Drum Sound and Drum Tuning

Interview with Mike Exeter

Mike Exeter is a Grammy Winning producer and engineer, having experience working with giants like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Mike gets involved in all aspects of production, recording and mixing to take projects from conception to completion.

In this interview Rob Toulson talks to Mike particularly about his approaches for recording and mixing drums.

What do you listen for in a drum sound before starting a recording session? 

I want to find out how the room and drums react together.  We can generally compensate at higher frequencies for reflections and harshness/dullness issues, but it is a lot harder at the lower frequencies. The floor tom is the most resonant and deep sounding element in most kits so by walking round the room banging it with a stick you get to learn how the room reacts at the lower frequencies. I am looking for as much sustain and body as possible – this indicates the least amount of phase cancellation at the lower frequencies.  Once I find this spot I get the drummer to set up his kit around that tom.

Could you give an overview of what you might aim for differently in the sound of drums for, for example, a rock, metal or more pop project, or other genres?

I concentrate on the tuning of the drums, in terms of both pitch and resonance/damping.  For a fast, dense Metal track I would suggest slightly higher pitches with a pretty short sustain on the Toms and Kick.  A slower Rock track would allow longer sustain and deeper resonance.  I can use more of the room to give a sense of space.  The skin types and depth of shells have a huge bearing on these factors so a drummer who knows about tuning, or a drum tech can be a very useful ally.  

What are the one or two key considerations when tracking drums that might have the most influence on the success of the session? 

All recording is a human process requiring inspiration at every level.  The choice of room and the way it is prepared/dressed for the session is more important than any other aspect of the recording. If you make the musician feel special they will perform as if they are playing to the biggest, and most supportive, audience in the world. When you then work with them to present them with a fantastic sound through their Cue Mix they know you are invested in making them sound incredible and give them the best recording experience they could want.

I know you use a unique approach to recording toms, with a method that uses close mics on the top and bottom heads - could you explain that technique briefly please?

I can’t take credit for it totally, but it involves having a single “y-lead” with 2 female XLRs at the mic ends to a single male XLR to the preamp.  One of the female XLRs is wired with pins 2 and 3 reversed.  This therefore takes the out of phase signals from the top and bottom tom mics and puts them back in phase at source before hitting the mic amp. The benefits are that you only use one channel and commit the sound, plus the ambience/spill is also phase reversed between the mics which reduces the overall spill and allows for a much punchier and clearer tom hit. I use the same mics top and bottom (Sennheiser E604) so the levels are ok to be the same, but I have used variable in line pads to reduce the bottom mic levels to tweak the balance between top and bottom.

What are your one or two key philosophies when mixing drums? 

I want them to sound fat, punchy, defined and live.  I make sure the kick and snare are as solid and defined as possible with phase coherence checked and fixed.  I use short, medium and long reverbs to enhance the excitement and feeling of space and depth (complementing the room mics I’ve recorded) and then work in the rhythm guitars. These main elements become my rhythm bed after which I build the rest of the mix around them.  I mainly subtract with EQ anything that is in danger of obscuring those elements.  Mixing is sleight of hand so I use tremendous amounts of automation moves to constantly make sure that every element is in its place and not masking something else.  These moves are mostly small, but it’s the combined effect of lots of small moves that make for a lot of power, space and depth in the sound field.

Interview with Mike Exeter conducted by Rob Toulson on 21/07/2020.

For more information about Mike, please visit www.mikeexeter.com