“Making your drums sound way more powerful in Pro Tools” is a title that a reader brought to my attention. People seem to be searching this topic in my blog quite often. Although I touched upon this a little bit in a post some time ago, and you might want to jump over and re-read that post first, and then please allow me to continue on with this topic.
The bottom line……
Never mind getting the best possible sounding drum kit right off the bat. Work at getting the best possible drum line, or performance that you can write. Try alternate times, switching parts around, and place importance on song dynamics. Building up tension, and then releasing it is the name of the game.
With the drums written, now you can consider the approach that you will use in order to fine tune the drums. The different approaches are vast in number, but in this post I will detail some of the most common.
If you are serious about your music, then you want to get the best sound entering the recording device as you possibly can, and by doing the least amount of work in order to get it. Why we record lame sounds and think we can fix it later in the mix is beyond me. But we all have done it. Think about this time tested chant “crap in, crap out”. That is just what someone said to me once, and it makes a lot of sense.
The term “Powerful drums” brings several different approaches to mind. These approaches may include EQ, volume, velocity, panning, effects, and the like. I suppose I should describe each approach to you, and then let you use them at your own discretion.
There are no two songs that are alike. Each song that you work on will need different ways of editing a drum sound. Learning each trick will add tools to your tool chest of ideas. Then you can use one or all of these ideas and add them to any of your songs that you wish. Learning to know what each idea will bring to your finished song is the key. You will learn just what “trick” a certain song could benefit from, and learn it in no time at all. However, never be afraid to try new things!
If you jumped over to the link that took you over to an older drum post, then you get the idea of panning your drum kits as if the listener is sitting on the drum throne. I will not bore you any longer on that idea. I have always tried to get the panning completed first, no matter what the tone or impact of the individual drum hits sounds like.
The next two ideas up my sleeve are to add EQ and compression, but not necessarily in that order. Compression can shave off some top end, or add some “wallop”. EQ is often added after such tools in order to bring back frequencies that were lost, but not as a rule.
You need to assess your type of drums (drum machine, real drum kit, ToonTrack Drum software, ect.) that are inputting into your audio recorder, in order to come up with a working signal effects routing path. This is just about critical in order to achieve getting your fat and powerful tone. You will develop a routine plan of attack all of your own, depending on where your drums actually come from each time. This will determine the exact protocol for the addition of EQ and Compression, and in just which order you will want to add these effects plus others.
Let me explain a few of the different processes.
Recording a real drum kit with microphones….
You might just be “summing” the microphones into a mixer, and exiting the mixer with a “stereo out” pair. This stereo pair probably then enters your recording device. I would most likely first run the stereo pair into a compressor in order to smooth out the spikes, and to bring in more of the drum kits tone. EQ’ing would come next. Make sure to then go straight into your recording device. Keep in mind that adding too much EQ and/or compression before the recording device can be a bad thing. Go light, as you will not be able to remove it later.
Drum machines straight to your recording device…….
Drum machines most often enter your recording device as a stereo pair, so routing them into the recording device is easy. However, drum machines and their quality of sound differ from unit to unit. Look at exactly what sort of sound is entering the recording device. Are the snares and kicks attacks entering the red line? Do the kit pieces sound good tone wise? Getting this information now will determine the plan of attack.
Most often times, recording your drum machine into your recording device dry will sound o.k., but not stellar. Listen to the drum machines onboard effects, and make a decision about using those effects or your favorite effects elsewhere. You must decide if you record the drum machine “wet” or “dry”. “Wet” is with effects, and “dry” is without. Either way is fine, but once again you can’t “undo” the wet in the recorded drum mix. Read on for more advice.
Recording drum machines “dry” and “wet”.
First, let’s take the recorded “dry” tracks and add some effects to them.
Using either an auxiliary bus approach to add the effects to the dry drum machine tracks, as an aux send return, in parallel, might just work fine. This adds the effected “fix” along with the recorded dry drum machine tracks, and records them together. This method allows us to dial in just the right amount of “fix to the mix” by adjusting how just much “dry versus wet” enters the final recorded track.
The other option, if you are sure just what the drum machine needs “right from the get go”, is to add the effects as they enter your recording device. This can be done by taking the stereo outs from the drum machine, to the recording device, and adding your EQ and Compression as the stereo pair are recorded.
This can be done as a series fix, or a parallel fix. Series is in “out one device and into another”, and parallel is recording all effects “to, and with” the dry signal, just like we did above. The difference is that we will not record the dry drum track.
The best and the safest way to fix “lame-o” drum machine tracks is to record them dry, and then fix them from there. Exactly how you accomplish this is going to become your style.
Software based or Midi drum tracks……
This is the easiest sort of drum track to alter and/or to add effects to, as there are so many different approaches in which to accomplish these chores. Here is how I like to do this.
I like to use a separate midi track for the drum lines, the fills, and the cymbals. This makes getting the separate velocity and volume levels perfect, and for the whole song.
Once your drum lines are written, consider using the drum software itself (the source for the drums) to complete all of the panning, EQ, volume, velocity, automation, and any other fixes that you might deem necessary. This will take care of most of the problems that might pop up in the drum mix. Using one “place” or one area to fix all of the troubles is a great idea. This makes your workflow easier to remember and simple to dial in.
With that finished, listen to what you are left with. What ever is troubling you now needs to be fixed in either one of two ways. You can fix it either before your drum tracks “see” the recording device (or in either series or parallel), or after they “see” the recording device. Let me take that principal further.
Recording the drum tracks with a compressor inline will smooth the transient spikes. If this is what you wished to fix, then do just that. If you like the audio, but think it needs just a touch more “tom tone”, then add your compression along with the dry signal via an aux send/return, and record a stereo pair from that send/return. That way, you will get the original and the compressed all mashed together in one stereo track.
You might need to return to the software in order to adjust some minor EQ fixes, after the compression is added, but don’t freak out, as I mentioned before “that happens”.
Avoid adding effects like delays and reverbs until your drum track is finished (as far as its impact and tone) and recorded. These effects might sound better if they are triggered from just one certain kit piece, or added to the kit as a separate auxiliary send/return track. Besides, adding such effects at each step along the way will cause them to add up, or pile up, linearly, and might just sound terrible! Use the same size reverbs, and apply them as few times as you must. The same is true for EQ fixes by the way.
Drums are often the first instrument recorded. How are you going to know if the effects are going to fit the song that you have started to write? Adding the effects after more and more of the separate parts are written is the way that I like to do things. That way, you are not stuck with a drum line that is too wet.
Stay tuned for part two of this series. I will discuss getting your recorded drums to sound as if they are being played live, sound coherent in the mix, and even sound more impacting over all.