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Ask Jonah: Giving Samples More Life & Cutting The Noise

Answering reader questions about bringing more "life" to digital drums as well as a mic cable generating its own signal.

Hey Jonah:

I’ve come to accept the fact that electronic drums will never really sound like an acoustic drum kit. That being said, and assuming we’re working with the best sounding samples that we can possibly find, what’s your take on the mixing and processing end of things in order to give the samples more life? – Tommy F, New York

To me, part of the coolness of electronic drums is that they can sound huge and “larger than life.” But whether you want the sound of an acoustic or electronic kit, let’s see what can be done. I’m not judging.

The most important factor is probably the PA system you’re using. Drum sounds are basically all transient, so any clipped, limited, or compressed transients will make drums sound real bad, real quick. It’s best to have a minimum of 12 dB of clean headroom.

Remember that many console meters have rise-time ballistics, so the true peaks may be higher than the meters indicate. Use your ears, not your eyes.

If you’re dealing with a small “speaker-on-a-stick” application, two separate systems can be deployed, one for drums and one for everything else. This is called an A-B system, developed by sound designer Martin Levan for the musical “Aspects of Love” in 1988. He did it to reduce comb filtering problems between multiple open microphones on the actors, but we can do it here to get cleaner drum sounds amidst all the other things in the mix.

Most modern electronic drum “brains” have multiple outputs so I’d use as many as possible, taking direct lines for kick, snare, and hat at a minimum. It’s probably OK to combine toms and cymbal feeds as long as you don’t feel the need to do surgical EQ, but the idea here is to emulate a traditional drum signal structure as closely as possible. In the brain settings, bypass all onboard effects, compression, and reverb.

Now you can start building the mix just as you would with an acoustic drum kit. You’ll probably be using a longer hall reverb so go ahead and set that up, but the “drums here in the room” sound provided by a live acoustic set will still be missing, so also set up a small room/drum room/ambience effect and run the kit through that as well. The kit needs to be put back into the room, so to speak.

In addition, I’d high-pass both reverbs to “de-mud” them and also dampen the high-frequency response a little, as “too sparkly” sounds artificial and we’re shooting for the opposite. There’s often success in boosting around 250-500 Hz or so on the verb return, to make the room sound a little less ideal and more realistic. Adjust to taste.

I doubt we could get an electronic kit to the point where it would fool audience members (especially if they have eyes) but we can definitely prevent it from being a distraction, and that may be enough.

Dear Jonah:

I’ve heard about and experienced microphone cables that actually make a sound when moved around the floor, when no mic is connected. Is this just a phenomenon of phantom power on the cable? Are some brands of cable known to have this problem more than other brands? I can’t believe that voltage is being generated by the cable itself, so is it just cable resistance varying when the cable is moved? – Bill S.

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Hey, Bill. You’re talking about handling noise. The Triboelectric Effect (which is a fantastic Scrabble word) is a fancy name for the fact that static electricity can build up inside cables when they’re moved.

The motion rubs the conductive shield against the rubber insulation, and this creates a charge just like the one you get when you shuffle across a carpet in your socks.

Turning to basic electronics, we know that a capacitor consists of two electrically conductive surfaces separated by an insulator. One of the variables that determines the amount of capacitance is the distance between the conductors.

Now back to mic cables: there are two internal conductors wrapped in rubber insulation, and all of that is surrounded by a shield, so it’s functionally a capacitor. When the cable is moved, it can flex in a way that changes the distance between the shield and the internal conductors, which changes the cable’s capacitance. The varying capacitance can generate small fluctuations in the voltage created by the static buildup mentioned earlier; actually, this is exactly how condenser mics work. This phenomenon is called microphonics.

Both of these effects are usually just lumped into the term “handling noise” because they’re so similar, both in sound and in cause. If you do a bit of online searching, you’ll find more or less the same explanation of this effect on various audio websites, but very little information on what to do about it.

Here’s the scoop: handling noise is usually an indicator of inferior cable construction. If you’ve ever stripped back the insulation on a high-quality mic cable, you’ve probably seen bits of string or nylon thread woven in there.

It’s filler, but unlike sawdust in hot dogs, it’s good filler. Cable manufacturers call these packing strands, and they help keep the cable in shape. This, in conjunction with quality build materials, means that well-designed, modern cables are pretty well-behaved when it comes to charge buildup, so if you’re having problems, the cable is probably old, cheap, or both.

My thanks to the folks at CBI Professional Wiring Systems in Oriskany, NY for confirming the accuracy of this answer.

Got a question? Send it to Jonah via email at [email protected].

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