November 03, 2011

How to Mix Drums in 60 Seconds

In the studio world, it's not unheard of to spend days getting the perfect drum sound. Drums are meticulously tuned. Microphones are painstakingly placed. Slide rules make guest appearances to calculate proper phase relationships. Suffice to say, it's often a pretty involved process.

In the down-n-dirty world of live sound, however . . . well, we have minutes, not hours. The headlining band usually has the “luxury” of a 60-90 minute sound check, which needs to cover not only drums, but bass, guitars, keys, vocals, monitor levels, a few practice songs . . .
By Stephan Czuratis (Jazz-face) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
As an intern, you won't be dealing with headlining bands. Which means you'll have, if you're lucky, 15 minutes to set up and sound check a band. (Approximately 12 of these minutes will be spent getting the previous band off the stage, and getting the current band's gear on deck and ready to go.) With that in mind, here's my go-to method for getting drum sounds on the fly. Keep in mind that these are generalizations, and every situation calls for something a little different.

If anything below works for you . . . great! If not, leave a comment letting me know what does.
1. Mic'ing
Kick – If the kick has a big fat hole in it, I put a Sennheiser e901 inside the drum and a Shure Beta 52A in the hole. These are just the mics I have available, use what you like. I'll ask the drummer to whack the kick a few times while I'm kneeling in front of the drum. I'm not sure if this is actually beneficial in anything other than a general sense, but at the very least it lets the drummer know that I'm paying attention. For more attack, I'll point the mic at the beater; for more boom, I'll point the mic at the place where the shell meets the drum head.

If the drummer does not have a hole in the bass drum, I put a mic 2-3 inches from the center of the resonant head, accept that the bass drum sound will most likely be Beatles-era (i.e. thuddy, without a lot of attack), and move on. I've tried mic'ing the batter head, but I find that I usually end up with too much snare bleed and not enough time to fiddle with it.

Snare – If I have the channels, I like to do a mic on the top of the snare and a second mic on the bottom of the snare. (If I have to choose, I'll take two snare mics over two kick mics.) I place the top mic (usually a Shure SM57) about 1” above the drum head, and about 1” in from the rim. I tend to like a lot of crack in the snare, so I aim the mic for the part of the drum head with the most stick marks. I try to line the bottom mic up directly under the top mic, pointing at about the same angle.

Toms – I usually use whatever mics are most convenient for toms. Mics with built-in drum clips, like Sennheiser e604s, are fine. For live sound, I'd usually choose cheaper Shure PG56 clip-on mics over bulkier SM57s on stands. I'll position the mic similarly to the snare drum, angling toward the impact point for more attack or toward the rim for more 'tone.'

Overheads – This is really a case-by-case situation. A lot of clubs are so small that overhead mics are unnecessary—you'll be getting more than enough cymbal sound through your vocal mics. Still, when I use overheads, I'll tape a 3' piece of string to the impact point of the snare drum, and put a microphone 3' away from the snare on each side. My goal with this is to make sure that the snare remains phase-coherent when heard through the overhead mics.

With all this done, I'll check with the drummer to make sure that he or she is comfortable with all of the microphone positions, and then do the bob-and-weave through the crowd, back to the mixing board.

2. Mixing
I use the term “mixing” somewhat loosely here. In a previous article (“Drummers and Why We Love (To Hate) Them”) I mentioned that most of the drum mix is created by the drummer. Don't forget that.

Lately, I haven't been compressing individual drums all that much, if at all. Instead, I'll set up two drum groups on the console, and send kick, snare, and toms to both of these groups. I'll label one “Smack!” and one “Squish!”. (I find the exclamation points help glue the mix together.) I'll insert compressors on both buses—lately, I've been using Avid's Smack! and Bomb Factory's BF-76 on our digital desk, but use what you've got.

On the “Smack!” bus, I'll set the compressor to around a 6:1 ratio, with a slowish attack (25-35 milliseconds) and a medium-fast release (somewhere around 125 milliseconds, judged by ear). I'll shoot for no more than 2 dB of gain reduction on kick and snare, knowing that when the drummer lays in during the set, it will be more like 2-3 dB of reduction. I find this general setting helps to emphasize the attack (or “smack”) of the drums while still sounding reasonably natural.

On the “Squish!” bus, I'm not looking for any sort of fidelity at all. I want a dirty, pumping mess. I'll select a really high ratio, a really fast attack, and a really fast release. (On the BF-76, I'll use “all in” mode with both attack and release all the way clockwise, hitting about a schmillion dB of gain reduction.) I'll usually start out with this bus pretty far down, but it's great for adding some fat grit to fills, breakdowns, or parts of the song that I personally feel are boring.

To some of you, this whole “dual bus” thing sounds waaaaaaaay too complicated. Granted, it takes a little getting used to, but once you incorporate it into your work flow, it becomes second nature. Also, I find it takes a lot less time to set up two compression buses than it does to tweak half a dozen individual channel compressors—not to mention tying up only two compressors instead of six or seven. This takes me about 30 seconds to set up on an analog console, and just a few clicks to call up my stored presets on a digital desk.

So now, for the individual drums . . .

Kick – Once I get a good level on the kick, I'll insert a gate to filter out bleed and excessive decay. I'll set the shortest attack time I can get away with (too fast, and you'll start to hear a clicking noise when the gate opens) and a pretty short release. I'll use a high-pass filter to cut any subsonic rumble below, say, 40 Hz. After that, it's all about listening to what the drum is doing. I'll often cut a fairly narrow band (Q of 1.7 or so) in the 1 kHz region on most of the drums, including kick. This seems to put the drums a little further back in the mix, without sounding dull, and also gives the vocal some space. I tend to cut some junk around 300-400 Hz, boost somewhere between 2-6 kHz if I need more attack, and boost a very narrow band (Q of 4 or 5) around 8 or 10 kHz to get a little of that click that live kick drums seem to love.

If you're using two kick mics, don't forget to try flipping the phase of one of the mics. Sometimes the drum fattens up, sometimes it doesn't.

Snare –
I don't go nuts tweaking the snare sound. Usually it either sounds good or it doesn't. If it sounds good right off the bat, I know I can tweak it during the set. If it doesn't, I'm just wasting valuable time trying to polish a turd. I'll flip the phase of the bottom snare, use an 85 Hz high-pass filter on both mics (sometimes going up to 150 Hz on the bottom snare), and cut a bit in the 1 kHz region (see above). I might add a little around 2-3 kHz for added crack, but if I use more than 2 dB of EQ on a snare drum, it's usually to notch out a ringing note. I'll blend the levels of the top and bottom snare to get a good mix of beef and 'tone' (from the top head) and rattle and crack (from the bottom head). Sometimes I'll put a gate on the top and/or bottom mic, sometimes I won't.

Toms – Tom sounds tend to be pretty genre-dependent, but in general, I'll gate and EQ these drums almost as if they were mini kick drums. I tend not to go crazy with tom panning, either, since only a few people standing in the center of the room will really appreciate it. I'll pan the highest tom maybe 15% to the right, and the lowest tom 15% to the left . . . 25% if I'm feeling frisky.

Overheads - For live sound, I don't get a whole lot of my drum sound from these mics. Usually, I'll use a high-pass filter to cut everything below 200 Hz or so, and bring these mics up just enough that I miss them when they're gone. (By the way, I will usually send overheads and any cymbal microphones straight to the main output, rather than to one of the compression buses.)

That's it; you're done! Drums in 60 seconds, right? Keep in mind that until you develop a consistent work flow (which takes about 100 at-bats to really develop), this process is going to take a lot of time and head-scratching. Like any other skill, it will come with time and practice—mostly practice.

Special Bonus Lesson:
I recently had the pleasure of working with Matt Laurence, FOH engineer for the Dirty Heads. He had one of the most rockinest live drum mixes I've ever heard. It killed, and I told him so. After the show, I asked him if he could walk me through his drum mixing secrets. He kind of shrugged, looked at his channel strips, and said: “I put a gate on the kick and toms.”

Moral of the story: If it works, it works.

Rock on,

Nathan Schied
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