Tag Archives: Drums

Percussive Maintenance

If you want your drums to sound “like that,” they should already pretty much sound “like that.”

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

percussive-maintenanceWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“Especially without a huge PA, unlimited audience volume tolerance, and an anechoic chamber, totally remaking the sound of a real kit in a real room is a truly difficult proposition.”


Read the whole thing, free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


Mysteriously Clean

“Clean sound” has to do with more than just volume. Where that volume goes is also important.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

PA030005Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

So – you might be wondering what that picture of V-drum cymbals has to do with all this. I’ll gladly tell you.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the band Sake Shot was playing at my regular gig. They were the opening act, and the drummer decided that the changeover would be facilitated by the simplicity and speed of just pulling his E-kit off the deck.

During Sake Shot’s set, Brian from The Daylates walked up to FOH (Front Of House) control. After saying hello, he made a single comment that caused me to do some thinking. What he said was: “The drums sound great. It’s so clean!”

He was absolutely correct, of course. The drums were very clear, and highly separated from the other sources on stage. If the sound of the drums had been a photograph, the image would have been razor sharp. The question was, “Why?” It wasn’t just volume. The mix was somewhat quieter than some other rock bands I’ve done, but we were definitely louder than a jazz trio playing a hotel lobby (if you get my drift). No…there were other factors in play besides how much SPL (Sound Pressure Level) was involved.

I’ll start out by putting it this way: It’s not just how much volume there is. It’s also about where that volume goes.

Let me explain.

Drums, Drums, Everywhere

If you were to take a measurement microphone and walk around an acoustic drumkit, I’m reasonably sure that the overall plot of SPL levels would look something like this:

drumkitpolar

Behind the drummer, you might lose about 6 dB (or maybe not even that much), but overall, the drums just go everywhere. Sound POURS from the kit in all directions. In other words, the drumkit is NOT directional in any real way. This has a number of consequences:

1) Sound (and LOTS of it) travels forward from the kit, into the most sensitive part of the downstage vocal mics’ polar patterns. What’s wanted in those vocal mics is, of course, vocals. Anything that isn’t vocals that makes it into the mic is “noise,” which partially washes out the desired vocal signal.

2) The same sound that just hit the vocal mics continues forward to arrive at the ears of the audience.

3) That same sound also travels through the PA, courtesy of the vocal mics. Especially in a system that uses digital processing of some kind, latency is introduced. The sonic event being reproduced by the PA arrives slightly later than the acoustical event.

4) The sound traveling in directions other than straight towards the audience is – in a small venue – extremely likely to meet some sort of boundary. Some of these boundaries may have significant acoustical absorption qualities, and some of them may have almost no absorption at all. The boundaries that mostly act as reflectors (hard walls, hard ceilings, hard floors, etc) cause the sound to re-emit into the room, and that re-emitted sound can travel into the audience’s ears. These reflections also arrive later than the direct acoustical radiation from the kit. The reflections may exist in the closely packed, smooth wash of reverberation, or they might manifest as distinct “slaps” or “flutter.”

The upshot is that you have sonic events with multiple arrivals. One particular snare hit makes several journeys to the ears of the audience members, and what would otherwise be a nice, clean “crack” becomes smeared in time to some extent. Each drum transient gets sonically blurred, which means inter and intra-drum events become harder to discern from each other. (Inter-drum events are hits on different drums, whereas intra-drum events are the beginnings and ends of sounds produced by one hit on one drum.)

In short, the reflected sound of the drumkit partially garbles the direct sound of the kit. On top of that, the drum sound is now partially garbling the vocals.

This isn’t necessarily a disaster. Bands and techs deal with it all the time, and it’s possible to get perfectly acceptable sonics with an acoustic drumkit in a small venue. The point of this article isn’t to sell electronic drums to everybody. Even so, the effects of an acoustic kit’s sound careening around a room can’t be ignored.

Directivity Matters

Now then.

What was different enough about Sake Shot’s set to make Brian say that the sound was really clean?

It really wasn’t the SPL involved. When it came right down to it, the monitor rig and PA system were creating enough level to make the V-drums sound reasonably like a regular kit. The key was where that SPL was going…directivity, in other words.

Most pro-audio loudspeakers are far more directional than a drumkit. Sure, if you walk around the back of a PA speaker, you’ll still hear something. Even so, the amount of “spill” is enormously reduced. Here’s my estimate of what the average SPL coverage of an “affordable, garden-variety” pro-audio box looks like.

papolar

This is exceptionally important in the context of my regular gig, because the upstage and stage-right walls, along with a portion of the stage ceiling, are acoustically treated. Not only do the downstage monitors fire into the parts of the vocal mic patterns that are LEAST sensitive, they also fire into a boundary which is highly absorptive. Further, the drum monitors fire into the drummer’s ears, and partially into the absorptive back wall. There’s a lot less spill that can hit the reflective boundaries in the room.

What this means is that the non-direct arrivals of the E-kit’s sounds were – relative to an acoustic kit – very low in relation to the direct arrivals from the FOH PA. Further, there was very little “wash” in the vocal mics. All this added up to a sound that was very clean and defined, because each transient from the drums had a sharply defined beginning and end. This makes it much easier for a listener to figure out where drum sounds stop, and where other things (like vocal consonants) begin. Further, the vocal mics were generally delivering a rather higher signal-to-noise ratio than they otherwise might have been, which cleaned up the vocals AND the sound of the drums.

All the different sounds from the show were doing a lot less “running into each other.”

As such, the mysteriously clean sound of the show wasn’t so mysterious after all.


You Can’t Mic Things That Aren’t There

The sound you want has to exist before capturing it is possible. If your capture efforts prevent that sound from existing, well…

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I have a great appreciation for drummers that say things like: “I can move that cymbal if you need to get a mic in that spot.” This appreciation extends, of course, to all other musicians who offer to make concessions for the good of the show. It displays a sense of everybody on the deck being a part of the same team.

So it might seem a bit odd that my standard response (especially to drummers) is: “Let’s use the setup that you’re most comfortable with, and I’ll work around that.”

For a very long time I thought this was just a case of good manners – that sometimes, you have to sacrifice the demands of SR (sound reinforcement) for the happiness of the player. One day, though, it finally hit me. Especially in the case of drums, the player’s comfort is inextricably bound up with being able to mic the kit effectively. If the player is not fully comfortable, your “favorite pet” mic placement may not be worth two hoots. (I’m not actually sure what a “hoot” is worth in US dollars these days, but I think their value collapsed shortly after the Civil War.)

“Oh, Danny,” you say, “It can’t be that big of a deal.”

I’m pretty sure it is, actually.

Little Things Aren’t As Trivial As You Think

It might not seem that altering how a drumkit plays is that big of a deal. As long as the drummer can still reach everything, they’re fine, right?

Nope.

I’m not a drummer, but I know a few. I’ve had some pretty deep conversations about things as (seemingly) simple as how a stick feels when it’s held correctly and strikes correctly. We’ve talked about subtlety and muscle memory. We’ve talked about tightening and loosening heads and having revelatory experiences as a result. As far as I can tell, dadgum nearly EVERYTHING on a drumkit has an effect on the sound and feel, and one thing being out of true can make the whole collection of bits feel “off.” Maybe not impossible to play, but definitely wrong in one way or another.

Further, I’ve got first-hand observation of just how not-subtle it is when there’s a change in how drums and cymbals are hit. There’s a particularly loved band in these parts that used to have two percussionists. Most of the time, the main percussionist would play and sing at the kit, while the other handled congas and “toys.” The main percussionist used a lot of stick side on the cymbals, which created a very aggressive and dominant cymbal tone. Later in the show, the main percussionist would let the other handle the kit. Percussion-human #2 favored the tip of the stick much more when playing the hat, ride, and crash – and the result was a much more delicate and fast-decaying sort of sound. (Now, that’s just the natural difference in how those two musicians played, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to impose a kit setup that pushed either one of them away from their preferred style.)

So, anyhow…

The way the stick hits the drums matters. A lot. When you move things around and mess with that, then you may be changing the drummer’s sound without meaning to. Yes, there are drummers who can adjust, but you have to realize that the greater the adjustment, the more their playing will shift from the semi-conscious part of their mind to the conscious part. Too much of that shift can cause the drummer’s part of the show to drop from “great” to “just okay.”

And there’s a point where any drummer (even a really good one) is just not going to be able to fully compensate for something, which means that the sound that they’re making probably isn’t “their sound” anymore. Now, this can sometimes be a good thing. An inexperienced percussion player may be hamstringing themselves with a bad layout, and an alternate setup may be just what they need to improve their tone. On the flipside, though, an experienced drummer with good tone partially relies on their kit layout to facilitate the getting of that sound. Mess with that layout to get your “super secret special-sauce mic placement,” and you’re running a risk of actually invalidating that mic placement by imposing a tonal change on the instrument you’re trying to capture. The risk may be negligible, minimal, moderate, tremendous, or lethal, and it’s hard to know which one of those applies if you haven’t worked closely with the drummer before.

Drumkit Ergonomics First, Mic Placement Second

I don’t want to send the message that I’m unsympathetic to the needs of SR. I’m an audio-human for cryin’ out loud! Most of the “dudez and chix” in my field have encountered at least one setup that was laid out in such a way as to not be possible to run through the PA effectively. Eventually, you’re going to run into a drum-noise production musician who wants a sound-reinforcement outcome that is physically incompatible with the kit, the room, the PA, the mic placement, the playing, or all of those at once.

Even so, I must be pretty insistent that the first priority when micing drums (or anything) is that the drums be placed properly for the player to get “their sound.” The reason for this insistence is because, if you’re trying to capture the best possible sound for the drummer, then the first thing necessary is…gosh…for the player to actually be able to produce that sound in the room.

See, microphones are not humans. They don’t have imaginations, pattern recognition, differential analysis capability, emotional bias, or anything else. Microphones do nothing more than MERCILESSLY translate into electricity EXACTLY the sound pressure events that arrive at their capsules – all while filtering those events through their own mechanical and electrical quirks. If an acoustical event isn’t taking place, you have no hope whatsoever of capturing that event. This is why recording engineers like Slipperman go on public record with statements like this (which I have edited for brevity and language):

“You gotta start in the room with ‘the sound’…This is MAJOR, once attained, we now have a starting point…If you can’t get by this first hurdle IN THE ROOM. You are in deep !@#$…. I can’t help you. God can’t help you. YOU ARE !@#$ED. !@#$ED. KILL YOURSELF. It is imperative that the zorch-!@#$o-twerg playing guitar is hearing ‘his sound’ in the room. IT CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.”

(By the way, the “Recording Distorted Guitars Thread From Hell” is incredible, and I urge you to set aside time to read as much of it as you can handle. I’m a bit dismayed at how mean to musicians it is at times, and it has lots of unfriendly language, but that doesn’t invalidate the insights you can gain from it all. The archive is here.)

Anyway, the point is that a mic only gives you what it can hear, plus all of the mic’s imperfections. Some of these imperfections are known, desired, and even adored. Some of these imperfections can even be used to help alleviate problems with a sound that IS occurring in the room – there’s no denying that. The point, though, is that a mic placement which takes advantage of the mic’s quirks is undesirable when the placement forces the actual acoustic event AWAY from what you actually want to hear.

There’s a lot that mic placement and subsequent processing can do. Minor and major miracles are possible. Heroic outcomes are celebrated, sometimes rightfully and sometimes not. With all of that, though, I am personally convinced that there is no amount of trickery (aside from flat-out sound replacement) which will turn a drum that can’t quite be played correctly and can’t quite fit the groove into a drum that can. Further, I’m pretty darned sure that the job of most sound craftspersons is NOT to get “our sound,” but to get the player’s sound. Unfortunately, the seduction of getting OUR sound is so powerful that we easily become over-reliant on tricks and by-the-numbers procedures. What we really should be doing is solving the puzzle of effectively translating the sound of the players to the audience, without getting any more in the way than is truly necessary.

…and, of course, if the players want to achieve a certain sound, we should work with them on achieving that sound. However, we have to take care to do so in a way that encourages the musician to comfortably produce that sound (as much as possible) as an acoustic event. If production of that sound is comfortable and easy for the musician, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to somehow capture that event in a consistent way. The capture might not take place with our favorite mic and placement…and that’s okay. As much as possible, we need to first let the band get their best possible sound without all our gear and fussing.

Because you can’t mic things that aren’t there.


Some Handy Mics

A video where I discuss the pros and cons of some of my most-used microphones.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.