Drum Sound and Drum Tuning

Interview with Simon Gogerly

Simon Gogerly is one of the UK’s leading recording and mixing engineers. He has worked with a number of the world’s top selling recording artists, including U2, No Doubt, Massive Attack, Underworld and Paloma Faith. In 2006 he was awarded a Grammy for his work on the U2 album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”.

In this interview, Rob Toulson asked Simon specifically about his approaches to mixing drums for a number of music genres.

What is your philosophy on manipulating the dynamics of drums in a mix?

With respect to compression, I generally try to find a digital approach that gives the same qualities of a mix setup that uses analogue tape as the playback system. Tape gives an amount of natural compression to audio and hence transients are a little more controlled already. But now that everything is recorded and mixed in digital, I found I needed a way of making drums sound a bit more like they were coming from tape. Tape gives a very pleasing sound, it sounds full, it sounds punchy, but it still has the attack and the transients that are important for drums. 

I use combinations of individual track compression, bus compression and parallel compression, depending on what the sound sources are – I wouldn’t compress a snare the same as I would compress a kick drum for example, because I’d be looking to get a different amount of transients and a different amount of body out of those sounds. It all depends on the sound of the kit, but I apply a similar principle to drum samples and electronic drum sounds too.

I build a drum bus mix that I think sounds right for the song, by using different compression approaches on different components. So, I might have some overall compression on overheads with fast attack and slow release, because I don’t want the transients to come through the overheads too much. But with kick and snare I’ll have slower attacks, so that the transient comes through, and I’ll adjust the release depending on the kind of body I want to the sound, and also based on the tempo of the track. Especially with the kick drum, because I want the kick drum compressor to open back up in time for the next beat, which helps the kick sound more rhythmic in the track. The release time predominantly controls the decay of the sound, and for a busy rock or funk track it might be important to have the decay to come right after the transient, with less body to the sound.

I usually setup a parallel bus compressor with a fairly fast attack and fast release. My parallel setup is perhaps a little different because I use a valve distortion unit after compressor – the Thermionic Culture Vulture – which adds additional compression and harmonic distortion. The great thing about the Culture Vulture is that is allows either even or odd harmonic distortion, and one or the other will suit different types of music. I then mix the ‘dirty’ parallel channel back in with the ‘clean’ mix of drums. This allows transients and the attack of the kit coming through from the instrument compression going to the clean mix bus, and the body of the drums and extra harmonics coming through from the parallel channel. To get those to blend just right, I usually add some overall buss compression on the clean drum mix too.

How do you approach spectral processing with respect to drums?

Through the 1990s and 2000s drums started to be processed with a lot of enhancement and the introduction of samples too, so listeners have got used to the concept of hyper-real sound and bigger than reality. This is generally owing to a wider range of frequencies in drum sounds and the considerable use of compression. Bass drums on old records don’t have a lot of sub-frequencies and snares don’t have much high-end and crack. But modern tools allow a drum with a wider, more hyper-real, frequency range to be crafted in the mix. I try to fit each drum into its own frequency range, from low to high - kick, toms, snare, hi-hats and cymbals all have their own fundamental pitch and frequency range. The frequency ranges all overlap, but I use EQ to help them sit together with their own identify too. So, for example, I’ll usually put high-pass filters on the overheads and room mics, to avoid any boominess from the kick coming through, and to reduce the likelihood of low-end phase issues. You do have to be careful when using EQ with drums, because most plugins change the phase relationship of the audio and it’s possible to lose some frequencies if you’re not listening to the full effect of each process you add.

My parallel compressor/distortion setup doesn’t work well with lots of sub-frequencies around the 40-80 Hz range, because those distortions sound unpleasant at such low frequencies. So I usually send the kick drum to a separate individual channel where I can EQ the top end out and enhance the low frequencies. I keep this separate to the main drum bus, to avoid going through its bus compressor, and this allows me to add sub frequency ‘thud’ or ‘weight’ to the track and blend it in as required. The sub-frequency around 40-50 Hz seems to excite people to dance in clubs, and can add a hybrid electronic feel to acoustic drums too. But you need to be careful with phase, sometimes I need to invert my sub-frequency channel to keep it in phase with the kick in the main drums group. 

How do you apply reverb and delay when mixing drums?

I often like to use a fairly subliminal slapback delay on snare and sometimes kick as well. This works well if the drum pattern is sparse, because the rhythm of the track can be enhanced with a little repeat on the snare or kick. The slapback repeat usually needs to be heavily equalised so that it’s not taking up much room, so it becomes just perceptible as something that’s helping to drive the rhythm a little stronger.

I might use a specific reverb sound for rock, particularly on snare or toms. Gated reverb still works well, though perhaps used more subliminally than it was when it became fashionable in the 1980s. The gating on the reverb allows a full and exciting sound without sounding boxy, roomy or muddy in the mix. I use a TC Electronic hardware reverb which has in-line gating included in the preset patch. With the reverb channel for drums, I usually add a high-pass EQ to cut frequencies before they get to the reverb effect. Too much low-end in the reverb channel tends to cause muddiness in the mix - for all instruments, not just drums – so I find I always need to EQ the reverb channel a little.  

Do you use other creative tools or approaches, such as using replacement, excitors, or distortion?

I use drum replacement samples if the kit is not well tuned or well recorded, but I prefer to avoid using samples if the drums are recorded well and sound great. Samples also work well for enhancing different genres, for example creating an indie sound with electronic elements – allowing acoustic drums to have the live feel, but with a unique character and style too. If I enhance, for example, a snare with a sample, I usually try to find a sample sound that is s different to the original, perhaps coving a different or wider frequency range. For example, for a live ‘poppy’ snare I might add an 80’s Simmons electronic drum kit sample, which is not perceived as a separate sound but blends well with the original. For a kick drum recording that has a strong attack or click sound, I might add weight by blending a sub-frequency sample. It’s very difficult to get perfect timing when blending samples with live drums, so I find the key is to decide which of the two is providing the transient or attack and which is providing the body and resonance, and allow the recorded and sample sounds to each bring different characteristics to the overall sound.

What are your favourite drum sounds from your music collection?

The drums on Nevermind by Nirvana sound amazing. They were mixed by Andy Wallace and sound not too compressed, very dynamic, real and open. It’s sometimes better to use a limiter to reign in and just reduce the tops of the loud hits rather than hard compress the whole sample, and this seems to work well if you are not trying to make everything too loud. I’m also a big fan of the hybrid indie-electronic drum sound, which was pioneered by bands like New Order in the 80s and 90s

In terms of reverb, I like fairly dry drums if it suits the music. Bill Bruford’s drum sound on the Yes albums, Fragile and Close to the Edge are surprisingly dry for such epic music; the dryness enables a more funk or disco feel, which in itself sounds unique when applied to other genres.

Interview with Simon Gogerly conducted by Rob Toulson on 06/10/2020