Could It Be The Drums?

Modern use of drums is different now

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

There’s just something about a live drummer.  I’ve said this hundreds of times.  Two records ago, I insisted on using a live drummer for every track.  This was not easy to accomplish.  In fact, I had to rebuild my home studio AND the drummer’s to finally get what we wanted.  The result was of course dynamic, awesome, difficult to record and hard to mix, but ultimately super satisfying.

When I went to do the next record, I was really going for modern, and I wanted tracks that would work well for licensing, where new and hip is everything.  When we listened to the previous record, one thing jumped out at us:  It sounded a bit dated.  “What could it be?”, I wondered.  Oh my god, could it be the drums?

You may have read something very similar in my article “Changing Of The (Pick) Guard” last year in Recording.  It seems that my love for real guitars, real drums and real bass led to a place of sounding old.

That’s a bit disturbing, seeing as how we often lament a declining use of live musicians.  So I looked deeper, and the news is encouraging.  Let’s dive into how (and a little of why) drums have changed, so that you’re equipped to stay fresh.

It’s Not Just The Instrument

There are a million ways to hit a drum or make a rhythm.  Even the standard trap kit came about as a result of tampering with the known.  So it stands to reason that HOW drums are used, regardless of the kind of drum or whether it’s played by a person, will evolve.  Of course, the opposite is also true.  As tools change, so does the music made with them.  When it comes to drums, or more broadly, rhythm, there has been a lot of evolution.

With the trap kit came a style of play that lent itself to the way the kit was built.  That, in turn, grew and spread, until many different styles of play emerged.  In Jazz especially, virtuosity has battled with emotional impact for top priority for decades, and there are easily discernable eras where each ethos has come out on top.

Similarly in rock, hip-hop, indie rock, pop and any other rhythm-based music, trends tend to oscillate, and there’s a real tendency for some genres to emphasize the skill of the drummer, while others strip down.  Rock has mainly turned into “indie” or “alternative”, and rhythms have simplified, even when there’s a live drummer on board.  Metal, on the other hand, has remained metal to the core, and intricacy is key there.  In fact, metal drums, characterized by the blast beat, are more intricate, full and detailed than ever.

In pop, drums are often de-emphasized as pop productions seek to stand out from the crowd.  In the face of a thousand big monster tracks, pop producers are now trending toward sparse tracks.  The R&B /hip-hop track on the stereo in this coffee shop, for example, consists entirely of an 808 kick drum and a kind of bell click that replaces a snare.  There are no cymbals, no hi-hat, and no other percussion elements.  Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” de-emphasizes drums as the main focus, instead opting for a similar 808 kick that appears in the chorus.  Over the course of the song, other 808 elements are added that add to the emotional build of the song, but on a conscious level are barely noticeable.  Drums in that song are cool, but they don’t define the rhythm.  An acoustic guitar does that.

The buildup over time of a track is common in pop now, and that’s a big change from a more traditional approach, where the drums are the solid, predictable element in a song.  So, for pop or pop-like productions, sparseness and change over time seem to be the order of the day (for now).

In alternative rock (which often doesn’t sound like rock to a 90’s kid) very simple four on the floor beats or straight 8s are more common than funky grooves, and although there are live drummers in these bands, fills and big cymbals are less common, at least on the records.  Listen to Muse’s “Uprising” or “Wish I Knew You” by The Revivalists for examples.  Contrast those tracks to older rock tracks like Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” or “I Don’t Care No More” by Phil Collins.  One could say that this indicates a lack of mastery on the part of modern bands, but I think it may have more to do with an attempt to get musicianship out of the way of the emotional message.  It’s also a heck of a lot easier to mix a record that has a simple drum track.

In electronica, beats have gotten more complex rhythmically, while (at times) remaining more sparse timbrally.  Half-timing and syncopation are more common.  Double-timed drum tracks as in drum-n-bass are so 2001.  Think about a track like Clams Casino’s “I’m The Devil”.  Of course, there’s a huge crossover between hip-hop and electronica, and in that realm, there’s a return to the classic TR-808 and 909 sounds.  In this world, live drummers have never been common, and the attempt to fake a real drum sound usually fails, so producers go all in on samples and strange timbres, making no attempt to sound “real”.  Or they throw back to big samples or the 808 kick/snare.  This has always been the case in these genres, but now it’s easier than ever to come up with an interesting new sound or conjure up a well done 808 sample.  Still, while basic rhythms may be more complex, there are fewer rhythmic accoutrement like quick fills, flams or 32nd and 64th note craziness.

It COULD Be The Instrument

Above, we talked about changes to how rhythm tracks are designed musically, but there’s also plenty of evolution in the realm of timbre choice, and what instrument is being used to create rhythms.  Obviously it’s not always a live drummer, but even when it is, different timbral and mix decisions are made nowadays.  There’s a lot of throwback going on in this area.  Gated snares are making a comeback in alternative rock and even in electronic genres, and as I mentioned above, the 808 snare has returned in a big way (808 kick drum sounds have remained a staple ongoingly).  The TR-909 isn’t far behind in usage, but these two classics aren’t always being used to create a retro vibe.  Instead, they’re often part of a lush, more legato landscape accompanying highly autotuned R&B or half-timed rap.

In the “rock” type genres, much use is now made of epic tom sounds and big reverb, but sparingly as opposed to throughout songs.  Refer back to the fills that do occur in Uprising, or in many Imagine Dragons songs.

Not surprisingly, in electronica genres that aren’t hip-hop or R&B, there’s a wealth of creativity, especially when it comes to snare drums.  Stereo spread sounds are common, and the use of claps and snaps on the basic 2 and 4 instead of snare is common.  Snare sounds sometimes play support roles, and it’s not uncommon to see an instrument change over time or in choruses.  Big snappy snares show up in boom-bap type tracks like “Shine On” by SomeOthaShip, accompanied by old school rap with some twist on the use of classic synths.  While we’re on that subject, the “analog” or “8-bit” sound is all the rage in some circles.  Check out Suzi Analogue’s “NRG NRG” for a great example of a NOT sparse rhythm track, using throwback sounds, multiple snares, and a completely out of this world and totally modern take on the use of “8-bit” synths.

Outside of metal, cymbals are often de-emphasized, and from a mix-engineer’s point of view, that’s not surprising.  Cymbals are very noisy at high frequencies, and it can be difficult to mix them, especially if you’re new or less well equipped, which more and more producers and engineers are.  In metal, though, the drummer’s ability to wreak havoc with steel is crucial!

It Could Be Both

I mentioned earlier that the tools often influence the music itself, and of course this is true for drums.  It’s common knowledge that access to resources (or the lack thereof) plays a big role in how the newest music sounds, and lack of certain resources can create a world of creativity.  Fewer young people have access to traditional music training now, and access to great “real” instruments and recording technology has always been rare.  But most everyone has a laptop, and because speed and space is now enough, some interesting and surprising things have happened.  Now you CAN access a real recording of a real drummer on a real kit in a real studio, recorded separately and correctly.  Packs like Loop Loft or Drums On Demand can give an average Joe access to world class real drums, and of course some people still actually record them.

The point is, there’s no longer a question of whether the drums on a song are made by a real drummer or a drum machine.  It’s very often both.  This isn’t a new concept, as drum replacement plugins have been around for a long time now, and before that triggers allowed replacements to be made from old school drum machines like the Alesis D4 of old.  Now, though, it’s common to see layers and combos.  A trained ear can usually still hear when the track is truly just a drummer in a room banging away, but the line has been seriously blurred, and it’s not always clear who did what.

Some common occurrences are the combo of an electronic kick sound like a 909 or 808 with real snare, live drums appearing in choruses, use of programmed hi-hats to tighten up live tracks, layering snares and kicks, and augmenting sampled drum loops or programmed tracks with sparse real cymbal crashes in strategic spots.  Combining modalities isn’t necessarily new, but it’s certainly an easier thing to do now, and thus, it’s done a lot more (even in metal).

It Could Be The Mix

It’s not just the method of capture or creation that changes how a drum track sounds and feels.  That is probably a no-brainer, but it’s still worth mentioning.  How drums are mixed in modern songs is also something of an evolving process.  First of all in many genres, especially electronica, the mix develops along with the production.  It’s not uncommon for the entire mixdown of a song to be done in Ableton or another creative DAW on the fly, and this means how drums and other instruments are emphasized can be more intimately woven into the fabric of the song itself than in a traditional setting, where a group is recorded and then mixed later.  This doesn’t necessarily mean anything in particular, but it seems that this process can cause a de-emphasis on things (like cymbals) that might be harder to integrate into a mix.

Even in traditional mixdown situations, what we do with the drums can be incredibly variable.  Early on the days of stereo, it was common to put the entire kit in one speaker (think Beatles).  Low end elements like kick drums played a crucial role, but not the boom that we use them for now.  This was mainly due to the limitation of vinyl.  On a vinyl record, low frequencies take up more physical space, allowing for less play time and in extreme cases, a big boomy note can cause the needle to skip.  Now that’s not an issue, so we can do (mostly) what we want with the low end.  So, recordings after the days of vinyl tend to boom of more.  As time has gone by, this has become more and more true.  Even when mixing real drums, kick drums tend to be severely manipulated with cuts to mid and high frequencies, emphasis on the lows, compression, and a “rounding” of the sound.  This isn’t particularly new either, but it’s still common.

Snare sounds have tended toward the throw back in the past few years, with more and more gating and softening of the high-end snap, and emphasis on the heavy thump around 200 khz or so.  If not that, we see the exact opposite.  In hip-hop and R&B it’s more and more common to use a very thin snare sound (which is easy to do with an 808 snare).  Of course, we still see some cracky snappy snares, usually in throwback hip-hop tracks or in electronica.

In general, drums are mixed cleaner, tighter, more compressed these days, and in pop genres, less emphasis is placed on hugeness, and more on clean support of the vocal message.  There’s far less use of long reverbs, and while drum sounds aren’t necessarily totally dry, they’re definitely more forward and present, even when they’re quieter in the mix.  Harsher high frequencies are emphasized less, and in general drum mixes have more space.  Even some classic songs have been redone with a subtle but noticeable change in the amount of space the drums leave for other elements.

It Could Be Everything

In the end, all of the elements of modern recording and production have evolved and changed.  The process of writing we use, the instruments and sounds available, the way we capture, the way we mix and even the REASON we do it have all morphed, shifted and continue to change.  Drums have always been the biggest challenge in production, and they’re often the main thing that makes a track either super cheesy or really fresh.  They’re almost always the element I point to when a track just doesn’t work for me or sounds amateur or dated.  Creativity and innovation in this area is a major indicator of awesomeness, so it’s not surprising how much drum tracks have changed in the last few years.

So, it really is everything!  There are a million variables involved, and there are really no rules, so how you approach your rhythm track is up to you.  If you want more ideas, you can check the Recording archives for my articles “Keeping The Rhythm” parts 1 and 2 (acoustic and programmed, respectively).

Hopefully, this brief and informal discussion of the ever-changing rhythm track combined with those pieces will help you in your next project!  Go forth and make rhythm!

I play Chinese drums, produce records and pet cats.  Talk to me on social media (aka Facebook) @AaronJTrumm.

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