Drum Sound and Drum Tuning

Interview with Emre Ramazanoglu

Emre Ranazanoglu is a multi-talented drummer, music producer, songwriter  and recording/mix engineer. He has played drums and worked on records for many great artists included Noel Gallagher, The Prodigy, Kylie Minogue, Shakira and Richard Ashcroft. He is also drummer in jazz-experimentalist band Ill Considered.

Rob Toulson talked to Emre about his approaches to drum sound from the two perspectives of drummer and studio engineer.

When you first started, how did you learn and develop your own appreciation and understanding of drum sound?

Around 95% of the time I don’t play my own drum kit, so it’s important to get an understanding of what you can achieve with different setups. I rarely have time to change drumheads on those kits, so I learnt how to work with what I have and fix the sound so it works for me. Many years ago, I watched the Bob Gatzen drum tuning DVD and just his comment about listening to the drum’s resonance and not being put off by the fundamental meant I could understand and tune drums.

I remember sitting and trying and tuning my drum. Because I didn't know about anything about engineering when I started. When I was 15 or something, listening to a Bryan Adams or Aerosmith rock song with a massive snare drum in there. I didn't know what gave it such a huge sound, I didn’t know it was using a big gated reverb effect in the mix. So I was trying to get my snare to sound like that, like recorded, processed drums - I tried hydraulic drumheads and lots of different things. It was an impossible task, but it was a brilliant learning experience.

When I was making drum samples for FXpansion, I had the opportunity to use 20 different drum kits all in the same room and all with the same heads. Some kits have a special unique quality to them. The Pearl Reference had a strong attack to the sound and the 70’s Jasper shells were just beautifully musical and focused. But it’s surprising that many drum kits sound virtually identical with the same heads on too. I think it has a lot to do with how resonant the drum shells are and that can influence how easy they are to play too.

Could you give a little overview of what you might do differently in the sound of drums for, for example, a rock, pop or jazz project. 

It’s true that jazz drummers tend to tune high and rock drummers tend to tune lower. But in reality, it’s more intricate and there are a lot of options. It’s still possible to have a deep rocky sounding kit with quite high tunings, if the drums are fairly deep and with low tuned resonant heads. That way you get the attack and up-front tone from the tight batter head and a deep warm sound from the depth of the drum and the lower tuned resonant head. 

The drumheads make a much bigger difference to the sound than the drum itself. There’s not a very good shortcut, you just have to try lots of different kinds and experience what sound you can achieve with each type. But if I was to supply backline to a festival, without any guidance from it being rock or jazz, then I’d go for single ply coated heads for the jazz kit and Remo Powerstroke 3 or Pinstripe heads for the rock kit, which would give a good starting point for most drummers. 

What are the one or two key approaches or technologies when recording or mixing drums, which might have a big influence on the project?

Where the drums go in the room is the most important thing. I'll often look to position the drums and mics in the place where you get most bottom-end and the least cymbal, when listening to the room mics. I tend to play not too loud, so the issue of mic bleed it just not something I really have to deal with. 

Something I teach people quite often relates to how loud you play drums when recording. I give a demonstration where I play really loud and we set the input gains to get a good signal level. I then go play really quietly and turn the gains up to create a level matched comparison with quiet playing and loud playing on the DAW timeline. You can cold hear the difference. The peak levels are matched exactly and the loud playing has plenty of attack and aggression, but when you listen to the quieter playing at the same level, it has so much more tone and fullness. You basically just created some perfect natural compression by playing quieter. The sound is fuller and more powerful, but tuning becomes more important, and that why some people play so loud, because it covers up the imperfections in the setup a bit. 

There are lots of things I like to do with the drum sound, which is not to do necessarily with tuning. For example, I like putting a heavy weight on the snare head. Because I played really quietly most of the time. It shortens the envelope and the exact pitch make matters less when you do that.

The preamps for recording drums are very important. The API preamps react very fast and allow all the detail of the drum sound to be recorded into the DAW. I also use the Roger Mayer 456 Tape Emulator units on each channel after the preamp. They give me the one thing about tape sound that works great with drums. They control the peaks and give what I call ‘peak efficiency’ without changing the effect of the transient, so they allow the blend between the attack and the tone of the drum to be more balanced.

In the mix I use a lot of parallel processing to maintain the illusion of transients and to get tone from the drums. I also use quite a lot of clipping, distortion, bit crushing, hard clips on drums, either direct or on a parallel channel. It's very controlled and it's quite a modern sound, but I’m not too worried about authenticity when mixing, I’m looking for the right sounds that suit the music.

Interview with Emre Ramazanoglu conducted by Rob Toulson on 14 October 2020.