Percussive Maintenance

Drums are such fun.

I remember listening to “Enter Sandman” over, and over, and over again (driving everybody bonkers) because I wanted to hear that distinctive “Chunka, Chunka, Chunka, ChunCHUN” at the beginning of the tune. I’ve always wanted to do a gig where we actually got the “honest-to-goodness” Boston “sorta real, sorta synthetic, 1980s to the MAX” drum noise.

And I know that all of you can sing the drum part to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Admit it.

As much as I’m against devoting every possible resource in a sound system towards massaging the drums, I am a HUGE fan of great percussion. The unfortunate reality, though, is that audio humans spend a great deal of time listening to not great percussion. Over the years, I think I’ve started to get a handle on what can go wrong, and what can go oh-so-very right.

The Basics

First things first.

If the drums don’t “sound like that,” they probably won’t ever “sound like that.” 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. If the drum set naturally sounds like a pile of soggy pizza boxes and pie tins, then that’s what you’re going to get. With a lot of effort, we might be able to make it all sound like the nicest recycling-bin dumpout in the history of the world. It might even sound neat and interesting – but it’s not going to sound like a $10,000 shell pack with brand new heads. It doesn’t matter what mics we use, or how much processing is available in the console.

On the flipside, a setup that already sounds beautiful is hard to mess up, and requires fewer resources to translate effectively. An example that I’m fond of citing is that of Dave Murphy, the director of The Wasatch Music Coaching Academy. Dave is a top-shelf percussionist, and the owner of a truly stunning Gretsch kit. That kit, plus his maintenance and tuning, results in a sound that requires basically zero effort of any kind. When Dave steps on his kick pedal, for instance, the result is a truly beautiful blend of perfectly damped “thump” and “click.” Think of the most amazing bass drum, with a great mic in front of it, being run through a lot of PA: That’s what Dave’s kick drum sounds like WITHOUT a mic and a PA, and that basic template carries over to the rest of the set. As an audio tech, I don’t have to struggle with the sounds that Dave makes. Instead, I get to just pass them into the audience.

Along with this is the necessity of getting a shell pack and cymbal loadout that actually complement your band. You might love the tone when you’re playing by yourself, but if your kit is naturally too loud for the ensemble, or consistently steps on someone else’s frequency space, you’ve brought the wrong tools for the job. Tune your set to work with the rest of the group, rather than to compete.

Too Little

I once worked on a show where a drummer was somewhat annoyed with me. He was a bit upset that I wasn’t making his toms “sound big.” I put on my headphones and solo’ed up the drum channels.

Cymbals: “KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! BWASH! KUSH!

Snare: “BAM! BAM! BAM! BAMrattle BAM!”

Toms: “blum, bum…bdum…dm…”

The dude was smashing away at everything else, and then sort of lightly touching the toms as he went by. Of course they didn’t “sound big.” He was playing so that, especially compared to everything else, his toms sounded minuscule. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do.

What we’ve come right back to is, if you want your drums to “sound like that,” then they already have to basically “sound like that.” If you want your tom rolls to feel enormous when compared to everything else, you’re going to have to play them in such a way that presents that proportionality. If everything else in the kit is being bashed as hard as is humanly possible, you’ve got nowhere to go for the fills. Think about how you want your accents to “pop,” and then dial back the steady-state (the average intensity) accordingly.

Too Much

It’s also possible to go in the other direction. I’ve heard drummers wailing away on sets that should have sounded great, but didn’t. A lot of those cases appeared to be a case of getting in one’s own way.

The initial transient of a drum hit is where the majority of the high-frequency information resides. This crack/ snap/ click/ thwack is melded in with all the low-frequency content, with the volume control being how much force goes into the strike. A very hard smack on the drum emphasizes the high end to a point where it completely overwhelms the “body” of the tone. At even further extremes, the stick or beater gets “buried” into the head, killing a lot of resonance that might contribute to a more “full” and satisfying sound. Put all this in the hands of a percussionist who has only one volume – maximum, that is – and what comes out is a harsh mountain of overbearing transients. In such a case, dialing back the “smackery” would do wonders for the overall sound of the kit.

So, if you’re trying to get a great drum sound, start without any audio gear. All those fun toys and enhancements will come later. There’s no electrically-powered transient designer that can do a better job than a great player. A good kit that’s been nicely tuned is worth more than a whole rack of Drawmer gates. The right choices of sticks and playing balance are some of the best EQ and compression you’ll ever find.

And I’ve never had any drum mics that were better than a basically decent transducer being pointed at a great drummer who’d done their homework.