October 06, 2011

Drummers, and Why We Love (to Hate) Them

Anyone who likes rock knows that rock drums are awesome. Rock drums are huge, punchy, epic, and in the pocket. Rock drummers are the unsung heroes of every band, and nothing is more viscerally satisfying in live sound than mixing a top-notch drummer behind a great-sounding drum kit.
By Marc Wathieu from Huy, Belgium (LowSwing studio, Berlin  Uploaded by clusternote) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
That said, it's important to remember that 90% of the drum mix is done by the drummer him/herself. A halfway-decent live sound engineer can pick out a killer drummer/drum combination before placing a single microphone. Just like the rest of us, drummers each have an individual set of strengths and weaknesses. Some drummers have absolutely flawless timing, but couldn't tune a snare drum to save their lives. Others are just the opposite—hours spent honing the tone of each drum are wasted on sloppy playing and spotty rhythm.
But the most-overlooked skill a drummer can bring to the table is balance. I work with tons of local bands, and the thing that separates the men from the boys (pardon me, ladies) isn't a flashy polyrhythm or a lightning-fast double kick, but rather the ability of a drummer to balance his/her kit live, in the moment.
What do I mean by this? Well, let's take a look at Joe Local, the drummer in your local bar band. Let's say Joe has a nice kit, and can keep a beat all night long. But Joe can't balance his kit—he doesn't realize, or care, that his cymbals are six times louder than his snare drum, and that his kick drum is on time, but also not as loud as his snare. No one has ever bothered to point this out to Joe, and he's never had an opportunity to really hear his playing from a detached distance.
Joe's band gets up on stage, and it's immediately apparent that something's not right. The overbearing wash of cymbals cuts through every other element of the mix, no matter how much the engineer “turns them down.” (Or, more likely, mutes the overhead channels.) Cymbal leakage is prominent in the tom microphones, and there is so much cymbal bleed in the lead vocal mic that it has effectively become an auxiliary overhead microphone. The engineer brings up kick/snare to match the cymbal level (trying to “balance” the kit) and this drowns out the guitars. When the guitars come up to compete with the drums, the vocals become buried. When the vocal mic is turned up, the cymbal bleed also becomes louder, and the whole process repeats itself. You, the engineer, are then stuck overhearing the thing no engineer wants to overhear: “Yeah, you guys played great, but the mix was terrible.”

This is how much power Joe Local wields at every gig, for better or worse. If he's lucky, someone will sit him down one day and explain this to him. If he's even luckier, he'll be smart enough to actually listen.

So what can you, the hapless sound dude/dudette, do to help Joe on his path to percussion nirvana? The honest answer is: Not much. Sure, you can ask a drummer to lay off the cymbals, or hit the snare harder, or . . . but keep in mind that a night-to-day transition is not likely to happen in the six minutes before this drummer hits the stage. Usually, the best you can hope for is that by the next time the band plays at your venue, that little seed you planted will have taken hold, and your next experience with the band will be mixing, rather than damage control.
(Also, try to remember that telling a drummer how to play his drums isn't too much different from a drummer telling you how to mix a band. Use your best judgment in deciding whether a particular drummer will appreciate your interest in his band's development, or whether your comments might be misconstrued as a personal attack. Each drummer is different, and that's why we love (to hate) them.)
Rock on,
Nathan Schied
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