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Or how not to balls up your drum sound!



I was in a studio yesterday and I spent a good 45 minutes pulling electrical and gaffer tape from the house drum kit. Yes some melon had literally put layer upon layer of tape and toilet paper on the skins and, wait for it...the shells...yes you read that right...the shells of the drums!


Now it may seem unlikely that the relative mass of a couple of pieces of tape on a drum shell would make a difference. Well yes, that's absolutely right. But the layer upon layer of tape that had been placed on the kick drum racked up a fair mass. I can only imagine that this was some sort of bad habit or perhaps the previous users were committing that schoolboy error of setting up the toms so that they nearly touched the top of the kick. You all dampen your drums when recording yes? Well that could just be what is holding back your drum sounds.


See why this is a schoolboy error here.


First rule of studio club is.......


Don't gaffer tape toilet roll onto drum skins.


What are drums designed to do?

So before I talk about dampening methods I am going to talk about what drums are designed to do.


Resonate, it is really that simple. The skin is designed to resonate to create a the fundamental and some overtones, this is of course influenced by the shell of the drum vibrating. There is certainly controversy over whether the shell is creating much audible sound itself but the end result is that the drum construction and tuning as well as skin type influences the sound.


It is however, clear that the skin vibration is pushing the most air and creating the most part of the sound. As we all know drum manufacturers, skin manufacturers and every other maker associated with drumming tools pay more than a cursory notice to the acoustics of their products. So one would think that drums are designed to sound pretty decent as they are. Yes?


What does dampening do? Acoustic vs close Mics

So with all this drum technology and design in mind, why do people dampen their drums? Well I will say that there are cases where the stylistics of a genre/specific sound require “flat as a pancake” drums. However for most pop, rock and metal this is actually not needed nor is it desirable.

In the acoustic context (that is playing in a room with your band), you might want to kill some annoying ring. Handy little gum devices named Moogles (other brands are available) can be placed onto the drum skins to deaden the drum ring. They make drums sound great.....or do they?


Well let's consider what Moongels might do in the context of a live/studio close mic setup on a kit.


  1. Pseudo gating: The sympathetic skin ring generated by hitting the kick and other drums is of course lessened as the mass of the skin has effectively been increased. Great....or is it? If we have a half decent setup or workflow, it is likely that we will be gating/editing the toms to remove unwanted ring. OK so maybe we don’t need the dampening tools to reduce sympathetic ring.

  2. Unpleasant Overtone Ring: But dampening also affects the unpleasant overtone ring in a drum. So let us ask ourselves, what is unpleasant ring? Hmm maybe, just maybe we haven't actually tuned our kit properly. I'll do another blog on drum tuning but my advice is to get a Tune-bot or a Drumdial. Drummers will often deny that they need tuners of any kind but imagine for one moment if a guitarist said that in your band. Yes they may just be able to tune up but it will be a damn sight more accurate with a tuner. Plus you can then tune to an exact pitch that will fit nicely in the context of the band/song. Trust me, if you tune your kit properly you are far less likely to have those overtones that you don't like.


A transient matter

So what does dampening do in the case of a well tuned, gated close mic'ed kit?


It's all about transients...well actually it's about the bit after the transient. When a drum is hit we can categorise the sound in to the initial transient and the following ring. Dampening will reduce the transient minimally but will increase the decay time and overall volume of the ring. Imagine hitting a table with a drum stick vs hitting a drum. The initial hit sound isn't too different but the table resonates very little compared to the vibrating drum with its tuned skins and shell to make a specific tone.


Now let's move from the live room into the control room during mixing. What does the mix engineer do? Well for projects that I mix but did not record, I often spend a good deal of time trying to remove cymbal spill from the toms and hat spill from the snare. Having good separation allows the drums to be given a “bigger than life” feel. A lot of producers/mixers will end up adding samples at this point to decrease the spill:drum ratio.


Another thing that we do as mixers is to compress the hell out of a snare, an 1176 with a fast attack is my weapon of choice...it makes an averagely played snare sound like it was having the living hell beaten out of it. We will go into why this works another time. The aim of this kind of compression is to increase the ring of the drum in comparison to the transient.


Are you starting to get it now?


Yes that's right the mixer wants a drum with a high ring:transient ratio, the mix engineer doesn't care about extra long ringing as that can be gated out. But lower ring:transient ratio drums are not what we are after in general.


After dampening drums we only then need to compress them more to bring up the ring:transients ratio...bringing up any cymbal spill in the process.


When you might want dampening

Well I have ranted on about dampening as if I never use it and it is the steaming produce of the rear end of Beelzebub. But that's not quite how I feel. With the right drummer, dampening can be an incredible tool. Some of the greatest recordings have been made with dampened drums so don't write it off completely....just make sure you don't reach for that dampening too soon.


Happy recording.


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