When recording video, you may think that what you see is what's most important. It is a video, after all! However, you may be surprised to know that the audio portion of the video may be just as important, maybe even more so.
On occasion I peruse YouTube to find various drumming-related videos, be it classic solos of my favorite drummers, or recent drum covers of, well, anybody. I've found videos that look pretty good, but the sound is just awful. Of course, you also find the videos that both look and sound awful (that’s just wrong!).
But I digress. Sometimes I’ll find a video that looks pretty good, but the sound is very bad. I lament that it couldn’t sound better, and move on. It feels like for those videos you have to work too hard to determine what the thing is supposed to sound like. At other times, however, I’ll find a video that doesn’t look good (or maybe it even looks pretty bad), but the sound is very good. I’ll at least give it a listen! Why is this?
We’ve been accustomed now to expect good audio with good video. Take for example cinema and home theater. When movies are being edited, much attention is given not only to what you see, but also to what you hear. Can you imagine movies like Star Wars without the attention to sound? Yes, the lightsaber is a very cool looking weapon, but its humming sounds when moved about and crackling when struck against another lightsaber make it the most memorable weapon in all of science fiction. Not only that, but the sound is perfectly synchronized with the movement of the weapon, to the point that it looks absolutely convincing – it is ‘real’.
So huge now is the emphasis on home theater, and uncompromising sound, that movie makers now ensure that their movie will sound great not only in the cinema, but when played at home as well. Yes, sound is a big deal.
Another example of the importance of sound is an attraction I went to at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park called “Sounds Dangerous with Drew Carey”. It’s a theater where you are given special headphones, and shortly into the presentation everything goes pitch black. All you hear are sounds coming at you from all directions. It’s a fantastic example of how impactful sound can be, sometimes even without the aid of video.
Growing up, my father was a television repair technician. ‘Back in the day,’ television was all about the screen, and not about the speaker. Television technology was very much focused on getting a quality image, but the sound was for the most part ignored. In my teens I started to notice that televisions were starting to incorporate stereo speakers, and at that time I thought they sounded just awesome. I had to convince my father to buy one of these, but he saw no need for it. We had a very good Sony television, and he was adamant that television is for viewing, not really for hearing. I finally convinced him to buy a pair of cheap external speakers that connected to the ‘audio out’ of the TV. My Dad had an epiphany when he heard the difference, and then understood how sound actually enhanced the viewing experience. From that point on, and to this day, everything goes through the receiver.
So the bottom line is, if you want to make a video that stands out (and in this case, our focus being drum covers), then there’s no getting around it – it must sound good! Being that the case, we need to determine what aspects we have control over to ensure a good sounding video.
For a great sounding cover, the things you need to pay attention to are:
- Room acoustics
- The drums themselves (i.e., tuning)
- The sound quality of the song being played to
- Microphone placement (i.e., the flexibility of camcorder placement)
- The ability of the drummer
Let’s talk about each of these aspects for a bit.
As far as room acoustics go, for many there’s not much that can be done about that, and it’s a little beyond the scope of this series, but it’s definitely worth a mention. In the Yes documentary YesYears – A Retrospective, Bill Bruford mentions that during the recording of Close to the Edge (1972), the band would start recording a song. Of course, they still would be playing gigs, so when one came up they would break everything down, drive up to the gig and play it. Gig’s up, so they then would set up their equipment to continue recording the song they started, at an entirely new location! That meant, of course, that the sounds would be completely changed due to the different acoustics of the new location.
Point being that, yes, the location where the drums are does have an affect on the recording. Since most have only one location in their homes where their drums can be, you may just have to make due with that. If there is more than one location where you can have the drums, if you want to take the time, and if it’s practical, you may want to experiment in those locations and determine where the drums sound better. You may not even be able to tell the difference, except possibly in a recording, but it may be worth the endeavor. (For some soundproofing ideas, check out the article “The Thing About the Neighbors”.)
Here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. If you want your recording to have any chance of sounding even half-way decent, there’s no getting around it – you must learn how to tune your drums. This to me is the least favorite part of drumming, but it is an integral part. It is part art, part science, and it’s good to get practicing it to the point of at least slight familiarity.
In the article “Name That Tune”, I explain an occasion where it was a good time for me to break down my entire kit and set it up from scratch (kind of what I did in the “The Paradiddler’s Kit Part 3” video). I went on to detail the methods I used to tune the three major sections of the kit: bass drum, toms, and snare. They all have their little idiosyncrasies, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with them.
There are also many sources of instruction pertaining to drum tuning that are very good, which you’ll want to check out. Mike Michalkow’s “Drum Tuning System” is a great resource for tuning your drums for different genres of music, as well as for general drum kit maintenance. Alfred Music Publishing’s “The Drum Set Crash Course – Tuning Edition” hosted by Russ Miller is also an excellent DVD. And practically anything by Bob Gatzen on YouTube is bound to be highly instructional as well.
I won’t get into all the technical aspects of tuning here (you can see that in the aforementioned “Name That Tune” article), so I strongly encourage you to really get to know the sound of your kit using any of the videos mentioned here. Your videos (and their viewers) will not be disappointed. You can make an expensive kit sound awful with bad tuning, but you can make a cheap kit sound decent with proper tuning.
What song will you be playing to? How does it sound? An approach I’ve seen some do when recording a drum cover is that they’ll blast their stereo, and play along to that. I don’t recommend that method for a couple of reasons. One, the volume of the stereo will have to compete with the noise of the drums, and that may produce a ‘noisy’ sounding performance. Two, you’d really have to turn up the volume of the stereo to be able to hear it over the noise of the drums. If you’re not hearing the music clearly enough, your timing may be off, resulting in ‘double drumming’ (hearing two drummers). ‘Double drumming’ may be ok at times (it may sound like a cool effect, if that’s what you’re after), but if you constantly go ahead and behind the music because you can’t hear it very well, the performance can become unlistenable.
Ideally, you’ll want to hear the song through what I call ‘drummer’s headphones,’ or simply isolation headphones. For example, the headphones I use when playing to songs are the Vic Firth Isolation Headphones. They are very reasonably priced (around $50). They reduce the volume of your drums significantly while still allowing you to hear them clearly. At the same time, you can adjust the volume of the music you’re playing to a level that’s loud enough to hear alongside your drumming, but without blowing out your eardrums.
This is important because, instead of recording your drums (with the camcorder) competing with the stereo, you’re just recording your drums. Later on, you can use Windows Movie Maker to synchronize your playing to a clean, high quality version of the song you played to. That makes for a more polished sound.
And speaking of the song, how does that sound? When you’re playing a drum cover, you want to have the performance give the impression that you’re the drummer. If the song is a clean version, you’ll more likely be able to achieve that.
I recommend using mp3 versions of songs rather than wav files. If you want to be a real stickler, you could use the wav file format since it is more of a ‘lossless’ file format. But really, for many music types you can’t tell the difference, so I recommend using the mp3 format (the data is compressed). Mp3 files are considerably smaller than wav files as well. If you start storing all your songs as wav files, you’ll run out of hard drive space fast!
The bit rate of the mp3 file is also something you may want to consider when recording and editing your drum cover. The absolute, bare minimum, lowest bit rate you should use is 128kbps. Any lower than that and the listener may tell the difference between the original and the mp3 (they may already be able to tell at that bit rate). So, the higher you go, the higher the quality of the sound of the song. Anything above 256 might be overkill as far as being able to tell the difference between the CD version of the song and the mp3, but that’s up to you which bit rate to use.
In any case, the idea is for the audio to sound so good that it sounds like you’re the drummer. Ensuring the song sounds as close to the CD as possible is part of the equation.
Actually, we’re talking here about camcorder placement, since for many of you you’re using the microphones that are built into the camcorder. The placement of the camcorder will have an effect on how the final product will sound.
If you want to have an equal distribution of left/right stereo sound, then you’ll need to put the camcorder squarely in the middle, in front of the drum set. If you want the whole set to show, you’ll have to position the camcorder back enough to display the kit. How close or how far you’ll need to place the camcorder to get the entire kit in view will depend on the lens in the camera, how much of a ‘wide angle’ shot you can get.
The proximity of the camcorder to the drum set will affect the quality of the recording. You may need to experiment with how close you can put the camera without the recording sounding distorted. You may need to set the camera back further and zoom in a little. However, although not completely necessary, try to avoid ‘digital zoom’. If your camera has ‘optical zoom’, ensure you’re in range to use that since there are no calculations being made to the image to get the shot – it’s not ‘doctored up’ by the camera. However, I doubt anyone will need to put the camera far enough that the digital zoom feature will kick in, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Just throwing it out there!
If you want to use multiple angles, however, things change a little bit. If you want to place the camera behind and above you, it will sound different than placing it in front of you (and, actually, the left and right stereo will flip). If you want a shot above and to your right, that will also sound slightly different. If you want a close-up from your left side, that will sound different again. I present these scenarios so you are aware that when using one camera, using the built-in microphones will cause the drums to sound slightly different for each angle.
The above can be totally avoided if you’re using an external microphone and placing it in one spot, and move the camera around for each take. This ensures the faithfulness of the left/right stereo separation, and there’s no ‘flipping’, per se. But the details on this option is for another day.
Well, if there’s no drummer, there’s no drum cover! Of course, the drummer is the one who will mostly affect the quality of the sound. However, the purpose of recording ourselves playing is to go back and see where we can improve, show off to our friends, and just have fun. The latter's the main goal. So if you’re playing doesn’t come out ‘that good’, never to worry! With practice, you’ll get better. Accept the kudos humbly, and take the constructive criticism and run with it.
Up to this point we’ve talked about video and audio. But how about putting it all together for presentation? The next article in the series will touch on this aspect of ‘recording drum covers.’