May 10, 2017
Cymbals are consistently a fickle issue in your drum mix. There are so many variations in size, material, frequency makeup and even shapes that they’re nearly impossible to treat in a way they deserve. Couple that with the nightmare of spot micing and the phase inconsistencies that come along with it – you’ve got the perfect storm of mixing hell with your name written all over it.
Let’s just get this out of the way: drummers are smacking sheets of metal with a wooden stick. No need to sugarcoat it – it is what it is.
It’s weird and unnatural, but it gives us a sound unlike anything else. A good cymbal can bring accents to a drum part and add a certain level of polish to a song. Trashier cymbals can bring an edgy feel once their accompanying harshness is properly dealt with.
As strange as these metal discs controlled by wooden sticks are, music just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Cymbals come with tons of sustain which causes them to fight over each other for breathing room in a mix. Since the majority of your cymbals’ frequencies span across the high end of the spectrum, it’s not surprising that an overhead track dense with cymbals can sound washy and even like white noise from time to time.
But just like using a white noise generator in your production, it’s extremely easy to go overboard with your cymbals. Instead, you need to maintain control, keeping your sound balanced with the rest of you drum kit and the rest of your mix.
The more cymbals you have in your mix, the more problems you’re going to run into. Not only will your mix become denser, but you’ve also got to deal with another beast: comb filtering.
While I could spend an entire series of posts on comb filtering, the basic premise is that delayed versions of a signal can interfere with your initial sound. It’s one of the major phase problems we encounter with cymbals because they’re moving, lively instruments.
Just imagine how frustrating it would be to mix a guitar track with the microphone moving back and forth from the amp the entire time. Same concept – and the more cymbals you add, the more reflections get picked up by your microphones.
There’s a huge reason drummers are willing to pay a premium for handmade cymbals, and as engineers we should take notice too.
Machine-milled cymbals are perfect… Too perfect.
Why? A machine is going to replicate each piece of metal in a uniform way. This is great for most industries as it cuts labor costs, but for musical applications, machines make for dull instruments (at least as far as cymbals go).
A perfectly cut cymbal is going to have a great focus on the fundamental frequencies, but is more often than not referred to as harsh and brittle. Cheaper cymbals require more EQ in the final mix, and frankly don’t sound very special.
Handmade cymbals revel in their inconsistencies. The complex makeup of a handmade cymbal is why they sound so good. Since humans aren’t perfect, a hand-hammered cymbal is going to have variations in things like density, shape, and most-certainly tone. Every minor variation results in additional harmonic content, causing the cymbal to react differently to each hit than the “perfect” machine-made cymbal would.
Unfortunately, due to the cost of craftsmanship, many drummers can’t afford to replace all of their cymbals with the handmade alternatives.
As mentioned earlier, cheaper cymbals aren’t unusable; they just require extra time and attention. The same goes for dense cymbal mixes and less than ideal overhead tracks. But how can we be smarter about treating our cymbals and hack the processing that we do?
Our latest hack has been built around practices we’ve been using for years, but in the simplified package of DF-CLARIFY. Just like the name implies, DF-CLARIFY was designed to with clarity in mind.
In essence, this new plugin uses a proprietary algorithm to bring balance to your cymbal mix. It maintains the tone of your cymbals while applying EQ matching in a subtle and effective way. It’s dynamic enough to respond to both the frequency-dense mixes, but laid out in a musical way that’s easy to understand.
In our guide, “Cymbal Mixing Hacked” we go over the approaches we take to treat cymbals and the natural progression that lead us to develop DF-CLARIFY. It’s filled with some great treatment tips and our real world testing to ensure that our algorithm could prove successful on major label release and demos alike. Check it out if you’re serious about hacking your cymbals into a great mix.
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