Stop Damping Your Drums

By Jeffrey the Barak.

Damping, otherwise known as muting or muffling.

When finally realizing that each part of the drum kit is a musical instrument, the common practice of damping becomes unadvisable.

How many drummers take thousands of dollars worth of craftsman made drums and detune them, put on double-ply heads, slap yards of duct tape on them, shove pillows into the bass drum, mic them up and then compress the sound at the mixer? Their kits often sound like the boxes that they shipped in.

Even some potentially very expressive jazz drummers are following a trend that utilizes damped heads, extra-dry, stacked, or drilled cymbals, and they are losing a lot of their voice by doing so. Their recordings sound a bit flat once you remove the accompanying video.

Now take a small drum kit into a room that is not too dead, and not too lively, put on traditional single ply heads, coated or not, tune them right, remove any stuffing and take away the mic-mounts. Get some reasonably light sticks, hold them properly, play quietly, play louder, play different parts of the head, play the rims, use the drum as an instrument, and see how many sounds you were missing. Feel the lack of pain. Observe how your thinking changes from hammering in time, to playing expressive music.

There are challenges to keeping this up in a band. For example, the electric guitar that has dominated music for six decades could have been specifically designed to swallow up most of the delicious sound frequencies that a drummer produces. Its very presence changes what we do, removes our musicality, makes us hit too hard, makes us unable to hear most of the notes we play on cymbals.

People with the enormous damped mega-kits may be the first to criticize electronic drums, yet ironically most inexpensive e-kits would do a better job than their misused instruments. Imagine that for some bizarre reason a new member joined a rock band to play a frame drum or a pair of bongos. Would you expect the sound engineer attack that instrument with blankets and duct tape before microphoning it up, or would you treat it like a violin or a human voice? Why can we not use the drums as they were designed to be heard?

As an aside here, I wrote the word microphoning above, while I would probably say mic’ing out loud, but there is some discussion about how to spell mic’ing, a contraction of microphoning.

It is when you play a properly tuned and undamped kit in a quiet place that you understand that an electronic kit is not capable of delivering your whole voice. A snare drum produces a thousand or more distinctly different sounds, but the best electronic version has a couple of dozen at the most. Basically a few velocities in the center of the head, some rim shots and a cross stick or two. No stick on stick, no dragging of a brush, no toying with resonance via a variable roll. None of that musicality.

I like electronic drums and was very impressed with my last set based on the Yamaha DTX700 module, but a single snare drum with a coated head produces more sound information than a high RAM computer with the best VST software can even understand. Drag a thumbnail around the head and you have already won that race. Even our brains miss some of these nuances.

Now I am not about to speak badly about simple music, just because I usually don’t like to listen to it, but if I were in say a country-rock band for example, I would probably deliver the goods better with the controls put in place by an electronic kit. Those urban cowgirls and cowboys in the audience might be a bit scared by my full tonal range that I can pull screaming out of an undamped acoustic drum. Pop, reggae, country etc., require a restricted set of expected sounds from their drummers, and the e-kit saves a lot of duct tape.

But damped drums and electronic drums, which are usually recordings of sound-controlled drums, lose their character when their nuances are discarded as unwanted undertones and overtones and sustain.

The main victim is the bass drum. Very few bass drums make it far past the factory walls with their unrestricted ability to sing as they were designed to. The vast majority find themselves with a tummy full of expanded foam or wool, and holes cut into their resonant head (the front one). In acoustic jazz, the sound coming from an undamped, intact and hole-less, front resonant bass drum head is an important musical element.

In rock, you might have a large diameter exotic plywood bass drum from an expensive marque, costing $2,000 all on it’s own, that is stuffed and damped to the extent it sounds the same as a $30 pawn shop drum. It’s basically nothing more than a large, deep, soft place to rest a microphone. It sounds the same, beater buried in, or beater feathered off.

Toms also rely on properly tuned batter and resonant heads to sing the way they were designed to. They may sound noisy and uncontrollable at home, or in the little practice room, but at the venue, you might imagine that you can see their tears if they have been damped to sound more like their delivery cartons.

And cymbals. Most people let them escape the indignity of adhesive tape and Moon Gel, but their huge dynamic range is only brought out to its full glory when they are played well below their maximum volume, and with fairly light or very light drumsticks. Yes they can also sound great when receiving body-weighted blows from the wrong end of a 2B stick, but they have so much more voice besides their maximum shout. Like the snare drum, a good ride cymbal in particular is a complex musical instrument that has never successfully been digitized. Every part of the cymbal responds differently at different velocities. It even changes its sound when you change your grip. Each passage played changes according to what the preceding passage was. If you tried to study all the nuances that you could extract from your ride, you might not live long enough to finish the study. Sometimes it seems like the drummer is a shepherd herding the sounds of the ride cymbal. There is more coming out of it that we can even process.

So if you damp your kit, people can legitimately say that the drummer sits on stage behind the musicians, and you will not have much to argue against that. If you let it breathe, you are as much of a musician as the people in the front line. You could solo on just the snare, and it would not sound boring. If you damp your kit, you are paying for the whole choir, but only hearing the 2nd tenor.

Now having said all that, I still damp my drums sometimes. In a small hard room when there is too much boom, I get out my two pots of Moon Gel and stick them all over the place, including the cymbals, especially if I need to play a traditionally damped genre, like Seventies funk. But this is a simulation of what the kit might sound like in another place. When the surrounding volume goes up and soft objects, such as people in clothes, enter the space, then the mylar heads and shiny bronzes, are allowed to speak their voice.

Jeffrey the Barak has often been known to spontaneously resonate for no apparent reason.


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