Doug Burns, Clarity Inc.
The room is dark and as the lights come up the acoustic guitarist starts picking softly and as the energy rises you know what is coming, 125db of snare drum swimming in the sounds of 8 cymbals being hit on every 16th note. Awesome. This is the problem that everyone deals with on Sunday morning so lets talk about a few ways to make live drums sound better in a church.
Now before you revolt or label me, I am a drummer and have been for many years.
Violence – Since trying to convince a drummer to play quiet is fruitless the first thing, the approach I like to start with in this situation is violence. Quietly take the drummer into a back office and…well, shall we say, help them see it your way. Don’t worry . Violence has been used for centuries and I am sure the part in the Bible where they beat unruly drummers half to death with shovels was left out due to content management and time constraints, it is a long book. If that approach doesn’t work take a look at a few of these other ideas.
Drum Shield – Let’s consider the clear drum shield. Ahhhhhh, a sliver of plexiglass will make everything better. Right, if we are on the moon. 3/16th inch of plexiglass doesn’t have the properties to damp the level of a drum set and so the sound that doesn’t go through the plexiglass is just reflected back up into the air, causing more arrival issue problems, and in general, smears the sound in the room. I am not so sure that a typical drum shield doesn’t actually make the drums sound worse because you get the sound from the kit and then the reflected sound coming a few milliseconds later smearing everything while doing very little to quiet the set in the room. The only drum booths that actually do something are the ones that have wrapped fiberglass damping panels inside, a full fiberglass back, a fiberglass roof and most people don’t like the looks of them but when has looks ever gotten in the way of better sound quality. Yup, that is sarcasm. So to clarify, thin plexiglass with no top and sides does virtually nothing to diminish the overall volume of the drums, it takes full-on ugly to get that done.
Tuning – This is where you need to ask if the drums are the church’s or the drummer’s, because I have seen drummers heads spin when someone touches their set. It can be scary. The snare, it is usually tuned very tight which gives it a high pitch along with that crack that drummers love, yet can also raise the dead. The best thing to do is tune the drum as low as possible, literally make the drum almost dead. I know this isn’t what a drummer wants but if you threaten them with electronic drums they will give it a try. Or resort to violence (see above) I talked to one church tech that said they would hardly tighten the lugs more than finger tight. Low, low, low is the new quiet. For toms, they need to be little tighter especially on the floor tom because it helps the tom cut through with tone not just the slap of the stick hitting the head. Still tune them as low as possible, but pay attention that the attack of the stick isn’t the loudest thing. For the kick, the more damped the sound the softer it will be, and although I am not a fan of the muffled sound, it does quiet it in the house. Just add another pillow to the kick, lower the pitch of the snare and stand back in awe.
Cymbals – Cymbals are the worst offending part of a drum kit in my opinion. Everyone should be aware that perceived volume is amplitude over time. Yup, transients like a snare hit are quite a bit louder than a crash cymbal but a drummer riding that crash like a jockey coming down the final stretch at the Belmont makes it sound louder than the snare drum. That’s because the snare comes and goes in a few milliseconds and the cymbal lasts for eons it seems, and that is why cymbal choice is so important. Thinner crash cymbals with a fast decay get out of the way quicker and lower the perceived volume in the room because it is the never ending ring that you want to minimize. The same goes with the hi hat cymbals, they should also be lighter and if possible have the drummer keep them tighter when he plays them as everything is exaggerated in the room. What the drummer thinks is a “little” open, sounds huge to the audience.
Hybrid electronic cymbals No Al Gore hasn’t started making cymbals, Zildjian, yes, I said Zildjian has come up with a real cymbal that is quieter than a traditional cymbal yet plays exactly like the real one. Oh yeah there are electronics and cool lights. Zildjian Gen 16 cymbals added to an acoustic set can bring the sound levels down and although there is a little trade off in sound, the gains in volume are amazing. They are worth a look. These look and play exactly like the cymbals that cause so much damage to the overall sound quality yet are quiet enough to need them added to the mix, when is the last time someone said “hey can you turn up the cymbals”?
Perception is everything. Putting the drums in the PA can have the effect of making them seem quieter. Remember perception is everything here, I think I said that somewhere before, a drum set in the corner of a stage can really draw attention to itself and the perception is always “wow the drums are so loud”. Adding them to the pa takes some of the focus off the actual set and by blending them with the rest of the mix the perception can be that they are quieter. Sounds crazy but it does work because our minds plays tricks with us all the time and if you fixate on the noise coming from the corner it can sound louder than it blended evenly through the pa. You may also want to send the drums to a group, compress the dickens out of them while at the same time sending them to the mains uncompressed. Blending the two can thicken up the drum sound and we all know big and round is better than shrill everyday even if big is louder.
Finale – So until next time remember the steps
Your first choice is violence
Drum shields need to be ugly
Low is the new high
Quick decaying cymbals = lower perceived volume
Save energy with hybrid cymbals
Perception is everything, turn the drums up in the mix.
We will break down each step in more detail next time, this is just to get your mind going…..yeah, yeah, put down the shovel. Cheers, Doug