The Grand Slam
by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
We have covered kick, snare and overheads over the past several months, giving them the kind of individual attention for which there is no substitute. Now we're moving on
to the global treatment of these elements (plus room mics)-this will make a significant difference in how your drums perform in the mix. A lot of people ask me how I get my drums to "slam" in the track. Getting something to sound "loud" at any level is the key here, and that is the focus of this final installment on drum mixing.
Weapons' Grade Drum Sounds
In my work, I like to represent the drum set as bombastic and primal as the arrangement will allow. Keep in mind that there was most likely a guy beating the crap out of the drum heads when the song was tracked; for some reason, raw recorded drums seldom do justice to the energy that was present on tracking day. So how do we revitalize the kit and make it slam once again? Let's pull the pin and find out.
The Silent Treatment
Sometimes I'm more concerned with the space in between the drum hits than the hits themselves- and you should be, too. The post-impact decay and ambience can make the difference between flat, lifeless drums and ones that breathe, with size and dimension around the kit. Start with the room mics to achieve this sense of space, especially if you're like me and use artificially generated reverb only as a last resort.
There are a couple of distinct approaches with these ambient tracks. The first is primarily for realism and entails subtly blending in a stereo pair of well-recorded
room mics into your overall drum mix. The second is to grab a mono room track and heavily manipulate it to exaggerate the size of the room and give an explosive effect to
every drum hit. Whenever possible, I'll do both. Today we'll focus on the more labor intensive latter approach.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
Initially, room-mic tracks tend to sound unusable. Acoustically, most drum rooms don't sound that great; in fact a lot of people tend to over-deaden them, making it impossible to extract any natural ambience at all. So with this in mind, I'm actually very grateful when I come across the typically boxy, cymbal washed-out room track-close enough. It'll work just fine. Here's my crash (ahem) course in dealing with such a situation.
A lot of times the room mic was placed farther away from the kit than necessary, forcing me to slide that waveform ahead so the phase lines up; still, I want to retain its more distant sound. Since we're not relying on this track for fidelity, I'll immediately filter the subsonics and the boomy lows below 120 Hz and roll off much of the brash and splashy highs at around 5 kHz. Now we can crush this track with some slow attack, fast release 10:1 ratio 1176-style compression. If the track lacks the definition to react properly off the natural attack of the drum hits, you may want to key the compression off an auxiliary send where you'll feed an appropriate amount of direct kick and snare signal.
If the bleed and cymbal wash become overbearing at this point, I usually gate the room and trigger it off with the snare and toms via another aux send. This way the snare and toms open the gate every time they're hit and I'll have the decay go as long as it can before some other obnoxious artifact rises up. As if all that wasn't enough, feeding this into an amp modeling plug-in for a little grit will add some controllable aggression into the equation and win back some of that long-lost energy we were taking about.
After adding your super-modified room track to your other previously tweaked drum elements, I'd recommend busing them all into a stereo pair so you can easily do some global processing on the entire kit. Some reasonably transparent compression here will preserve the sonic integrity of the individual tracks, and it will help contain them by keeping the levels more consistent for easier placement in the overall mix. SSL bus-style compression works well with a 3:1 ratio and moderate attack and release times.
Any eq-ing you'll be doing at this point will further tailor your drums to function in context with the other elements in the mix.
If after busing your drums together you still feel a little let down with their lack of energy, presence or punch, there is another secret weapon
you should know about. In the late '90s I used to wire a circuit into analog compressors that would let you feed some of the dry, unaffected input signal into the wet output. This wet/dry mod (parallel compression) allowed you to be extra-aggressive-even reckless!-with your compression settings because the crisp attack of the dry signal would get blended into the super-crushed processed signal, making a perfect mix of pristine and ugly at the same time. This concept is ideal for drum bus applications and can be constructed to work the same way inside your DAW.
You can dedicate another aux to send a separate mix of all the drum tracks to a stereo compressor plug-in, much like you would set up a reverb chain to service multiple vocals. The output of this compressor can be blended into your stereo monitor bus.
This will only work properly if your software has a way to compensate for the propagation delay involved with this kind of routing (or a provision for you to adjust this manually)-otherwise the wet and dry signals will have phase issues. You can get around this by simply duplicating your main drum-bus return and putting the same compressor
plug-in on the insert of each of them. Set one of them to not compress, to serve as the delay·compensated dry signal, and the other one with your favorite nuclear annihilation
preset. You'll see that blending the unaffected drums into the crushed ones gives you the best of both worlds-a centered presence combined with some serious, over-the-top punch.
Over the last few months, we've zoomed in and focused on the major drum-kit components, to gain the ultimate control and make the drums sound like something in the final mix.
Now, during this reassembly process, we have a lot of latitude to shape these tracks in ways that can bring a whole new energy to your entire song. This is especially true with the room mic treatment and with the overall processing we explored today.
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and make it slam!