In this latest installment on my series on music production and sound quality, we’ll dive into a discussion on drums. If you are a drummer, please feel free to join this discussion by making comments. While I can bang out a basic pattern or two, I don’t consider myself a drummer. I have, however, worked with a lot of drummers, and have recorded a lot of drum kits covering a pretty wide range of styles and quality.
Type/Quality of Kit – We could write a whole book on this topic. The woods used, the type of construction, the depth and diameter of the drums, the type of heads and the tuning of them, and other factors all impact the sound of a kit. Many kits will sound very much at home in a number of styles and settings, and other kits will underperform in certain styles. I’ll leave this part of the discussion as completely subjective – what is “proper” is whatever sounds best to you, the artist. Just be open to experimenting – you may find something that helps you better achieve the sound you are after. Playing a “jazz” kit and expecting the recording engineer to make it sound like a “punk” kit is a little misguided. Playing a really flabby, cheap kit and wanting it to sound amazing is equally misguided. Yes, both these things can most likely be done, but at what cost? The closer you are to your desired sound to start with, the better the end result is most likely going to be. (or you’ll at least save some serious money and time from the editing and mixing sessions). If you don’t have a quality kit, consider borrowing or renting one. Some studios will have a good kit you can use at no extra charge even. Years of engineering have proven to me that when the drums are sounding good and well recorded, the entire mix almost always comes together much easier and much better sounding than when I have had to fight to get the drums sounding good from the start.
Preparing for Your Session – I’ll leave most of this to the drummers themselves, but will point out 3 major things from an engineering perspective. First, make sure your heads are in good shape. Replace them if needed. Second, TUNE YOUR DRUMS! I am shocked with how many intermediate level drummers either don’t or can’t properly tune their drums. A guitarist would be thrown off stage if they tuned as badly as many drummers do. If you have any doubts on your abilities, it just might be worth having a pro tune up your drums before hitting the studio. My final tip in this section is to make sure all of your drum hardware is securely in place. Loose hardware may start to clank, rattle, or cause other havoc during an intense studio session.
Mic’ing up the Drums – Every engineer and producer is going to have their favorite way of setting up the drums. If you are working with someone reputable, hopefully you’ve auditioned their work and are ready to trust them. If you are on your own or working with a less experienced engineer, I want to give you an quick overview.
There are countless ways to mic up a kit, but in the end, there are two general categories that sum things up pretty well: (1) The “Modern” Methods, which generally involve using 1 or more microphones for most or all of the individual drums in the kit plus most likely a stereo arrangement picking up an overall sound, and (2) The “Classic” Methods, which generally involve using minimal mics (typically1 to 4) and often utilize more of the “room” sound than a close mic’d sound. Both of these methods have some strong pro’s and con’s for them and against them.
The “Modern” methods involve a lot of mics, stands or clamps, cables, preamps, and input channels. A lot of home studios may find it challenging to come up with the gear and inputs needed to do this. Set-ups vary, but a “typical” setup might include a mic focused on the head of each drum, plus a high-hat mic, and a stereo overhead configuration. It can get more complicated from there. The modern method gives an extreme amount of control over the tracks in mixing, allowing for limitless tweaking of tone, dynamics, balance, panning and reverb. It also can reduce (notice I didn’t say eliminate!) the effects of poor room acoustics, because the mics are very close to the drums. With this method, you can create an amazing sound that is true to life, or larger than life – depending on what you want. You can even coax a little better sound out of a less-than-stellar kit. Unfortunately, with this method, it’s also very easy to create a muddy, reasonating mess. With so many microphones recording the same object from different positions at the same time, you might have 10 mics all picking up the same soundwave at slightly different times. This can create all kinds of havoc in your mix. You might end up sounding “boomy” or you might end up sounding “hollow” or “thin”. Proper mic placement and careful mixing can yield great results though. Again, I’ll emphasize that when properly done, the modern methods can deliver huge, polished, perfect sounding drums that are larger than life. Perfect for a number of popular styles including rock, country, pop, and more.
The “Classic” methods are, in my opinion, often a little underutilized. There are a number of methods, I’ll mention 2 that I find particularly useful. The first uses a stereo mic setup (often a spaced pair) to record the kit as a whole, and then places accent mics on the kick and the snare. Again, you have multiple mics picking up the same sound at different times, but the problem is not generally as drastic in this set up as in the modern methods. Use the stereo pair to set up your overall sound, then process the kick and snare to taste and blend them into the mix to get the right balance, tone, wet/dry sound, etc. The second method is well known for use on some of the great records of the 70’s and equally groovy still today. In this method, one mic is used in front of the kit, capturing an overall sound, but with the emphasis being on picking up the kick and the “bottom” part of the tom sound. A second microphone is placed just off the outside edge of the floor tom, about 3-4 inches higher than the head, and pointing towards the snare drum. The last mic is suspended over the kit, pointing down towards the snare. The trick here is that all of the mics should be the same distance from the snare. So the distance from the snare to the floor tom can be used as a measure to help adjust the distance on the other two mics. This method provides a very clean, natural sound, with a bit of a “room” vibe to it. While this method doesn’t have the level of control you have with the modern methods, with careful compression and sparingly applied EQ, you can still have a good influence on overall dynamics and balance. The classic methods are a great choice for a small studio on a budget, as it requires minimal equipment. A great sounding room can make the classic methods even better, but even in an average room, it can yield great results. Jazz, blues, acoustic, folk music, and anything that you want a “classic” or “natural” sound for, really shines with this type of a setup. With that said, don’t be afraid to use it for pop, rock, punk, and more. Keep in mind that some of the HUGE drum sounds from the great rock bands of the 70’s were recorded with just 1 to 4 microphones.
When choosing microphones, dynamic mics are probably the traditional favorite for the drums themselves, with condensors generally for the overheads/stereo setups and hi-hat. Ribbon mics can be really amazing on drums also – giving a warm, fat low end, and letting cymbals shine and shimmer without being harsh.
Between the Mics and the Recorder – Running straight from your mics into the built in preamps in your recording system can yield great results. But, in the spirit of sharing some suggestions on getting the best sounds possible, I wanted to make a few quick tips. The preamps you use can have a significant impact on the sound of the kit. Preamps are like flavors or colors – there are lots to choose from, and no one is right for everyone. With that said, for drums in rock, pop, and country music, its pretty hard to beat the sound of API and Neve preamps, or one of the countless “clones” of those basic designs. For certain types of music, it would be more appropriate to go with a more transparent sounding preamp. With a good mic, proper placement of the mic, and a good preamp, you will likely find that you’ll do a lot less EQ in the mix, which will help keep your overall sound quality higher. If you have limited channels of high quality mic preamps, it’s generally good to assign kick, snare, and/or overheads to those channels.
I strongly suggest that if you have the option, you at least do some light compression and/or limiting of your tracks as you record them. Applying compression while recording can’t be undone in the mix of course, so you want to make sure you have it right. Again, there is no one way, but I generally prefer the warm and smooth sound of analog compressors vs even the best plugins. I generally apply light to moderate analog compression while tracking, and with careful attention to levels, I rarely use a limiter. I then fine tune my compression as necessary with great precision using compression plugins. In this way, I get the best of both worlds. A single 2-channel compressor is a great way to improve your overall sound quality – you don’t have to start out with a channel for every mic.
In the Mix – Just a few quick tips now, and perhaps I can cover more suggestions in a future article. Regardless of which method you use to record, it’s best to ultimately route your individual tracks through a single stereo buss where you can apply effects to the kit as a whole and change the volume of the entire kit at once. Running this buss through a stereo compressor can really help “glue” the tracks together and help keep them sounding like a complete kit rather than a bunch of individual drums. Plugins or hardware that emulates the sound of analog tape can also give a nice effect when applied to the buss. For reverb, the style and tempo of the music will dictate the type and amount of reverb you should use. I find myself using plate and chamber style reverbs more than anything else, but thats just my preference. I typically give the snare drum a little more reverb than the rest of the kit as a whole, and give the kick drum very little reverb. A nice trick on the reverb is to match the length to the tempo. I do this by letting the snare hit, and then dialing in the length of the reverb so that the tail of the reverb fades out just as the next snare hit happens. This helps keep it from getting muddy. It doesn’t always work, but it is one of those little touches that can spruce up your sound. Sometimes, it is helpful to layer multiple reverbs. When used right, you can get a HUGE sound on the initial hits, but without muddying up the mix. One quick word on EQ, when working with drums, I strongly recommend starting out by cutting rather than boosting. The boosting can add the snap, crack, pop, and sizzle, but it’s the cutting that generally cleans out the mud, the boom, the reasonance, and helps the kit come together with a pleasing sound. There is plenty more we could talk about, but this is just an overview/primer, so lets keep moving…
Drum Replacement and Layering – There are some great plugins that can really do a great job of replacing your thin snare, or your flabby kick with an amazing sounding sample. And if you don’t have the money for the plugin, you can do it manually – it just takes a lot of time. I’ve had to use this technique to salvage a few projects over the years, where a particularly bad kit was used in the recording, or where the snare or kick simply didn’t have the right tone for the project. A similar technique is to layer, rather than replace. In this case, you literally create a second snare track for example, that plays in time with the original track, and the layered track (when properly done) simply helps fill out the sound. I’ve used this extensively on snare and kick, and even on cymbal hits. The modern methods of recording make doing either of these tricks pretty simple, as each drum has it’s own track. In the classic methods of recording, the layering method can still be used very effectively. I guess these tricks are a little like auto-tune for vocals. They are powerful tricks, but should be used with good judgement.
In closing – I’ve already rambled on longer than I had planned. This is such a HUGE topic. There are so many things we didn’t even mention. But, I hope that this will help provide some general tips and suggestions, particulary for those of you who are doing a lot of the engineering outside of a “pro” studio. I plan on covering a couple more instruments in this manner, and then possibly closing out this series with some general tips on arranging, recording, mixing, and mastering. Thanks for your comments and feedback, it will help me to improve upcoming articles.
Also, don’t forget to check out previous articles in this series. You can reach me via comments here, through my blog at http://recordingpro.blogspot.com or on facebook at http://facebook.com/1recordingpro. If sending me a friend request, be sure to mention this site so that I don’t ignore you!