Last month I did a guest post for Travis Whitmore’s SilverLake Studio blog as part of his 31 Days to Better Drums series.
My article is below, you can read the rest of the 31 Days to Better Sounding Drums series on Travis’ blog.
The article is not meant to be a tutorial on drum editing, but an overview of the concepts and methods, reasons why you’d want to edit your drum tracks or outsource the work to a pro editor. I also go over why I prefer editing manually in REAPER rather than with the ‘industry standard’ Beat Detective in Pro Tools.
Drum editing has become an absolutely necessary part of the record production process. Out of time drums are one of those things that prevents a recording project from sounding as good as it can. Along with off tune vocals and too much reverb, it is one of the things that keeps home studio productions from sounding like pro recordings. For the past 3 years I’ve been offering drum editing services to home and pro studios worldwide and today I’ll explain a little of what goes on behind the scenes. This isn’t a tutorial.
Why edit drums?
A lot of people might think this is some cost-cutting or time saving part of recording. It’s absolutely not! Proper drum editing actually takes a lot of time and as the ancient saying goes “time is money”. Editing comes after the drummer has given the best performance possible and the best parts of each take are combined to a composite.
Engineers edit drums to achieve the following:
- Consistent timing and groove
- Replace missed or bad hits
- Create a solid foundation for the rhythm section
I have a lot of respect for drummers. The ones I work with get their parts 80-95% perfect. They get me to help with the rest. Drummers have a lot to think about, that hand and foot independence thing, plus keeping time, plus hitting the right drums in the right place, plus remembering the pattern and which ones come next… well that’s a hell of a lot of work, and is physically exhausting. The typical drum recording session for an album is two 8-10 hour days. This definitely demands some respect.
But I don’t want to sound like a robot!
To the drummers: If it’s done right, I guarantee you won’t sound like a robot! The performance will be consistent and powerful and will never fall out of time with the other instruments. All of the natural nuances of the playing are still there. It’s not about making you sound like a drum machine. We have other ways of achieving that. Beyond that, the bass, guitar, keyboards and other instruments will have a solid foundation for laying down their parts.
One of the primary concerns with editing a multi-track drum recording is phase accuracy. If you edit just the kick or snare mic tracks individually, it will be out of time with the overheads and room mics and bleed in other mics. This would be a huge problem, but is easily avoided by using the edit group function in the DAW. An edit group will ensure that when you slice it will apply to all tracks with sample accuracy.
What tracks should be edited
With the tracks grouped, the close miked kick and snare tracks are the primary concerns to get tight. The next important are the toms, after that the ride cymbal. Depending on the project I’ll do all of these to a 16th note grid.
Quantizing like with MIDI, means aligning to a grid. There are 3 methods of quantizing drums:
- Time stretching and snapping to grid
- Automatic slicing and snap to grid
- Manual slicing and aligning to grid
I’ve listed these in order of sound quality from worst to best and is also from least time required to most.
When I started out drum editing I was in love with Elastic Audio, a feature of Pro Tools 7.4. I could quantize drums quickly without a lot of effort. What was cool was that the audio would stretch proportionally between each edit. But often there would be glitches or things would sound weird. A bunch of time was required to fine tune. Sometimes it was good enough, sometimes it was immediately obvious that the quality just wasn’t there, and it didn’t get any better in Pro Tools 8. The same thing applies to Logic’s “Flex Time.”
Automatic slicing and quantizing
The world standard tool for drum editing is Beat Detective in Pro Tools and for good reason. It is a powerful editing tool that can analyze the transients on all or individual tracks, slice before all transients simultaneously, lock the transients to the gridline, fill gaps and crossfade all edits in just a few clicks. Some editors do the whole song at once, some do a section or a few bars at a time. Sounds like a great thing, well it’s far from perfect. My primary complaint was that Pro Tools is extremely hard on your system due to their ‘fade files’ which are tiny wave files for every single edit. With my drum editing sessions having 8,000 to 15,000 fade files, the hard drive just can’t keep up. After the bulk of the editing was finished making the fine tuning edits would take a long time because the system becomes very unresponsive trying to keep track of all these files. I dealt with this for a few years before moving to REAPER for drum editing.
Manual slicing and aligning
Manual slicing and alignment is my preference and it has been absolutely worth the extra time and effort. In a lot of cases I’ve found it to be faster that using Beat Detective. There is far less error correction required because I ensure every edit is correct from the start. The downside to this method is that it it’s entirely editing with your eyes and mouse, listening as you go slows you down by a significant amount and I’ve found it best to save the listening to the end. The key reasons I prefer the manual method is that, I select where to cut, I decide what the transient is, and I decide where the transient should be. By doing this by eye and ear rather than via algorithm I get the edits exactly how I like the first time.
Why I edit with REAPER now
After several years of editing with Beat Detective in Pro Tools I got fed up with the inefficiency. I saw a colleague editing drums in REAPER and once I tried it I was hooked. REAPER is a super light-weight but full featured DAW. Some of the editing specific advantages are:
- No fade files. No slowdown from making tens of thousands of edits
- Automatic cross fade for every edit.
- The mouse can be armed to split the regions on every click.
- Audio within the regions can be moved without changing the region boundaries.
- Customizable key commands and build-your-own actions
Drum editing isn’t for everyone
Honestly, drum editing is pretty boring and monotonous. It can also take a pretty big time commitment. Learning to do it well certainly was. Its not a skill you can pickup in a weekend, you can’t read a book or watch a video and learn all you need to know. It takes months, and you may hate every grueling hour of it. If you try it, hate it, or would just rather focus on other aspects of music making, you can outsource this work to an editor like me for less than the cost of an hour in a pro studio. I also guarantee my work is better than that of a typical pro studio which usually delegates drum editing to unpaid interns with little to no experience.