Of all the tasks set before a fledgling or veteran recording engineer, none can seem more daunting, frustrating, or elusive as capturing a great drum sound.
One reason is that there are so many factors interacting with each other. The drums themselves, for instance, need to be tuned not just to themselves but often to the actual key of the song. If a song is in A and includes some significant tom work, one might tune the high tom to an E note, the middle tom to an A, and the bottom tom to the lower octave E. Additionally, disengaging the snares and tuning the snare drum to a complementary note before re’ngaging them can make a huge difference in how well the drums speak as a whole within the song’s mix.
One thing you might notice is that there’s a whole lot less duct tape and Moon Gel® on drums that are properly tuned. They just seem to need less treatment ‘ because they don’t.
Dampening the drums is largely situational as well. Every project has its own vibe, personality, and needs, but overall I tend to either hyper-dampen and closely mic a kit for a sweet, Al Green-style intimacy or let ’em ring and pull the mics back for a more roomy, organic tone. In either case, I find that a well-tuned kit is preferred most of the time.
Sometimes you just have a poorly intonated or maintained kit to work with. Or that moment of inspiration may have come before you could really dial in a great sound. Increasingly, it’s becoming more okay to just go for it. The tools for dialing in tones afterwards have become so good in recent years, that many have come to rely on them as part of their personal ‘sound.’
There are times however, that no amount of eq, compression, or even phase correction can salvage the drum’s tone. It is at this juncture that many folks consider (or possibly should, anyway) drum replacement. This involves isolating the offending components and triggering professionally tuned and recorded sampled versions instead.
I’ve seen and/or worked with many of the options out there and I have yet to find anything that does anywhere near as good a job as Drumagog from Chicago-based Wave Machine Labs (www.drumagog.com). With the release of Drumagog 5 (PC/Mac, Platinum [reviewed here], $379; Pro, $289; Basic, $149), this excellent plugin not only deepens its performance and functionality, but takes a quantum leap forward as a creative tool as well.
Let’s suppose you’ve recorded some pretty good-sounding drums, but your kick drum is still not really making it. After all your efforts, it remains dull, dead, and kinda wimpy sounding. After a relatively painless challenge/response or iLok key install, you simply open your DAW of choice and insert the Drumagog plugin on the kick drum’s channel.
After several seconds, Drumagog opens to reveal a totally redesigned interface. As a long-time user, I must admit to being thrown at first glance, but I soon began to appreciate the differences the more I used it.
The upper left shows the new browser window, which provides access to Drumagog’s proprietary .gog files, which are made up of lots of samples that help to vary dynamics, velocity and tone for a more realistic ‘performance’. Wav files can be triggered as well and drag and drop is also supported.
The samples are shown at the top center of the screen and in playback, they each light up as they’re ‘hit’, should you need such info. Click on a sample and a list of it’s properties is listed below.
On the right are a series of on/off buttons that provide further control over the things that help Drumagog sound so much more ‘human’ than their competitors, like Dynamic & Random Multisamples, Left/Right Hand alternation, Dynamic Tracking, Stealth Mode (lets the original signal bleed through) and two new features: Auto Hi-Hat Tracking and Auto Align 2.0.
Auto Hi-Hat Tracking enables Drumagog to not only detect and replace the high-hat cymbal but also to tell the difference between closed, half-open and fully opened states and replace them accordingly!
Auto Align 2.0 makes sure the replaced sounds are lined up phase accurately, making it even easier to blend the new sounds with the original tones, if desired.
Tabbed access to ‘Groups’ allows one to further define which velocities trigger which samples. ‘Settings’ allows access to the more advanced facets of plugin.
The lower left of the interface shows the sensitivity display, which allows you to quickly and easily set the triggering threshold, visually. Adjusting the Transient Detail slider makes sure to grab all of the ‘ghost notes’ without any errant double hits.
The lower right is where the fun stuff is. Under the ‘Main’ tab, are controls for blending, fine-tuning pitch, and a couple of newcomers: O/H and St. Room. These are for balancing room tones into .gog files that feature them, such as the excellent set of drums they painstakingly recorded at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios, birthplace of great albums from Nirvana, Garbage, and Smashing Pumpkins. The ability to control this crucial element really brings in the ‘air’ around things and delivers the excitement of recording in a great room.
The ‘Synth’ tab gives you tools for introducing even more control, be it a sine wave for imparting deep, 808-esqe tones or a noise generator to give your snare some ’80s trash, ‘ la U2.
The ‘Effects’ tab houses two new standout features: a convolution reverb (yay, finally!) and for the more adventurous, the Morph|Engine, which adds a Kaos-Pad styled controller for extreme effects and endless craziness. The ‘Plugins’ tab even allows triggering of virtual synths like KitCore and BFD, so the sound libraries you’re currently used to working with can be used as well.
In use, I have found Drumagog’s performance to be better than ever before. It’s ability to easily and quickly finely tune things, along with its dramatically more powerful sounds and feature set make it a natural fit for anystudio looking to sweeten its drum sounds beyond the current de facto standard.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, songwriter, and performer (kaspro.com). His company Kitsch & Sync Production (www.kaspro.com) provides recording, mixing, and mastering services for any sized project.