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Recording drums – Part 2: Mixing in Ableton

Mixing drums in Ableton

Well, at this point I had four separate drum tracks to mix, no experience and a lot of desire to learn and experiment new things.

The software I used for the whole mixing was Ableton Live 8 because I already had it and I used it 3 or 4 times for other projects, so I had two good reasons to continue using it.

As always I had no idea of how to get started and once again I called for help on the internet. Some precise questions to a pair of drummers’ forums, a lot of video tutorials on YouTube, articles from various blogs, etc. The most important resource I used was a Udemy course about how to mix the drum set. I’ve already talked about Udemy courses in a previous post and I must say that without it I wouldn’t have concluded this “experiment”.

I tried to put into practice all the things I learnt from the videos with two main differences from the Udemy course:

  1. In the course the drum set was recorded with 8 microphones, whereas I used only 4;
  2. I used Ableton instead of Logic Pro to mix the tracks.

You can listen to the final mix and the raw version down here:

 

PRELIMINARY STEPS

First of all I grouped all the 4 tracks creating a new track called “bus”. In this way I could add new effects and modify the volume of every track at the same time.

In Ableton Live 8 you just have to select the tracks in the session view, push the right key on your mouse and choose “group tracks”. This passage can be crucial if you have to work with a multitrack recording, which is much more complex than mine. Indeed in my case this action was important just in the final phase of the mixing. If I had recorded the drum set with 6 microphones (and I have a mind to do it) I’d have grouped two overhead microphones and operate on them at the same time.

After that I checked if there were some phase issues between the microphones using the plugin “utility” and verifying if the whole result was better by inverting the phases between the microphones.

Finally I adjusted the balance of the various tracks and reduced the bass drum volume. Actually all the volumes were almost done as I regulated the gains on my Zoom H6 before recording.

Ok, very last preliminary step: move the pan of both overhead microphones to 75% to the left for the one above the set, and to the 75% to the right for the one next to the floor tom to obtain a more “open” sound in the final mix.

After these preliminary steps I started editing.

 

EDITING

All the separate tracks contained the various takes that I recorded during my performance. I stopped at the fourth recording because I was quite pleased with the final result and I didn’t want to “get obsessed” with the song. And, last but not least, I couldn’t stand one more minute behind the incandescent lights of my studio.

So, I deleted the tracks that I didn’t need and I synchronized the 4 tracks: a very simple passage to do in Ableton:

  • Ableton automatically places some virtual markers that measure the sound peaks when you add the track. So, every stroke has its own marker;
  • Mind Your Manners begins with a big stroke on the snare drum, so it was pretty easy to search for that particular first sound peak and its marker. I only had to pay attention to the kick drum track because the first peak of the snare drum was very small in comparison to the first stroke of the kick drum itself;
  • after having selected the precise marker on every track, I only had to give the order “set 1.1.1 here” . In this way Ableton starts all the various tracks in that precise point. Synchronization complete.

Then I started the quantization phase to correct all the possible mistakes of my cover. Well. I simply couldn’t do that. I understood all the general concepts about how to quantize thanks to the Udemy course I attended and I tried to put into practice them with my Ableton project but I wasn’t able.

From what I saw on other YouTube videos it must be a quite simple thing to do. You only have to move the various markers on a virtual grid with rhythm subdivision. In practice I didn’t understand how it goes.

I’d defend myself saying that I didn’t quantize because if you do it “you lose the human side of the groove”… But I’d have gladly correct some evident mistakes which annoy me like in minute 00:06, 1:40 and 1:47. I promise I’ll learn the next time.

To conclude the editing phase I cleaned the tracks of the bass drum and the snare drum to give more definition to these two instruments. In particular I isolated the main strokes from the noise of the cymbals and the drums . I just applied a gate to both the tracks paying attention to the threshold level which couldn’t be too high (especially for the snare drum) or I’d have lose all the numerous ghost notes.

At this point I switched to the mixing phase.

 

EQ drums

MIXING

Before equalizing I applied a compressor to the snare drum and the bass drum to give more uniformity to both sounds in presence of dynamics peaks. In both cases I used the Ableton preset “Snare Compressor” and “Kick Compressor” and I slightly modified the threshold, the attack and the release to my taste. I didn’t apply any compression to the two overhead mics.

Next to that I started with the equalization:

  • for the snare drum and the bass drum I used two Ableton preset: “Snare EQ 1” and “Kick EQ 1” with no changes. I just added the three level general EQ to the bass drum and I increased the highs to give more attack and I slightly reduced the lows and the mediums to eliminate the “cardboard” effect;
  • the equalization of the two overhead microphones was the most difficult passage of my experience. After 500.000 attempts I couldn’t obtain a decent sound between cymbals and drums, in particular with the rack tom and the floor tom. I used three equalizations which were different among them but identical for the two microphones:
    • with the first one I created a peak around 100 Hz and I removed all the lower frequencies. In this way I tried to eliminate as much as possible the volume of the bass drum and at the same time I increased the floor tom sound and gave more body to the general mix;
    • with the second equalization I cleaned the overheads from a “bad” frequency of the snare drum, around 770 Hz. I unfortunately couldn’t completely eliminate the unwanted sound because I didn’t want to bear on the other sounds (in particular the sound of the rack tom) around that frequency;
    • the last equalization was necessary to give more sound to the mid frequencies of cymbals (hi-hat and ride in particular) and to obtain this effect I slightly raised the frequencies around 3.17 kHz.

Later, I worked on the reverb using a return track and applying a reverb based on an Ableton preset. I especially worked on the overhead microphones and the snare drum without touching the bass drum.

Finally, I added a general compression on the main bus track just to level out the dynamics of the final result.

That’s all folks. You can listen to the mixed track at the very beginning of this post or on my Soundcloud profile.

 

CONCLUSIONS

As I’ve already revealed in advance in my previous post about the first part of this experience (how to record with the Glyn Johns technique), I wasn’t fully satisfied of my result at the end of the mixing process.

In particular I couldn’t correct my rhythmic mistakes because I didn’t know how to quantize. Even the general sound didn’t satisfy me because I couldn’t find a balance between cymbals and drums in the equalization of the two overhead microphones. All of this was due to a series of different factors, the first one was surely my lack of experience.

What should I say? You learn by your mistakes and I’ve personally learnt a lot of things thanks to this project. I wish I could have enough time to try it again as soon as possible. The next time I’ll use 6 microphones so I can dedicate two of them to the rack tom and the floor tom and focus the equalization of the two overhead microphones on the cymbals.

If you are a percussionist and you’re struggling with your first home made recordings, I hope I’ve been useful for you. Indeed, if you already are an expert please, don’t sneer at me!

Bye!

 

Question: do you have any suggestions to give me about how I could have obtained a better result for this mixing? Do you have any useful suggestions for those who, like me, don’t understand very much all these things? Thank you so much and leave a comment!

RECORDING DRUMS - PART 1
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