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Drum Sample Layering: Some Perspectives From New Nashville (Part 2 - Kyle Manner)

Kyle Manner is an incredible engineer/mixer/producer in Nashville that I work with often, and he was kind enough to nerd out with me on the subject of drums. Kyle comes from a very different background than I do and so I was interested to hear his thoughts on this subject. He had some very insightful things to say as well as some specific mix tips for drum mic outputs that I will absolutely be referring to the next time I have to tackle a desk mix.

I love his purist approach and how the goal is to capture audio that can be shaped into whatever the final product needs to be WITHOUT the use of samples. Valuable gems below:

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your recording, mixing, and engineering background?

I’m an engineer who absolutely loves recording and producing music, but specifically live acoustic drums, more than anything! I’m also a producer and mixer. I track sessions for a variety of publishers, songwriters, artists and other engineers and producers and have been working professionally for 18 years.

I started playing music as a teen and stumbled into recording my bands and running live sound. I graduated from MTSU with a Recording Industry degree in Production and Technology and got hired as an assistant by my internship provider half-way through my last semester. I assisted, engineered, and worked with some of the best engineers, producers, songwriters, and artists in town. Through all those experiences and relationships, I’ve learned many different techniques and philosophies of recording and production and decided for myself which work best. I engineered demo sessions for publishers which require fast paced decision making and the ability to tweak sounds almost instantly to jump from one genre to another. Mixing a wide range of songs recorded by other engineers or by me, I’ve discovered the importance of making measured and appropriate tone decisions that make mixing easier, and which common practices tend to make mixing more difficult.

2. When you are assessing the rhythm section of a song, what are your biggest priorities?

Assuming a typical Nashville session and band consisting of drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, etc in various forms…

My biggest priority is always “Does this serve the song?” Which is just asking myself if the arrangement and the individual instruments; as well as the tones that the musicians have settled on and the way in which I am capturing the individual elements all convey the mood and message of the song.

I always do pre-pro with the producer to understand the vibe of the songs as well as their expectations. Getting on the same page about those descriptive terms like modern, in-your-face, aggressive vs organic, supporting, mellow vs weird, dirty, unique, etc. are the first step to serving the song as an engineer. Sometimes we discuss the content and meaning of the lyrics or I’ll just pay attention to the singer as they play their demo or live version for the band. It’s simple, quick and allows me to sculpt both the processing of the individual instruments but also the mix that I’m sending to the band.

I see my job as capturing the most appropriate sounds - in the best way possible, so that the recorded tracks honor the intention of what the musicians are trying to express and so that the lyrics are supported and anyone who opens the session after me will immediately understand the vibe of the song. Sometimes that means being very drastic and other times doing very little. This also helps the musicians perform to the best of their ability and I prefer to use just a 2-mix, often with a more-me, as opposed to a multitrack “mix-me” cue system. That ensures everyone is listening to the same thing and can play off each other allowing for what I hear as a more musical and genuine performance.

I want to record sounds that are complete and final, like they would be heard in the mix. No fix it in post or mix. So I try to strike the balance of committing the EQ and compression to “tape” without overdoing it or committing to a processing that makes someone else’s job more difficult. Usually that means using EQ (after careful mic choice and placement) to sculpt a sound so that it exhibits the characteristics that we’re looking for in a particular song and makes room for the other elements that make up that instrument’s sound and for other instruments in the arrangement. Compression is used sparingly, the talent pool in Nashville is incredible, with great equipment and amazing control over their instruments, not to mention certain instruments inherently have several layers of compression. Instruments like electric guitar I rarely compress (and rarely EQ) since it already has several layers of compression from FX pedals and the transducers in the chain, plus the sound out of the amp usually has a great balance of frequencies. It is however often important that the rhythm section, specifically drums and bass are very consistent since they are the foundation of the song. In these instances, I do use compression but strategically and mostly for tone. Overuse of compression, ESPECIALLY, when not accompanied by subtractive EQ that cleans up the ubiquitous unwanted frequencies can make further attempts to sculpt the tone as well as gating and triggering more difficult. I feel like compression is something that is often misunderstood, misused and often applied automatically to things like Kick and Snare because “that’s what you’re supposed to do!?”.

3. Let’s go through each kit component…please tell me what sonic aspects you find the most critical in each component, and whether you like to layer samples to enhance that component or not. If not, can you talk about what you focus on in the audio capturing stage?

Focusing just on drums… Based on the pre-pro discussion with the producer I’ll select and place mics and sculpt the overall sound to fit the direction of the production. I focus on the 2-3 common descriptions to make sure I have the characteristics that would define the sound and that I’ve removed the characteristics that run counter, which I’ll explain in more detail below. I want to deliver a kick drum for instance that is (or close to) the right amount of subby, boomy, boxy, punchy, attack-y, clicky, soft, harsh, etc., so that the producer or mixer has everything they need without reaching for a sample.

I rarely use samples, it complicates phase and tuning of drums and tends to homogenize a project or genre too much. There are some exceptions where I use them and no offense to others who do but my goal, and the biggest compliment I hope to receive is that no samples were used to supplement the drums. If the drums are recorded correctly and no drastic changes are made to the vibe of the song, samples shouldn’t be necessary; the core components of a sound are there and can be further sculpted using EQ, harmonic or dynamic processing to define the desired tone in the mix phase.

That said, let’s break down the individual components of a drum set…

Kick: Along with snare these are the two most important elements in many productions, second only to the vocal. I like to use 2-3 mics to capture different aspects. Together these mics should embody everything we want the kick to be (punchy, soft, aggressive, round, etc.) - using each one to capture something a little different. This gives us that complete sound but with flexibility to rebalance in the mix for greater tweak-ability without samples. One thing to note is I don’t compress any of these mics to “tape”, only in the monitor path, all 3 bussed to the same compressor. That way we can experience them with the tone and feel through a compressor but without committing to ratios and attack/release times that might not be right or reducing dynamic range making gating and triggering more time intensive.

Kick In: This is the main mic; it should be able to be used on its own to provide all those qualities we’re listening for. That means it’s not just the fundamental or just the attack, it has both and in good ratio to each other along with enough sub info to make it as big as it’s supposed to be. Most importantly though and before any boosts, I make (drastic) cuts to the midrange, getting rid of the frequencies that don’t contribute to our sound and to make room for other instruments that need to speak in that range. Usually using a 1073 I make a drastic cut, amount and frequency vary but I usually cut at the 700Hz or 360Hz points to reduce whatever muddiness or boxiness that exists and the lessen the amount of reduction if needed. What’s left over is the starting point for defining the balance between those descriptors that define the bottom and top end of the kick. Next is boosting or cutting subs/lows and upper mids to get that balance just right.

Kick out: I treat similarly to the “Kick in” mic but in a more organic way. Meaning less drastic EQ moves, preserving more of the midrange and reducing the perceived attack; additionally, since it’s a condenser mic outside of the drum it tends to have more bleed and top end. This is useful in more sparse sections where the midrange masking is less of a concern.  If the song itself is more organic this can be the main mic while the Kick in mic can be used to support just the low frequencies or the attack.

Kick sub: Low pass and cut upper mids, sometimes everything above 200Hz (or wherever the snare fundamental is). This is just to be able to provide extra support to the subs and lows. Easy to compress or limit for a uniform low end that will allow group or mix buss compressors to react consistently. It’s handy for easy mute or volume automation to compensate for low end energy in the mix when the bass guitar is either present or absent. Also great for broken down sections to feature instead of using a sub sample.

Snare: Once the kick is perfect the snare is sculpted to embody whichever descriptors we’re aiming for (thuddy, cracky, mushy, aggressive, etc.) and since frequencies were carved out in our kick drum tracks there’s plenty of space and a similar approach can be taken with the snare. Using 2-3 mics I’m just trying to get as pure a sound as possible. One big consideration when trying to avoid using samples is hi hat bleed. (<----Kate Note: Hi hat bleed drives me insane and this is why I love Kyle)

Of course, mic selection and placement are key, but I’ll use a product called the Hi Hat Husher to physically block some bleed, this works remarkably well compared to other products on the market. With less bleed there can be more top end and air in the sound as well as great compression and the ability to pull out ghost notes easier. I try to avoid asking a drummer to rearrange their kit or to change the way they play, I don’t want them to have another thing to think about, possibly taking them out of the performance. Like kick and for the same reasons I only compress in the monitor path.

Snare top: Often this is just one dynamic mic but sometimes I’ll add an SDC to help with articulation and top end. Trying to focus on the fundamental and the top end I start by cutting some low mids, not too drastic but right above the fundamental of the snare. This defines the bottom-end that gives the big beefy attributes and makes room for all the other midrange focused elements in the mix. To get the top-end feeling right I work on the midrange to remove unwanted honk which also makes space for the melodic elements in the arrangement and finding the sweet spots in the upper mids and highs and boosting to give it that presence and air that’s needed.

Snare bottom: Mostly wanting the rattle of the snares and this can help with articulation while having less bleed. Treatment can vary from day to day but typically I just focus on the mids and highs, making a cut similar to those made for “Snare top” in the low-mids but not accentuating the fundamental as much. The tempo, energy, type of song and sticks or brushes really change up how this mic is treated but regardless, it’s focusing on the descriptors of the snare and treating it in a way that supports the “Snare top”.

OHs/Cymbals: In most pop (used in the most general sense of the word) music a well-defined Kick and Snare are the more important parts of the drums, and the Overheads are treated as cymbal mics, so I focus on them only after the Kick and Snare are right. If the production is more organic and the drums will be less prominent, I may bring up the overhead first to get a more “kit picture” sound and then work on Kick and Snare to compliment the Overhead mics.

Stereo OHs: I typically use a spaced pair of large diaphragm condensers placing them evenly offset an invisible line that bisects the kit across the Snare and the Kick. This usually looks a little off-center compared to how I see other placements but it keeps both the Kick and Snare centered and more importantly in phase in the overheads while pointing between the ride and crash on the (right-handed) drummers right side and the hi hat and crash to the drummers left. For organic productions the low mids are usually left untouched but for modern productions when these are considered more cymbal mics usually reducing the low mids reveals the clarity and sheen that are inherent in the cymbals without having to boost anything. Those would be the descriptors I’m focusing on and will adjust mid cuts as well as high and “air” frequencies accordingly. Additionally, I’ll find the sweet spot for the ride bell in the right OH and give it a boost so that speaks better in the Ohs since the crash cymbals tend to have more energy.

Mono OH: Using a ribbon mic this is more of an FX option. Can be featured in more organic songs or can be used to add more weight to the overall sound since it retains a lot of midrange and so many of the main drum mics are EQed to leave that space for other instuments. It’s also helpful for songs played with brushes to mellow out the snare mics which might be providing more of the articulation in such an intricate part or fun to use in small sections, using less of the stereo OHs and reversing that balance in big sections to they expand in the stereo field.

Hat/Ride: These are secondary mics used mainly to support the OHs so treatment varies widely. I just focus on what I might be missing so far and make sure they offer those extra little bits to fill out the sound giving those cymbals the articulation, weight or brightness that’s needed.

Toms: The trend for many years now has been fewer toms, just 2 or 3 tuned low. I think of these as mini kick drums since their fundamentals typically exist between the subs, below the kick fundamental and not higher than the snare fundamental. Obviously, this varies with drummers and genres but that’s typically what I experience. As mini kicks, I’m trying to get similar attributes and I use a similar process starting with cleaning up the lows and mids above the tom’s fundamental so it doesn’t mask bass, snare, electrics etc. Approach depends on if the toms are dead/choked or open and ringy. Open toms tend to call for greater cuts in the lows and mids while dead toms already have reduced lows and mids. I tend to focus more on the sub and low energy they provide and make sure there’s enough upper mids and highs for articulation, but a great deal of that info is heard in the overheads.

Percussion: While this is a broad category typically what we encounter are shaker and tambourine. These already have limited frequency ranges and don’t require a lot of EQ to focus the sound. I use the OH mics since they’re already top and upper mid focused. Usually, the key to these is just choosing a shaker or tambo that sits right in the mix since narrow frequency ranges don’t allow for as much tone control as a full range instrument.

4. What are some other important considerations in capturing/mixing truly great drums?

All the focus on getting pure tones that embody the most important characteristics of a specific element and is free of the information it either doesn’t need or that another element needs to exist in. One of the most important aspects, that hasn’t been discussed, is a great drum room. For me that means a room that is controlled, and usually more dead than reflective. Minimal room reflections result in reduced phase issues caused by the delayed sound from the reflections entering the direct mic and giving you pure and punchy sounds. The tradeoff being big, live room mics. I always prefer a better direct sound free of reflections and create the room sound needed either by re-amping into a live room or room modeling plugin.

FX Mics: Last consideration, to compensate for a dead drum room and to add character to the sounds I use a few FX mics. This is where compression is used as a part of the tone shaping. Using some saturation and heavy compression (moderate ratio with significant gain reduction, up to -24dB) I create room mics that have character, and even though they might be close to the kit sound farther away. I roll off the high end and use fast attack and release to create pumping in the compressors. Digging out any muddiness and focusing on the mids and lows allows them to add space and dimension to the drums without having to have a large room. A few other random mics, stomp boxes and garden hoses result in some FX tracks that are more mid focused and dirty to add character. These can be adjusted to taste and easily accommodate variances in specific arrangements.

5. Who makes the best pizza in Nashville and why?

I’m trying to…but I’ve got a long way to go! My favorite was always Joey’s House of Pizza until it closed. Now my favorite is Pinky Ring. I love all the main types of pizza, a great Napolitano style is hard to find so I usually prefer NY. I don’t get too analytical with pizza but Pinky Ring has great base ingredients (crust, sauce, cheese, pepperoni), it’s baked well and they get creative with specialty pizzas but in a seemingly intentional way, not just putting random things together.

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