Phantom tracks recorded. The next step: drum takes. Mez is a very good drummer, and he always rises to the occasion. Drum sounds and performances however are some of the hardest things to get right – second only to the lead vocal, I think. The drum kit has massive dynamics and tones, from whisper quiet to so loud that you flinch.
Firstly, the drum kit has to sound good, otherwise there’s no point recording it. That involves replacing heads, looking for rattles and squeaks, and endless tuning. Honestly, unless you’ve done it I’m not sure you can imagine. I remember when I thought tuning a guitar was hard work. But a single drum head has between 6 and 10 lugs to adjust, each of them needing to be just right to even make that head be in tune with itself. Then you’ve got to make the relative tuning between the top and bottom head right. Then you’ve got to get the relative tuning between the different drums right. Oh, and if you turn any lug, it adjusts the tuning both at the adjacent lugs and the lug opposite. Oh, and if you hit the drum, it’ll go out of tune. Oh, and if the temperature changes or the pressure or the humidity changes or you move the drum or look at it critically, it’ll go out of tune.
Who the fuck thought that was a good idea?
But between me and Mez, we did it. We took extra care on the snare drum. I think of the snare drum as the nose of the mix – a terrible nose on an otherwise beautiful face is bad news. It’s right there in the middle, it sticks out, you can’t ignore it. It’s amazing how the sound of the snare completely defines the sound of a mix – it’s the single hardest thing to get right. Get it wrong and the recording is instantly cast down into the fiery hell of shit demos. Forever.
You can’t afford to get the snare sound wrong. Too deep, and you become an 80’s revival band. To reverberant and you’re trying to be Pearl Jam – it’s all anyone will compare you to. Too dry and you’re Fleetwood Mac. You must get it fucking right. Mez has a really nice wooden snare. It’s got a bright crack to it that cuts through well, but also has satisfying body and a hint of snare wire crispiness. But on some songs we used a more mellow snare rented from the studio upstairs.
Drums sounding as we wanted, we tamed the sound of the room a bit. Our room has similar dimensions to a big shoe box turned onto its long side. Close, parallel walls are bad news for drum sounds because the drum hits echo off each wall, bouncing back and forward in a ping pong effect. You might have heard it if you’ve ever clapped your hands in an empty room that’s being redecorated; it’s a boingy, flappy reverb that sounds like it’s been lifted from the effects track of The Animaniacs. It smears the sound of the drums and makes them sound cheap. To combat that, I did a thing that I’d heard about, but never done before. I made something.
8 sound absorbing panels – pictured here making a sort of guitar amp rabbit hutch, but which got their first use being placed around the drums, especially either side along the nearest two walls. We hung two duvets from the roof to stop sound bouncing back down too. And it really worked. The drums sounded much more focussed and clear. And when we put microphones round the kit, we could hear the difference.
There are two extremes when it comes to miking up a drum kit. You can put one “big picture” mic up. Or you can use 20 or more, focussed on every tiny detail. We can record 10 things at once with our gear, so we used our 10 mics. Simple. The basic drum sound came from two overhead mics, giving a bright, lively sound and a stereo spread when panned left and right. Then we used mics placed very close to each individual drum to add depth and punch to the sound. The snare got two mics because as I said, it’s important. So did the bass drum: one put right inside the drum through a hole in the front head to get lots of click and attack, and another about 4 feet back at floor level to get a nice bassy thump. Blended together, you get a nice bassy thump, click and attack. Predictably. It doesn’t sound that natural, but it sounds big and clear in a mix so it’s all good.
How long did it take? About 4 days to record 10 drum parts. We took our time, went for pub lunches – the whole point of recording in our own place is so that we don’t have to rush. We adjusted the drum sounds between songs and let the sessions flow – sometimes fast and aggressive, churning out take after take, sometimes relaxed with plenty of time to chat between playing.
Mez was fantastic. The man can play the drums, a fact I’m prone to forget when we’re all knackered at 10pm on a Thursday after a hard week at work. Yep, we’re all babies. Hard working, hard rocking babies. The kind of babies you wouldn’t like to mess with. Baby killers. Or rather, Killer Babies.
Killer babies with killer drum tracks. I was pleased.
Next stop: Bass.