I frequently discuss crucial things that I wish artists knew about the perspective of sound engineers in reaching our shared goal of producing great-sounding shows with far less hassle and tension. Here my focus turns to drums and drummers.
Drum sound is one of the most prevailing and all-consuming topics in live sound. Whenever I attend webinars, lectures or seminars given by engineers, or even in my own teaching experience, most people want to know how to attain great-sounding drums. This is partly because drum kits, in most cases, are the most complex instrument on stage we have to tackle, and also partly because having drums that sound great translates into great-sounding shows.
The beat element in music is so primal and so rooted in our bodies that listeners tend to intently focus on it, which means that mix engineers across the globe spend hours and hours of their time getting the drums just right. That said, drummers can make our jobs much easier if they know how to help.
It Starts At The Source
Getting quality sound from a PA system starts with the source(s). Loudspeakers are a magnifying glass – even minor imperfections at the source can become painfully obvious when amplified. The more space the drums have in a mix, the more obvious they are.
Making sure the drum kit is in perfect working condition is a key element. All hardware should be tightened and checked for unwanted rattling noises, heads should be recent (and not, pardon the pun, too beat up), there must be proper tuning (not just tone, but sustain as well), cymbals should be thoughtfully selected – these factors and more can make or break drum sound.
There’s no EQ or Exciter or compressor (or magic wand) in the world on any mixing console that can make a dull-sounding snare sound right if its head is worn out. We may be able to mask some minor imperfections in the mix, but with the beat being such a prominent element, it’s impossible to make it right with a bad source. Drum kits must always be stage ready, with fresh heads, and with pedals and the rest of the hardware in top shape – and don’t forget about the drum throne.
It’s amazing how many times I’ve had intimate acoustic sets ruined when, at the end of an emotional song, a drummer shifts in the chair and there’s a loud metallic shriek that ruins the magic for everyone in the room.
Carry The Right Tools
I know, I know – drummers already have to schlep around tons of gear and have to spend most of the allotted time setting up and tearing down the kit, and now I’m asking to carry even more stuff and do more with it? Well, yes. It doesn’t have to be another van of full of gear, but here are the essentials that, honestly, should already be carried in the tool bag.
Drum keys for tuning the drums (notice the plural: keys). These need to be in reach at all times, especially if there’s an emergency that must be addressed either during sound check or during the show. And since keys are prone to accompanying guitar picks to the Bermuda Triangle (or wherever things of this nature go when they get lost), more than one should always be on hand.
Moon gels and other head-dampening options. That long sustaining sound of the toms indeed might be pleasant, but sometimes it just doesn’t work when amplified. Having proper solutions to address ringing at the source can prevent engineers from using excessive settings on gates, making the drums sound more natural and providing more dynamic range to play with during the performance.
Professional gaff tape that doesn’t leave residue on cymbals and a roll of toilet paper. These work very well for dampening overbearing cymbals in smaller venues. Simply tape a piece of TP to the underside of the cymbal. It’s also advisable for drummers to protect cymbals from unprofessional tape that leaves a sticky residue by bringing your own tape and using it at the request of the engineer. A pricier option is carrying and applying pro-caliber cymbal-dampening magnets.
Spare heads and other parts that might be needed. Even if the heads are replaced regularly, it’s always prudent to have some backup, especially for snare. Live shows are unpredictable beasts with lots of moving parts. One wrong move and something sharp might come in contact with a head, rendering it unusable. Although you can’t prepare for every little thing that might happen, a show can be severely impacted without one of the toms, let alone the loss of the snare. A suggestion: carry different styles/types of heads to experiment with various sounds and see which one works best when amplified.
Working cables (and spares) for all backing tracks players, clicks, mixers, etc. A drum kit on its own can easily take up 10 or more channels on the console. Adding backing tracks and metronome lines on top of that increases the amount of work needed to get a drummer set up. If signals are constantly cutting in and out because of bad cables/connectors, that workload goes through the roof.
Also, those using and controlling a backing track rig or triggering samples should be sure to properly mark the needed outputs and/or cables with channel numbers that correspond to the most updated technical rider and the names of the channels. This can keep the guessing game to a minimum while also helping connections to be done in the least amount of time.