon’s explosive roar or Stewart Copeland’s agitated synthesis of rock, reggae and ska grooves, drums support and heighten the emotional essence of music with a rhythmic physicality and grounding.

For this Mix application feature, we enlisted four well-known producers and engineers to discuss everything from nuts-and-bolts technique to more philosophical concepts concerning producing and recording drums.

Over the past 20 years, John Hampton has made a name for himself as a producer, engineer and mixer. Credits include the Platinum Gin Blossoms CDs, and a wide range of other projects, ranging from B.B. King, Todd Snider and Jimmy Vaughan to The Replacements and The Cramps. Hampton’s mixing skills on numerous country projects, including Travis Tritt, helped put some attitude into the genre’s sound. Most recently, Hampton has been producing Who Hit John, Dragstrip Courage and The Pharoahs at his home base studio, Ardent Recording in Memphis.

“You want to know how to record drums? First of all, as everybody knows, you have to start with a good drummer. If you are mainly recording rock, you’ve got to find a guy who hits the drums pretty consistently and hard, because you want a solid backbeat.

“You can get a little more help recording drums by using analog tape because there is kind of a maximum that the tape can handle before it puts this nice, smooth little bit of compression on the drums themselves. You might say that analog tape has a true zero attack time, so you don’t have to worry about little peaks getting through before the compression reacts. So I like to use analog tape, and I like to use good drummers and good drums. All that stuff should be in place before you move microphone number one into the picture.

“I like to go for a natural drum sound. The way a drum kit really sounds is probably the way they sound 20 feet away or so, because the closer you get to them, you are so overwhelmed by the shock of the air molecules hitting your body that your concept of what that drum sound really is pretty distorted. Even if you put your fingers in your ears, you’re still feeling the drums against your body. It’s not really what drums sound like.

“So I tend to start with a good, realistic stereo overhead picture, looking at the kit from the top. I like a fairly wide stereo picture. In that regard, I tend to shy away from X-Y stereo; my personal taste heads toward M-S stereo, or mid-side stereo. That can give you a wider image than a normal X-Y and yet remain phase coherent. I like to use condenser mics that have a pad. I’ve used everything, but my favorites today are AKG 414s. They get the closest to capturing the body of the cymbal, as well as the high part of the cymbal. They usually will also give you a pretty good starting drum sound on their own, without any other microphones.

“From there, I will start trying to put the kick drum into the stereo overhead picture. My choice today is the AKG D112, but there are a lot of good kick drum mics out there. I’ve used Beyer 201s and Audio-Technica ATM 25s, which are good-sounding kick drum mics. I’ve even used a KM84 and blew it up. But it sounded good for a minute.

“Getting that microphone to be phase-coherent into your overhead picture is pretty much a matter of hitting phase switches. You try to get the kick drum as equal in level to how loud the kick is in the overheads. Then you start hitting the phase switch on the kick drum, and you’ll usually find that one phase position yields a bit more low end than the other. That’s the one that you want to go with. Then you EQ to taste, like dump all the midrange, but add a little 4 kHz.

“My rule is W-A-R on 580 Hertz, if you are using a Neve console. [Laughs] Dump it when you record it, and dump it when you play it back. Why? Because if you do that, then the sound you get is the sound of rock. It is ‘that’ sound. It’s the sound you’ve heard on every great rock record on the planet. Midrange on drums, to me, just sounds like cardboard. It sounds cheap. Dumping midrange is a more high-tech sound.

“Now we have to bring the snare drum into the picture. Normally, I will use a regular old Shure 57. I mike top and bottom. The bottom mic, for me, is optional. It depends on how hard the person playing is hitting the drum. If the drummer is creaming it, you may need a little bit of that bottom mic, because one of the physics principles of a snare drum is that, no matter how hard you hit the drum, the snare rattle is always about the same level. So the harder you hit the snare, the quieter the sound of the bottom head, relative to the top head. So the harder the drummer hits, generally the more I might need that bottom mic to get the whole sound of the drum.

“Usually a 57 is a little midrangey in the 1kHz range, and you want to get rid of some of that and add a little top to brighten it. So put in a little mid-dump and add top EQ to it, and then bring that into the overhead picture and get it balanced in there about equal with the overheads. Then you start doing the same thing with the phase switch. You will always find one phase switch that is a bit more robust than the other.

“Basically, what I just explained is what I do all the way around the kit. I do the same thing with the tom toms. I dump some mids and, usually, add a little in the 4kHz range for stick attack, so it’ll kind of cut through the wall of guitars you are going to end up with. And with all the tom toms, check the phase by putting each of them up equal in level to how loud it is in the overheads and mess with the phase until you get it right. I usually use 57s on the toms, too.

“Sometimes, some drums don’t give you that 100% happy feeling in the resonance department. Adding a mic underneath the tom tom, usually out of phase with the top mic, adds back that boom boom you are so used to hearing. I usually use 421s for that, and I generally don’t EQ. I just knock it out of phase. Knocking it out of phase will do a little bit of a natural midrange dump because of its distance to that top mic. A lot of times, that mid-dump is proportional to the size of the drum. What I mean by that is, the bigger the drum, the farther those mics are apart and the lower that canceling frequency is, which is about right for the bigger drums. You want to go down with the frequency with the mid-dump.

“A lot of times, when you lean on an overhead picture like this, the ride cymbal—just by virtue of the fact that the drummer generally keeps the ride cymbal lower and closer to the drum kit than a crash cymbal—sometimes needs a little help. So although it is totally against everything I know, I’ll put another mic on the ride cymbal to help bring it into the picture. The more mics, the more of a headache it becomes to keep it all phase-coherent.

“A lot of times, in rock music especially, it gets hard to keep that soundstage picture clear, and I understand that a lot of people nowadays—you kids out there—don’t necessarily want it to be clear. Fine! But in case you are one of those who want to keep it a little cleaned up, usually the best way out of that is to put some of that super high 16 or 17kHz-type EQ on those overheads. It makes an artificially detailed drum picture, but it has a tendency to detail the drums in a place that is well above the smear of electric guitar crunch stuff. The higher frequencies are not really in those guitar sounds. So those higher frequencies are a good place to go to pull the drum detail out of the guitar hash.

“My favorite reverb is the room the drums are sitting in. That is actually air molecules moving around in sympathy with the drum kit. When I do set up room mics, I like to set up room mics, meaning I don’t mike the drum kit from the room. I mike the room. I usually have a tendency to use large diaphragm condenser mics looking away from the drum kit toward parts of the room that sound good. I’m getting what’s coming off the walls and floor and ceiling. I think the reason I like that is because it enables me to maintain a detailed drum picture and yet add a room sound to it.

“If you put your room mic up looking at the drum kit, you will often encounter some problems with maintaining the clarity of the drum’s sonic picture. Let’s just set up a typical scenario: The stick hits the ride cymbal. The sound gets to the overhead mics in, say, 2 milliseconds. Then that sound arrives to the room mic in 47 milliseconds. Now you have smeared the definition of the drum picture. And that’s happening with all of the cymbals and all of the drums and everything. But if you’re just getting the reflections off the wooden walls of the tracking space, the wood doesn’t reflect those higher frequencies, and therefore, they don’t have a tendency to smear the detail of the drums.

“There are some pretty bright-sounding rooms out there, and Ardent’s C studio is one of the brightest. But even our C studio doesn’t ever get up to the point of smearing that detail. If I do end up mixing stuff where people had mics looking at the drum kit, I have a tendency to dump everything from about 3 or 4 kHz up. I then let the overheads serve as the providers of the detail and not the room mics. That’s often helpful.”

Peter Collins has produced an amazingly wide range of critically and commercially successful projects, ranging from Rush and Queensryche to Jewel, Indigo Girls and Brian Setzer. Collins, based in Nashville, more recently produced Bare Jr. and a duet with Elton John and LeAnn Rimes.

“Generally speaking, these days, I like for the listener to be able to ‘see’ the kit in its entirety, rather than split up over the stereo system, with each component cleanly separated. I’d rather be able to ‘see’ the drummer sitting in the room with the kit, with the kit sounding like one instrument, rather than a whole bunch of percussive elements. So when I’m recording, I want to have that vision at the end of the day. I think that’s found on most of my records, over the last few years; particularly on the Brian Setzer record, which has a very organic sound to it that isn’t hyped up.

“I’m a huge fan of pre-production, so that the drummer is totally prepared and we can nail it very quickly in studio. I try to catch the early performances. They don’t get better. They usually get worse. It’s important to catch the drummer while they’re fresh and not ‘thinking.’ Then you just get a natural flow of performance.

“I usually like to use click tracks, which are not metronomes, but actually tonal sequences that follow the chord changes. It’s also helpful for everybody concerned, in terms of reminding them what the pre-production was. It gives everyone some room to breathe around it, because it isn’t as rigid as a metronomic-type click.

“For me, a personal landmark record was Rites of Passage by the Indigo Girls, which we recorded with Jerry Marrota over at Woodstock. We used Bob Clearmountain’s mix room, which was normally not used for recording. We had Jerry in a booth in this small room, and the drum sound was extremely present. It is the complete antithesis of the stadium rock sound.,/P>

“On the last two Rush records, Counterparts and Test For Echo, I went for a much more organic, less-hyped sound. My philosophy with Neil’s [Peart, Rush’s drummer] drums has changed over the years. In 1985, when I first worked with him, they wanted an ultra-high-tech sound, which was very fashionable in those days—the days of Trevor Horn, Yes and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and all those British bands. Rush specifically wanted to be in that arena. It was not a particularly organic sound.

In those days, when we did Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, the engineer James ‘Jimbo’ Barton was instrumental in achieving a unique sound, utilizing high compression on the drums and a very clever use of reverbs that were very much larger than life.

"At the time, Neil was triggering samples of African drums and all sorts of other odd things, plus he had a small kit behind him and a big kit in front there in the studio together, with all his toms and percussion stuff. He would spin around in the middle of a song and play the smaller kit and then come back to the big kit.

“A very good example of understated drums are the drums on the single remake I did of Jewel’s ‘Foolish Games,’ which was a Top 10 hit. The drums created a really cool momentum to the track, without you being very aware that they were there. Omar Hakim played, and it was a really beautiful, subtle performance.”

During the late ’70s, Chic were unquestionably the most elegant band with the deepest R&B grooves in the world of disco. A key component in Chic’s artistic vision was producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers. Rodgers (newly instated president of Music Producers Guild of the Americas) has since produced some of the biggest acts in popular music. Rodgers has created drum tracks featuring signature musical hooks as memorable as any great lyrical or melodic instrument line in pop. Over the last year, there have been three Number One hip hop hits (Will Smith, Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy and Mase) using grooves from Rodgers’ productions. Among Rodgers’ many credits are Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Power Station, Vaughan Brothers, Paul Simon, Al Jarreau, Sister Sledge and David Bowie.

“I look at the drums as the foundation of the record, the foundation of the groove, the foundation of the song and the foundation of the mix. Everything is based around the drums. I think of the drummer as an instrumentalist and a composer, so we are composing a drum part. We’re not just playing the record; we are playing a composition with a beginning, middle and end.

“Most of the time, we all play together when we are cutting a rhythm track. Often, I’ll say to the drummer, ‘You’re the only person who counts right now. We are all subordinate to you, because we can all change our parts.’

“When I’m recording drums, I’m expecting some unique, wonderful thing to happen that is going to inspire me to say, ‘Wait a minute! Let’s make that a hook!’ That was certainly the case with Madonna’s song ‘Like A Virgin,’ which Tony Thompson played drums on. I’m not sure that I gave Tony the actual pattern, but I sure know that when I heard it, I went, ‘Hey, I want you to do that every time at this point.’ It just became a hook.

“In R&B music, putting hooks in the rhythm section used to be a very powerful trick. After all, when a person is singing your song, they never sing a lyric all the way through. They sing lyrics, and then they sing some part of the groove.

“Another song that jumps out at me is ‘Modern Love,’ by David Bowie. When we sat down and rehearsed the song, I said, ‘Okay, Omar, this is what your pattern is going to be.’ He played it, and we started grooving, and while we were playing the song, I noticed that he was changing the pattern. After we finished the performance, I liked what he did so much that we then went back and changed our parts to sympathize with his parts.

“A drummer’s ability to understand the beat and how to shift the feeling and vibe, to be on top of the beat or behind the beat, is essential for me to feeling comfortable with a musician. If a person doesn’t understand the difference in interpreting a beat and interpreting swing feel or isn’t able to rock and groove behind and on top of beats and all of that stuff, then that isn’t a person I want to play with. I’d feel uncomfortable with them.

“When I think about those days with Chic, we played the songs like 10, 11 or 12 minutes at a pop with no click track. We just grooved like that. ‘We Are Family’ has to be like ten minutes long. When you start the record at the beginning, all the way toward the end, you don’t feel like there is some big groove shift.

“I grew up in a vibe that was like, ‘The only time you speed up is if the conductor makes you speed up.’ But R&B bands were all about pocket and laying and sticking right there and being able to set your watch to the tempo. We were like metronomes. We would just practice grooving. You had to be able to play the same thing, over and over and over again, and be able to keep it there for an hour if you had to. Nowadays, I use click track all the time, because all the drummers I know are completely comfortable with them. As a matter of fact, I only started using click tracks when drummers I knew started requesting them.

“Traditionally, it is older players who have been playing in blues bands or more freestyle bands who have problems with click tracks. I’ve been a good enough coach with these drummers to make them very comfortable with clicks. That’s because I program something that feels musical to them. It feels like part of the arrangement, and they are not just playing to a metronome. Instead, they’re playing to something that is swinging.

“If you could go into every poker game and start every hand with two aces, you would feel pretty good. So every time I walk into a recording studio, I’m trying to get in there with as many aces as possible—a great engineer, great equipment, great musicians and hopefully great songs. Then I try to make it as good as it can be.”

Elliot Scheiner has worked with many of the most successful and influential acts in pop and rock. Many of his productions feature a drum sound that is immediate and organic, while not overwhelming of the emotional thrust of the material. On radio and in critical listening environments, Scheiner’s work sounds great, and the string of Platinum artists he’s worked with (including The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Buffett, Aerosmith, John Fogerty, Billy Joel and Steely Dan) attest to that fact. Most recently, Scheiner’s projects have included Stevie Nicks, Toto and a new Steely Dan album.

“I go in with the attitude that I don’t want the players to do what I want them to do. I want them to do what they do. Obviously, somebody saw something in them. In the case of a band, I feel that it is my obligation to capture what somebody saw. The whole trick with a lot of this is in placing the mics right.

“I’ve always felt that the drums and bass were the heart of the record. On most of the records I’ve mixed, the drums are fairly loud. With the exception of a few rock ’n’ roll records, where they are sitting back a little more, most of the records I’ve done are records where I can afford to keep the drums way up there, like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. John Fogerty loves loud drums. He had the drums louder than I have ever mixed them. I wouldn’t have thought about mixing them that loud, but they definitely worked that way.”

“Nine out of 10 times, I find the same mics will work for most any drummer’s kit. On the kick, I normally will use a [AKG] 112. Occasionally, I’ll find a bass drum that won’t work with that mic. In that case, I’ll go to an RE-20. It seems to be working in those situations where a drum is tuned a little bit differently—usually a little lower—and where I’m not getting enough attack. The RE-20 gets me a little bit more attack on the drum.

“For snare drum, I use one mic and one mic only. It’s on top, and I seldom use a bottom mic, unless somebody insists on it. I have always used an SM57. It gives me the natural sound of the drum. They take a beating and they don’t overload.

“For the rack toms, I used to use 421s. The 421s worked great on just about anyone’s toms. I did some live recordings for The Eagles, and 421s worked out fine. But when I worked for Fleetwood Mac, their front of house guy was using SM98s on Mick’s toms. The live mixers use them, because you don’t see them. They are teeny, and the front of house guy gets everything he needs out of them for live stuff, but I wasn’t getting everything I needed out of them for recording.

“I ended up putting ATM-25s in there, and those worked out great. I close-miked each tom, and I didn’t have to use any EQ. The 98s were already in place, and the front of house guy wasn’t going to lose his 98s. So I had to position my mics pretty close to the 98s and pretty close to the heads. Those mics take a beating as well. I was surprised. I’ve been using the ATMs in the studio as well.

“I never put mics underneath. I don’t see the benefit. It’s more phase shift that I have to worry about, and it isn’t adding anything. I can usually get what I want out of the tom toms from right above.

“For overheads, I’ve always used C-12s. I keep them up fairly high. I try to get more than just the cymbals. I try to get as much good leakage as I can from the rest of the kit. I usually place them right above the cymbals, anywhere from four to six feet, depending on how many cymbals there are. I will also angle them a bit.

“For hi-hat, I’ll mostly use a KM81, positioned away from the drummer on the back side of the hat. If you’re looking at the drummer from the side, and the top of the hat that is closest to the drummer is like 12 o’clock, then I will place the mic at about 4 o’clock, not too close to where his stick hits.

“I’ve been using RE-20s as room mics, and I bring them down to chair level for somebody who is sitting down. Sometimes I will face the drums, and sometimes I’ll face them away from the drums. Either way, I end up capturing what I want, with very little EQ. I really like big, live rooms to put drums in. I can always put baffles around the drummer, but I like to start with a very live room and then work down.”

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