“The Audio Mechanic” by Jason Finkel: Editing and Mixing Drums

Have you heard the expression; “You can’t polish a turd”? I remember the first time I heard it. I was sitting in Studio C at Battery Studios with Shane Stoneback working on a live track for a major pop star that — to put it nicely — was going to require some work.

Meet your audio mechanic: Jason Finkel.

Shane turned to me and dropped the famous line. This always stuck with me as a challenge. “Why can’t you polish it? How bad does it have to be?”

My name is Jason Finkel: I am a producer, mixer, engineer and part time new music blogger in Brooklyn, NYC. For the last 10 years I’ve seen how far you can take out-of-time, out-of-tune, over-written, under-produced, and poorly recorded tracks.  I have found many ways to overhaul broken recordings and even more ways to record better the first time.

Over the next few months I’m going to share some of these ideas so if all you have is a rehearsal space and a few mics, you’ll get better results and see some simple ways to manipulate whatever came out a bit brown.

OK, a little background info. I came out of the NYC large studio system that mostly does not exist anymore. I worked at the previously mentioned Battery Studios with superstar pop-divas, boy bands and almost everyone in hip-hop. I worked at Right Track with icons like Mariah Carey, Gwen Stefani, Rod Stewart, and James Taylor, to namedrop more than a few.

The point is these were hardly budget sessions. I once ran Pro Tools for an 80+ person orchestra plus drums, guitars, and bass for engineer Frank Filipetti and producer Phil Ramone with Clive Davis looking over my shoulder. I was well versed in no-holds-barred recording. When I left Right Track to start my own production company with little funds, I had to learn quickly how to incorporate my own ideas of professional techniques into less-than-perfect recording situations.

So let’s get started by taking a look at mixing tracks that have already been recorded. The subject: CHAPPO’s “Come Home”, a track that was recorded in an apartment in Brooklyn that ended up in an Apple iPod commercial.

During the summer of 2009 I stumbled into Don Pedro’s in Williamsburg and caught the middle of one of CHAPPO’s sets. It was a psych-rock explosion in my face. I knew exactly how they needed to sound. I immediately wanted to work with them.

After a few months of back and forth I found myself with their Garageband-recorded EP in my studio. My task was to just mix the EP. Simple right? Well, I certainty was not going to get off that easy. Zac Colwell (Jupiter One, Fancy Colors) had recorded/produced the EP in the band’s apartment using a few mics and fewer inputs. He had done a great job, but I had a few ideas that were going to require a little more flexibility and a lot more time. After transferring all the raw unprocessed tracks to my Pro Tools HD rig from GB, I got to work. For the first post I’m going to go over mixing the drums. Let get technical.

PART ONE: MIXING DRUMS

I like to pull up all the tracks and see what a song is doing right at the beginning of a mix, but after I have a clear vision for the track, I like to start with drums. The drums for all the songs on the EP were recorded on three separate tracks: kick, snare, and a mono overhead.

Sometimes having a mono overhead is great because it sits up the middle leaving space for big guitars/synths or for whatever left and right. Moreover, if you’re going to use a spaced pair and not an XY it can get real weird if you don’t know what you’re doing or can’t monitor correctly. Not to mention it’s another microphone, microphone pre, and input that you may or may not have.

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  • Jordan

    Thanks for a terrific article. I try to get the best sounds I can before they hit the converters (which is obviously important), but it’s fascinating how much processing can go into something that ultimately sounds “natural.”

    Did you apply the effects in the order that you demonstrated them? There was a lot of gating on the snare, but when you distorted the bus, it added more decay that you squashed with the enveloper—which seemed very procedural (do something, listen, tweak, repeat).

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for reading! 

    I usually have an specific idea in mind when I am working on a track versus just routinely applying processing.  I am thinking about how I want to boost frequencies into a compressor that I know softens things or cut out frequencies before I limit, etc. 

    So I might get the sound I had in my head when I am all solo’d up, but in the mix it might not functionion correctly so I’ll go back and move things around and add more stuff unitl it sits correctly in the mix.  A track, like a drum, usually requires processing to be more extreme than you would tolerate if it was playing by itself in a mix.  Does that answer your question?

  • Jordan

    Yeah, for sure. Obviously, you need to have a goal in mind and not merely apply a formula. Getting an insight into how you work back and forth between the intended solo sound and how it sits in the mix is helpful, and clearly it takes years and ears to get there.

  • Anonymous

    Brad, the manger of Rubber Tracks, was talking in the studio the other day about when you first start mixing all you can hear is the big picture but then you learn to hear all the detail and the big picture becomes the difficult part and you have to work hard to get back to hearing the big picture, while simultaneously been able to focus in on the details. 

    There is no correct way, but I would advocate working with the whole mix and going into solo when you hear an idea for something and need to execute it, versus moving from track to track in solo.  But again, there is no one way.  

  • cain cain

    Jason, thanks for dropping the knowledge. And the beat!

  • cable chaos

    very nice.

  • I have to say I was VERY surprised that you’re still doing tab to transient for every hit.  I’ve completely switched over to Massey DTM (drum to midi) processing into samples from Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.  I always listen through and everyone in a while I have to move a midi hit but I haven’t tab to transiented every hit in YEARS.  Audio to Midi processing is the move in my opinion for amazing and fast drum augmentation 

  • Anonymous

    I could see how DTM or DRT can be useful if you use a lot of MIDI instruments or drum samplers.  I really don’t.   I don’t need a plugin, a MIDI track, a drum machine, or to dbl check triggers or processing.  Adding samples is usually a less than 3 min process, then I’m back to mixing.  I am not saying its the best way, it’s just what I do.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Jason.

    Great article, I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Chris