Thursday, September 6, 2007

Good Rockin' Tonight

Had a good DeSk practice, getting close to a 'complete' arrangement on the final composition
(well, it's most likely the final) for the record, and even doing a few high-altitude adjustments to the drum sound.

I know I've written about it before, and I'll no doubt write about it again, but the art and science of "The Drum Sound" is an endlessly fascinating subject to me, and, indeed, almost anyone who plays in a rock band, or a jazz band, or indeed any band that has drums in it. In fact, the only person who doesn't really seem to care that much about the drum sound is the drummer. Perhaps it's because they're the one to whom the drums always just sound peachy, seeing as how they're sitting on the other side of it.

Case in point: first King Crimson drummer Michael Giles. Unhappy with the sound on In The Court of the Crimson King, he decided that he was going to be the drum engineer on the Ian MacDonald & Michael Giles album from 1970. Giles writes in the liner notes that he wanted the listener to hear the drums as he did, the sound behind the kit. And that's just what he did.

Of course, the drum sound on In the Court of the Crimson King is really excellent, big and subtle at the same time... and the sound on MacDonald & Giles is, to put it bluntly, deep fried owlshit on a stick. It's awful. Flat and dry and completely separate from the other instruments, like you accidentally put on two records simultaneously and they just coincidentally happen to synch up in areas, like The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon.

Not that drummers can't make good engineers for their own sound. John Bonham was left to his own devices pretty much for every Zepplin record, and the Bonham sound has come to define what hard rock drumming should be. In a word, orgiastic.

Still, I can see how hitting the same drum over and over at the command of the engineer and producer could really just make you not want to know what the results are, but I think it's deeper than that. Most drummer are only happy when they're playing, in the moment of playing, and generally can't stop tapping things in the lulls between songs and even when they're away from the kit. The drummer personality of having music happen in the moment doesn't lend itself to the concept of "this one's for posterity, boys."

So, getting the drum sound tonight consisted of the three band sound wonks - guitarist Shaun, myself, and bassist Karl - standing around and arguing about the tiniest minutia in EQ and buzzing and the like, removing drum heads and taping things up and generally making life difficult for each other and Edz (the drummer). Well, the arguing was mostly Karl and I, who seem to work best when we find a point of confusion in each other and then move to exploit it. Shaun is very passive, and sometimes hard to read, but you know when he's satisfied.

The most humorous moment of the evening was when Karl, Shaun and I stood in a tight grouping around the rack tom, headphones on, taking turns moving the mic around and grabbing the tom all over to see if we could isolate the source of a rattle that occurred in the ring-out from each drum hit. Finally, Shaun suggested that it was the lower screw housings, which were freed from the removal of the lower tom head. That in turn had been removed to see if we could 'kill' the high pitched tone that came after the initial strike.

Indeed, it was the screw housings, so we taped each one to the drum and that got rid of the rattle. That tape, joined by all the tape and wadded paper towel on the brand new drum head, made the tom look like an elementary school show and tell project.

At that point, it was decided that we spend a few hours some Saturday in the near future really "Getting the Drum Sound." The recording will begin in earnest. In earnest in theory. In earnest in theory in practice.

The punchline for the evening? That quick run through of the 'final' song we did revealed that the drums actually sound pretty damn good even without our eternal fucking around. So, maybe the drummer is right. Just hit 'record' and go.

No way is it that simple...


BTW: none of this is to suggest that Edz isn't engaged by the engineering process. He did tune the drums and offered plenty of comments. It's just that Shuan, Karl and I are definitely 'sound nerds,' and like all nerds of any kind, anywhere, we can dither on quantum points like nobody's business.


Anonymous said...

I don't care what anyone says, recording drums is HARD! Mostly because the drums are the sum of theirs parts and not isolated instruments. IMO, the best drum sounds come from the kit being perfectly in tune with itself, the room being small, ambient and isolatedand the less mics the better. When I recorded my last album I had none of these things. On top of that, I had a very different sound in my head from what the very opionated drummer wanted. Having said that, I'm still pretty happy considering the crappy room it was recorded in. On top of that, it was the room that I got stung by a scorpion in. May you never have that experience!

Look forward to hearing the tunes. BTW, I never got the full feedback from you on my CD. Don't know if that's good or bad. ;)

Dave Kopperman said...


Yep, drums ain't easy. To further your analogy, it's as if you mic'd each guitar string separately.

Good Lord. I'll say that being stung by a scorpion is pretty high on my list of things I fear. Unreasonably so, perhaps, but there you go.

I'll email you about the CD.