Studio Night

All agog, but is it right?

We’ve got some older recordings with drums laid down by an old friend who, sadly, has since passed away. He did a great job on the songs, and we want to keep his performances. Since they were recorded a number of years ago, though, they reflect the equipment and skills we had at the time. Today we would be able to do a much better job of capturing his playing (allegedly).

At issue are some of the sounds on the recording. Kick and snare, for example, are just… well a little weak. I want to say they sound ‘puffy’, but what does that mean? I don’t know. I’m just a drunkdude. For the longest time we’ve been trying to EQ and compress them to get a better sound, but the truth is that you can seldom “fix it in the mix”. What to do?

While paging through Mix magazine recently, I ran across an ad for a drum replacer plug-in called “drumagog”. I had tooled around before with a sound replacement plug-in which lets you select three different trigger velocities for three different sounds – say a strong kick, a medium kick and a soft kick. That was kind of a pain. This product looked like it might be a little cooler, so I visited their website and downloaded a demo.

With the demo installed and a song loaded, I found that the plug-in was very flexible and had plenty of options. I tried it out on a song and was really impressed at its capabilities, even considering the fact that the demo only comes with a small handful of sample “replacement” sounds. You can completely replace the recorded sound if you want to, but I wound up using the replacement sound on a new copy of the existing kick track . I mixed the new track under the old kick track to give the kick a little more “snap”.

The question that I ask myself is: is it bogus fakery to do this kind of stuff? You know, what everyone will derisively refer to as studio trickery. Cheating, even.

I’ve developed the opinion that it’s okay to do something like this when it doesn’t change the actual performance, but instead helps bolster the sonic fidelity. For example, the plug-in track matches the original performance and dynamics (you do have to correct for latency, but the plug-in conveniently tells you how much latency you need to correct), so it’s not a case where you’re wholesale manufacturing a drum track that didn’t exist.

I know songwriters that have taken a recorded kick drum, triggered a MIDI track, quantized the MIDI track, and finally used the MIDI to lay down a new kick track. At that point they’ve effectively removed the real live drummer’s performance. Why not just program a drum machine and be done with it?

Even though DD69 recordings are studio-intensive, we first capture the live core performance of the whole band, then add overdubs and clean up the resulting sonic mayhem. Sometimes we write using loops or cut-and-paste methods (K-Billy wrote a solo piece by piece on Thursday’s studio night, and when we convene again he will lay down the entire thing in one pass). We generally record several takes of a performance and assemble the best sections into one final take. But we’re not eliminating an actual performance and replacing it with a performance manufactured in-studio.

I guess in the final analysis you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to achieve your vision, and I know that some music is pre-assembled. But somehow I don’t feel like that’s the road we’re traveling.

In a perfect world we’d have the U87s and SSL console and phenomenal outboard gear, but in the real world of dd69 we’ve got a couple basements and a handful of mics wrapped in gaff tape. So it’s more about working with the tools we’ve got to make those real performances as sonically close to what we hear in our collective drunkdude mind as possible. Bring on the plug-in…