Dealing with harsh and heavy cymbals while tracking -- and afterwards - with mic placement, EQ, de-essers and other techniques
By Phil O'Keefe
While we all know that it's best to get the sound right from the source, there are times when, for whatever reason, you're faced with mixing a song with less than stellar sounding drum tracks. These will often have cymbals that are excessively loud or overly bright in comparison to the rest of the track.
The potential causes of this can vary. Cymbals can sometimes be overly bright and harsh sounding due to the conditions in smaller, acoustically under-treated rooms. This can be further complicated by lower quality microphones, preamps and converters, or less than optimal use of those tools. Drummers themselves are often a big source of the problem; being used to having to work to project their cymbals in rehearsal rooms and live venues with less than ideal PA systems and drum miking, many are accustomed to playing the brass rather hard. Unless you ask them to (nicely, and preferably in advance of the session so they can practice doing it), they're going to do the same thing in the studio that they do live. If you find yourself in a situation where you have less than ideal drum recordings, your best option is to go back, fix the problem and then re-track the drums, but if that option isn't available to you, you'll need to make the best out of what you have.
DE-ESSER VS EQ
Applying a fixed EQ -- often with a basic low-pass or high frequency shelving filter (Figure 1) to the cymbal and overhead tracks to try to attenuate the bright and overbearing cymbals is sometimes the only solution, but it can leave the rest of the drum kit sounding lifeless and dull. Instead, a de-esser plugin can often be put to good use here. De-essers, as their name suggests, are normally used on vocals, and are designed to reduce the apparent volume of sibilant sounds from consonants such as the letters s, f, v and t. These "hissy" sounds can often be louder than the main pitched parts of the vocal, and when they are, they sound rather annoying and distracting. As with our drum cymbal issue, these strident high frequency sounds occur irregularly throughout the track, and the de-esser's job is to reduce their volume and impact while leaving the rest of the vocal tonality as unchanged as possible. Since the drums have similar issues, a de-esser can sometimes be used effectively on them too.
Figure 1: The Eventide UltraChannel with a high shelf EQ being used to roll off the highs. The section highlighted in red is the plugin's well-featured dynamics processor; shown configured as a de-esser
SETTING THE DE-ESSER
Different de-essers will have different controls, from the comprehensive to the simplified, so giving you specific settings for every de-esser isn't going to be possible. Most will have some sort of range or threshold control that determines how loud the high frequency peak has to be before the de-esser kicks in. The idea here is to set it so that only the loud cymbal hits trigger de-essing, but not so low that other things, like snare and kick drums trigger it by themselves. Due to the masking and "they'll bleed into every mic on the kit" characteristics of the loud cymbals, those hits are already being washed out and occluded by the cymbals, so reducing their brightness and impact can help those other drums to cut through more audibly, especially if the skins were also recorded to individual tracks.
De-essing plugins use frequency dependent compression. Only sonic information above a user-set frequency will be attenuated by the compression. On some plugins, this is called lowpass or "high frequency only" mode. Some de-essers allow you to have the compression triggered by the high frequencies that exceed the threshold but with gain reduction across the full audio bandwidth instead, and while you may find this useful occasionally, it generally works best on drums when you have the de-esser filter out only the highs. One thing I like about the standard Digirack De-esser plugin (Figure 2) and the freeware (Mac / PC) Spitfish de-esser (Figure 3) from www.digitalfishphones.com is that they allow you to "listen" to only the frequencies that the plugin is filtering out. By soloing the cymbals, hitting the Listen button and sweeping the frequency control, you can get a good idea of what the plugin is filtering out of the loud hits that trigger its compression. For drum cymbals, in many cases, I'll set the frequency somewhere between 5kHz and 10kHz; the lower in that range you set it, the more effective it will be at taming the cymbals, but at the cost of more audible coloration on the rest of the drum kit.
Figure 2: The Digirack de-esser plugin that comes bundled with Pro Tools has a simplified control set, but can still be quite effective. Note that it is running in "HF Only" mode, so that only the highs are attenuated when it is triggered
Figure 3: The Spitfish de-esser is an excellent plugin that is available for Mac and PC, and best of all, it's free
DON'T FORGET THE AUTOMATION
Sometimes automating the threshold level of your de-esser by lowering it for louder hits and raising it on less aggressive hits can help you keep the level and sound of the cymbals more even and consistent. In addition to basic de-essing and automating the plugin's threshold, frequency and sensitivity to deal with the varying needs throughout the course of the song, some volume automation on particularly loud cymbal hits will help to reduce the impact of those hits that are just too much for the de-esser to deal with alone. (Figure 4) I suggest doing the automation by riding a physical fader on a control surface whenever possible. It can help to do the song in sections - intro, verse, chorus, etc. - that way, you can memorize and concentrate on where the issues are for that section so you can manually compensate for them with corresponding adjustments of the fader while writing volume automation. If a automation pass doesn't work, you can always go back and try again, or just go back before the part where you messed up and continue writing automation from there. Using the mouse to draw in the automation is fine too, but a control surface will allow you to mix faster and with better "feel", and you can always go back and use the mouse to fine-tune things as needed.
Figure 4: Using volume automation to reduce the impact of the heaviest hits is often also needed
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR NEXT TIME…
Once you've had to try to deal with taming overly enthusiastic cymbal playing on a drum recording a few times, you'll really start to appreciate the benefits of getting them right in tracking. Sometimes the material is so bad that retracing is really the only viable option - there's no salvaging some recordings! If you do decide to re-track, you'll end up with similar sounding results unless you make some changes to your approach and setup. Here are some suggestions you can try when you retrack that will help reduce or eliminate the issue at the source so that you won't have to try to fix it later in the mix.
STILL FIGHTING WITH IT?
Still struggling with that mix and the aggressive cymbals? If you're using a drum bus compressor, try running only the actual "drum" tracks into it and not the cymbal tracks. Depending on how you have the bus compressor set, this will often prevent the compressor from further accentuating the cymbals.
Try a tape sim plugin - these can often soften transients and smooth out the high frequencies.
Are you still fighting with it…? Really dude, you should consider re-tracking those drums. You'll save yourself time in the long run AND have better sounding results than you'll ever get from trying to "fix it" when it's that bad. Just sayin'!
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.