THE DRUM RECORDING CHALLENGE

25 samples
4 drum kits

15 microphones
30 hours
1 studio, 1 engineer, 1 drummer


A top Aussie drummer and I attempt to replicate 25 vintage drum samples in 2 days.   By Nick Irving.

THE MISSION

I'm sworn to secrecy, so I can't name any names, but this is a cross-genre collaboration between top musicians in Australia, Canada and the USA.

We were sent 25 drum loops. All had been sampled from old vinyl records from the 1960's-1980's. Lots of cool funk and rock loops. Our mission was to make new versions of these drum loops, with the Aussie drummer playing. The most important thing – to make each loop similar in sound and feel to the sample sent to us.

PLANNING

It's important to know what can and can't be done in a recording studio. Yes, you can certainly try and replicate a sound and if you know what you're doing it is very possible to get something close to the original. The longer you spend doing it and the more equipment at your disposal, the closer you'll get. But it's important to remember: without using the actual same drum kit, drummer, studio, microphones, recording equipment and Engineer, it will never be exactly the same.

Our Aussie drummer was heading overseas in 4 days time, so we had just 2 days available to attempt what, really, could have easily taken a month in the studio (a day per drum sound to replicate would not be unreasonable). Planning was going to be crucial if we were going to pull off this feat of sonic imitation.

We listened to all the samples closely and divided them into 4 groups, loosely based around a common sound. The first group were quite 'live' sounding and pretty aggressive (hints of distortion). The second group had a more 70's dry sound to them. The third group had more of an 80's 'big rock' sound, and the final group was for the 2 samples which didn't quite fit into the 3 main groups.

We assigned a different drum kit & cymbals and a different array of microphones from the studio collection to each group of samples. The idea was to try and capture as many different sounds as possible before even getting to the control room, where we'll use the equipment there to further push the sounds in different directions.

KIT 1: GRETSCH 'GREEN STRATA' (1971)

Gretsch Green Strata 1971

DAY ONE

We decided to do all the recording before starting to mix or create each drum sound in the control room.

A fair amount of time is required to set up a drum kit, tune it, and then set up 15 microphones on 15 stands with 15 cables.

The drummer warmed up and ran through the loops while I got levels in the control room.

The actual recording of each loop didn't take too long, but the sheer number to record meant the time added up.

So at this point, with 3 kits still to go plus all the mixing, we had to drop the idea of changing microphones as well as kits. We were seriously up against the clock.

We changed over from the Gretsch Green Strata to the 1968 Pearl kit. The room mics stayed where they were but the close mics had to be pulled away to change kits, and then re-set up again around the new kit.

Kit number 2 was recorded. We used the old tea-towel trick to deaden the drums for some of the recordings, just like they did in the 1970's.

Before the end of the night we managed to do another kit changeover and then record the 3rd kit, the Pearl Export. By the time we finished with the Export, it was 5am and time to head home after 15 hours in the studio!

KIT 2: PEARL 4 PIECE (1968)

PEARL 1968 DRUM KIT

DAY TWO

Still pretty tired from the marathon first day, we met for a late lunch then hit the studio again. Kit number 4 was set up, the Gretsch Chrome Kit. We only needed a kick, snare and hi hat for this second-last sample to record, and we decided to use an 18” floor tom as the kick, since the sample had quite a high kick sound (probably a 20” kick originally, which we didn't have on hand).

Last sample to record was purely on cymbals, and that didn't take long.

Finally all the tracking was done! ….but none of the drum kit recordings were mixed yet, and it was already dinner time on our second and last day!

After dinner we played back all the samples in the control room. Each of the 15 mics were on a separate channel of the API console.

The Coles 4038 overheads were tracked through a pair of Urei LA3A's from the early 1970's. The Neumann overheads were recorded with Urei LA4's just keeping the peaks in a bit.

Some of the close mics had some API 550A eq during tracking, and the snare mics went through 1176's, just lightly.

In Mix we also made good use of an ADR Compex, Lexicon 480L, Valley People dyna-mite, dbx 165A's and plenty more.

KIT 3: PEARL EXPORT (1994)

PEARL EXPORT DRUM KIT 1994

MIXING

We put all the faders up and listened to our recordings. Plenty of microphone choice, and the idea was to use a selection of different mics on each sample – the ones which best helped us to get the right sound. We certainly didn't need all 15 microphones on every sample, especially as a lot of these old recordings would have only used a handful of mics to record drums originally.

Some samples had no toms, so we could leave those out of the mix. We did a “pick n mix” of the room mics, overheads and close mics, and together with different EQing, compression, sometimes gating, and different delays and reverbs, we were able to 'push' each drum recording in the direction of the original sample. With 25 samples to mix differently to each other, and with about 10 remaining hours, we could only afford about 20 minutes per mix! We had to work fast and stay focused. With plenty of coffee (we have a great espresso machine in the studio kitchen!) and regular ear breaks and snacks, we worked our way through all 25 samples.

It wasn't till we reached the end, and then finally, exhausted, played them all back, one after another, that we were cheering at how much we'd accomplished. It was great – each of our new drum recordings sounded different to each other, and all had a great vintage, retro vibe to them – just as if they'd come off an old record!

Mission Accomplished.

KIT 4: GRETSCH CHROME WRAP (1971)

GRETSCH CHROME DRUM KIT 1971

REFLECTIONS

It was a great challenge and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, though it is tough to work 15 hour days! But it was a strange experience as an Engineer. Trying to reproduce many of these old drum samples meant often doing things which felt totally wrong. You start with a really nice drum recording, but then have to roll off some tops, some lows, and certain other frequencies get pushed in weird directions to try to match the sonic signature of the samples we were trying to recreate. I did things which I would never otherwise do. Often I felt I was 'destroying' great drum recordings, which is an uncomfortable feeling for an Engineer! But the most important thing to remember was what we were trying to achieve. We were trying to get 'old' and sometimes 'thin' sounds! That's what the project needed, so that's what we did.

It's always a great experience as an Engineer to go out of your comfort zone of how you normally make great recordings and mixes, and almost do the opposite – try and make it sound not great! But in the end it does end up sounding just right – which is great!

But that's art – it's not about perfection. It's about creativity.

THE MICROPHONES


Kick
AKG D12
Rode K2

Snare
AKG D19C (top)
Beyerdynamic M420 (bottom)

Rack Toms
Sennheiser MD421

Floor Tom
Telefunken D19C or
Sennheiser MD421

Hi Hat
Beyerdynamic M420

Overheads
Coles 4038 pair
Neumann KM184 pair

Room
AKG C12 VR
Neumann U67
RCA 77DX

SORRY, NO SAMPLES

Due to the nature of the project (it's for a record that's not out yet) we can't post any samples for you to hear. When the record is out we'll link to it. Watch this space...

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