Keeping The Rhythm

DIY Drums – Part 1 – Acoustic

This article first appeared 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!

It’s a common problem.  You’ve got some mics, great chops, a decent voice, cool songs, and decent recording gear.  You’re even happy with your space, now that you’ve referred to my DIY Acoustics article from October 2016’s Recording.  You’re ready to rock some tracks, and whether you’re recording songwriting demos or an honest-to-goodness record, you run smack dab into a major stumbling block:  drums.

It’s a rare rock or pop song that gets away without percussion, and often that’s what separates the women from the boys on a record.  It’s easy to tell a low or no budget production immediately by the sound of a stock MIDI snare, and nothing screams “lazy” like throwing down a default loop from a synth or Session Drummer and calling it good.

On the other hand, booking a drummer and studio time is expensive, especially if you’ve got a lot tracks (Figure 1).  You can hire drummers with their own studios for decent rates, but even that may be out of your budget.  You can still achieve a cool percussion track, though.  It just takes creativity and work, and even if you hire a drummer and book studio time, you still want to think creatively, or you may yet get something generic.

Figure 1 – A great but expensive drum studio

There are myriad options when creating a rhythm track, but in the most general sense, they break down to two:  acoustic percussion and programming.  Which direction you need to head is mostly a matter of genre and style, but there’s nothing wrong with a little genre bending if it’s done well, and you may be surprised how much crossover happens in any genre.

In part one of this two part series, we’ll focus on acoustic tracks.  You probably want to go this direction if you’re doing any kind of “natural” music like singer/songwriter stuff, world music or even rock and roll.  On the whole, the subject of drums and percussion, and the role they play in a production, could cover volumes, so the main thing I’d like you to take away is inspiration.  Be creative and resourceful (Figure 2).  After all, relentless pursuit is the key to great tracks even when resources are unlimited.

Figure 2 – Resourcefulness – Step ladder, vacuum, and cymbal stand as mic stands

Trap Kit

“Acoustic tracks” partly means actual “drums”, or more precisely:  trap kit.  Recording a kit is a whole art unto itself, but it needn’t be so daunting that you can’t do some things yourself.  If you’re a drummer (Figure 3), hey, you’re a step ahead, but you needn’t be.  If you can play an instrument, you (hopefully) have plenty of rhythm.  So, if you happen to have an old drum kit laying around, or even a good one, or can borrow one, or just have a drum or two, this part is for you!

Obviously you’re dealing with some limitations here, or you wouldn’t be reading this.  But just because you don’t have Dave Grohl or Animal’s direct line doesn’t mean you’re lost.  And just because you can’t keep time with your feet doesn’t mean you can’t have a kick drum!  Think outside of the box and you can do any number of things with the drums and skills that you have.  You can hit one drum at once and overdub others, ala Fleetwood Mac.  Purists would scoff, but we’re not trying to be pure, we’re trying to be cool.  Try arranging a kick/snare combo so that you can slam the kick with a mallet and whack the snare with a stick in a pattern of your design, then overdub a hi-hat.  Create a simple pattern with two sticks and a tom.  When it comes to musicality and drums, your limitations can be your greatest asset.  Producers sometimes fight with virtuoso drummers to get them to keep it SIMPLE.  If you’re not a drummer but you’ve got a little rhythm, you HAVE to keep it simple, so that’s an advantage!  You can make things more complicated with overdubs.

Figure 4 – Drums moved into a living room

A limited drum selection is ok too, as that can also force creativity.  Try moving drums to different rooms (Figure 4), retuning, or augmenting to achieve different timbres (Figure 5).  Try the living room, try the bathroom, try a closet, or try outside.  Music is often about searching, so search for inspiring timbres and sounds, and think about how your environment and drums interact.

Figure 5 – Snare augmented with foam to ring less

You can also do plenty in the mix.  Try using extreme EQs, crazy compression, and one of my favorite things to do, pitch shifting!  You can use delay to create new patterns and reverbs, phasing and other plugins to create drum insanity.

Figure 6 – 2 capsule kick mic plus condenser on snare

What about miking drums?  Much has been written on the subject and you can refer to previous Recording articles for more detail, but here are some basic tenets that might help as you search for cool:

  • Close mics on drums are usually best handled with dynamics, because their slower response will help smooth the transient nature of drum hits.
  • You might want to keep your ribbons away, as high SPLs could destroy them.
  • Condensers are good for room or overhead mics, but don’t count them out for close miking too.  When I first started recording, my boss would routinely record kick drum with an AKG 414, placed right in the hole like a normal kick mic.  It sounded great!
  • Try using mics in un-orthodox ways. (Figures 6, 7)
Figure 7 – 2 capsule kick mic, 57, and overhead small diaphragm on floor tom

If you ARE a drummer or you have one, and your limitation is mic selection, remember that less can be more.  Many great drum tracks were recorded with one mic (Figure 8).  The key here is experimentation with what you have, and close attention to what the drums are doing in the room.  Don’t be afraid to move things around and manipulate the acoustics.  Blankets in corners or on walls can help deaden a room, or, perhaps you want to remove furniture to liven the room.  Next, move your mic or mics around and listen.  If you have to record test swatches, do that.  What sounds awesome won’t necessarily look right.  Do bear in mind, as you play with rooms, that once you record the sound of a room, you can’t take it out, so a really dead space might be want you want.  Think ahead about the overall acoustic space you want for the song.

Figure 8 – Heart mic – also mic stand resourcefulness!

Beyond The Kit

Figure 9 – Bundle sticks on kitchen table

You may have a drum kit and a drummer, but if you don’t, you’re not doomed!  You can create rhythm tracks out of almost anything, and sometimes a big drum track isn’t even right.  If you can hit it and it makes a sound, you can create rhythm.  Some sounds may not be all that awesome, but others could surprise you.  You can start with traditional percussion instruments: bongos, conga, shakers, cajón, etc.  If you haven’t got any of that (even if you do!), plenty of household items have potential.  Sticks, tables, sinks, buckets, and your body all make sound when you smack them! (Figure 9)  I once made a decent high frequency snare sound out of an upside down coffee can, and there’s no shortage of hand claps these days.  Try tracking 3 or 4 tracks of those.  In some cases, you can thump on a cardboard box and come up with a kick sound, or use the body of an acoustic guitar to thump out a rhythm.  If you have a piano, you can bang on that in several places.  If the “instrument” is loud, see how it sounds in the room, and try a room mic, or a combo of room and close miking.  If it’s a quiet thing, close miking might work better.  Don’t be afraid to try a combo of mics, because whereas less may be more, sometimes more is more! (Figure 10)

Figure 10 – Cajon, cat, camera

The important thing is to think about the FUNCTION of each drum.  If you picture a drum kit, and think about the functionality of each part, you can create that same function with alternative means.  Kick would be some kind of low frequency element, lower in pitch and with less crack than the snare function, which operates as your back beat, or the two, with requisite creativity.  A hi hat functions as a more constant rhythmic bed in some even higher frequency, and sub-divides your beat so the listener stays in the groove.  Cymbals are for annoying producers.  Try stepping on the cat to simulate (Figure 11).

Figure 11 – Studio cat ziggy

Your thinking outside the box shouldn’t stop there though.  You don’t necessarily need to simulate the functionality of a drum kit.  You can create a rhythmic bed that shirks that convention, or you can use the other instruments in a production to create the foundation and use percussion to add spice, emphasis and flavor.

The main thing that’s going to give your production a feeling of legitimacy is doing things on purpose, and spending the time to find unique and interesting sounds that serve the purpose of the song.

Programmed Drums

In part two next month, we’ll talk about creating cool rhythm tracks with synths or computers, but it is worth mentioning now that you may want to augment or support a mainly acoustic track with something programmed.  The most common and obvious version of this is drum replacement, which happens a lot more than you might think.  Programs like Drumagog or Steven Slate’s Trigger can replace the drums in a performance with sampled drums, and this technique is used all the time to help engineers mix drums.  Most often, it’s kick or snare that gets replaced, but other drums are candidates as well.  Replacement can be used creatively too.  You could replace a normal snare with a crazy one for a measure, or create a layered sound.  You could flip the beat by replacing snare with kick!  My favorite augmentation is a simple addition of a nice crisp kick drum to augment a trap kit or other track that lacks the character I need to fit the mix.  I do this often, because kick drum recordings often sound bad, and in a lot of tracks, an electronic kick doesn’t stand out as “fake” as easily as something like a snare.  Most often, I don’t use replacement software, I just play or program a kick pattern that matches the kick or kick like element in the acoustic tracks.  The possibilities here are endless, and we’ll go into more detail next month in part two: DIY Drums – Programming.

For now, keep using your imagination and experiment!  There’s a whole world of variety you can find in your rhythm tracks if you just keep searching!

Oh – and now – go to part 2 – programming – and then mix and match between them!

I’m an awful drummer, but I keep a crappy drum kit stuffed in a corner, with a cajón for a throne.  Some part of it gets used on almost every song. Talk to me about on Facebook if you want.

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