“The Audio Mechanic” by Jason Finkel: Editing and Mixing Drums
August 10, 2011 by Jason Finkel
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.
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.
SWEAT THE EDIT
First, I edited the feel of the drum performance. Now, quantizing drums definitely has a stigma and I would much rather work with tracks that felt great on the day of tracking, but anything less than that is going to get cut. If the rhythm section has a weird feel it’s really going to have a negative effect for the listener despite how good the song may be.
One thing that can be helpful when editing is to listen to the bass or another rhythmic element to see if it has a better feel and cut the drums to that. If I am using a click to record a band live, I try to let only the drummer hear the click so the band plays with each other. If I am only mixing then who knows how it was recorded. If the bass player was listening to the click then maybe his feel is the best for the song.
Just remember, editing drums in an already completed track is like moving the basement in a six-story building, the other levels may collapse, so listen to the other instruments and try to determine what the best course of action is.
Let’s get back to the track. I used Beat Detective to drop markers and then went through the track hit by hit to make sure the markers were at the tops of each drum hit, high hat hit, and cymbal strike and were directed to the right destination point. This may sound tedious, but trying to figure out where your track is out of time or not noticing your tom roll is off the intended beat after you have moved things is way more time-consuming. Measure twice cut once.
After I processed the edits, I listened back to make sure no transients were clipped and there was not any weird double attacks from incorrect cross fades.
Check out this video for an audible demo of the change in feel. If you notice, I only squeezed the performance tighter, I did not edit it hard to a grid:
After the drums were nice and tight I added samples. Yes, that’s right… samples. Remember, we are trying to fix a recording that does not meet the needs of the vision for the end product. The recorded sound of the drums was fine but it was not going to satisfy the vision I had for “Come Home”.
Try to think of samples as both EQ and Compression without having to do either initially. Choose a sample that will fix what the recorded drum is lacking — not by the sound of the sample. If the original snare is tubby then choose a sample heavy on attack or vice versa. The trick is to preserve the best part of the original recorded drum and not try to eliminate it. The consistent level of a sample when balanced with the original also helps to average out the combined level, limiting the dynamics of the drum.
Another great aspect of using samples is the ability to send them to reverb, delays, or other effects without annoying cymbal bleed. In this track’s case, the apartment did not provide the luxury of a nice tracking room’s ambience, so having the extra control to create a believable fake space was helpful. I also heavily gated the snare samples and original leaving just the attack. This allowed me to utilize the mono overhead for the tail of the snare, which gave the whole kit more believability.
Here is how I add the samples: I always go through a track by hand, tabbing to transient, and pasting samples. There are a bunch of programs that claim to do it for you, but in my experience, something always gets messed up. I then have to go and fix it, so instead I just go through manually — that way, I know it’s correct. I often audition samples in the first few bars and then, when I find ones that work, finish the song. With some practice you can drop samples to a drum track in a three minute song before the song can play out. It’s really not that difficult. On a typical track I can use anywhere from one to four samples per drum. I have worked on some mainstream records that have used way more than that.
I want to briefly touch on the topic of phase cancellation. Phase is a deep topic that could have its own column, but to oversimplify: If an instrument is equal distance from two mics that are facing each other, those mics will be 180 degrees out of phase and when summed together can cause major-to-complete cancellation of sound. Pretty much any two microphones pointed at the same instrument that are not perfectly aligned are, to some extent, out of phase. That’s going to make it difficult to have nice drums, let alone big drums.
The solution? Start with the kick, snare, or tom and solo the track. If you have multiple tracks for that drum, solo the first, then solo the additional track and flip the phase of either. Does it sound fuller…more low-end response? More attack? Does it sound worse? Go back and forth. It might not be obvious at first. Repeat with the next drum (generally any under-the-snare or tom mics should always be flipped out of phase). Then solo the overheads and see if they are in phase with each drum individually. Try the rooms and each drum as well. Flip the samples too. They may sit better in the mix.
It might be a puzzle to get the best combination but it will be worth it. Both kick samples in “Come Home” sounded better out of phase.
READY FOR THE FUN STUFF! DYNAMICS, ETC…
Now we have fixed the feel, corrected for whatever couldn’t be captured in tracking and made sure all the elements work together. Now it’s time to focus in on your balances, grab some EQ’s, some compressors and limiters…and maybe some more compressors and make those drums explode! It should be easier to work with now.
Check this movie I made demonstrating how I incorporated some of these topics to create the drum sound in “Come Home”: