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.