Ten or fifteen years ago, I freaking hated drum programs. Lifeless, soulless, plastic, 2-D sounding pieces of junk. I never heard one that I thought sounded even remotely close to lifelike.
And then, along came Superior Drummer. Now I might sound a bit like a fan boy in this post, so I apologize ahead of time. I am in no way paid by the folks at Toontrack (unless of course they’d like to start!), I just freaking love their product.
I still remember the first mix I did using the SD drums. The band sent me the individual audio files, labeled as an acoustic set would be (kick in, kick out, snare top, etc.). I wasn’t told that it was SD…and my first thought when loading them in wasn’t, “Oh great, fake shitty drums”. In fact, it was, “Wow, great recording!”
And my love affair with this program has only grown since. The SD drums regular drumset was recorded at Avatar Studios. I actually did a few session in the A-studio at Avatar where they were recorded and I can personally attest to the fact that it is indeed a perfect room for recording drums.
There are still other great options out there like Trigger 2 (which I still use), but to my ears, Superior Drummer adds far more depth.
A quick disclaimer: I prefer acoustic, natural, well-recorded drums 100% of the time. The problem is that the music world is changing. Bands program drums or record drums in a basement somewhere. Ya gotta adapt with the times and I’m doing my best to do just that.
So how can we use a drum program with acoustic drums when it’s time to mix and the drum sounds are…lacking? Well, let’s cheat a little, shall we? The kick and snare are the most important drum elements and thankfully the easiest to fake.
1. Set up two midi tracks. One for your kick, one for your snare.
2. Use an audio to midi plugin to convert your original kick/snare tracks into midi signals.
Personally, I use the old school Massey DTM plugin, but there are plenty out there. It doesn’t matter which you use. Play around with the settings to make sure you’re getting only the hits you need and not getting any double-triggering. If the drum tracks are particularly noisy or the drummer was using wet noodles for drumsticks, you may have to get creative with a noise gate and EQ to only get the hits you want. But that’s a whole different post for another time.
3. Adjust the midi velocities so they are hitting like a good drummer should
If you’re mixing rock and the drummer hit the drums like a 12 year old girl, you’re gonna need to help him out a bit. Make sure your velocities are really slamming in the kick and snare during the balls-to-the-wall sections.
No limp wrists here, hit it like a rented mule.
4. Run this midi signal through Superior Drummer (or similar drum program).
You want to focus on a full sound here. A combination of direct mics, overheads, and those massive room mics will add the most. You could just bring in the close mics, but typically if a drum sound is lacking, the original overhead/room tracks aren’t going to be adding near as much kick and snare “bigness” as they should.
That’s why I bring in plenty of the SD room tracks and that magical “bullet” mic.
5. Sneak these new kick and snare tracks underneath the acoustic recordings.
The beautiful thing with your newly created kick and snare tracks is that you can push it completely over the top or you can use it as a subtle way just to add depth. In this particular mix, here’s how much I used:
Of course, you’ve already checked your phase relationships, right??
6. For extra bonus points, add some subtle distortion, compression, delay, or whatever ye heart doth desire.
A lot of times, I’m just looking to add some depth. But if you have some particularly weak drums, especially those recorded through sub-par gear, some distortion and compression (try slow attack, quick release) can really help fill out what is lacking. I’d recommend starting with Digidesign Lo-Fi if you’re rocking a ProTools setup.
Done right, this trick can tastefully enhance a drum sound that isn’t slamming on its own.
For the purists:
Would I prefer that the natural acoustic drums sounded great on their own? Yup, I sure would. Do they always sound great on their own? Nope, they sure don’t. I have zero qualms with doing whatever is necessary to make the mix shine (specially considering that I have no control over the quality of the tracks that I receive); something my formerly purist-self would have turned his nose up at.
Screw all that noise, we’re here to make awesome mixes, not to stick to some outdated moral mixing code. If the genre you’re working with allows you to get away with it, do whatever you can to make it slam!
Big thanks to the guys in Cone for letting me steal their drums for this post!