UK producer JAY STAPLEY has worked with Roger Waters, Suede, Mike Oldfield and many more over the years. A master chef with a mixing desk, he explains the ins and outs of EQing drums.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when working with hertz. So before twiddling any knobs, Stapley explains some basic principles.
“The two most common areas where drums need fixing are in the lower-mid 200 to 300 hertz range – which is usually described as muddy – and in the 300 to 500 hertz range, which sounds cardboard-y,” he says. “Once you know these, you can quickly fix any muddy or dull mixes.”
Stapley adds that it is always better to cut problem frequencies than boost the ones you’re looking for: that way you don’t generate any unwanted hiss or additional noise.
“Job number one is to get rid of everything below 40 hertz,” he says. “If you’re working on electronic dance music you might want sub bass that deep, but for acoustic kit recordings you don’t really need it – all it does is take up valuable mixing headroom.”
“Overhead mics are always my starting point,” says Stapley. “I'll spend quite a bit of time getting these to sound as much like the real kit as possible. I then use the close mics to adjust individual balance and add detail.”
Be sure to assign these overheads to a stereo track.
“Start listening for things you don't like,” he says. “If the kit sounds muffled, try removing some lower-mids before you add any higher frequencies. If it sounds tinny, add some lower frequencies. If that doesn't solve it, cut the upper-mids a little.”
Next, a word of caution: Beware of adding too much at the high end. “A little ‘air’ at about 10 to 12 kilohertz is OK, but you’ll soon find it becomes tiring to listen to if you go too far,” Stapley advises.
Once you’ve got the overheads sounding right, the next step is to add compression. The key word here is “intent” – always add with a purpose in mind, rather than simply using a pre-set.
“Compress gently if you can,” notes Stapley. “But don't be afraid to use extreme settings at first to understand exactly what the compressor is doing. You can then dial it back to avoid an artificial sound.”
Next up is the kick drum. Find the sweet spot by sweeping a boost between 60-150 Hz. Somewhere in there is the fundamental frequency of the drum itself. Sweep up and down until the note leaps out at you. Now it’s time to fine tune. You can get rid of any muddy frequencies if necessary and add some upper-mids if you want more beater click.
How about compression – is that required on the kick?
“Compression can come in handy if you want to change the relationship between the attack and sustain portions of the drum,” Stapley explains. “If it rings for longer than desired, use a slow attack to let the transient through and turn down the sustain portion of the sound. Conversely, if the attack is too prominent, a fast attack can be used to tame it. These compression principles apply to all drums.”
Moving onto the snare, Stapley turns not first to equalization but to compression: “I often use multi-band compression on the snare rather than EQ,” he says. “This enables me to sculpt the various components of the snare sound.”
If the snare sounds too weighty, locate the range that makes it sound that way – usually between 150-300 Hz – and set that band to compress heavily, but slow the attack down enough to allow a few milliseconds of sound through. “This will keep the weight of the drum but not allow it to ring on for too long, whereas EQ would just remove the weight altogether,” he says. “The same technique can be used to control the crispness.”
Moving on, Stapley turns his attention to the hi-hats: “Usually the overheads are enough for this, but sometimes a close mic can add sizzle if needed. If I'm using a close mic I'll remove everything below around 250 hertz. Make sure you pan this mic to the same position it appears in the overheads.”
Stapley describes toms as the most challenging drums to get right. “You need to find the fundamental note of each drum – use that same boost-sweep approach as for the bass drum. Then, cut away on either side of this to remove muddiness and/or that cardboard-y sound we talked about at the very beginning. If you want to add more attack you can boost around 3 to 5 kilohertz.”
Again, multi-band compression can be your friend here, allowing you to sculpt the various components of the drum's sound. Remember to pan your toms in the same position as they appear in the overheads.
And that, says Stapley, should leave you with a natural drum sound for your mix. But there are a few finishing touches you can still add: A little overall EQ on the kit bus can help bind it all together. Usually a boost of no more than 1 to 2dB around 100 Hz and a similar amount around 2 kHz. If you find you need more than that, go back to the individual tracks and see if you can fix the problems there first.
“An overall compressor can help on the kit bus, too,” he says. “Again, it should not heavy, but used correctly it can bring the kit into focus. You can also play around with the panning at this point, going narrower or wider to move the kit’s position in the sound field.”
This is also a good time to check the phasing. Go through each mic and solo it with the overheads. Flip the phase on the close mic, and when you’ve got it right the drum will “leap out” at you.
There’s just one more thing to do – check all your work against the original mix.
“At the very end, you’ll want to bypass the EQ and the compressor so you can compare what you started with to what you’ve got,” Stapley says. “If you’ve got it right, it should sound how you’d want it on the record. And remember – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Words: Andrew Anderson