Drum Sound and Drum Tuning

Interview with Sylvia Massy

Sylvia Massy is the unpredictable, Grammy Winning music producer and engineer who has worked with many incredible artists including Tool, Johnny Cash, Prince, Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Taylor Hawkins. Sylvia is well known for her innovative approaches in the recording studio and has developed many new and unique techniques for recording and mixing.

Rob Touslon asked Sylvia about her approaches to drum sound in both recording and mixing scenarios.

What do you listen for in a drum sound before starting a recording session? Does something about the kit setup or the tuning influence you in any way?

Before miking I listen to the tonality of the drums. I listen to the reflections of the sound in the room. I'll adjust the acoustics in the room by putting up fabric panels if I want to cool some reflections. I'll change the drum heads if the drums sound tired, worn or dull. After miking, I'll listen to each drum individually, and make a judgement whether to do some detailed tuning. Often you will not be able to hear the problems in tuning until you listen through the mics.

I’m interested in what might be common for most projects and what might be different with respect to genre? What might you look for different in a drum sound for a rock project compared to something that is more pop or country for example?

In some genres of music, the drummer is more than a time-keeper. For instance, Danny Carey from the band Tool is as important a composer in the band as the other players. For his drums I took a great deal of time, studying the song to be played and tuning the drums into the key of each song. The toms were tuned to make a chord. This helped to make his drums melodic and musical. Other genres have drums that are simply percussive and monochromatic. Country swing often has a shuffling sound which I record using very few mics. On the other hand, a rock project will need mics on every drum, with top and bottom mics on the snare and toms. The top mic captures the attack, while the bottom mic adds the body and tone of the drum. Top and bottom mics are blended together onto one track, typically flipping the phase on the bottom mic. Blend to taste.

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

The importance of checking the phase relationship between each mic cannot be stressed enough. Once the mics are set up and routed, I will have the drummer sit and play a simple beat for 5 minutes. While they play, I solo two mics at a time, flipping the phase switch as I listen. I am listening for the best full-bodied sound between the two switch positions. Often the overhead mics are out of phase with the snare, so I leave those mic channels with the phase switched to compensate. This makes a huge difference, no matter what type of music you are recording. When drum mics are out of phase, even the most powerful drums will sound papery and thin. Be sure that you are capturing the sound as you would hear it standing in front of the drum kit while it was being played. I will also excuse the drummer from the session until it is time to start recording. There is nothing worse than wearing out your drummer by having them hitting the drums while you are getting sounds. "Donk, donk, donk". They will get worn out and overplay before you even start recording, so I will use an assistant to bang on drums while I adjust the mics.

What are your one or two key philosophies when mixing drums? What common approaches do you apply to mixing drums?

A well recorded drum kit will allow you to strip back the rooms to only feature the close mics. Here is where you work carefully on the drum sound in the mix. If the kick and snare is weaker than I want, there are many ways to adjust and improve the sound. The easiest way is to augment the kick and snare tracks with carefully chosen samples. The samples are tucked in behind the original tracks to reinforce the sound of the kick , snare and toms. A carefully chosen snare can even-out inconsistent playing, or fix a drum that had a tired head. For some types of music I will add a harmonizer across the overhead mics, tuning them down a full octave. This will deepen the overall sound of a kit. I will usually add the rooms into the drum mix after all the individual drums have been placed and adjusted. One of my favorite things is to add extreme compression on the drum room. I like the pumping and breathing sound, but it doesn't work if the drummer is crashing his ride cymbal constantly. Room crush or not, the cymbals need to be crisp and glassy. Pop music often has no cymbals... and very artificial drum sounds. If the kit accidentally sounds fake, or is in a tiny space, I will send the sounds out into a tracking room and record the ambience, adding this into the mix. But if they are supposed to sound artificial, then I'll go all the way with that!

Interview with Sylvia Massy conducted by Rob Toulson on 30 August 2020.

For more info on Sylvia Massy, visit www.sylviamassy.com