Remixing Your Own History #2 Chris vs Drums

I haven’t posted anything about this in a very long time, but I haven’t forgotten. It’s been a while because since the end of August 2022, I’ve had two respiratory infections and three head colds — two really shitty and one mildly annoying that I’m still sort of dealing with.

I’ve done a handful of mixes of the album and it’s very very close. It’s in fact so close that I almost don’t want to finish it, because that closure feels like it will take me one step farther away from my best bud, Tim.

Tim died in a car accident in 2013 — ten years ago. This project is one of two projects that I have on tap that need to get done to have closure on this tragedy. Once those projects are done, my time working with Tim will be essentially over forever. The part about this that really kills me that I haven’t really gotten into was that Tim and I were planning on doing Squelch again. In fact, we had bones for three new songs in the can. These songs however will never be done. Tim’s song was never tracked, but it was a riff he was working on since the 90s and when we revisited it, the flood gates of ideas opened. My two songs were tracked but lost in a hard drive crash. I guess there’s some sort of poetic lesson here.

“The Plan” is to release this as a box set for friends and acquaintances who were around back in the day. Four CDs —

  1. Original mix, original master. Sam Carava and Tim Thomas mix engineers, Chris Siuty mastering engineer.
  2. Original mix, 2021 remaster. Sam Carava and Tim Thomas mix enigneers, Chris Siuty mastering engineer (but with more experience, better ears and better gear.)
  3. 2023 Chris Siuty remix and remaster.
  4. Literally everything else that we have, finished or not on one disc (or two if necessary.)

This will include a comprehensive booklet outlining the band’s history, members, releases, details about shows and photographs. Also a run down, track by track of each song. It was mentioned to me by an acquaintance that we could do a “commentary disc,” but we’re not gonna do that for a lot of reasons. The biggest of which is “we’re not those kinds of assholes.”

Onto the mixing process thus far.

So let’s talk about drums. The absolute most important member of the band is the drummer. I’m not kidding — if your drummer is shit, your band is shit and your songs will be shit. Our drummer was NOT shit, but he did lapse in care of his equipment back then. We rolled into the studio with beat-to-fuck drum heads to which the engineer rightfully said “you need new drum heads. There’s a music shop like two miles from here.” We rolled over to York Music in Elmhurst IL and bought drum heads — well, a few drum heads. They had a kick, floor tom and snare in the sizes we needed, so we did the best with what we had. Drum heads were replaced and tuned. The rack toms were taped to fuck. Years later, I learned a trick to recover fucked up drum heads which requires a heat gun or high-heat hair dryer. Had I known this back then, we would have been less fucked on the drums.

Mic selection was something like SM57 on snare and toms. SM58 on kick and Peavey PVM480 end address small diaphragm condensers on overheads and high hat.

I wasn’t crazy about how the drums sounded, but all things considered, it could have been a lot worse. It wasn’t Sam’s fault — he really did the best he could with the shit sandwich we handed him. This bit of karma would come back to bite me years later as a professional engineer multiple times. He too was doing the best he could with what he had (and was given.)

A quick side note about the Peavey PVM480. This is a budget mic made by a company best known for making high gain jobber amps, jobber PA systems and the 5150. On one side you have totally fine, acceptable getting-the-job-done-on-a-budget gear and on the other, you have the 5150. The PVM480 sounds like complete dog crap on almost everything, except cymbals. It’s legit one of the best cymbal spot mics I’ve ever heard. In fact, if this blog had a larger readership, I’d likely not even mention this, because I still wanna buy a pair for my home studio.

The thing about this mic though is that it has a rated sensitivity of -45 dB, which is pretty sensitive. Comparatively, the Shure SM 81 has the same sensitivity, as do many other condenser mics that are more expensive. A mic like the Neumann KM84 has a sensitivity of -38 dB and the Schoeps CMC6 with MK4 capsule has a sensitivity of -36 dB. These mics are more sensitive and significantly more expensive.

In an environment with low, hard ceilings, the mics positioned directly over the crash and ride will basically mean clipping every time you hit those cymbals. You can pad the input at the mixer, but those mics are going to clip at the element. While you can’t clip a dynamic mic, you can clip a condenser mic. If you don’t activate the pad on the mic, those cymbals are going to be distorted. That was an oversight on all of our parts.

The take away here is that it isn’t always the gear you have or how expensive it is — sometimes the room and how you utilize it is far more important. Treating your room acoustically and triple checking everything is equally important. As well as sometimes thinking outside the box with mic placement. In hindsight, it might have been a better approach to use the larger part of the room and rather than do overhead mics, set up the mics in front of the drum set — maybe three to four feet away — and do an XY pattern rather than spot micing the cymbals. But this is experience and time talking rather than the novice know-nothing walking into someone else’s house to record.

But I digress.

The kick sounded like shit. It was bad mic positioning, but blended with the overheads, it sounded pretty ok and serviceable. If the overheads weren’t clipping every time the cymbals were struck, I could have saved a ton of time remixing this thing, but sadly they were clipped, distorted and fucked right to hell. Can’t go back in time to fix it, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. I can’t say something like a Beta 52, D112 or M88 would have changed anything, because it very well may have been the drum that needed work. It could have been the less-than-stellar Mackie mic pres of that era. Who knows at this point. (Editor’s Note: Mackie has improved their mic pres drastically since the 90s. The Onyx mic pres sound fantastic and are comparable to some of the finest Allen & Heath pres or even those found in the Midas Venice.)

The snare on the other hand sounded great. Like holy shit great. Even with no compression, the snare slammed, cracked and was a thing of beauty. I can’t remember which snare it was that we used. Our drummer had a series of snares that he obliterated — the original Tama Swing Star snare; a Ludwig piccolo (it wasn’t this one) and this gorgeous white Pearl snare that sounded like the fucking apocalypse. I think it was this one, but the time line is fuzzy.

Now I could have just fucked with the levels and called it a day, but after decades of not being happy with the recording, I ended up using Drumagog to replace the drum sounds. Also in the signal chain is a Waves SSL channel strip, Black Rooster LA2A compressor and Waves Pultec EQ. That’s the signal chain on each drum — not necessarily in that order. On a couple songs I used the Waves L1 limiter. This is just to keep the signal at -12 dB and not to color sound. This isn’t even on every drum. OH… ALSO, I used the Waves EMO-Q4 EQ on the kick and bass guitar to get them to play nice together.

Worth noting – I didn’t replace all the drums. I replaced the kick, toms and overheads. The snare, timbales and high hat remain, because those sound great.

Once I got a good balance on the drums, I bussed to a separate channel where I’m using an API 550B EQ and a UA 1176 compressor. This channel is then sent to the Abbey Road Plates reverb. It feels like a whole lot of overkill, but honestly, the drums sounds fantastic now and they still feel natural.

Why did I send a stereo mix to a mono channel? Because (shockingly) adding a mono bus to a stereo mix actually makes the stereo mix sound better and those right to left, left to right tom sweeps feel more natural. Think about when you’re at a gig and you’re standing in the middle of the room. Are you only hearing the PA or are you hearing the direct sound of the drums as well? Do they sound natural or does it sound artificial? Sounds natural, right? That’s because for all intents and purposes, those drums on stage are hitting you straight up the middle. Your ears aren’t going to be finely tuned to a left to right tom sweep or that the snare is slightly off to the left of the drummer. It’s essentially up the middle for you. However, the FOH engineer is panning out those drums so it feels like it’s going left to right, sounding enormous as if you’re directly in front of the kit. It’s all an illusion. What’s doing a lot of the work is the acoustic kit in front of you, keeping it real and making it sound natural. Same shit on record.

Let’s talk about Drumagog.

The trick with Drumagog — which is really a fantastic, life saving piece of software when used sparingly — try not to use the time correction unless you absolutely have to. The quickest way to get your drums to sound like you’ve done too much work is to let software time align them. Your drummer is going to sound like a drum machine. In some cases, you have to do this. In most others, playing to a click track is enough. If your drummer can’t play to a click, well, maybe get a new drummer — or maybe ask them to practice.

Going into the studio is entirely about being prepared (we were not prepared) and part of that preparation includes making sure your instrument sounds as good as possible and that you, the musician plays as good as possible. A lot of times that means playing to a click track. A lot of drummers hate it because they think they’re gonna sound like robots. The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to hit EXACTLY on the click. It’s basically there to help you keep the tempo. You fall off the click for a measure — it isn’t the end of the world. Trust me, you’ll still sound human.

Dan Felumlee from the Smoking Popes talked at length about how he learned to play to a click when the Popes got signed to a major, because he didn’t want to be replaced. If you listen to Destination Failure you can clearly hear he’s on time AND he still sounds human (and most importantly, he still sounds like Dan Felumlee.) Click tracks don’t exist to take the feeling out of your drumming — it’s basically there to say “dude you’re going too fast” or “dude you’re going to slow,” but ultimately they’re there to say “this is how fast you should be playing.”

Drumagog doesn’t care about your feel. In fact, it can say “fuck your feel — I’m here to fix your shitty timing.” There are times where you need that, but most of the time, if your drummer is even decent, you’re probably fine. In this case, our drummer was decent and we were fine. Not great, but fine. the problem with time aligning his parts though is that it would completely mess up everything else, because everything was already tracked.

I will say though, when used correctly, time align in Drumagog makes your life a lot easier. When I started recording bands using Pro Tools, if I wanted good timing, it would involve a click track and an entire day(s) of tracking just drums. Then when the band goes home, finding a few measures that were perfect and them copy/pasting those measures until you have a perfect take. I fucking hated this and once I was in a position to have an intern on hand, I was no longer doing this nonsense. (The amount of times I yelled “JUST GET A GOOD DRUMMER” while fucking around with this is astronomical.) So Drumagog really is a life saver on many fronts.

So that’s where we’re at this that. Next installment, we’re gonna dive into vocals, which were a whole other ball of… not sure what word to use. Ever try and untangle a ball of badly wrapped mic cables? That. That was the condition of the vocals.


Author: gofreaksgo

Life long Chicagoan and Northwest side resident. Lover of music, off kilter outsiders and fuck ups. A List of My Ailments - - Chronic Goth Disorder - Early Onset Grumpiness - Bad Knees

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