Master engineer Paul ‘Win’ Winstanley chats recording, engineering, production and DRUMS!
PA Studio isn’t just a rehearsal complex; we’re home to one of Brightons’ top audio engineers, Paul Winstanley who moved in at the start of 2016.
He spoke with Dan about his favourite past time, recording drums. They discuss pros and cons of old, new and custom drums, achieving a great recording sound, drum tuning, recording bodhrÃ¡ns and the do’s and don’ts when preparing to enter the studio.
He does not like a squeaky bass pedal folks…
DS: Tell me more about your job and what it entails.
Win: I’m an audio engineer – that’s what I like to call myself but these days that incorporates so many different things. I have the producer hat, the engineer hat, the arranger, sometimes even co-writer.
DS: And you were a finalist in the Music Producers Guild, ‘studio of the year’ at one point I hear?
Win: Yes, members of the producers guild all vote and there’s a website where the public can vote and we made it to the top 4! At the time, for a little studio like ours it in there was quite an honour to be voted. It’s great to be recognised and I think that maybe it does helpÂ in order to be taken aÂ bit more seriously by the industry.
DS: What gear do you have in the studio at present?
Win: Well in terms of recording drums I have specific pre amps just for drums. I’ve got an ever expanding mic collection which is mainly for drums. I’m often lucky enough for people to lend some bits too. Ben MeadÂ loaned us his SJC kit some time ago.
DS: I won’t ask about the finish on it!
Win:(LAUGHS) Well, it sounds amazing. It’s a proper cannon. I noticed they [SJC] get a bit of a slating but I think it’s a really good kit.
DS: Do you know what shell it is?
Win: Errm, I can’t remember – I’m dreadful at that!
DS: I’m guessing it’s a maple keller.
Win: Yeah well it’s a light wood so I assume so. What it is, it sounds great in the room. Drummers love playing it because when you sit behind it, it sounds ‘produced’. I think real modern kits sound almost like they’ve already had production work on them. Drum makers I think are gearing the kick drum to sound that way but the other kit we have (loaned to us by Mike Kelly) is a 70’s blue & olive badge Ludwig and in the room it sounds much more natural. You can get great stuff from it, very versatile but it doesn’t sound as nice sitting behind it – so people don’t get quite as excited.
DS: I suppose this is what I want to know really, what do you feel are the differences between new and old kits, custom and consumer brands? And what makes a truly great drum to record?
Win: As far as the kit’s concerned, it’s in the detail really. The SJC sounds more immediately impressive and responsive. In recording it’s all in the detail though. I’ve got mics that you’ll put in front of a kick drum, an Audix D6 for example, that will make even poor kick drums sound OK. Live engineers love those as a quick fix. But when you’re listening to the overtones of a drum and the way you get a drum to stay in the mix when it’s dense – in a big rock track for example – you have to fight for the kick drums space in there. Guitars take up all the frequency range and they take up all the room so to get a kick drum to stay in their without sounding too loud (which unfortunately many engineers do), it’s all about the after tone – the note of the drum. That’s the sort of stuff that comes from better kits. It’s the way the transient tales off that makes a drum for me.
DS: It’s quite subjective I suppose but interestingly the first thing a lot of drummers will do when they get a kit is buy thick heads and deaden their drums. Generally you need some resonance though, right?
Win: Yeah. Well it’s on a song by song basis. I’m lucky because in the studio we can treat each song and even sections of songs differently. If you’ve got a band firing them out at 145 BPM you don’t really want a great deal of resonance on the kick drum. It’s kind of like – and I’m hoping not to paraphrase Sting here at some pointâ€¦
DS: You can do that, I don’t mind…
Win: I’d rather not! It’s all about the spaces in between. In order to create the impact of the drummer or the dynamic it’s about the space. So if you’re playing at a really fast tempo you just want dead, short drums in order to create a bit of space. For example, I’ll put sub kick in and when the pattern is fairly open and simple that mic gets pushed up. But if you get a double kick player coming in then that mic has to get cut back because it’s not going to allow you to hear the space between the notes. So as far as tuning and dampening is concerned, in the studio you can pick and choose.
DS: Resonance probably comes in to it’s own playing live then?
Win: Yeah definitely and this is where I fall out with a lot of my live engineer friends about techniques and recordings. Because live work is so much more immediate, you don’t have to focus so much on the detail I don’t think. It’s more about having things there at your finger tips so you can manipulate it and react quickly. Whereas in recording I can just press stop and we’ll go back and do it again. So live, resonance, yes. But if you can get your drum kit to sound great live in a room then you make life easy for an engineer because all I’ve got to do then is try not to mess it up.
DS: With that in mind then, what are some of your most important Do’s & Don’ts of preparing your kit to go in to the studio?
Win: Well obviously, fresh heads – bring as many spares as you can. I quite often talk to people about how the room can affect drums. You may tune your kit to sound great in the rehearsal room but in the studio and all of a sudden they don’t sound the same. But you need to know what you can get out of your kit so it won’t take you long to adapt. Unfortunately you do get so many drummers who come in and say “I don’t know anything about tuning”. It drives you nuts because then I’ve got to figure out how this kit tunes and they’re all different as you know.
DS: To a degree then, you can’t necessarily prepare unless you know the room already so I guess you may as well go in with the heads completely de-tuned before you start?
Win: Yeah. But sometimes, like guitar strings, you’ll need to let the heads settle sufficiently on to the drum and then tune them once you get in to the environment you’re going to be using them in. The environment is important to bear in mind because even something like transporting your kit, depending on the time of year, it will go through some sort of temperate change and being made of wood that’s going to change the sound in some way.
DS: With so many mechanical things that need to be ready then, is there actually a best practice way of gearing up for recording? Maybe flexibility is the key?
Win: Well that’s right. You mentioned the mechanics, things like pedals – they shouldn’t squeak! Make sure there’s nothing rattling on lugs and that the bolts inside the shell have been tightened. There’s nothing worse than hearing a rattle inside the drum after you’ve meticulously tuned the heads. Those sorts of things seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many times it happens. I had a drummer not long ago who laughed and said “I haven’t even had this out of my garage for three years” and immediately your heart sinks and you think what am I supposed to do with this?! Close mic and re-trigger the whole thing is what you do [laughs].
DS: What’s the most unique drum or percussion item you’ve recorded?
Win: Good question. I had recorded a chap called Philippe BarnesÂ who brought a group of quite virtuoso folk musicians with him from Ireland. The BodhrÃ¡n player was amazing and to hear someone really play it properly! An instrument like that seems so simple.
DS: Well it’s moving around a lot isn’t it…
Win: Yeah and it’s not like you can just learn how record a BodhrÃ¡n (well you probably could find something on Google now but this was a few years back!) so it was great as it meant I had to think, how do I apply what I know to make this work? You start breaking it down – what is it similar to? A cajon for example, there’s not one mic position – you’ll never get a good sounding cajon, as far as I know, from just one mic. Drummers think it’s a lot more bassy than it actually sounds because their sitting on the thing and a lot of that feeling is coming through your body. You need to capture and recreate that somehow so there’s some rear micing and also the head of the cajon. I used the same technique with the BodhrÃ¡n as well.
DS: Well a BodhrÃ¡n’s maybe 3-5in deep so you’ve got the sound of the head AND resonance from the shellâ€¦
Win: Yeah and also from the technique itself, there’s some palming and muting that goes on, much like congas. I’m not sure the mic’s even gonna pick that up. But that sort of brushing sound that goes in to that virtuoso style of playing. You’ve gotta get in and try to pick it up.
DS: All the little nuances…
Win: Yeah. They’ll use those little things, similar to all sorts of drums – it’s that little detail that you can’t lose. It’s not about those big hits and all the transients, it’s about the detail.
DS: You had to think on your feet thereâ€¦ but what about some of your day-to-day techniques, are there any you use often that will always give you the result you need?
Win: That I’m going to tell you about!? [laughs]. Well to be honest there’s very little I do that I didn’t just pick up. I’ve never had any formal training – it’s all just watching other people work and reading and reading and digging through the internet. Just trying stuff that people have said works and figure out what works for you. Especially with drums. Drums are (and this is going to sound like a shameless plug for studios), the one thing unfortunately you can’t really do at home. You can get great close mic set ups, you can get a real intimate tone but you can’t really substitute a room in a drum recording. I do sometimes, I might have to. I’ll get a mix sent to me that I’ve not recorded and there’s little or no ‘drum room’ in the data that’s been sent over. So I’ll try and recreate that sound from the dry mics. You do a mini mix of the drums, send it to a bus and then throw on a reverb or now you can get room emulation plugins – real studios. You can approximate and get kind of close but it’s always a bit lazy and it always sounds a bit fake. Ours isn’t the biggest drum room in the world but I’ve been working in there for 7 years – I can make it sound bigger than it is.
DS: Do rooms generally need to be large?
Win: Yeah you just need space and it’s not so you can sling the microphones miles away and always go for that huge John Bonham 54ft away or whatever, it’s just they need space to breath. You put a drum kit in the right room and it’ll start to sound bigger, better and more powerful straight away. Generally when you put something like a [Shure] 57 close up to the snare, that’s not the sound that you hear when you hit it. You’re hearing some of the direct tone but you’re also hearing everything from your surroundings coming back at you in some sort of dual-omni pick up that your ears have. Generally I like to recreate that with a pair of omni mics at some position in the room and you move them around to pick up the sound of the kit as you hear it. It’s how you make drums sound familiar to you – people like things that they recognise. You can buy reverb units from the 80’s that people still love today because you can hear the reverb on the snare that you’ve heard on a 1000 tracks and although this piece of 80’s digital equipment is technically far inferior to a modern bit of kit or a plugin, it has a familiarity that makes you think – that sounds great. It doesn’t necessarily sound ‘great’ though, it sounds ‘familiar’. So owning bits of kit like that helps but getting a drum to sound great in the right room is better. Do you get what I mean?
DS: Yeah. That leads to another of my questions – it seems a lot of producers chase the ‘Holy Grail’ of drum sounds. Is there such a thing?
Win: No. It’s constantly moving. This is why some people describe audio engineering as a life pursuit because the goals are constantly moving. It’s fashion. Some of the records that inspired me and I thought were great, I might go back to five years later and only a handful might have something you still love about them. There’s a trend now which is almost an anti-reaction to all this hyped up fake metal [music] shenanigans to a real DIY, rough drum sound that reminds me of bands like Fugazi and the early to mid 90’s. Some of my favourite drum sounds are off of ‘Harvest’ by Neil Young. Crazy sort of warm, soft, quite intimate tones that, as far as I can find out, are recorded in the back room of a music shop somewhere with about 3 or 4 microphones. I’m sure if I listened to it now and tried to recreate it, it would wouldn’t work in modern music because everything else has changed so much. The way vocals are constantly tunedâ€¦ you hear out-of-tune vocals all over 60’s records; Jimi Hendrix was never in tune! But these days you just can’t leave them untreated and it feels the same way with drums. I’m sure that if I did recreate the Harvest drum sound people would just think that sounds a bit dull, can we make it more exciting? To get back to the question, no there isn’t really. I don’t think I’ll ever get the perfect drum sound but then again I’d quit if I did because there’d be no point in carrying on.
DS: This one might be toughâ€¦ favourite record?
Win: Oooohh aaah. That very much depends on what week.
DS: I didn’t think you’d give me a straight answer!
Win: Well my favourite recent album is definitely ‘Like Clockwork’ by Queens of The Stone Age. That’s a great record. Really interesting throughout and the drums are great as ever.
DS:Â Favourite producer?
Win: A guy called Joe Barresi. He did a lot of QUOTSA and Tool recordings. For him it always seems to be about creating a tone for each song. He doesn’t seem scared of doing certain things, for example ‘lullabies to paralyse’ you listen to the drums on their own and it’s awful but it suits the track. I’m a little bit like that – I try to indulge musicians about ‘their’ tone to a degree but it also has to apply.
DS: One of my favourites is Terry Date’s production of Deftones, what do you make of that?
Win: Yeah, well you know I like [Abe] Cunning as a drummer. He’s one of those amazing drummers that never seems to over play. I go in and out of Deftones moods because the guitars areâ€¦ weird. Some days I love them though. As a band they’re probably one of my constants. We mentioned this before, as far as trends go, you listen to some of the snares on Deftones records and you couldn’t get away with that now – they’re so skinny. There’s no lows at all and at the moment there’s a propensity to through loads of low end on to a snare and get that low punch.
DS: Tell me about some of your favourite bits of gear in the studio at present?
Win: Well at the moment it’s my Morgan Davies snare – of course! Matt [Morgan Davies Drums] commissioned one for me. We used to play in a band together and he chose the woods to match an old bass of mine he used to really like. It’s not a snare that works on every record but perfect to have ready when someone brings in a crappy drum. The snare is SO IMPORTANT in a record, it’s untrue. This I can tell you, you can fake kick drums with very little difference but it’s so hard to fake a snare because there’s generally so much more work going in to the playing.
DS: What does the MD Drums snare fulfil for you in the studio then?Win: It’s a big snare, a big shot! Mostly rock stuff but it’s such a versatile drum – we’ve had it tuned up to almost a piccolo sound.
DS: Being a thick shell you could even use marching heads – Mem, ex ‘Ghost of a thousand’ does thatâ€¦
Win: Oh really? I’m going to have to get you to show me that! It’s a toss up with that [Morgan Davies Snare] and the SJC kit. I’d rather have that than any of my mics because I think with that kit I could use a bunch of live mics and some basic pre amps and get a really great drum sound. This isn’t the big secret – it’s just fact – it’s all about the source material and this again goes back to the room – that’s part of the source. You can tart up audio a lot – there’s a certain amount of fixing you can do in digital recording and a lot that you can create but if the source material sucks then it’s so hard to get it right. All of these production methods and recording techniques are like multipliers; if you start off with a naff sounding drum kit, those multipliers will only make the gear sound two maybe three times better. And even owning a set of vintage telefunken 421 mics like I do only makes bad gear sound worse!
This article originally appeared at blog.drumsource.co.uk