Another fruit of that journey is 2017’s Kurt Ballou Signature Series drum library. Published by Room Sound, running in the free KONTAKT Player, and notching up 18,700 samples across 10GB. The library captures not only the unique sound of GodCity Studio, but Ballou’s own production skills, as well as offering takes on his in-house compressor, EQ, saturation, reverb and tape treatments.
“I’ve always said that I’d rather make a unique-sounding record than one that’s ‘great-sounding’ in the objective sense,” says Kurt. “For me, ‘great’ is a much more subjective thing, and it comes from the uniqueness of the recording. Each band that I work with is a unique entity, so it’s a disservice to that band to not craft a unique sound for them.”
And did that philosophy carry over into creating the sample library itself, too?
It was really important to me to have drum tones that were ‘objectively good’ – well-tuned and present – but also tones that were organic and had character… so that you could really feel them in the room, as a natural experience.
One of my big reasons for not using drum sound libraries in the past is that they never sound realistic to me – they always have compression, EQ and so on-baked into the samples, and I was never interested in using that.
Despite being in the exact room where the library was made, will you be using these samples yourself?
Actually, I’m about to start mixing a record today with a band that I’ve recorded before. They couldn’t make it out to the studio this time so they recorded locally, but they still wanted to have the kind of sound as if they’d recorded it here. So I’ll be converting the drums to MIDI, and capturing the sound of not just the drums but the sense of the room that’s so important to these recordings. That’s there in spades throughout these samples.
In some cases, I’ll use just the ambience from the drum samples. Loud drummers, for example, tend to be cymbal-dominant, and the sound I usually go for is more drum-dominant in the room mics, so by having the sample library and all its room mic options, I can rebalance the sound of the acoustic kit in the room.
What is it about the live room in GodCity Studio that gives it its unique presence?
It’s sort of an odd shape – if you look at it from the top, it’s something like a heart shape. Wes Lachot, who built the studio, had a very specific control room shape that he wanted, and the plan was to put that where it made sense in the footprint of the building, and then the remaining spaces in the building would happen as a result of what was left.
So everybody had to cross their fingers and hope it worked…
Yeah! It’s very difficult to predict an irregular-shaped room, but it was fairly well-treatable with broadband absorption and diffusers, so the close mics for the drums are generally very controlled and have a great deal of isolation.
I’ve learned that if I position the drums at a certain point in the live room, as the drummer faces out into the room, to the far corner to their left is a tiled bathroom, and to the far corner to their right is a tiled isolation booth. Those are very bright and reflective rooms, so you get a dense but short reverb. If I put omnidirectional microphones in those spaces, with no direct line of sight to the drums, they just give you pure reflections. In the sample library, that channel’s called ‘Far Room’ – it’s 20 feet away from the drum set, but it’s a diffuse reverb
With so many close and room mics, there’ll always be phase offsets. Did you re-align the overheads just as someone might when mixing a record?
I didn’t do that with the overheads – I like the sound of that offset as it is, but I did do some sample alignment of top and bottom mics: the snare top and the snare bottom, for example, have each been phase-aligned by something like 35 samples in order to get them hitting at the exact same time, and the same for the three kick mics. That’s something I typically do in my studio. The spot mics on the cymbals are also aligned – like the hi-hat mic and the ride mic, which are aligned to the overheads.
So that’s what you would do to phase-align a regular session?
Yeah, basically. I align families of things: every snare mic is aligned to itself, every tom gets its mics aligned, the cymbals – overheads and any spot mics on specific cymbals – those I’ll get aligned as a group. But the groups aren’t aligned to each other, because I like having a bit of that offset to widen the tone.
The phase alignment of a drum recording is always going to be a compromise. And actually, that’s one argument against full bleed. With full bleed on, it does sound like a real drum set, but you’re also introducing more phase relationships between the drums.
Is there any difference in the setup you used when sampling the drums compared to a normal recording session with a drummer?
A couple of small differences. The first is that there’s a splash and a china cymbal on this kit, and I loathe both of those cymbals! – but that shouldn’t mean that nobody else can use them. There was also an issue with how the toms are laid out. If we ever did a version 2, being able to select which toms are in which positions would be useful.
We actually set up a guitar amp and did some jamming with guitar and drums, so that we could get the drums dialled in in the context of a guitar playing. That helped it sound more like a song, which then helped me get the drums right. So it’s very typical of what I would do in a recording session.
What took the most work to create here? Did anything surprise you?
The quantity of samples that we recorded was just enormous. Let’s take a ride cymbal for example: There’s maybe 20 velocity layers, and within each layer, there’s about as many hits that need to be the same velocity – that’s 400 hits! And each of those needs to decay for 30 seconds. So to sample, say, just the tip of the stick on the bow of the ride, that’s three hours! That part was definitely tedious. It required a lot of mental stamina from the drummer especially.
The other thing that took a lot of effort was when it came to building the presets. I had some Converge songs, and I had the drummer [Ben Koller] play along to the actual songs but using an electronic kit with the library. So when I was building the presets, I was doing it with a real context – I was able to A/B between the presets and the original performance with acoustic drums… not that I was trying to get them to sound identical, but it gave the right perspective.
That’s a great way to do it! Are there any more production features in the library that’ll help people get that Kurt Ballou atmosphere?
All the close mics have a ‘Turbo Track’ feature that you can switch on. This is something I do in my own mixes, and I learned it from Matt Ellard when he was working on Converge’s album Jane Doe…
It’s similar to parallel processing: you take the close mic feeds, you gate them, and then you push those things really hard – there might be some compression, some saturation, EQ… and it winds up being a very aggressive, crunchy, super-punchy sound without much dynamic to it. That gets used as an alternate version of the tone for that drum that I can subtly blend in with the unprocessed version of the sound in parallel to add a bit of reinforcement. I think that’s unique to any drum library.
It’s a great idea – ‘parallel processing plus’!
The word ‘Turbo’ was the word that Matt used, and I adopted that – not my invention, but I’d done versions of that before. I think engineers have been doing parallel processing for a long time, and everybody has their own slant on it.
I’m not really that smart, and there’s not many engineers that are really that brilliant, but I think together, if we’re collaborative and tap into that hive intelligence, we can come up with some clever things.
Photo credits: Reid Haithcock