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