Welcome to the concluding chapter of “Drum Tracking for Drummies”. It may not be as exciting as the concluding parts of the Batman or Star Wars series but hey, the mere fact that you’re reading this means that you really believe that the Holy Grail of Drums exists! That mystically elusive Dreamkit, that plays itself to perfection when aligned exactly along the Xeta Reticulii system. Today I shall reveal the location of the final resting place of that very kit which was once used by Danny Carey, Gavin Harrison, Tomas Haake and the likes! There, now that I’ve satisfied all you fantasy fans, let’s get on with the technical jargon.
In case you haven’t read Chapters 1 and 2, here are the links :
Stage 8 : Soundcheck (“Hello taisht….chaik….vun…too….tree….chaik…tiss…tisss”)
- There isn’t a lot that I need to tell you as far as this topic is concerned. It’s all up to your engineer. Therefore it is advisable to work with an engineer who knows you, your style, the gear, the room and your music.
- Chances are you’ll have to compromise somewhere but in the end it boils down to how well you can work with him. For example Chinmay and I have a really good rapport. He knows what kind of pre-rolls I like, what takes I want to keep, etc. I know what he means when he says “play smart” or “bhagesh”, etc. This doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve worked with him on the Tahaan Soundtrack, Janeen Leah Album and on the Coshish and Workshop sessions. My point being, find a good engineer who you can work with on a long term basis and soundcheck will be a piece of cake.
- It’s important to feel comfortable during soundcheck. If you feel like you’re stretching to hit a cymbal, kindly readjust. You don’t want to end up with a pain in your shoulder on the first day itself.
- If some mics or cables are in your way, request to have them moved. Don’t settle for “I’ll manage”. When you’re stuck with a part, all these things will become targets for excuses.
- Always hit the “sweet spot” during soundcheck for the best reference. The “sweet spot” is about the size of a 1 Rupee coin, dead in the center of your drum. You’re drum will sound the best when struck here. It’s a little difficult to find on toms but you NEED to find it on your snare, no matter what.
- If you want a nice snare sound (for rock/metal/funk) you need to get your rimshots right. If you haven’t been hitting rimshots and if your engineer suggests you should, politely decline. It’s going to be a mess if you haven’t practiced. It’ll become very difficult for you to control the sound of your snare. I’ve noticed that metal snares are generally more difficult to control than their wooden counterparts. Anyway, if you don’t generally hit rimshots, don’t bother trying in the studio.
- Always hit with the same intensity during soundcheck as you would during a take. This is to avoid clipping and leveling issues. Your intensity will gradually drop as the day progresses and it’s up to your engineer to realize that and let you know.
- Generally, double kick parts are lower on intensity, so ensure that your engineer EQs and levels the kick with that in mind.
- You’ll have to whack the toms get a clear definition and attack. Soft hits on toms will sound messy. So check accordingly. If, during soundcheck you hit the toms like Mike Tyson laying a punch and then during a take you hit them, like you’re caressing them, you’ll have a major problem. Therefore, during soundcheck, find that balance between intensity and sound.
- Floor toms generally sound better when tuned low. Sometimes you might find that there’s almost no note on the floor but if your engineer thinks it sounds good, listen to him. Actually always listen to the engineer regarding drum sound. He’s got a better perspective. Intervene only when you face a problem with the response from your skins.
- Now as far as the cymbals are concerned, always pull back. Cymbals are very critical to the feel and overall sound of the kit. They can make your kit sound huge or tiny. If you’ve ever attended a Benny Grebb clinic, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
- Your cymbals should never overpower your drums. For all you metal drummers, cymbal white noise isn’t exactly anybody’s idea of a good drum sound. So tone down the intensity when you ride on your crash or china.
- Now there will always be an issue with open hats bleeding into the snare mic. Hats are usually loud and somehow seem to leak into every mic possible. Infact, there was this one time when a friend of mine in Bermuda played his hats so loud that a mic in Andheri picked them up. So please, easy on the hats. I strongly recommend using a pair of 13” hats. Not only do they sound better but they’re also easier to control.
- If you play a lot of open hat parts, don’t keep the distance between the hats large enough for your hand to pass through. It serves no purpose. The lesser the gap, the softer and less washier the sound will be. If you like super washy hats, make sure the rest of the kit matches up to them.
- After you’re done with soundcheck, track a small part of the first song and go inside the control room to get an idea of what your kit sounds like. This is the only time you have to make changes.
- “There isn’t a lot that I need to tell you as far as this topic is concerned”. I swear I didn’t lie. I really didn’t know I’d put so much info in here. My bad!
Here’s a video link of me warming up at Empire Studio, just before the Coshish recording :
Here’s a video link showing the difficulties we had while setting up at Empire Studio for the Coshish recording :
Here’s a video link showing some room effect, setup and tuning issues :
Stage 9 : Drum Tracking (Aah finally…I hope all three of you get to this point)
When I had initially thought of writing the article, this section was all I had in mind. However, now it must be apparent to you that this is only a part of the entire process. All the stages that lead up to this point are also very critical. If anything goes wrong in the earlier process, it will definitely affect the final tracking. That’s why I decided to write this “Mahabharatha of Drum Tracking”.
- There are several tracking formats that you can follow or create. I will enlist what has worked for me. The format depends on a lot of factors like your skill, confidence, budget, musical style, your level of preparation, experience, etc. This is just how I do it. You can develop your own format and stick to that.
- First, I run through the song and get one entire take. I ignore all my mistakes and play it start to finish. This will refresh your muscle memory and also give you an idea of what your parts sound like. It would be nice if you could play it back with the “all-instruments-plus-vocals” scratch track. Remember I’d asked you to record everything during the pre-production phase? Well, it was for this. Now you can see if you’re playing a roll over a vocal line or if your groove is not sounding as great as it did in the jam room. It’s not the best situation to be in (and you wouldn’t be in it if you would’ve read this article), but hey, it’s better than realizing your part sucks once you’re out of the studio.
- So anyway, I hear back the entire track and see what parts I’ve nailed and what parts might require retakes or punch-ins. It’s good to be open to suggestions from the engineer/ producer/ bandmates but last minute overhauls are not advisable. However if something is not working for a song, you should change it.
- There were almost no changes in my Coshish session because I’d been playing those songs for years. The Workshop songs were all new and there were a few parts that needed to be changed completely. Infact, we had to reschedule a song from Day 1 to Day 3 because Sahil and I had to sort some issues out. Needless to say I had to go through a few extra takes to nail the new parts. Therefore I suggest you do all this before entering the studio.
- If all the parts are okay, I go ahead with the actual tracking. If a part needs to be changed, then I punch in only that part and repeat the process.
- Now as far as the main tracking is concerned, I personally like to get an entire song in a single take with the least amount of editing or sample replacement. It could be the 134th take for all I care but due to budget constraints and lack of recording experience, I can’t.
- So I try and do the next best thing. I take major chunks of a song for instance say the Intro, Verse 1, Chorus 1, Verse 2, etc., up to the point where I mess up. If the take is awesome, I keep it but if it’s not up to the mark, I retake the entire thing from the start. I always try and nail chunks for personal satisfaction. There are drummers who take a song part by part or those who take it bar by bar, but that’s their call. Some just play a bar and copy paste or play a section and copy paste that. It depends on what you want and what your budget can allow.
- I prefer to not punch in small parts but if a take is phenomenal and only one small roll needs to be punched in, then I give in. Sometimes a small hit can be corrected in post. Here’s where your engineer and you should gel really well. Either you or he should know that you can’t get a better take and that mistake can be edited or left untouched. Never sacrifice a good take for a small mistake. The groove is of most importance here. If, in your quest for flawless playing, you miss out on the groove, then it’s pointless.
- The reason I stressed so much on knowing your parts to perfection is because it helps when you want to punch in. The drum kit comprises of many elements and some of them will usually make some lingering sounds that need to be there when you begin the punch-in. Or it will sound like a horribly edited recording. For example if you play a tom roll before a new section and you punch in from the start of the section without playing the pre-roll, you’ll hear the tom ring stopping abruptly at the start of the punched-in section. It sounds really bad. The best way to avoid that is to play that exact same roll in the pre-roll and punch in from the new section.
- Speaking of punch-ins, your idea of a punch-in, bar, section or pre-roll has to match that of your engineer’s in order to avoid wasting time trying to explain where you want to punch in from. My suggestion would be to always take a 3 bar groove + 1 bar roll/fill pre-roll, play along and then punch in from the end of the fill. You can’t randomly start playing with a fill. You need one bar of the groove for to get the feel, another to get the intensity, the third to perfect it and flow smoothly into the fill/roll. Again, this is how I do it, you could do whatever you are comfortable with.
- Whatever you do, always try and maintain the intensity throughout the song. That’s why I don’t prefer taking small parts and punching-in here and there. Not only does it break the flow but it also becomes difficult to maintain the intensity and feel.
- Never record a part of a song, then take a break and record another song and then complete the song that you left half way. It’s a very dicy thing to do. There are too many parameters to replicate in order to make it sound like a continuous take. If you feel like you want to take a song later, take it in its entirety.
- If after 257 takes, you feel like you are not able to play a part, stop and think. Try, try till you succeed doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. It applies to Stage 3 not 9. The more you try, the more tired and frustrated you’ll get and you’ll ruin the remaining session. In fact, there could come a point wherein you might not be able to play all your easy stuff because you’re still thinking about how you couldn’t play a certain part. If you have retarded bandmates, this is the point where you ask them to go home if they begin nagging you. Thankfully, my bandmates are awesome and really supportive.
- Having supportive bandmates, engineers and producers really helps, unless you’re a thick skinned hippo with no feelings. Zorran Mendonsa was an awesomely supportive producer who coaxed me into playing better. Chinmay is the most patient engineer I’ve ever come across. I owe a lot to both of them.
- Coming back to the point, now what do you do if you’re just not getting a part down? Simple, you either play it however best you can and edit it during post production or you could change the part and play something simpler. Personally, I’d go with the latter.
- How do you know which takes to keep? Well, sometimes you just know that you can’t get a better take. Sometimes you think you can. When in doubt, always keep the current take and give it another shot.
- Don’t accumulate 10 takes per part and then patch them together later. Is that how you would want to perform the song live? What you play in the studio, should be what you would do live. Personal preference.
- Always set the very first part you track as a benchmark for your entire recording. It has to be your tightest as that will be your reference point for your entire session. Zorran made me play the intro of “Raastey” about 22 times. He said that that part has to be my best performance so he can judge my abilities and limitations. Never compromise on or edit the first take.
- After you have your benchmark in place, you can easily nail most parts in single takes. That’s because you have an idea of how tight you can and should be.
- Towards the end of the day when fatigue sets in, your idea of good takes will change for sure. You’ll begin to “make do” and you’ll hear the engineer say “we can work with that”. It’s quite natural.
- Try to cap your tracking hours to 8 per day. I generally drum for about 2-4 hrs a day and my max has been 13 hrs. During the Coshish recording I was tracking for 10-12 hrs and during Workshop we capped it at 8. I felt a strong mental strain when we exceeded 8 hrs. It becomes difficult to concentrate beyond a point, unless you’re Danny Carey.
- Always watch out for drums getting detuned. You can either feel or hear it if you pay attention. It helps if you always check the tuning before you start taking. What do you do if you’ve got some nice takes and you realize that your drums have detuned? Just hear it back with the reference tracks and see if you can notice any drastic change. If you can’t, you’re safe. If you can, then retake from the point you feel the tuning has dropped.
- During takes, NEVER retune/ readjust/ remove/ change anything unless your engineer asks you to. Even the slightest changes in the mic positions can sometimes change the sound drastically.
- It’s better to play slightly behind the click rather than ahead of it. Even when you’re recording using a reference track, always follow the click. For that you need the click to be considerably louder than the reference track.
- Try to never record to a reference track without a click. Some drummers say that you tend to become mechanical if you play to a click. Honestly, Gavin Harrison has played to a click all his life, can you say he lacks feel or he’s too mechanical? You have to practice with a click till it becomes second nature. In any case, stick to the click no matter what.
- Always make sure that you can hear the click loud and clear. When you’ve practiced with the same click track you’re recording with, you’ll be able to hear it through anything. Anyway, there’s a very simple way to pump the click level without having it bleed into the mics. Get a pair of in-ears and plug them into a snakebox. Use noise cancellation headphones over the in ears. The headphones cut the sound of the drums and also prevent the click from leaking out.
- If you want to make a drum blog, my advice would be to do a few mock run-throughs after you’re done tracking all the songs. Having cameras in your face can be distracting.
- Lastly, I’d just like to say, be comfortable and enjoy every moment of your recording. There aren’t many who drummers who get to record live drums. Feel privileged and make the most of it.
Stage 10 : Drum Correction (Not applicable if you are Danny Carey, Gavin Harrison or Tomas Haake, which unfortunately you are not! But if by a ridiculous stroke of luck, you happen to be one of them…Hey I’m a huge fan of yours!)
- The extent of the correction required depends primarily on how you’ve performed and the extent of the “live” factor your producer is looking for. If he’s one of those guys who likes lesser dynamics, more clarity and perfection, then he might make you align all the beats to the grid and might even sample replace some stuff.
- I personally, am not up for over-processing and corrections. I like keeping those little live imperfections. It makes the kit sound more dynamic and live.
- However, if you’ve played sloppily in some sections and corrections are absolutely required, then please don’t be anal about it. Just make sure you don’t lose that “human drummer element” in your producer’s quest for awesome production.
- If at the end of the day you have to sample replace everything, it kinda defeats the whole purpose right ? Some people may beg to differ but this is just my opinion. If you go through all the stages properly, chances are you might not have to sample replace.
- When your producer chops up parts and beats, it’s your job to look out for continuity and editing glitches. There are some glitches that can be easily masked when the other instruments tracks are mixed with the drum tracks. Don’t break your head over those, just hear the track back with some context.
- Lastly, whatever you do, DON’T let your producer or bandmates run over your integrity by cropping, chopping, replacing, etc against your will. If you’ve recorded some sloppy stuff and are not afraid to put it out, you should be able to. Stand by what you have recorded and be proud of it.
Here’s a video link of me describing the gear I used at Empire Studio for my Coshish recording :
Here’s a video link of me describing the gear I used at Promethean Studio for my Workshop Recording :
So that’s it I guess. I hope you are able to use some of this information at some point. Again, these are only my views and experiences, they are not guidelines set in stone. I’m no big shot who knows it all and has taken it upon himself to save all fellow drummers from the pitfalls of live drum recording. I just had a few ideas and thought of putting them down. If you have any questions, suggestions, recommendations, etc., feel free to mail me. Thanks for reading this article. A big thanks to www.indiandrummer.com for putting it up. Good luck with your recording.
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