Getting Big Rock Drum Sounds
Scott Fritz, November 2011

Wrecking Ball

Rock drum example from Voice of Addication's album 'Reduce, Reuse, Resist'

Wrecking BallRock drum example from Voice of Addication's album 'Reduce, Reuse, Resist'

Over the years, the conventional sound of rock drums has changed a whole lot. From the pillowy sounds of the 60s to the gated sounds of the 80s to the larger-than-life sounds of today, what the public comes to expect from rock drums continues to evolve. Of course as producers and engineers, it is our job to know how to get sounds that will be consistent with what our artists and buying public expect.

The FET compressor with a medium attack and very fast release adds some splat to the attack and length to the decay of a snare drum.

I mentioned the "larger-than-life" sounds of many rock productions today. And, quite literally, they are larger than life, as one of the most common ways to achieve them is to have multiple snares, kicks and toms layered upon one another to get them to explode within the mix. We do most of our productions with v-kits and samples, which makes doing this a relatively easy process. Here is how we go about getting sounds we like, and as an example, we will go over how we did the drums for the latest Voice Of Addiction (voiceofaddiction.com) record "Reduce, Reuse, Resist". The opening song "Wrecking Ball" is a good example since it starts right away with a cool tom groove.

Don't be afraid to try multiple drum layers, multiple sample sets, and parallel compression with your drum tracks.

Part One
For this song we used Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2.0 (The Hit Factory kits). I used this particularly because there isn't a whole lot of heavy low end information in the snares or kick drums of this particular set, so they give a great snap in the midrange and upper frequency spectrum. Also since there are so many room mic options, there isn't a whole lot of post-processing to be done to the ambient mics - just finding a balance with the faders will get you close most of the time.

I took the dry snare top and smashed it pretty hard with the FET Compressor - dialed in with a medium attack and very fast release in order to add some splat to the attack and length to the decay. Also, the parallel inject feature is great because you can do some extreme processing and, with judicious use of the blend, can get some pretty natural sounds when combining the dry signal with the wet.

For the toms I used the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor just to add a little punch - in fixed attack mode with the attack and release locked in the fast positions. Also, I used the UAD Studer A800 plugins across all drum tracks to add a bit of analog smoothness and rounding. Of course this is all to taste, but the but the general idea in this case was to establish a kick/tom/snare sound that provided a mid to upper range snap to the overall drum sound.

An important thing to note here - one of the great features of Superior Drummer is the ability to choose how much bleed is in each microphone. For this song, I removed all bleed from the snare top mic, tom mics, and kick mics - in other words, the drums I knew I would be hitting pretty hard with compression. This way, the bleed from the rest of the kits (i.e. the high-hat bleed in the snare mic) isn't drastically smashed, and we have discrete control of the transients of the main parts of the kit with no artifacts spilling over to the other kit pieces. Since there are so many ambient mics to use, the lack of bleed in those few kit pieces isn't noticeable in the final mix.

Part Two: The larger than life stuff
Now comes the "larger-than-life" part - layering another kick and snare (or multiple if you want) on top.

In this case, I wanted the second layer of kick and snare to provide the low end girth, and I chose Steven Slate Drums to do this. I find this sample set to be great as a second layer addition to more "organic" kits in order to achieve the right amount of consistent transient presence in the mix. I just took the MIDI data from the Superior Drummer performance, soloed the kick data and sent it to the Kontakt player while auditioning different kicks (and playing the Superior Drummer tracks along to hear the blend real-time). The same process with the snare afterwards.

One thing to note - different sample sets have different velocity layers and scaling, so you may have to tweak the velocity information from one sample set to another (so making a duplicate MIDI track for the drum layering is smart, in case you need to go back to the original sample set with the MIDI data).

Once I have the second kick/snare sounds I like, I bounce them out and add them to the drum stem I have set up in order to mix down. In this case I used the Tube-Tech Classic Channel to equalize the drum bus - adding some high end cymbal presence, a bit of kick boom in the low end, and some snare clarity in the midrange area.

Over and Out
So, don't be afraid to try multiple drum layers, multiple sample sets, and parallel compression with your drum tracks. You will most likely come up with some new drum sounds and aesthetics that you haven't come across in your mixes, and will go a bit further towards finding a distinct sound and workflow that suits both you and your artists better than ever before.

© 2011 Scott Fritz
Scott Fritz is the president and producer of the Chicago-based studio Stranded On A Planet. Recently recorded artists include Amirah, Nadia Ali, Cavalier King, Michael Angelo Batio, Martha Berner, A Friend Called Fire, Karen Kiley, The Hawthorne Effect, and Voice Of Addiction