Approaching Drums Left of Center with AudioSnap and Session Drummer – Norman Matthew [MURDER FM]

So Last “NorMonday” I went on a little (ok a lot) about how I approached tracking guitars, before that we tapped on my signature vocal techniques. Now it’s time to get into the foundation of it all, drums. Again, prepare yourself for some left of self-centered techniques.

THE KICK DRUM SUCKS…NO WORRIES, THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

Seems there’s an app for EVERYthing these days. In the recording world, I like to think of plugins as the “apps.” I’ve been part of approximately 16.25 trillion sessions and not a-one has gone by that I haven’t run into a horrible kick drum sound – clicks, flaps, slaps, flops or just generally sounding like a basketball being dribbled through my mic. The flip-side to these tones of course, is that Gawd-awful weak kick drum that sounds like an egg-beater hitting a pillowcase.

Well I have found a Godsend when it comes to such atrocities….SESSION DRUMMER and AUDIO SNAP!

Drum replacement happens EVERYwhere, ALL the time, so don’t let anyone fool you… the key is knowing how to keep the feel and dynamics alive. I learned a lot about drum replacement from producer Beau Hill (Ratt, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, etc.), who took me under his production wing and mentored me on many techniques. In music production, we all strive for the best drum sounds because after all, that is what the rest of the music sits on. Unfortunately, we can’t all afford fancy tracking rooms where the walls move to adjust to the natural reverb. So, many of us at one point or another are slaves to the machine: tracking drums in the jam room, or in mom’s garage next to the washing machine (which is constantly on for some reason).

Thanks to SONAR X2 Producer, you no longer have to fear this. I know this firsthand, thanks to some of my most recent projects for the all-girl band The Bombs (www.wearethebombs.com) who are in the studio tracking their next release “Channel from Hell.” I’ve also been working on the Debut EP for Vannah Red and The Never Endings’ Debut Single “Thin Air,” so I’ve been immersed in “drum-hell.” And while I do have a great setup at my studio, THE SOUND FOUNDATION (www.thesoundfoundationdallas.com), complete with a fiberglass drum isolation booth and a gorgeous Mapex Kit – plus an array of drum mics, capturing the essence of the band and energy is still quite the task. After all, you don’t just want to hear the songs, you want to feel and hear the musicians inside them so that you can connect yourself to the music and experience it in your own way.

YOU GET AN “A”, NOT FOR EFFORT, BUT FOR AUDIO SNAP

AudioSnap saved my life! By simply hitting “A” in SONAR X2, I opened a whole new world, another dimension of sonic opportunity and the removal of a whole lot of frustration. One scenario I almost always encounter is an artist being exhausted by the time setup has been complete. By the time we get good “sounds,” sometimes a lot of the energy has been expended.  This can be a big problemo when it comes to creating and capturing the best takes from an artist. AudioSnap has really helped me to get around this situation and embellish the drum takes in a very natural and authentic way.

In AudioSnap I’m able to turn my audio transients into midi files for editing purposes. This is huge for me because I’m able to clean (or dirty up) drum tracks and replace that one stupid hit that went MIA somewhere along the line and really build a solid drum track. Once it is turned into a midi file, I now have the ability to manipulate my drum tones using Session Drummer 3.

SONAR’s AudioSnap engine and tempo analysis features give you unprecedented rhythmic and tempo control over your audio. Employing sophisticated transient detection technology, the AudioSnap engine automatically analyzes all recorded and imported audio files for rhythmic content to determine where the beats are in the music. AudioSnap is completely non-destructive, similar to Groove clips and VVocal clips. AudioSnap, VVocal, and Groove clips are mutually exclusive. Groove clip markers are typically placed at a zero-crossing point before a transient; AudioSnap transient markers are placed where musical changes occur, but may not be exactly at a zero crossing.

TIP O’ THE WEEK: *One thing I cannot stress enough when tracking drums is keep your gain/trim very low to only let in the actual drum hit and not all the room noise. Isolate sounds as much as possible or it can be VERY painful for you if you’ve let too much sneak in. You can always bring your signal up later in the mix and or “normalize” (not Normanize) your .wav file, but if you let too much in, AudioSnap reads too much as well and you’re less likely to get a clean and smooth transition into a midi file.

WHAT DO YOU CALL A PLUGIN THAT HANGS OUT WITH MUSICIANS? SESSION DRUMMER

So now I have turned my kick, snare and toms into midi files using AudioSnap – for what purpose and why did I do that? Why not the overheads? Well for one, that slappy kick drum was annoying and needed some beef, so I ran my original .wav file of the kick drum and using Session Drummer I picked a kick drum tone from my library of samples. The end result is my original kick playing alongside my sample kick, all combined with the overheads, and all together playing with perfect accuracy.  I can even EQ them separately to fine tune the sounds to a more miraculous intenseness.  Here is a video that gives more detailed info on this technique of turning audio into midi notes.

Session Drummer 3 is a professional drum sampler and pattern player. It features Cakewalk’s patented Expression Engine technology which is an anti-aliased, real-time sound production system for multi-sample audio playback.  This translates into accuracy and feel.

Session Drummer 3 accurately replicates the sound of its real-world counterpart and features a highly-detailed user interface as well as simple but powerful controls. You can load single samples (Wave or AIFF files), or multi-samples (SFZ files) which already contain key mapping and velocity switching assignments. You can load samples in any bit depth and sample rate, in mono or stereo, in looped or un-looped format. Wave and AIFF files can be loaded directly, or as a sample inside an SFZ definition file.

X2 presets are amazing, I use this as a starting point, then customize them or pull from personally recorded drum tones according to what I feel is missing in terms of frequency, tone, and depth. Like guitarists, drummers also want a “certain drum sound,” but without realizing that the kit needs to meet the needs of the song as a whole, sometimes it’s tough to find the balance and make everyone happy.  The drum-set is one big puzzle, each piece needing to work in sonic tandem with one another; and it also fully has to lend itself to the overall sonic vibe of the song. To give myself the most room to breathe, I track my drums as absolutely dry as possible, avoiding EQ at all costs. I tune my kit according to the feel of the band, the room, and in some cases the tuning of the band, because like I said before, each instrument needs to fill its own space and work in tandem with the song.

The space between the hit and release are just as important as the space between the notes. Tone is everything. For example, since you are not able to mic a kick drum on the beater side (and believe me I have tried), I need that snap from the beater side head, so I pull from my library of tones in SESSION DRUMMER and utilize a mic’d beater-side kick drum that will give it that top end to cut through the rest of the band.

I always layer at least two kick drum tones from my library using the AudioSnap midi file and the Session Drummer sampler. The midi file triggers off the tone of choice in SESSION DRUMMER and just by copying the midi region to another track, I can easily set off two separate samples at the same time – and they are perfectly locked in. Why would I layer the kick drum so much? Well, let’s be real; if you mic’d the front of the kick drum, there are still three sides of the drum that aren’t heard. All of those sides resonating together are what makes the kick sound like the drum that it is when you are in the same room with it. I can get better tones out of my kick sound by layering multiple kicks and sometimes even EQ’ing them completely different in the mix.

Also, in the snare department, it seems the heavier my songs get, the more the snare drum gets buried in the mix. Worst thing you can do is tune it higher though, the “ping” makes it more annoying and thinner. Mic’ing an additional side of the snare can help, but adding a layer of drum replacement (or embellishment) with Session Drummer to beef up and add dimension and depth to the drum will allow it to cut through the mix. I usually use the same procedure for the toms.

Your foundation needs to be solid, so draw the black and white outlines before you start putting in the colors with Session Drummer. In a nutshell, the approach I take is that the drummer lays the track, and then SESSION DRUMMER and AUDIO SNAP color it in where needed.

Once I have gone through drum replacement on all the shells, I leave the overheads as is. They serve greatly to keep the integrity of the track in place and also give it character and ambience. I like to “feel the room,” but I don’t like to hear it too much. I base the level of the overheads pumping in the mix according to how all the tracks all work together, and what the song needs as a whole according to the vibe.

IT’S NOT ABOUT HOW BIG YOUR KIT IS, IT’S HOW YOU BANG YOUR DRUM

It’s not about the size of your kit, it’s about HOW you play it. I make EVERY drummer scale down their kit in the studio (including myself). First of all, I KNOW you are not going to hit EVERY splash cymbal, and secondly, if you can’t get it done with a 4 piece kit, you can’t get it done at all. The less you have in the way, the cleaner and more isolated your drum tracks will be, and will give you greater control when it comes time to mix. The less it bleeds the better.

Have I mentioned ProChannel saved my life? Once I’ve got a pretty killer drum track going, I pull up my ProChannel strip and gate my shells (kick, toms, snare) according to how much bleed I have, and then I let the overheads really create the ambience. I don’t compress my overheads because I want to keep the dynamic integrity in place, but I will compress the shells according to what the song needs or what each piece of the kit needs independently. I don’t over-compress because I love to hear the drum breathe back at me after the hit. Although sometimes depending on the kit, the player and the song, I need to run a compressor on a separate drum bus and send all my shells to it, just so it is even across the line. Heavier music calls for tight and consistent tones, so compressors used correctly can make the track heavier while gates will make the track tighter.

Here is something REALLY crazy that I do sometimes in some situations; and it doesn’t work all the time for obvious reasons with the laws of phase. Track a scratch guitar for the drummer to a click track at the tempo of the song, record shells first, THEN the overheads! That will give you ample amounts of isolation, greater control over each piece of the kit and a larger than life sound. It also forces a drummer to now play for the SONG, not for the kit or himself.  In this scenario, I am able to tighten all the hits with AudioSnap. Like 8-Tracks in the 70’s where the whole album had to be good because you had to listen the whole way through – take the same approach when tracking. Before plugs in and editing tools, the drummer HAS to play for the song and not for herself/himself… That’s what drum solos are for!

As amazing as SONAR X2, ProChannel, AudioSnap and SESSION DRUMMER are, keep in mind they are only as powerful as the source, so make sure to lay down great tracks filled with heart from the get-go and the rest will turn out amazing.

It’s a beating taking the time to do it right, but then again… isn’t that what drums are all about? 😉

Published by

Norman Matthew

The Texas-native front man of MURDER FM, Norman Matthew, is a guest contributor on the Cakewalk blog. MURDER FM’s latest record, Anthems for the Used, was produced, recorded, mixed and mastered at The Sound Foundation in Dallas, TX using SONAR X2 Producer.