You can buy a drumset cheap…for under $50 US. I did, as you may recall. Here’s an update. And a T Bruce lesson in recording drums with only 1 mic.

Coronet (by Pearl) cheap toms, expensive Yamaha kit

How do you buy a $50 drumset? You aim low, you refuse to believe what you read about “cheap” or “budget” drums, and you score high. Believe your ears and what you touch.

In this instance, my man Tommy K called a few weeks before Christmas, year 2010. He was standing beside a budget Coronet kit in the Salvation Army. I gave it thumbs-up and he walked away with a 1960s Coronet (made by Pearl) set of drums for maybe $40. He brought it over, we traded gear, and I’m still using the Coronet drums.

You may recall I used them on an album date, which I documented. The producer maintains to this day that the Coronets, of all the drums that have passed through his studio, sound the best.

I admit, however, that the Coronets have been idle a while. One reason is the budget hardware, particularly the bass drum spurs. Tommy K has made me robust clip-on spurs that exceed the specs of commercial designs I’ve witnessed. But even then, this bass drum will scurry forward—radically so. This is fine and good in a controlled studio, or home studio/music room situation, but live in a club it’s intollerable.

The obvious reason, and solution, is that the supplied chromed metal hoops are the culprits; they must be removed and replaced with wood hoops or composite hoops such that the “trench” in the metal hoops, which precludes the use of most clip-on spurs, is no longer a factor.

You know, I don’t want to replace anything. Because the moment I begin replacing hoops is the moment the drum takes a turn for … the worse or somewhere other than the current. The bass drum, I remind you, features 6-lugs per head. Six lugs in a 10-lug world. And this poverty of metal hardware is, perhaps, what accounts for its rich sound. And I use the Coronets for special projects, live and recorded, that don’t require the sort of pagan plundering that would displace a bass drum from its spurs and send it careening.

Coronets deserve a stable environment

Yes and they have found one. Recently I’ve been recording in my basement music room (I’d never use the usual “studio” to depict this place). I’m beginning to learn all the stuff I couldn’t learn when I did freelance sessions. These were times when I simply didn’t have the luxury of an extra 15-minutes here and there to ask questions about microphone choice, phasing, and faders. My technical knowledge was pretty much limited to the possibilities then inherent in analog 2” Studer A820 (for the most part) and Ampex open-reel machines.

Can you get me in there to punch?

When I’d utter those words, I was signaling the control room that I’d made a glitch (even if nobody spotted it, which was the case well over half the time!) and wanted to know if the engineer could find enough “space” before and after the cock-up to punch me-in and then get me out of there.

I learned to memorize the level I’d been striking cymbals immediately prior to the affected area, after the glitch, and would play along trying to disguise the fact that a tape edit had been made.

Today this is done as a matter-of-course with software, usually Pro Tools, although I use the full edition of Adobe Audition, which feature infinitely adjustable cross-fading and spot-edits. It’s like today they’re using drones; yesterday it was helicopters.

Bear with me, I’m done the anecdotes in a moment and I’ll be back to the Coronets.

At the end of the day I’m glad I learned in the days of punching, or taking a razor blade to, tape. Because I learned to blame myself for mistakes.

I find it easier to blame myself than to sort through the myriad of variables that can collide when musicians play live. It leaves it to one probable cause, or, rather, one culprit. Easier for me to manage.

One final anecdote about culprits. Most drummers, like me, are full of apologies and guilt. We believe we’re at fault for everything: rushed fills, the Falkland Islands, etc. This is not always true (well, the bit about the Falklands, for sure).

Recently I discovered a CD onto which someone had dubbed some tracks I’d cut twenty years previous. The track I’m singling out is one I’d done, for broadcast, as I recall, with Canadian folk legend Ian Tamblyn, “Call it a Night, Call it a Day”. The tempo was spitefully slow—maybe 48 bpm and required a solid backbeat. This is my forté. Ask anybody who knows me intimately and they’ll verify that I get up slowly in the mornings. When calling tempos at a gig invariably I’m at least 6 clicks below the norm. I like this. I like to hear the drums sustain a nudge longer and I love the lyrics to unfold without obstruction.

In this case, I really outdid myself. There was no click, I swear. You might ask the bassist on the date, also the owner of the downtown studio, now long gone, Phil Bova. He’ll corroborate that we did the entire track live-off-the-floor.

Shit happens, pardon my French. Unfortunately, at the reprise of the vocal theme, as we were nearing the end of the song and pumping up the energy one last time, I rushed a fill. At the time, and for days afterward, it seemed to me that I’d played the sort of rushed fill that would make the listener blink, stop dead in their tracks, or interrupt their foot-tapping.

That was then. The other day I listened and, yes, I detected the problem area but, wow, in the cold light of day it was more of an interpretive issue. I pounced a little early in a triplet windup. What I hadn’t realized at first blush was that the mix would have verified my execution: the piano arpeggio was jumpy and the guitar played it down the center. I guess I was trying to lead—generate power and overstate the repetition of the portion of end-chorus.

Well and good. But in those days I couldn’t have told you much about patching, signal chains, overhead XY configuration; although I did know not to position a ribbon mic near the bass drum batter head: the SPLs would make short work of the ribbon. These days I’m told ribbons are more durable. I’m also told, by a guy who does mods, that his mods restore the sensitivity and fragility of the originals.

All this is to say I’m going back and learning what it is to record with one mic. If the sound is not emerging on playback, it’s me at fault. I’m not delivering the appropriate, mic-friendly sounds or I’m not delivering my sounds in-balance. Perfect example: Maybe I’m washing out the cymbals on a track which requires minimal cymbal wash but a predominate snare backbeat and solid bass drum.

This is stuff drummers can learn recording at home with a Zoom H2,

which features affordability, acceptable sound for rehearsals, and 4 cheap mics, to boot. It ain’t your fancy uptown preamp situation, nor is it a room featuring built-in diffusers. No, it ain’t pretty. But you can make it sound good. What is Goldstar?

The fact is that the Zoom, or its like, offers, at very least, a lesson in basic recording.

Each mic, cheap or expensive, dynamic or condenser, or hybrid—whatever–will “hear” drums its own way. And since the the mic is the business end of the signal chain, you want to choose your microphone with the end result in mind.

Most times, however, you do not enjoy the luxury of choice. When you freelance, even if you pay attention over the years, you rarely have time to learn about recording technique. You arrive, you set up, get sounds; they mike you up, sound check; and the agenda is all about the music, getting the song onto tape. You learn that if they record you with 3 microphones you behave one way; whereas if they trot out 8 mics, you play another way. Either way, you address the mics and you second-guess (my favorite expression this year) the results.

Same with the Zoom at home in my basement music room.

It’s a juggling act

The mic preamps are, to say the least, modest. I have no idea if there’s one per mic—I am, after all, a drummer—but I know shit from Shinola, having worked with producers Randall Prescott (best Canadian country award for…) and Gerry Griffin extensively, both of whom put Massenburg pre’s in service.

In this light, let me put it this way. If there are 4 mic pres in the Zoom (given there are 4 mics), to buy each of these separately, you’d pay, oh, $30 US for the lot. One Massenburg cost near $3,000, depending on where you reside and what deal you can swing. Certainly two-and-a-half.

No excuses: I’m recording with the Zoom or other cheap gear

I don’t care if I’m working with cheap Zoom stereo mics (ie the front pair of the possible 4, recording at 90-degrees, sometimes in mono) or old square Hi-Fi consumer reel-to-reel mics from 1960 or Shure 57s or Sennheisers, I know that I have to have a listen after laying down a track and adjust everything to the mic.

What do I do? Well, sometimes it entails tuning the snare up or down, speaking batter or snare-side; loosening or tightening the snare wires (usually the former to encourage them to spread/sustain), maybe swapping-out one snare for another.

Look up, way up. If you’ve got low drywall ceilings like me, you’ll know what it is for sound to ricochet like crazy. I’ve learned not to evaluate, say, a crash cymbal choice under those low ceilings.

Then again, if I’m recording under an 8-foot ceiling maybe I’ll favor an atypical cymbal; maybe I’ll throw a 14” ancient Zildjian (A or K) on the stand to my right or left—a cymbal that’s not going to explode in the aforementioned confined area. The same with the snare drum. I often use a Yamaha birch snare drum fitted with Fat Cat snares, which enable me to adjust the center strands using a slot screwdriver. I’ll maybe detune it a wee bit; and then some more; but sometimes it’s a cloudy day and moist and, God knows why but, it won’t work. I’ll bring out a 1920s brass Ludwig Standard and the moment it hits the snare stand basket I’ll hear that it’s right for that day. The same goes for a 5” deep first-series Pearl Reference snare, which is thick as a brick and opens up like a ships funnel. Funny that it ought to go off like a shot gun but often it gives it up—delivers the requisite sound/dynamic level/timbre—so quickly I don’t have to strike it as hard to draw-out the desired tone and level.

Go figure. Point is, with the Zoom and its essentially 1-mic approach (yes, there are 4 mics onboard, each the size of a baby finger nail, panned in stereo or available to deliver a sort of figure-8 four-channel mix). But to me, especially when recording mono, it’s analogous to recording with 1-mic.

This one microphone gets me hopping, let me tell you. I’m constantly retuning the toms according to Dave Mattacks admonitions to tension higher than you’d think if you desire a sense of pitch and body that penetrates through the other instruments (although in a small room, low ceilings, as is the case in my basement, although this is valid, sometimes the opposite works). In addition, I’m constantly adding or removing muffling, meaning duct tape (standard-issue gray, theater-black, or my Target turquoise—this time in S California I’ll pick up several rolls) both top and bottom of toms. I don’t ever muffle the bottom of a snare drum and I advise you to avoid placing tape across the snare wires.

I learn a lot of fine details I may have overlooked when I was doing sessions each week. That’s good. I mean, learning is good.

I’ve learned that a lot of time the judgments drummers render, as in “that engineer is crap, ruined my sound”, are spurious, erroneous, and spiteful. In many instances, I’ve learned, it’s me—and you, dear Brutus, who are at fault.

Interesting but why the Coronet mention?

When I began this recording project, which may seem trite to some (and with good reason!), I’d placed the Coronet drums far away from the action. I decided I would call upon the various kits, snare drums, and cymbals in my possesion—all pro gear. Nothing cheapo or sketchy.

Eventually I was scoring hits, maybe not direct ones, but good enough to mail electronically to a client or colleague—provided I’d switched to recording in .wav format.

Thus, my go-to kit was usually a “Hagi 9/11 Yamaha” birch assembly, often configured 10 and 14” toms, sometimes 10/12/14. Occasionally, a DW bass drum was what the doctor ordered; an ancient pre-Tama Camco 24” bass drum, or a maple Yamaha Definitive 22” kick.

I discovered, or unlocked, secrets as I went. Often, despite its affinity with smaller rooms, the 10” tom wasn’t cutting it, at least for certain tracks. And the 14×12 floor tom was serviceable but often lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi…a grain or friendly diffuse aspect that compares to camera forum discussions of digital-clean vs analog-dirty.

At one frustrating juncture, I thought of the old, cheapo Coronet drums. Would the Salvation Army drumset be my salvation, at least on certain tracks?

Ah, the Coronets. I pulled them out of the furnace room—not exactly your Drum Doctor drum warehouse—and slipped the toms onto the Yamaha “Hagi ball mount” tom holder, given that both Yamaha and my particular Coronets, which must have been a prototype (ie they feature Phenolic shells, not wood plies), accept hex-rods.

Initially, just to catch the vibe, I didn’t even bother tuning the Coronets. Out of the box, meaning the furnace room, they were mid-to-low in tension, and guess what?

They went to-tape, yes to Zoom, immediately and delivered

From them issued a complex, grainy complement of timbres that worked a charm—fantastic. They sounded like, to put it in layman’s terms, a recording.

Coronet drums, such as these, are minimalistic. The floor tom features a whopping 6-lugs whereas the current standard is a minimum of 8 lug-casings for floor toms. And the bass drum, the Coronet, adds up to 6 lugs per side. I did not bother with the Coronet bass drum given I’d just affixed an intact, no-hole single-ply head to the Yamaha 20” bass drum and, what with a half a bag full of soft, chipped foam poured inside, sounded so good you’d think, blindfolded, I was Hal Blaine.

Coronets Rule: You Can’t Have Them

They’re defunct. Mine are prototypes, presumably, precursors of the revered, short-lived Pearl Presidents. When I was a kid, I lusted for Pearl Presidents. My reason was unsophisticated and my motive direct. I wanted the President because of models featuring fully 26” diameter bass drums a la John Bonham. Point is, at the time I’d had no idea about composite Phenolic shells, which comprised the President drum line from what I can tell, or that very soon Asian drums would take over the American market, which had been sleeping.

***

Of course, it’s all cute and fuzzy the way things worked out.

But solutions are temporary when recording and a drummer must be vigilant. A bass drum that sounds like a cannon in one studio Monday may sound like a pop gun Wednesday in another room.

Actually, it’s all good. It means that there’s lots to learn—many variables, including choice of drums, how we tune them and strike them, and what a track requires in terms of balancing drums vs cymbals vs percussion, etc. I enjoy being wrong, doing wrong, and learning.

What else is there? What’s left to attain if you achieve perfection in your own mind?

I was surprised that the Coronets would perform to high standards. I was relieved to bring them out of temporary storage and reassure me that I wasn’t ranting; that these were instruments. Well, at least they sound and feel like premium drums. The hardware, well it’s shabby. But I never rush to change hardware for modern stuff. The reason is that if you added up the weight of every lug and tension rod and tom holder and spur on the Coronet bass drum it wouldn’t tip the scales on a modern Pearl 10” tom. Modern gear may work wonders on modern shells; but it might choke delicate drums like the Coronet/Phenolic.

My conclusion is use them as they are. Replace only that which is necessary.

Garbage in, garbage out

I don’t believe that you can transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse or shit into Shinola, here we go again with proverbs, idioms et al.

More to the point, I don’t think we can make a ubiquitous 1960s Asian balsa wood drumset into a recording kit, irrespective of the number of drummers who claim “you can make cardboard boxes sound like drums in the studio”.

That spoken, I’d never have believed it, had you proclaimed it decades ago, that I could cart, with straight face, a Coronet drumset into a recording studio and cut world class tracks. Well, world class sounding tracks!

The lesson is this: Never leave a budget drum unturned. Investigate. If it looks good after a few years of use (in the instance of the budget Coronets 40 of them), odds are it is good.