Many audio engineers dabble in music, but it’s relatively rare to encounter someone who truly excels in both fields. My friend and colleague Tommy Fleming is one such person. Born and raised in upstate New York, Tommy makes a living as both a professional drummer and a professional audio engineer.
He and I have worked together in both musical and audio engineering capacities for many years, and he’s currently serving as a musical director for Carnival Cruise Lines. What follows is a conversation we recently had about his experiences as both an audio engineer and a drummer, and how knowledge of each discipline informs the other.
Tommy Fleming: Well, let me start off by saying that as a drummer, I’m often adjusting my playing to the room/venue I’m in. But if I have to adjust my playing due to the way my kit is miked/mixed in said venue, something isn’t right on the audio end of things.
I strongly believe that an audio engineer’s job starts with the sometimes difficult task of making sure the musicians are as comfortable as they can be in order to get the best possible performance out of them. If an engineer can get that far, the mixing stage should be the easy part.
Before we talk about mixing drums, let’s talk about microphone placement/choice. As we’re discussing the musicians’ comfort level, mic placement is essential here. There are so many options to choose from, but the mic that sounds the “best” might not be the best for the particular job.
For a studio example, I know from my experience playing that, sure, a Sennheiser MD421 on that 10-inch rack tom is going to sound sweet and be fun to mix later… but the sound of a stick hitting that huge mic, when the drummer accidentally hits it during a fill, is not going to be fun to try and mix later. The same concept applies to a live situation, except you don’t have the luxury of mixing it later, and you’ll likely have an annoyed drummer on your hands. Maybe even a broken mic.
Jonah Altrove: So it sounds like you’re saying that before we can even start to think in terms of audio engineering, we as engineers need to be sure that the artists are comfortable. The mic placement that results in the “perfect” snare sound is inconsequential if it’s in the drummer’s way.
I think it helps to approach this in terms of the performance: if the drummer is comfortable, the playing and the performance are going to be better, and that means less work for the engineer in terms of mixing it. So objective number one is to keep the artist comfortable and happy so that they can focus on creating their performance and their sound, and then we capture that sound.
TF: Yes, exactly. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum with this and that’s my conclusion. I think it’s the most overlooked thing, but something that really shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s not as much fun to set up and cable a bunch of mics as it is to mix it after you’re set up. It’s certainly not as fun when you’ve got to compromise or adjust to a particular drum kit or drummer. But I can promise that a comfortable microphone setup makes a difference in performance, which will be noticeable when you’re mixing.
Take your example of the “perfect snare sound.” Here’s how I like to think of it: Nancy and John in the front row of a 1,000-seat auditorium are not going to notice something “wrong” if that snare mic is at a 30-degree angle rather than a 45, but chances are they will know something is “wrong” if the drummer smacks the crap out of it by accident because it’s in his way and the mic falls apart.
JA: Let’s talk a little bit about the drum kit as an instrument versus the drum kit as a collection of instruments. I think this needs to be approached on a very individual basis. For example, jazz drummers tend to be very good at balancing the kit components, so I’m really concerned with just capturing the sound as the drummer hears it and reinforcing that. I’m looking at a simple overhead situation, not a ton of close mics. If we then compare that with something like a huge rock or metal band, we really spend a ton of time getting each drum to have a big, fat, powerful sound. With so many mics, we end up having a lot more control over how the components of the kit balance with each other.
It’s not an inherently good or bad thing, but it’s certainly something to be aware of, because we have to be mindful of the drummer’s performance and what our role is in reinforcing that.
TF: I like that concept about jazz music. Let’s break that down even further and talk about the room, too. For a live jazz setting where the band is playing typical standards or even the “Great American Songbook” in a small room, I really do like the idea of a minimalistic mic set up.
As you said, jazz drummers who specialize in that type of playing do really know how to play their kits with dynamics to balance out each component. For that, a couple of overheads and a kick mic will be the best bet. Assuming we’re working with a system that will produce the desired low frequencies, I dig a kick mic. Even on a more open-sounding kick drum, a mic paired with an acoustic bass with a pickup through an amp really sounds great and helps to add some presence and support the warm round sound of the acoustic bass walking. It’s also cool to push a bit of air to make that walking quarter note “felt” even if you don’t necessarily “hear” it.
Now, if we’re talking about a festival or even a bigger club like Blue Note or the Village Vanguard in New York City, I’d even close-mike the snare and toms. Not necessarily mixed very loud, but just some reinforcement. Especially if we’re talking about a big band setting where you have a wall of brass and saxophones screaming at you during a shout chorus.
Thinking like a drummer, I know it’s often his or her job to set up the horns lines, and that’s the classic dynamic big band sound. Take Count Basie’s “Vine Street Rumble,” for example. It goes from a piano dynamic straight to fortissimo instantly after a huge tom and snare setup from the drums straight into a big shout chorus. I think that it would be within our jurisdiction of preserving the performance to make sure that that is heard – and felt! – throughout the room.