Kick... Kick.. Kick... How not to check drums.

This is a post that will hopefully be informative. It's a bit of a write-up about how I like to run sound checks for drum kits.

This isn't a novel technique. I found an article a while ago about it, and have put it to use over the last couple of years. Since then, I've lost the article to the depths of the internet and thought I'd share my version.

Once the band is set up, there are a lot of sound engineers who will ask the drummer to play just the kick drum, and once the drummer starts that, the engineer will bury themselves in the mixing desk and/or outboard, adjusting gates and compressors until they've achieved a "good" kick drum sound, and then we move on to the snare, hi-hat, then rack tom 1, then 2, then the floor tom(s), cymbals...

It might take a few minutes for each channel, and all the while, the drummer is getting bored. When people get bored, they lose focus and they're not hitting things as hard as they would when it comes to show time.

That's problem #1. There's a serious difference between sound check volume and show volume, and that will result in the input gain being wrong (and possibly ending up with clipping on the preamp), and all the carefully set threshold values for all the compressors and gates being out.

Problem #2 is that there are other people in the venue. Whether it's the rest of the band waiting to be checked, bar staff setting up, lighting or AV engineers, none of them really want to hear "kick... kick... kick... snare... snare... snare... snare..." for the next 20 minutes.

So, the conclusion is that it'll take far too long, annoy a lot of people, and the settings will be wrong anyway.

What's the alternative?

The alternative is this: once the mics are all in position and the drummer is happy with everything, I ask them to play the full kit, with plenty of fills around the toms.

This works better for a few reasons:

1 - Happy drummer. Any drummer that's playing their full kit is a happy drummer.

2 - They're playing at more-or-less the actual volume they'll be playing at during the gig.

3 - You get a much better idea of what the kit actually sounds like.

Once the drummer is playing, then I can set the gains, push the faders, and see what (if any) processing is going to be needed to get the drums sounding great out in the room. Sometimes the toms will have a bit too much "boing" in the lower-midrange, and notching a bit of that out with EQ can help. With good mics that are positioned well on the drum kit, it's usually quick and easy to get fantastic results once the kit is mixed well.

There's advantage #4 - it's fast.

That means we can move on to the other instruments, vocals, etc. Sound checking is about making the entire band happy, and spending half the allocated time with just one musician means the rest of the band will be rushed and potentially end up with sub-par sound.

More often than not, I won't bother to add in gates or compressors. If I do add them, it's for corrective purposes. For example, the snare drum rattles a lot when the bassist starts up, and it's coming through the PA in a distracting way. A gate with similar settings as for noise-reduction (fast attack and release, threshold as low as possible while still cutting the rattles) will sort that while leaving the sound as true-to-life as possible.

Similarly, if the drummer occasionally hits the snare very hard, a compressor can reign that in a bit. By and large, though, I want the drummer's dynamics to come through - if they go from playing very softly to smashing everything, I want that increase in volume and energy to come through instead of being eaten by compressors.

A further example would be when some engineers would use a gate to artificially cut all the resonance and decay out of a large floor tom. Sure, you could make it much "tighter", but that might not be the effect that the drummer is looking for.

Different isn't always better.

I think that's the crux of the matter. Any additional processing is changing the FOH sound away from what the mics are actually picking up. That doesn't necessarily mean it's worse, but it doesn't mean it's automatically better, either.

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