Drum Tracks 101

Dynamic Drums – by Richard Alan Salz

The Heart of the Matter
As a producer, I listen to a lot of demos and although the level of recording technology the average musician has access to has greatly improved in recent years, it doesn’t seem to have resulted in noticeably better productions. Why is this case?

While there are many factors involved, I believe it’s due to an overall lack of understanding of the process of arranging songs. I like to think of arranging as the blueprint for how the various elements of a track fit together. Good arrangements have tracks that compliment each other and together equal more than the sum of their parts.

Arranging once was considered one of the most critical parts of a musical performance. Back in the Jazz era, even the very best composers worked with arrangers who took their work to a higher level through sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic embellishment.

Today, pro-level productions virtually always benefit from a producer’s input who should have at least a working knowledge of arrangement techniques. In the pop music arena, dedicated arrangers usually only found on projects that will be adding orchestral parts, such as string sections to the track.

Compounding the issue are hard disk recording systems which allow users to fix errors in takes that previously would have been (rightly) discarded. This is not to say that performances should never be edited, only that sometimes performances may have been corrected physically but may still be musically or emotionally invalid.

It can be argued that the increased hardware and software processing options available to modern recordists allow for more undesirable options to be exercised. After all, you can’t over-compress every instrument when all you have is a single stereo compressor!

Nowhere does the lack of skill in arrangement become more obvious than in the rhythm section. Here a lack of understanding of rhythmic elements and techniques can undermine the rest of the song, much in the same way a defective foundation can ruin a building. The good news is that arranging for the rhythm section is not particularly difficult, once you know some of the major pitfalls to avoid.

In this article I will go over some of the common errors that people make while constructing their drum tracks (live, looped, and MIDI’d), and offer specific advice to help you improve the quality of your productions. Stay tuned for the upcoming sister article to this one that discusses bass and rhythm guitar tracks, and their interrelationship with the drum track.

We’ve Got the Beat

Let’s take a minute to review what great drum tracks have in common. These factors transcend musical genres and apply to most all (Western music) styles.

Most great drum tracks would sound interesting (and dare I say cool?) all by themselves, apart from any other of the elements of the song. Even if you don’t read any further, take a moment to consider this fully. Here are some songs that I think exemplify this phenomenon particularly well.

Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”
Led Zeppelin – “When the Levee Breaks”
Van Halen/Tone Loc “Jamie’s Crying/Wild Thing”
Dave Brubeck “Take 5”
Lou Reed “Walk on the Wild Side”
Queen “We Will Rock You”

All of these tracks are sonically very different from each other, and while they are all great in their own way, none of them are really the “ultimate” sonically if you were to take a kick or snare sound out of context. What makes them work is that they fit correctly with the other elements of the song.

When talking about the performances, all of them have the following qualities (in differing amounts) that are complementary (or supportive) to the other elements in the song:

1.In the “pocket” – this refers to the location in time within the beat in which the notes are played. It can be a little bit difficult to describe, but it is the place in time that is between “rushed” and “late.”

2.Sense of “groove” – this refers to a feeling of “momentum” that the rhythm track possesses. It is what makes people dance on the dance floor, mosh in the mosh pit, and tap their foot along with that smooth jazz station that drives your spouse crazy!

3.Dynamics – this refers to the changes, or lack of changes in the overall loudness, tonal, and emotional level of the performance. It can also refer to sections of the song that have a “breakdown” section where the rhythm track is absent, or soloed.

4.Sense of openness – this refers to both the ambient space that is rendered in the recording, and the empty space that is left between the notes that the rhythm track occupies. Even the heaviest of music sounds better when there are times within each measure (or section) when the rhythm section is silent (even if on a momentary basis).

5.Sounds – this refers to the actual sonics of the drum track, both the actual sound of the drums (and cymbals) themselves, as well as the sound of the room (or reverb) in which they are presented.

Not every song you produce or compose will excel in these attributes, but when developing the rhythm that will form the foundation of your song, try to make sure that it can stand on its own…at least for a little while!

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Here’s a quick run down on the three main methods of producing a drum track, and some factors that you should be aware of:

Live drums – For certain styles of music live drums are a must, but getting good sounding drum tracks can be a chore. First and foremost is the skill level of the drummer. I know it sounds kind of harsh, but even if everything else is perfect (mics, room, drum kit, preamps, etc.) if you are working with a drummer who can’t keep time or play with halfway decent dynamics, you are going to end up with substandard results.

Room acoustics (especially in small project studios) can also cause angst. When you are dealing with a less than perfect room, sometimes the solution can be to simplify your set-up. You can often achieve good results in bad rooms by using a simple three mic set-up to mic the drum kit. Place the first microphone (a large capsule dynamic like the Audix D6 works great) between 1 and 3 feet directly in front of the bass drum, the second microphone (a high quality dynamic or condenser) positioned behind the drummer pointing down towards the snare drum, and the third microphone (preferably identical to microphone 2) positioned behind the drummer pointing down towards the floor tom. By the way, this was the method that Glyns Johns used to record many classic Led Zeppelin tracks.

Don’t be afraid to move the drum kit around in the room to find the best sonic position for the kit. Keep in mind that corner placement will accentuate low end response; this can sometimes rescue an anemic sounding kick drum. Realize as well that while the drum kit is a “kit” and not just a random collection of instruments, it is still important for each drum to sound distinct from each other. The kick and snare drums must occupy different sonic (frequency) ranges. If the kick has no low end, and the snare has no high end in the room, you are going to have problems. Always try to fix the sound in the room before reaching for any eq.

Proper drum tuning is of key import to getting good tracks (see sidebar for tuning tutorial).

Looped drums – Much to the delight of sampleheads everywhere, there are more and more drum loop libraries available on a day-to-day basis. While some libraries strive for maximum versatility, specialization to suit specific genres seems to be becoming the norm.

Here are some factors you will want to keep in mind when selecting a loop for your track:

Tempo – although there are numerous methods to change the tempo of a loop (beat slicers such as Acid and Recycle) it’s advantageous to start out with a loop that is at the correct tempo for the song, as even the best of time changing utilities will produce sonic artifacts (which will usually impact the imaging of the ambience and the purity of the high end response) to varying degrees.

Ambience – some drum loop libraries are recorded with ambient effects ranging from natural sounding rooms, to obviously digital room simulations. It’s important to match the sonic environment of the drum track to the “mood” and sense of place of the song. For example, you probably wouldn’t want arena sized drums on an intimate jazz ballad!

Pitch – Although it is possible to pitch shift drums and cymbals, only the very best software and hardware devices can alter the pitch of transient rich information without producing a boatload of sonically undesirable artifacts, so it’s best to make sure that the loop sounds correct relative to the key of the track. If you absolutely must use a loop that clashes with the pitch of the track, it’s a better idea to change the key of the song, rather than the loop.

Low-fi versus High-fi – Though pristine drum sounds are great for some projects, beware drum sounds that are too clean and clear for the instrumentation that will be added to the arrangement. Rap music in particular employs lots of low-pass filtering which rolls off much of the high end. Similarly realize that there is almost no way to add missing sonic information (or clean up) a loop that is too “dirty.”

Midi drums – Not as popular as they once were (due to the emergence of loop based music and sample CD’s) programmed drums are still a good way to go for those that are looking for a maximum amount of flexibility in terms of sonics and performance. Whether using a software sequencer, software instrument, or old-school drum machine/sample player, MIDI drum tracks allow unrivaled compositional and editing precision. In addition it is possible to process individual tracks separately, something that is much more difficult with loops (or live drums for that matter).

Programming issues – The number one defect that plagues MIDI’d drum tracks is that often the tracks bear no similarity to what an actual drummer would (or could) play. Anomalies such as high hats playing during tom fills, crash cymbals playing at the same time as ride cymbals, and other “three-handed” note combinations are dead giveaways to novice programming.

Next up on the defect list are patterns that are possible to play, but rhythmically inappropriate. This phenomenon is often heard on rap and R&B programming by the uninitiated. Particularly prevalent is the “happy foot” cluttered and overly “swinging” bass drum programming. Everything else may be swinging, but the bass drum (and most often the snare as well) are right on the beat.

One way to neatly sidestep these kinds of issues is to have an actual drummer play a set of MIDI’d pads to originate the drum track. Also preferable is having a drummer program a software or hardware sequencer. In addition there are MIDI performance libraries that are similar to sample discs, but consisting of MIDI information rather than audio information. These files can be a good choice for non-drummers to get better results (and simultaneously learn about drum programming.)

Most (if not all of the sonic factors) that affect drum loops that are detailed above are valid points of consideration for MIDI’d drums.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Okay, let’s assume that you have put down some great tracks, with excellent feel, sounds, dynamics, and the rest of the shooting match. Now what? Mixing time!

The number one difficulty when it comes to mixing (at least in my experience) is in getting the proper levels of the drums relative to the rest of the mix. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, and a few simple countermeasures that you can take to improve your results.

1.Many people monitor and mix the drums at very elevated levels. This is usually a mistake, especially when soloing an instrument during the mixing process. Most kinds of music will almost never be played back at very high levels that are possible to achieve with a soloed kick drum and a pair of high quality monitors. Exceptions might include some rap and dance music recordings which might likely be played back over a club system or “boom” car. Keep in mind that even the worst kick drum sound will begin to sound pretty good if you make it loud enough! A simple rule of thumb is that you should be able to hold a conversation over the mix. If you can’t, you should seriously consider turning things down (and preserving your hearing to boot).

2.Equalization can seriously mess up the overall level setting of a drum kit. This happens more often than you might expect (and unfortunately is not limited to drum tracks). When a sound is excessively equalized, a peak is created at the resonant frequency of the filter that is used. Often this peak can be 10 or more decibels louder than the rest of the sound. The ear latches on to this peak, rather than onto the overall level of the sound, and the sound ends up being mixed at too low of a level.

While we are on the subject of level, another common problem is that novice mixers tend to be too conservative when setting kick and snare drum levels. A snare drum (in most songs) is supposed to stick out somewhat in the mix, and should always be audible no matter what the instrumentation is at any particular point in a song. The bass drum (depending upon the genre) may be more “felt” than heard, but it as well should always be present.

Often I hear demos that have drums and cymbals panned to spatial locations that make no sense at all. Generally speaking you will want to have bass and snare drums panned center, overhead (or room microphones) panned medium-hard or hard right and left, and assuming three toms arranged either left, center, right (high, medium, low) or vice-versa. It’s also acceptable to pan the toms left, right, center (high, medium, low) or vice-versa. That configuration can provide an interesting (though not realistic) sense of movement during fills.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want –

It’s always a great reality check to keep a few CD’s of pro recordings that are in the similar genre in which you are working to stay on track. Stylistic, compositional, and sonic issues can become much easier to hear when you are comparing your work with artists whose work you enjoy and respect.

Sometimes it can also be helpful to try and recreate elements of those tracks with your instruments, just to familiarize yourself with the actual methods that are used to create the sounds you think you hear. Often what you believe you hear, and the way a part is actually played can be very different.

Lastly, though technology has made it possible for singer/songwriter types to compose and perform entire arrangements, there is no substitute for the sense of musical interaction that occurs when multiple people contribute to an arrangement.

Sidebar – You can’t tuna fish, but you can tune your drums!

Unless you are dealing with top-level drummers (who often have a “tech” that they work with) it’s likely that you will need to work with the drummer to get the most out of their drum kit. Leaving aside for the moment the admittedly thorny subject of drum positioning and hardware setup, let’s take a quick look at tuning drums.

First things first, if the heads on the drums are pitted (from “spirited” playing) and pock-marked, you are going to want to replace them. If they started out as transparent heads, and are now clear (or coated heads, and are now transparent!) you will want to toss them, as well.

If you do need to install new heads, be sure to check (and clean) the bearing edges of the drums as these can accumulate quite a lot of dust and dirt, to the point that they will not allow the head to resonate fully. Usually a damp sponge will suffice for cleaning duties. Make sure to dry those edges completely!

Whether you are starting with new heads, or retuning old heads the tuning process is the same. Loosen all of the lugs on the drum to the point where the head is completely slack. Then using the same “star” pattern that you would use on an automobile wheel, turn each lug one full turn. The “star” pattern will keep the tension more or less equal across the drum’s head, which is essential for producing a sustaining “open” tone.

Kick drums can be problematic for many drummers to tune, and what sounds good in live use doesn’t always translate that well for studio playing. Depending on the genre of music and the key of the song you can tune the drum to either a distinct pitch, or a subsonic “boom”.

If you are going for a pitched sound, tune both heads (batter side first) to the same pitch for maximum sustain. Be sure to tune the drum with all damping material (such as pillows, blankets, and dedicated mufflers) removed. Generally foam rings and fabric strips that go between the head and the shell will kill any resonance that the drum may have, so it’s best to steer clear of these.

If a low end boom is what you seek, tighten the lugs of the batter head to the point where there are no saggy sections, then loosen the lugs slightly until the head just starts to buckle a bit. Tune the resonant head to the desired resonant note. When done correctly, you will have a sound that has a thwacky transient (which is created by the slightly slack head), a low initial note from the batter head, and a low resonant “boom” produced by the resonant head. This is the quintessential “rap” kick done acoustically.

I like to set up snare drums to provide the most sensitive response that the drum is capable of, and I have found that the best way to achieve this, also happens to be one of the easiest.

Starting with the snare side head, tension it as tightly as possible without causing it to break. Every once in a while, you might break one, so keep an extra on hand. Use the “star” tuning method to bring it up to pitch. You want to have it sound a little “plinky” when tapping on it with your finger. The snares themselves should be adjusted so that at maximum extension of the snares throw-off (adjuster) the snares do not rattle when any of the other drums (or other instruments) are played. The drummer can then loosen the snares to their desired tension, but it’s important to provide them with a “maximum” tension setting.

The batter head should be adjusted so that it provides a strong fundamental note with the minimum of discordant harmonics possible. Once again you should use the “star” technique to tension the drums. You will definitely want to adjust the pitch of the drum to harmonize with the key of the song.

On occasion you will find that a drum that has too much “ring” following the initial transient attack. Although this can be dealt with through gating and other processing, it’s always better to fix it at the source. Solutions range from slightly detensioning one lug of the snare (preferably a lug away from the area which the drummer will play the rim of the drum); to a piece of duct tape placed on the head, to the twin 1970’s stand-by’s, wallets and sanitary napkins

Toms should be treated to the same “star” tuning method as well. Double headed toms (most common these days) can be tuned in three ways. The standard way to tune them is to tension the batter and resonant heads to the same pitch. This will produce a long sustain that stays at a constant pitch.

Alternately you can tune the resonant head either above or below the pitch of the batter head. This will produce a sweeping pitch effect that will make the pitch drop (if the resonant head is tuned lower) or rise (if the resonant head is tuned higher) after the initial hit. Generally speaking, it’s good to tune the toms to musically pleasing intervals (fifths are nice) that work within the context of the song, and the other drums in the kit.