Monday, July 01, 2013

Perspectives on cymbals: part two

A recording engineer cries out:

[...] I've been giving some thought to the one thing that pisses me off the most when recording rock bands: drummers who incessantly bash the cymbals so they're the loudest thing in the room.
[...] I know this is a very common problem, every engineer has to deal with it, and we all have our special tricks. I seldom intervene in a band's musical choices, but this problem is SO obnoxious and SO inexcusable that I'm not going to put up with it any more.
We're going to offer a free pre-production meeting to any client that spends more than X dollars, to identify problems with the sound, performance, or arrangement before they come in to record. Step one: warn the band in advance that we don't put up with cymbal-bashing. Step two: if we hear a problem, ask the drummer to work on his balance for a week or two before they come in. Hit the drums about 3x as hard as the cymbals, use half-open hat sparingly, do not use the crash as a ride, do not hit the crash on the downbeat of every measure. [Emphasis mine— tb] Step three: if the drummer fails to correct his balance, we start muting the cymbals. Tape on the ride, hat clamped in place, and rubber mutes on the crashes. The crashes will be overdubbed separately. The result: a drastic improvement in the sound that cannot be accomplished by technological means, and a significant savings of time and money.
I know that everyone secretly hates these cymbal-bashing clowns but is too polite to say so. They need to be told the truth about their oh-so-unique playing style. I think it's worth the occasional hurt-in-the-ass drummer.

This is the beginning of a discussion among engineers, on an engineering forum, and the link comes from Steve Goold, who gives the very wise advice: Read this article immediately and don’t try to argue with it. Well, at least we'll try to address this person's legitimate perspective apart from the offensive manner in which he deals with his clients. I'll say that a meeting like the one he describes would have me immediately shopping for another studio, while making a note to not, in the future, trust the judgment of the person who recommended the place.

But his suggestions (that's what we'll call his demands), which I bolded, are not unreasonable rules of thumb for recording backbeat-based music— rock, funk, blues, whatever. At least, it's good to be aware of when you're stepping into playing territory that may be problematic for the engineer, and therefore for getting the recording you want with minimal hassle. In the following discussion there seems to be a consensus that, at the very least, however you play the cymbals, you should play the drums louder.

Some engineer's comments, and examples after the break:

Not everyone who responded had the same feelings as our original guy, but here are the better comments from those who more-or-less did: 

I've spoken to drummers who were surprised they were hitting the cymbals too hard. They had been taught that they need to whack them hard to be heard over the drums.


i'm 100% in favor of not bashing cymbals, hitting drums 3x as hard, etc etc. but:
  “do not use the crash as a ride” 
there's lots of music where this is practically a default thing. nothing wrong with it at all. i'm a closed hihat man myself, but in my last band i would wash on the crash pretty often, cause that's what the songwriter liked. so long as you're hitting the drums harder than the cymbals it's no problem.


I don't have a problem with cymbal bashers from a volume perspective. It's the riding of crashes that create a wash of a white noise like effect that I don't like. Especially since many drummers do this right at the point where the song needs a lift. I find this technique to have the opposite effect - it's a downer. [...]
Thing is that lately I've noticed this phenomenon becoming more prevalent. I think the "noise factor" adds some kind of lift in the live room - but that type of energy doesn't seem to really translate well recorded IMO. 

Don't dismiss that perspective out of hand, but here is one contrary example, at least:

While we're at it, here the drummer doesn't crash on every beat one, but he does crash on every & of 4 on the chorus, which is functionally the same thing:

Crashing on every downbeat is a big P-Funk thing, too:

Non-sparing use of open hihats:

Apart from the cymbal issues, there's a good deal of discussion about finessing the performance you want out of musicians— an extremely subtle thing, even with good players. I include this just because it's interesting:  

Things like this are thorny because if a drummer is thinking about what he's doing intellectually--if he's sitting there second-guessing how hard he's hitting everything and trying to calculate what constitutes "hitting 3x as hard" and on which instrument--he's going to be much less likely to give a compelling rock n roll performance, most times. Likewise, if he has his playing ability or musicianship called into question (directly or implicitly), he's not going to be in the right frame of mind to make adjustments for the greater good. Instead, he'll usually shut down and try to prove to himself that everyone else is wrong, as an ego-defense mechanism.
If I was producing such a record, and I didn't have the option of hiring a different drummer, I'd probably be choosing my words carefully-- trying to get the point across and make the drummer feel like they are the ones who decided the cymbals are too loud, if possible. If it became impossible-seeming to get a compelling performance AND one that was balanced sonically, I'd begin thinking about arrangement decisions that could minimize the fault or feature it in an interesting way, selecting the best-sounding, least bright/overbearing cymbals possible, and other strategies like manipulating the cue mix (no kick and snare in the cans, but lots of overheads, perhaps?).
It's an unenviable position for sure... but being that most artists are fundamentally insecure (sometimes with a brash, egotistical candy shell), "laying down the law" in a way that casts aspersions on talent, musicality, or taste is sure to backfire with a shut-down artist.


I've worked with a lot of drummers who hit the cymbals too hard and have tried and seen others try various approaches from a friendly word in the ear to outright intimidation. It always seems to end one of two ways 1) The drummer gives a limp, restrained and unmusical performance thinking only about what not to do or 2) they ignore the advice or are unable to change their playing anyway.
Good drummers have balance in their playing, bad drummers don't. I haven't ever seen a bad drummer turn into a good one by telling him/her to lay off the cymbals.

Finally, I can't deny you the rebuttals to this guy's approach of pre-emptively “laying down the law” with clients:'s not polite nor cool to insult clients. No matter what you read. That's not reality.
You won't get any help from the band if you treat any member as an idiot. 


I don''t know your studio or its standing in the market, maybe you can do this without a lot of impact on business. But, this sounds like a sure fire way to make sure bands go elsewhere or at least don't come back to me. Too many options of locals trying to make a go of it and too many guys recording on their own to start dictating terms around here and have any hope of surviving 


If your studio can stay busy with your desire to require the drummer to play the way you want him to, then your plan is a good thing.
On the other hand, if bands in your area are looking for more of a flexible, open minded way of cutting records, then you might be in trouble.
IMO, youll always get a better performance and reaction, if you dont approach them by "laying down the law". 


Anonymous said...

That engineer would cry if he ever had to record Gabe Serbian of The Locust. It's a shame no good footage of the man really exists, despite recently being listed as the #68 best drummer for Spin magazine (but who cares what they say). He is easily the loudest and most obnoxious drummer, and one of my personal favorites.

From what I've read in interviews his crash cymbals have a life span of roughly 5-10 gigs. That's gotta be expensive after a while.

I wouldn't look into him if i was you, you won't like it. And there really is no quality footage of him anywhere...

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for the tip on avoiding him, but I did look him up. Thee Slayer Hippy of Poison Idea is still the loudest drummer I've seen at a rock show. The clips there don't really do him justice either-- he had a huge sound.