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  • Frank Gryner

Over-the-Top Overheads

Drum Mixing Part III

by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)


I see a lot of mix engineers allocate most of their time to carving out kick and snare drum tones and then proceed to apathecally throw the overhead tracks in there as an obligatory afterthought. The overheads may not have the crowd-pleasing effect of the air-moving thud of a layered kick drum, or the crack and smooth decay of your snare scenario, but without the rest of the kit, those elements would sound ridiculous. The proper treatment of the overhead mic tracks can greatly influence the overall fidelity and stereo imaging af a song, so it's important to dedicate some time to exploring our options here.

Taking the High Road

Well recorded overhead tracks usually need very little messing with in order for them to function properly...but having said that, seldom are they recorded flawlessly. I find that poor mic placement is the most common error, followed by shoddy processing. Not only can we learn how to combat these offenses in the mix, but we can make sure that we don't repeat the errors of the recording engineer-especially if that engineer is you!

If the level of the crash cymbals is much hotter than the hi-hat and ride cymbals, chances are that the mics were a little too close to those crashes, not providing a well-balanced representation of the kit. Even the most transparent compressors may have difficulty leveling this situation out, so I usually end up having to automate each crash cymbal hit in context.

Overcompression can lead to the opposing issue of having too much hat and not enough crash-cymbal level. Again, I find myself automating up each crash cymbal hit and tapering it down to blend with the rest of the kit. Phasey-sounding cymbals are a result of a common tracking mistake where mic placement is also to blame. If a mic is positioned in between a cymbal's range of motion-where the cymbal moves above and below the axis of the mic-it will give you this effect.

This is hard to rectify after the fact, sometimes prompting me to ditch those tracks to trigger off a new set of crash cymbal samples- but that is a last resort.

There also can be phase issues between two or more of the microphones. The best example of this sound is apparent on Coldplay's first single "Yellow" off their Parachutes album. Almost unlistenable! So if you encounter this, you can shift the waveforms around to eliminate this annoying comb filtering effect by lining up a common transient (like a snare or kick hit).

In Over Your Head

With the influx of cheap Chinese condenser mics out there, it's not uncommon to have to contend with harsh and unfriendly overhead tracks. TImes like these may serve as a reminder as to what the difference between a pair of Neumann or Earthworks

mics can do versus, well, you know the usual suspects. Dealing with issue can be tough. Is there a De-Cheapener plug in out there?

Keeping these tracks in the digital domain isn 't always the answer, though. I find that bouncing them through some analog eq con do more than just its plug-in counterpart. Dipping some of the offending frequencies in the upper midrange (like around

2-3 khz) can reduce the ear bleed effect, and rolling off some of the super high stuff over 12 kHz may take that brittle-hyped sound away. When you record these back into your DAW, make sure you line it up with the original waveform to compensate for any latency in your converters.

Ideally, if you had a pair of Pultecs or Lang eqs you'd be able to resurrect these tracks from sure audio death, but if you're a little shy on anything outside of the box, there are a couple of plug-ins that work well for this purpose. Tupe emulation from McDSP's Analog Channel plug-in can help warm things up and reduce that harshness considerably. If you feel that your tracks are brash without being excessively bright, then using the Waves C4 can allow you to compress more of the 2-5 kHz area and boast the high eq above that, giving a smoother and slicker result.

Imagine All the Cymbals

How well the drums sit in the mix depends on the depth and dimension of the overhead tracks. I like having the drums unobtrusively surround the other elements in the mix, leaving the cymbal work to float transparently with life-like3D imagery. Unfortunately, unless the original engineer had this intention and ability to record the drums this way, you can't simply choose to preserve these details in the mix rather than figuring out

how to create them . Regardless, there are some basic treatment and placement tips

that can help with enhancing the mix's depth and width.

It's important to know the perspective of the overhead tracks so that you can position the hat, ride and toms tracks later. It's your call to decide whether your drums will be placed the way the drummer would be oriented (hat on the left) or from the audience's vantage point. Having a mental picture of the physical layout of the drum kit will guide you with the kind of treatment you may apply to these overhead mics. I usually need to pan them into about 80 or 75 to focus the image and have it feel believable.

Head Space

Invariably, I usually end up filtering out a lot of the unnecessary lower frequencies

from the overhead mics, especially if they are sonically challenged. The direct mics will give you more of the body and presence from each element without having to rely on that much support from the overheads. Rolling off everything below 120 Hz will take any boxiness out of the equation and allows your compression to react to the frequencies more relevant to the hat, ride and, crash cymbals. At this point I may dip a lttle upper mid, again to reduce any tendency for things to get a bit too harsh.

The right kind and amount of compression is really important for these tracks to be mix-ready. I want you to understand what the compressor is being asked to do here before indiscriminately applying any technique that is always program dependent. In this case, I want the crash cymbal hits to have more decay but not at the expense of their nice crisp attack. A slower attack and faster release settings with moderate compression ratio (around 2: 1 soft knee) on a stereo linked compressor will accomplish this.

Hold your Head High

A lot of a the personality of many drummers ultimately lies in the cymbal work

played in the session, while much of the dynamics and detail in snore and kick drum

can get lost in the mix. This high-frequency real estate is usually responsible for conveying much of the energy in a dense mix and the subtlety in more open passages.

It's heartbreaking to spend a lot of time on the details and finesse of the overhead

tracks, only to have them heard as a garbled low-quality MP3 in the end, but don't

get discouraged. There are those who will appreciate the listening experience of music that has dimension and space. Next time we' ll deal with mixing the rest of the drum kit without killing our pristine stereo image from overhead.

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