By Caleb Kay x Caleb Chan
It’s no secret that you only sound as good as your engineer makes you sound, but good sound is really a team effort; the end-goal is to set the team up for a win. Both musos and engineers really want the same thing – to create an atmosphere for people to encounter God – and learning to see from each other’s perspectives will allow us to work towards crafting that atmosphere better, together!
We embark on a dialogue between our Resident Drums Mentor, Caleb Kay, and our Resident Sound Mentor, Caleb Chan, to gain insight on the different approaches drummers and sound engineers take with regards to this instrument.
How is your working relationship?
Kay: There’s been such a natural grace on our working relationship, maybe something to do with having the same name?
Chan: It definitely helps to have the same name. (Imagine if everyone on the band had the same name, the level of unity will be incredible!) We share quite a similar sense of humour, play the same mobile games, support the same football club, love the same God, so I guess we get along pretty well.
What’s one thing that has had a huge impact on getting a better sound?
Chan: Unsurprisingly, communication and being willing to communicate goes a long way.
Kay: It’s something we do before either of us get behind the drums or sound console: explaining what drum sound I’m trying to achieve, and also hearing from Chan on how that fits within the bigger picture of his mix. That gives us both the same target to hit.
Chan: It’s common for musicians to come into a session/rehearsal prepared and ready to play their roles and parts, but not have an awareness of how their sounds play a role in the bigger picture.
What’s worse is when you try to bring up certain things that could help, and they get offended as they feel you have overstepped your jurisdiction and entered their ‘space’.
When Kay and I started working together more, we would talk about what drum sound we were going for, how to achieve it, what could be improved - all in context with how everything fits back into the vision of the leaders and AG. But that calls for a certain openness, and not getting easily offended when something doesn’t work.
Kay: There are some specific traits to the drum sound we attempt to go for at AG: a deep, low-pitched snare; warm toms with a subdued attack, and warm, mellow cymbals. My equipment choice and drum tuning facilitates this, but the rest is in the hands of Chan, so we have to communicate to ensure that this envisioned sound is seen through from source to speakers.
That’s great to hear (ha ha) and it’s so true that communication and trust go a long way towards sounding better. But what about some techniques you’ve both employed?
Kay: Firstly, good sound starts with a good source.
Chan: Good source is good sauce.
Kay: You can’t expect the sound engineer to manufacture sound/tone that doesn’t exist at the source. Have a good understanding of tuning and muting your drums to achieve a wide range of tones, and use cymbals that produce the tone you desire.
Chan: With most (actually all) instruments and singers, getting it right at the source is so critical to better sound.
I’ll add that mics and mic-ing play a huge part as well. What kind of sound are you going for? There are tons of drum microphones available and different mics respond differently and have different characteristics. Similarly, with mic positioning, every inch closer or further, and every angle change, alters the sound dramatically.
Kay’s understanding of drum mic-ing really helps as well! I don’t have to be running to and fro if I want something adjusted, I just need to let him know and he’ll sort it out.
Kay: Yeah, it’s so underrated but goes a long way for drummers to try and understand how to mic your drums – a basic understanding of how mic positioning and placement affects how your drums sound. You’ll help yourself and the sound engineer out a huge deal getting to grips with these techniques.
Chan: Oh, and… REVERB! I always find that drums require a lot more processing than other instruments to sound great. But nice reverbs – used tastefully – make your drums sound massive!
As a drummer / sound engineer, what's the one thing you wished the other camp knew?
Chan: I’ll share this in relation with drummers as a whole, and not particularly Kay. One big tip for drummers: Learn to mix yourself.
I don’t mean going to the sound board or having an iPad mixer by your side. I mean balancing the velocity with which you strike the various components on your kit.
I’ve encountered drummers who smash their hats way harder than the rest of the kit, or don’t hit their snares loud enough to cut through, or hit their crashes really loudly; all these mean an imbalance in how the kit is coming through the various mics.
Learn to get good balance on your own, even before your sound is picked up – remember drum mics are very close to each other – and amplified by the system. Again, good source is good sauce.
Kay: For me, it can be frustrating when you work hard towards a certain kind of tone, but the engineer just treats your instrument generically, or, because of limited technique or ability, defaults to only one kind of tone.
Chan is one of my favourite sound engineers because he listens widely and is very up-to-date on the current sound of worship music, from Bethel Music to Hillsong to Elevation Worship.
He tries to borrow ideas – attempting to reverse-engineer the Bethel Music snare drum sound, for instance – and in doing this, pushes himself to become better as an engineer. At the same time, he learns how to better reproduce a certain kind of tone that the drummer might be working towards, becoming more versatile!
Any closing words for our readers?
Kay: Just want to encourage all the sound engineers out there: you are more than a face hiding at the back behind the sound console; you are such a vital part of the worship team.
Listen widely, be in-the-know of how drums (or any instrument for that matter) sound in current worship music, and learn how to reproduce that tone, always seeking to grow in your ear and your ability!
Chan: And drummers, you are in a position to influence the atmosphere of worship in a very audible and obvious way.
Be sensitive to what the Spirit is doing and learn to flow with Him on your instrument, more than just playing through a song!