Tracking Drums with FURR - Ain't No Party Like a Snare Drum Party
I've been in the studio over this weekend with my band tracking drums for a forthcoming EP. While we've got fairly easy studio access due the fact I make records at Bunker, we've also got naff all time, so we've had to batch together tracking instruments rather than tracking songs. While this is usually faster, it does tend to mean you have a very similar drum sound between songs.
HOWEVER, I'm totally fine having all our drums sound as good as we managed to get them today because they are absolutely brilliant. I've had our live drum kit for years and years, it was a hand-me-down gift from my uncle when I moved to Leeds and started a slightly (very) rubbish band with Sam (lead guitar) that would eventually morph into FURR. It's a late 90s black Premier APK that I've never had the chance to record properly before, and I've been looking forward to the opportunity for a while.
As you can see, the toms are pretty deep. This kit is 13x12/16x16/22x16 which is a little bigger than a most kits I tend to record (there seems to be a trend for shallow toms and kicks currently). I've taken the bottom heads off the toms to get a little more thunk and tub out of them, and I've used the studios' Beverley to build a kick tunnel. I don't tend to experiment too much with room placement when I record at Bunker, but as I don't know this kit in this room I decided to walk around while hitting the floor tom until it sounded best. Dead centre of the room sounded awful, but just off-centre sounded massive. It also meant that I was able to get a room mic up in the corner where I usually track drums. I'll get to that in a bit.
I'm using a fairly standard setup on the close kit, D112 and a boundary mic in the kick, SM7B/57 on snare, MD421s on toms, 414s on overheads, all running through the studios' MCI desk (and a touch of hardware processing) to tie them together sonically. I've started saving our external preamps for room mics, as that tends to help them stand out a little. This is the part where the kit really started to come alive.
I've got two people to thank for the room mic placement on this session, as I heard it from them first. Bob Cooper, who commonly uses mics outside the live room, and Will Cook, who inspired me to try out a ribbon behind the drum position to bring out some meat on the snare (you can just pick this out on the photo above in front of the PA stack). For Bob's technique the live room doors were wide open, and I put up the studios' new Slate Digital VMS microphone in the hallway to add a bit of distance. Sounded awesome, and no complaints from the neighbours, so I'll keep doing that!
On top of this, when faffing about moving some of the damping curtains, I noticed that there was a really meaty kick/snare around head height in the corner the kit usually sits in, so I put a SE Gemini II in that corner. I'm running that hard into a Groove Tubes Vipre to get a little saturation, as well as light compression from the Summit Audio TL100A. Finally, I always like to get my crappy little BM-88 mic in somewhere. I'm a fan of the 'Amy Winehouse' mic position that you can see in the photo below:
This filtered mic is housed in an old junction box. The frequency response pretty much stops at 4Khz, and there's all kinds of weird peaks going on. Sounds like the worst cheap telephone you've ever used, heard down a length of pipe, when you've got a headcold. Naturally I saturated the hell out of it on the Neve, and I'm pretty much guaranteed to obliterate it even harder during the mix.
We had a choice of 3 different snares for this session. The matching 14x6.5 Premier 1026 (our live snare), a 14x5.5 Pearl Free Floating Copper snare, or a 14x5 1960s Ludwig Supersensitive Supraphonic. Usually the Luddy wins out. Every. Single. Time. I think this is because it sounds like an LM400 is supposed to sound, and we're so used to that in modern production that it just sounds right. For once, however, a different drum won out. We decided to go with the Pearl. Combining the brightness and ringing of the copper with Udo Masshoffs snare tuning technique (the man's out of his mind, but he tunes a mean snare) we were able to bring out an incredible bark and snap, without drowning out everything with a horrible ringing 'PANG'.
For those that haven't already seen Udo's technique, it boils down more or less to these steps:
1: Tune your snare side head tabletop tight (it should right bright and clear if you rimshot it with your finger lightly). This gives plenty of sensitivity from the snares. I think I put two full turns on from the point that I could feel the lugs begin to bite.
2. Use a single ply batter head (super important). Starting with the batter head lugs completely loose, add 1 turn to each lug from the point you feel the lugs begin to bite. The snare should be bright, and tuned fairly high. You may want to add half a turn to each lug, you want plenty of crack and ringing.
3. Assuming a 10 lug snare (see later for 8/6 lugs), Turn the lug furthest from you up a full turn. The lugs either side go up half a turn.
4. The lug closest to you, leave for now. The two lugs either side of that, turn them both down a turn and a half. You might just begin to see wrinkles at this point. The lug closest to you, turn that completely loose.
5. The remaining 4 lugs are your tone. Shift them all up or down together to adjust the pitch of the snare up or down.
This does several things. Firstly, the super tight upper lugs bring out plenty of snap and overtones. This helps keep the snare bright and focused, something that you lose a little when you start to dampen the heads. The lovely loose lower lugs alliterate nicely. They also dampen the snare without losing any of the transient. If you want more shell ring, adjust the single lug closest to you. Tighter gives you more ring. Looser gives you less. You'll want to adjust the pitch using the 4 tone lugs as you do this, there's some pretty dramatic shifts at play.
8 lug snares would only have 2 tone lugs (the 3 and 9 o-clock positions). A 6 lug snare would only have one lug at the top tuned super tight, and one lug at the bottom tuned super loose (this technique may not work that well on 6 lug snares, though admittedly they're pretty damn rare).
You'll notice that I don't tune to a key at any point during this. Everything in this technique is about relative tensions. There are so many different variables around the bearing edge of a drum that it becomes very difficult to tune to a single clear pitch without a lot of time, practice, and mechanical help (drum dials and the like). While these are useful tools (especially if you want to keep your tuning suuuuuper consistent between takes) I tend to find I can get results that I prefer much faster with this method and working by ear. I just have to be much more vigilant in checking that the snare tone hasn't changed.
We found that we were able to just use one snare across all the tracks, and simply adjust the damping and pitch depending on how rude a snare sound we wanted. One of the tracks is a bit more full-on-loud-as-possible-and-very-very-fast, so we upped the pitch and let it ring a bit. One has a fat backbeat, so we dropped the pitch and had the batter so loose that it wrinkled. Massive instant variable tone, all from one head and tuning a maximum of 5 lugs.
I was so happy with the tone we got from these sessions that I decided to make up my first snare sample pack, which you can buy at www.sellfy.com/jackbyrne. I'll follow that up with some samples from the entire kit (elbow deep in editing and renaming about 1400 audio files because I'm disorganised as anything first) as well as a set of drier punchy samples from the Ludwig that I took on a recent session with Silver Linings.
As an I LOVE DRUMS SO MUCH present, everyone who signs up to my mailing list will get a free copy of the processed samples (10 hits, alternating hands, multiple velocities and rimshots) as a Slate Digital Trigger .TCI file as well as the .WAV files. The full sample pack also contains individual processed and unprocessed close mics, overheads and room mics as .TCIs, as well as the full raw files if you want to mix them yourself. I'll be making more drum samples in the future, including this Premier APK kit in another massive room (secret project, shhhhh) the studio's own Beverley and anything else I can get my hands on!