Phase alignment of drum tracks
This is a part 6 of the tutorial on how to process individual raw drum tracks into finished product. Make sure to read all the parts.
Part 1: Introduction / Approach
Part 2: Editing
Part 3: Track Time Alignment
Part 4: Gating
Part 5: EQ
Part 6: Phase Alignment
Part 7: Compression
Part 8: Ambiance (Reverb)
Now we come the part that if left out will undermine all of the great work we have done so far. This is how we are going to awaken the beast into an earth-shaking monster! Without the phase alignment, the drums will sound weak and their stereo image will be smudged. This step is unknown to many engineers and is often overlooked. Simply switching the phase on a channel is not enough, as it will only be able to change a phase by 180°, when often what is needed is finer adjustments such as 90°.
For this we are going to use a phase-alignment tool. I use Voxengo PHA979 plugin, as it is inexpensive, works and sounds great. There are other tools on the market such as those by Little Labs and Universal Audio.
For this step we are going to phase-align:
- Sub kick to Kick 1
- Snare bottom to snare top
- SNARE GROUP to OH
- Toms to OH
- KICK GROUP to OH
1. While listening to Kick 1 solo, select one kick stroke and create a loop around that one stroke. You want to listen to one that has a particularly nice bottom end, although most of them will sound pretty much the same. You want to listen to a single kick hit in a loop in order to hear smallest changes.
2. Insert phase-align plugin (in this example Voxengo's PHA979) on Sub Kick and set it to mono. We only need to use the phase parameter on this track.
3. While playing the KICK GROUP solo-ed with Trigger Kick, listen to the loop of that single kick hit. Start turning the phase nob first to one side then to the other. You will notice drastic changes in sound. You can also hit the “L180” button to turn the phase by 180° and then continue turning on the other end of the phase. The correct phase is the one that produces most focused kick with the most low end frequencies. Your ear will be the judge. The kick will sound deep, fat and punchy.
Time for snare drum phase-alignment. Listen to "Snare Top" track solo'd and find a snare hit that sounds particularly “fat”. Make a loop around it. Insert the phase plugin on the “Snare Bottom” track and make it mono as well. Repeat the same process as with the kick drum, while listening to a loop of that single snare hit. Create a snare mono group “SNARE GROUP” and route the 2 snare tracks to it.
We're off to the overheads. Insert the time-align plugin in the SNARE GROUP channel. Keep the loop in the same place as for the snare we just did. With SNARE GROUP and OH on solo together, play the loop of that single snare hit. Move the phase until you hear that that snare drum is at its fattest sounding. This is the correct phase!
Now you need to phase-align each tom to the overheads. While solo'ing the "Tom 1" track, find a place where Tom 1 sounds its fullest and make a loop around it. Make sure that the tom is panned in the same way it appears in the OH recording! This is very important. While looping the single tom 1 hit, solo both Tom 1 track and OH track. Adjust the phase on Tom 1 until the tom sounds the fullest and fattest. Repeat the same procedure for the other toms, making sure they are properly panned prior to phase-aligning them to the OH's.
What we've got to do now is phase align the KICK GROUP to OH. As before, solo the KICK GROUP, find a nice kick hit, loop it, then enable the OH. With the phase plugin inserted into KICK GROUP channel, adjust its phase until the kick sounds massive. The plugin should be used in forced mono mode, since this is a mono group.
Now, unmute all the tracks and play the drums without a loop. WHAT A SOUND, A?!
Now you can hear the full-bodied, fat drums. But, we are not finished yet. There is still more we can do to sculpt the sound further and make them even bigger.
We continue with the Drum Compression.