Great-sounding drum tracks are the foundation of tons of rock, R&B, metal, pop, country, and dance hits. In the old days, it was fairly clear how to define “great.” The thunderous impact of Led Zeppelin, or the dry and detailed punch of Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, or the bright and driving snap of the Police were excellent benchmarks for professional, “radio-friendly” drum sounds.
Today, anything goes.
I mean, if you’ve ever pulled up next to a kid at a stoplight who is trying to blow his Scion’s doors off with enough low end to sink the Bismarck, then you’ve already experienced extreme EQ. You won’t hear that on classic-rock radio. In fact, even half that amount of bass would have blown a ’60s mastering engineer right out of the control room, where he would have saved himself by grabbing the receiver of the studio payphone as he flew by, then popping in a dime, and screaming at the session engineer that he’ll batter his idiotic skull into toothpaste with a ball-peen hammer. How things have changed.
But the exciting news is that recording musicians now have the freedom to do—anything. This means I can construct drum tracks that don’t have to be linear or consistent in tone, accent, rhythm, or texture. I am free to employ signal processing to morph the drums into any timbre that kicks the music in its pants. Nothing new here—rap and dance producers do this stuff all the time. But if your rock drum sounds are playing it too safe, and, as a result, your track’s excitement meters are hitting rock bottom, then consider these ways to ignite, energize, and totally ruin your drum sound.
Don’t just route your drum tracks to an overdrive processor or fuzz pedal. Those options can leave you with a thin, spitty thwack, rather than the gloriously huge and gritty wallop of the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want.” (Of course, if you’re going after “spitty,” then plug in and destroy all frequencies as you see fit.) You’ll have more control over the sizzle if you assign the drum tracks to your processor or plug-in of choice, and return the effected signals to dedicated faders on the mixer. Now, you can retain the clean drum sound, and mix in the fuzz, distortion, or overdrive to taste. I often choose to “dirty up” just the kick drum—or kick and snare—and leave the toms and overdrive tracks pristine, but there’s no wrong move here, so follow your gut. In addition, I may opt to bring on the dirt solely during choruses, or a bridge, or for part of an intro. You don’t have to leave the distortion on throughout the entire tune, and, in fact, I feel it’s a more cinematic use of the technique when you toss distortion in sparingly for a jarring effect.
Old-school ambient effects, such as the slap and boom that drives the drums on John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” or the ’80s-cliché, gated-snare reverb on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” hold keys to grabbing a listener’s ear with hyper-reality sounds. Again, assigning your reverb or echo processors to dedicated faders allows you to bring on massive decays without losing your groove to a tsunami of ambience. Depending on the song, I sometimes like to dress drums in a tri-level wash, where a mammoth reverb is faded almost imperceptibly into the background, a slapback is mixed clearly into the foreground, and a poppin’ smallroom reverb is assigned to the overheads, and positioned somewhere between the big reverb and the slapback in the mix. Remember, you’re not going for a sound that Ringo would love—you’re trying to outdistance the conventional and surprise (and, hopefully, delight) listeners.
Embrace Wobble and Swish
It’s almost its own hook—although the vocal chorus is mighty fine on its own—when the tape-flanged toms storm into the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park.” Wow—let’s go vertigo! What can we do? Well, phase or tremolo the hi-hat or crash and ride cymbals. Assign the reverbs detailed in the previous paragraph to a jet flanger, and bring that sound back on its own fader, bringing it up at appropriate (or, better yet, inappropriate) moments in the mix. Chorus the hihat, filter or ring-modulate the snare, vibrato the hi-hat, put a rotaryspeaker effect on the toms, wah-wah the kick drum—oh, man, the opportunities for genius-level silliness are endless. And keep in mind that something that seems real dumb may one day define a production aesthetic— such as the harmonized, alien snare sound that producer Tony Visconti dreamed up for David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.”