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Producer Eyal Levi on Getting Great Drum Sounds

by Sam Pura
music & audio

Eyal Levi Behind the Board

Eyal Levi behind the board at Audiohammer Studios.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite things to record… DRUMS! You have a new creativeLIVE workshop on Advanced Drum Production, something you and Audiohammer obviously happen to know a lot about. Can you tell us when and how you joined the team and give us a little detail on Audiohammer’s layout?

Audiohammer is the brain child of the production jedi — and my soul brother — Jason Suecof. He started it back in 2003 I believe. In 2006, he brought on Mark Lewis as his engineer and since then Mark has emerged as one of metal’s top producers in his own right. My involvement with them goes back to 2006 when they did a rejected test mix for my band Daath. I actually thought it was my favorite, but label politics didn’t let them have the gig. So when the time came for our next record we went to Audiohammer. I guess you could say we connected, because after that I was constantly bringing them work and networking hookups. Around 2010 things were shaky with my band, and Jason told me that if I built a drum room I could come in as a partner in the studio as well as be his engineer. It took me 20 minutes to decide on that one. So I flew down, bought the house across the street because it had the most perfect drum room and layout ever, and the rest shall we say is history.

Let’s talk about the most important aspect of recording drums: your drum room. Am I correct in understanding that you own the drum room at Audiohammer? When was it built? How big is it? Who designed it?How would you describe the sound of your room?

I own it. It’s the living room of my house [laughs]! It was like this when I bought the place. I saw it once and knew it was the place I had to buy. To get a place like this designed would be unaffordable, but by pure twist of luck, there just so happened to be a decently-priced, perfectly laid out, and acoustically superior drum room right across the street from Audiohammer. Who would have thought ? Everything about it is perfect: 18-foot ceilings, 25- x 17-foot walls. Cedar logs provide natural diffusion and give it a very nice and long decay. We have custom treatment in the room that can deaden or liven the sound up, based on what we are doing. Recording any acoustic instrument, especially drums, in there is such an amazing experience because the room you are in is such a huge factor in the sound. I hate the word ‘vibe’ but seriously, all your vibe is in the room. Having a great room like that makes the vibe yours to mess up.

Drum Room B at Audiohammer Studios also happens to be Eyal Levi's living room.

Drum Room B at Audiohammer Studios also happens to be Eyal Levi’s living room.

Ronn rules. He’s my go-to, along with a guy named Matt Brown. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable going into a serious drum session without a tech. It’s not that I don’t feel I can do a good job, but I know that drums sound one way in the room right next to you and they sound completely different under the microphones. I really prefer to have an expert there with me whose job it is to tune the drums while I’m in the control room listening and saying, more of this, more of that, etc. We are definitely going to cover this topic in my creativeLIVE class because it’s one HUGE piece of the drum tone pie. I’d say that viewers are going to learn what a good starting point is and ways to approach drum tuning. Tuning is something that takes a long time to master, but hopefully we can help people not make some dumb, time-consuming mistakes along the way.

What is your general approach to recording kick drums? I’m friends with lots of metal drummers who recorded albums without a kick and or playing a sample pad instead to eliminate the loud kick in the room and avoid some potential editing nightmares. Do you program the kick beforehand? When and how do you make the decision to eliminate recording a kick — and is it difficult to convince a drummer to record without it?

My general approach is simple: Metal drummers have to earn the right to a kick drum when recording here. It’s pretty much pointless to record unless the drummer is just ridiculously good. Like say Shannon Lucas, who is a human machine. If the drummer isn’t at that level of precision, then having kick drums in there is going to cause you more harm than good. They will end up all over your room mics and you’ll just have one more thing to filter out and one more reason to neuter your rooms. Personally, that’s not worth it, because I think that rooms are one of the main ingredients in giving a drum sound its character. So if you know there will be a bunch of editing involved and you’re just going to end up replacing the kick later anyways, just don’t record one to begin with. Problem solved.

Seems you stick to and Audix i5 or Shure SM57 on snare — why? I’ve noticed you rock both simultaneously. Is that for options during tracking or later in mix or do you blend them?

All of the above. It really depends on how the drummer hits and what you need to bring out based on that. If he hits his snare super light and it sounds like a pencil hitting a pillow, you may need to compensate for the lack of crack in the sound. Though I feel like ultimately you’re going to be eqing an SM57 into sounding like an I5 so I’m starting to lean towards mainly using that.

Eyal Levi's control room at Audiohammer.

Eyal Levi’s control room at Audiohammer.

Can you elaborate on your dislike of rimshots on snare hits? How do you deal with drummers who frequently hit rim shots? I find that interesting because I’m almost the opposite — I’m frequently raising drummers’ snares to create more rim shots for perceived impact.

I’ve got nothing against rimshots. What I hate are random unnanounced rimshots due to improper snare technique. The reason I hate those is because they clip the living shit out of the room mics. If I know in advance the drummer will be rimshotting I’ll set levels accordingly.

It seems like you prefer Neve type preamps (Vintech) for snare and kick? Do you continue with the the Vintechs on rooms and then leave the more clear and little less colored preamps (Focusrite, & API) on the cymbals and toms? What are some of your favorite preamps and do you generally avoid the EQ on the preamps during drum tracking or use it? I know you attempt to stay away from EQ during guitar tracking. Curious if you have a similar approach and philosophy to drums.

I’m always trying different things but I find that these days I’m digging the Vintechs on all drums and the APIS on all rooms and cymbals. To me the Focusrites are for whatever is left. I’ve got no problem EQing drums during tracking. Whatever it takes to make it sound great.

Do you always setup drum triggers on kick and snare for triggering samples or do you occasionally use the close mics to trigger the samples? Are you convert the audio to midi before sampling? Are your kick and snare samples multi samples or one shots?

We convert to midi and then sample off of the midi. This way we can change out samples quickly. Also, using an acoustic trigger leads to undesirable side effects. Like your snare drum getting dampened. If you want to dampen a snare use moon gel, not a trigger. And some are multis and some are single. I use a bunch together.

How about during tracking any compression on the close mics (Snare / Toms)? I tend to use a distressor on kick and snare, and the dbx 160’s on toms during tracking. Do you have any favorite analog compressors for close mics?

Sometimes I’ll compress room mics going in if I can nail exactly the sound I’m going for but compression can be a touchy thing. I’d prefer to leave that for mix time. DBX 160s are great drum compressors. I back them. But again, I’d rather do that once the drums are recorded.

I notice you use 421’s very flat on toms. Like a 20 degree angle instead of the 45 degree angle lots of people myself included do. They are almost pointing at the drummers crotch and seeing over the head into the attack spot. Can you give some more detail on how this sounds compared to aiming the mic 45 degrees? Any issues with cymbal bleed in mix? Do you have a general approach to setting them up? I’m like a 3 finger tight guy.

I actually experiment with this all the time. Sometimes I do 45 degree angles sometimes I do the crotch placement. All depends on how the drummer hits and what I’m trying to reject. I dont only use 421s though. I’ve used d6 on toms a lot. But again, different style hitters get different types of mic jobs.

How about samples with toms? I’ve actually never used them! Toms are the one thing I see multi samples being very important in order to be hyper realistic.

Oh yeah. You HAVE to use multi samples on toms. Or else they will sound awful. I try my hardest not to use sampled toms but a good blend sounds so powerful!

What’s your approach to cymbals and how do you treat your overheads and close mic cymbals differently from each other in mix? Do you have any tricks to measuring phase and ensuring they all work together? You’ve mentioned not doing overheads in the “traditional way” 

I do the same stuff anybody else would to check for phase — i.e., measuring and all that. However, I always give it a good ear check as well as the phase / phase flipped test. At the end of the day, I feel like measurements are an arbitrary thing and you can only really tell by listening.

Any go-to compressors for cymbals and overheads? How are you treating the bottom end on them? Are you doing lots of filtering to clear up bottom end for your close mics and samples?

When we record kicks, we have to rape the overheads and close mics with eq due to low end bleed from the bass drums. With a kick pad you rape it much less because there is no out of time bass drum messing up your mix!

I noticed some acoustic gobos behind the drum set in many of your photos. How do those help?

They just help to tame the room. Sometimes this room is a bit too live for super fast material. You start to lose any sort of coherent stereo spread and it all turns into a wash. That may sound a little extreme but you combine a non hard hitting drummer, super fast material, and a really live room and you end up with wash. So the baffles help to keep that in check. And also sometimes you want the close mics to have as little room in them as possible. So the baffles help there too.

What room mics do you use? What type of stereo shapes? I find it’s very hard to get lots of space on the kick and snare without getting a lot of cymbals. Whats your approach with room mics? How do these get treated during tracking and in mix? Any favorite compressors for rooms?

Well, one of my main approaches to room mics for this sort of thing is to really aware of what’s going to the rooms. For instance – kick drum or not – rim shots or not – hard hitter / light hitter – etc etc etc. These all determine how I’m going to approach the subject.

Do you use parallel compression in mix on single sources like snare and kick?

Yes. Love it. Gotta be careful though. It’s easy to go too far.

When drum editing methods do you use ? Do you use Pro Tools features like Beat Detective or Elastic Audio, and or both?

My engineer John Douglass and I will be going into detail on this very topic during my creativeLIVE course, about Beat Detective, elastic audio, and manual edits. I use all three depending on the situation. Beat Detective is my 80% of the time solution for drum editing but it’s super important to be proficient with all three methods and I will cover them in detail!

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Sam Pura

Sam Pura is a music writer and producer who has worked with bands including The Story So Far, The Summer Set, Basement, Transit, and Touche Amore. @sampura