The secret to reproducing the warm, trashy sound of classic sampled breaks like Amen is to understand how the original drum beats were recorded.
Taking the long view of recording and engineering history shows that every few years techniques change. So the relatively simple approaches of the late ’60s and early ’70s (that gave rise to the characteristically lo-fi ‘trashy’ break) typically featured distant one-mic setups – at most two or three – with microphones sited some way from the drum kit, capturing large amounts of room sound which was than squashed together with the beat as the recording was passed through valve outboard, before being compressed and cut for vinyl.
The ’70s saw a rebellion against what had become seen as the old-school ways. More channels on mixing desks allowed engineers to expand the number of mics (and tracks) used. As disco flourished, engineers pioneered close-mic’ing techniques, with each drum in the kit recorded onto its own track. Here the watchwords were tightness and clarity – the kinds of sounds popularised by the likes of early Bee Gees and Chic.
Understanding how the original engineers got these now iconic sounds tells us how we can get close to it in the box.
So how do you make that late ’60s ‘trash’ break?
You can’t beat the trashy Amen-style break for vibrancy and rawness. Here’s how to get it:
- Start with a clean live drum beat sample of one or two bars in length. You can of course program this yourself, but to get the feel of an actual human player is far easier with a sample.
- Layer up some tape or vinyl noise at a low level in the background. It’s a simple psycho-acoustic technique that tricks the ear into thinking the sound is lifted from vinyl. But it works.
- Old-school mics were less well quipped to deal with the extreme high and low frequencies, while tape also tended to dull down the higher end of the spectrum. To replciate that, add an EQ to the drum part and roll away the frequencies below around 60-80Hz and then do the same at the top end, with a steeper filter, in the 12-15kHz area.
- Follow the EQ with a compressor. You are not looking for transparency here – so go for a compressor with balls (1176-style) over the clean (SSL-style). Notch up both the ratio and gain reduction until the beat takes on a more aggressive, assertive character.
- Now for the reverb, which mimics both the room sound of those distant mic’ing setups and the echo rooms beats were often sent to. If you use Logic, the Space Designer’s ‘Old Vintage Reverb’ setting is great for the job, but any convolution reverb will offer a setting modelled on a classic echo chamber. You might also experiment with spring reverbs for an even trashier sound.
- Classic breaks were invariably processed in mono. So insert a direction mixer and convert the stereo file to mono.
- Now insert an instance of PSP Vintage Warmer or similar tape saturation plugin. This adds a second instance of compression to the beat, modelling some of those old valve pieces the beat would be run through back in the day. Placing this after the reverb reflects how it was done classically, the tape adding its own compression to the reverbed beat. The result should be suitably ‘mushy’, with the compression acting on reverb, pulling the tails down as new hits supersede.
- Finally run the beat through a vinyl plugin to give it a final crushed layer of lo-fi grit.
- Now master the end result, bounce it out and re-sample it into your DAW for
- what should sound like an authentic classic break.
You can watch Hal’s step-by-step video of this approach here:
How about the raw recordings?
Of course, great breaks begin with great recordings. For those able to record their own drums what kind of recording setup will evoke the sound of the last ’60s? For the Sample Magic release Vintage Breaks, engineer Steve Honest describes the recording setup used:
“The ’60s open and ambient sounds were recorded based around a classic two mic set up with a U47 in front of the kick, about 42 inches from the centre of the snare, and a U87 up over the kit on a boom roughly equidistant. These were mixed with an RCA Ribbon mic at a distance capturing a dirty ambient sound that could be blended into the mix to add a different character.
“The main outboard character for this session was delivered by the Vintage Altec 1591 pre-amp compressors and a convolution reverb of a classic Los Angeles 1960 reverb chamber.”