Recording the drums can be like juggling eight or more balls at the same time. While there is a lot of detail to pay attention to, the engineer needs to keep a healthy view of the whole sonic picture and how it coheres together to form the backbone of most modern music. The saving grace about all of these instruments that make up the drum kit is that they are quite different sonically from one another. So long as each piece of the drum kit is appreciated for its unique character, pulling this menagerie of wood and metal into a unified rhythm machine is within reach for recordists in every tax bracket.
This article is going to be fairly detailed. It would be easy to get lost while plowing through each element of each drum. Start with the basics of a well tuned drum kit and then mike it with an intentional method in mind. This will help you get a better sound straight to your DAW. When the drums already sound good as you record them, you are free to use your time and processing tools to add sparkle and shine rather than trying to salvage one audible faux pas after the other.
Dial in the drum kit first
When preparing for a drum recording session, a little preemptive work goes a long way. Speak with the drummer ahead of time and get a feel for how confident he is in his ability to tune his kit. Ask the drummer ahead of time if his kick drum pedal is quiet or if it squeaks so much that it sounds like a field mouse quartet. If the drummer does not think that his kit sounds very good, ask him to consider renting a quality kit for the recording session.
Basic drum tuning explained in 90 seconds
Because drum tuning is a subject for a whole article on its own, I will attempt to drop the basic concept on you and then hightail it out of there as quickly as possible.
Each drum shell will have a fundamental tone that it resonates the best at. This is dictated by the diameter and length of each drum. When we tune each drum, we find that sweet frequency that each drum was made for. The top drum head (called the beater) is tuned to this frequency.
Once the drum is tuned to the fundamental frequency of its shell, the next order of business is to ensure that it is evenly tensioned across the head. Do this by tapping the drum head just a few inches away from the rim and in front of each lug. Adjust each lug so the head sounds the same at each of these locations.
For all drums that have both a resonator (bottom) as well as a beater (top) head, the resonator should be tuned first. When it comes to snare drums, it is best to remove the snare wires so you can focus without the additional sound interfering. Keep in mind that additional adjustments will be made to the resonator heads on the toms a bit later.
To grossly generalize the relationship between the two drum heads, keep three concepts in mind:
- Tuning the two drum heads to the same pitch will result in more sustain and a purer sound. Drummers often do not want this in a snare drum.
- Tuning the resonator head lower than the beater head will reduce sustain and cause the pitch of the drum to fall during the decay
- Tuning the resonator head sharper than the beater head will reduce sustain further still. A three semitone difference between the heads is a good starting point.
For tuning in noisy environments, consider using a Drum Dial. These smart little gizmos allow you to tune your drums without even having to hit the heads. You can also get a digital Drum Dial for added precision.
While you are about the business of tweaking the kick drum, take a moment to examine where the beater is striking the head. Keep in mind that a change in location will change the sound of the kick drum. With the drummer’s blessing and help, adjust the length of the beater, and hence the location it strikes the head at, to obtain a sound loaded with punch and definition.
When it comes to setting the drums up properly, don’t be afraid to hire some help. I have been in situations where a very accomplished drummer was wise enough to rent a top quality kit and hire a professional to tune it to perfection. This wound up saving a lot of money and time in the studio and did not seem to injure the drummer’s pride one bit.
When tuning a kick drum, be sure to keep in mind what role the bass guitar and kick drum each will play in the sound of the band. Ask yourself if the sub-bass region will be dominated by the bass or the kick and then tweak the kick accordingly.
The room you are recording in
Because of the fact that the overhead mics bring realism into the recorded drum sound, it’s nearly impossible for the ambience of the recording room to not become a part of the end result. In general, larger rooms work better for drum recording. As your upstairs neighbor already may know, drums are loud. All of that acoustic power not only gets the neighbor worked up, it will excite the room’s resonances as well. Keep a few things in mind to get the most out of the room you have.
A diffuse room sounds better
In the process of building studios for different clients, I usually wind up answering all kinds of physics questions and verbally arm wrestling with the folks that want to just paint the walls pretty or hang blankets and call it good. The laws of physics still apply, even if you don’t want them to. Properly used diffusion will drastically improve the sound of a drum recording room. Keep a few things in mind when considering diffusion.
- Each diffuser will require a certain amount of “stand-off” distance for it to work correctly. This distance is based on the effective well width in its design. Wider well widths require more stand-off distance. It is sad to see people invest good amounts of money in diffusion that will not even work because the stand-off distance is larger than the room itself.
- For diffusion to really make a difference in a drum recording room, you will need to cover at least 25% of the flat surfaces with diffusion. If you bought a single diffuser the size of one decorative picture, that is all you have: a decoration.
Use absorption to stifle short reflections
I realize that there are times when we cannot afford to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on posh diffusion. The typical “next best thing” is to use absorption to get a reflective room under control. If absorption is all that you can afford, keep a few things in mind:
- Absorption is best when it is distributed through the room rather than clumped together in a single mosaic on the wall.
- Thicker absorption will attenuate deeper frequencies.
- Placing thick absorption in the corners of a room will attenuate more bass frequencies. This is due to the fact that bass frequencies mushroom out rather than traveling in straight lines. This mushrooming effect tends to make corners sound very bass-heavy.
When recording in a “dead” room…
If you are recording in a room with absorption on all the walls. There is one thing that I want you to be mindful of. Unless you are in a real anechoic chamber, the room is not actually deadened across all frequencies. When most people make a 100% dead room, they are actually just deadening the higher frequencies. Bass frequencies are very hard to attenuate with absorption, so the end result is attenuated high frequencies and bass tones that are still free to find their way into your overhead mics. When it comes time to EQ your kit, be ready for this.
Miking techniques for drums
This is where we roll up our sleeves and get to the fun stuff. I am going to start with some approaches for using very few mics and then I will dive into techniques for each common drum or piece in a kit.
Minimalist miking techniques
Miking up a kit with very few mics should be required study for all serious studio engineers. Try these techniques on and keep them in your arsenal.
The Tchad Blake method involves placing one large diaphragm right over top of the kick drum shell but pointed at the snare drum. That’s pretty simple, huh? Adjust the angle and aim of the mic to get a good balance of the kick, snare and the rest of the kit.
As an alternative to the Blake method, use one large diaphragm mic in front of the kit. Place the mic about 5 feet off the floor and aim it between the kick and snare. Experiment with this technique a bit to get just the right balance in the kit.
The Glyn Johns method uses four mics but still can be considered minimalist. For those of you that need reminding, Glyn Johns is the well known producer who has worked with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who and other notable acts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
- Start with a single overhead mic placed about three or four feet above the snare drum. Obsess on the sound of this mic for a moment and get the very best overall sound you can get. Do not move on from this step until you have a very nice sound.
- Add in a second “overhead” mic. I use this term loosely because this mic isn’t technically “overhead” at all. This mic should be about six inches above and to the right of the floor tom with the mic facing across the kit and at the snare.
- Measure the distance from the snare drum to the first mic and ensure that the distance from the snare to the second mic is precisely the same.
- Pan the two overhead mics left and right.
- With just the overhead mics in the mix, you will notice that the kick sounds like it is coming from one speaker while the snare is in the other. This will be remedied in the following steps.
- Close mic the kick and snare with individual mics using one of the miking techniques listed below. Use these close mics to round out the sound of the kick and snare in the whole kit.
Mike the kick drum
Place a kick drum mic just barely inside the resonator head. There will usually be a hole in this head. The mic face should be just peeking into the drum and pointed at the beater on the opposite head. Pointing the mic directly at the beater will result in the most snap and attack.
Use a boundary mic placed on a pillow inside the drum to catch the percussive sound of the beater. Use an additional mic outside the resonator head to capture the low frequency “bump”. Blend these together during mix-down.
When there is no hole cut into the resonator head, have the drummer sound the kick drum and feel for a high pressure zone within 10 inches of the resonator head. Pick up the “bump” with a mic placed in this pressure zone. Place another mic on the beater head and use it to blend in a healthy dose of attack from the beater.
Mike the snare drum
The snare drum is the spinal cord of the rhythm. If your mix lacks a defined, punchy rhythm, consider what might be missing from the snare drum.
Place the mic just off the edge of the drum but at a 45° angle so it points towards the center of the drum. This will give you the most attack. Adjust the angle of the mic somewhere between the center and edge. Pointing at the center will yield more “stick on the skin” sound, while the outer edge of the drum will give you more “body”. Be sure to be listening for this during the mic placement phase rather than simply relying on EQ tweaks to get more attack later.
If the snare has a ringing harmonic that seems to hang out longer than the bulk of the snare hit, this can be accentuated or attenuated using angle changes and by keeping the snare mic “three fingers” away from the snare head.
If enough mics are available and you don’t mind having someone preach at you about how “less is more”, then mic the bottom of the snare as well to pick up the “sizzle” of the snare wires. Be sure to flip the polarity of this mic so that it does not cause phase problems when blended with the top snare mic.
Mike the high hat
Some engineers mike a high hat from the top and others will mike it from the bottom. In my experience, it is most commonly miked from the top.
Set a small diaphragm mic up about four to six inches above the high hat and check out the wide range of tones that emerge as you sweep its angle from the bell to the outer edge of the hat. Listen carefully as the drummer plays while the mic angle is changed and pick the sound that is best to your ears.
It is common knowledge that some engineers will forego using a dedicated high hat mic at all. Don’t be shy about muting the high hat mic and letting the overhead mics pick up the high hat.
Mike the toms
The tom-toms can be miked in similar fashion to the snare drum. Place a mic just inside the rim of the drum and angle it in towards the center. Angling towards the center of the drum offers the most attack while the outer edge will accentuate more “body”.
It might be easy to let the toms become more of an afterthought when miking a drum kit. Keep in mind how nice it sounds when the toms are full and snappy during drum fills and give them ample attention.
The first thing to do when setting up overhead mics is to make a decision. Will the overhead mics be primarily for cymbals or will they be tasked with capturing a realistic blend of the whole kit? I like to use overheads for the whole kit, and I set them up accordingly. One discipline you may try is to set up the overheads FIRST before even auditioning the close mics. This will encourage you to get a great overhead mic sound before moving on to the individual drum mics.
Grab a stereo miking bar and set up an “XY stereo pair”. Be very careful to get precise capsule alignment between the two mics and then audition the pair at different heights and angles until you find a nice sound.
An ORTF pair is a miking technique that was developed in the 60s at the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française, which is where it gets its acronymical name. Place two mics at 110° off axis to each other with their capsules 17 cm apart. Pan these mics left and right for a full stereo image. A stereo miking bar comes in handy with this technique as well.
Often enough, engineers will simply place an “AB pair” of mics over the drum kit. These mics are spread out adequately to pick up all of the different cymbals and kit. Pan these two mics moderately left and right. Be sure to heed the “3:1” rule when using an AB pair. The rule states that the second mic must be three times the distance from the source as compared to the first mic’s distance from that same source.
If you would like to highlight specialty cymbals in your kit, don’t be shy about using a dedicated mic. If bystanders want to lecture you about how “less is more”, perhaps it is time for “less” spectators in the studio?
Always be sure to note how close the overheads are to the ceiling. Fast reflections from a nearby ceiling can cause slapback echo and comb filtering. This will limit how loud you can blend the overhead mics in before it gets to sounding funny. Since the overheads provide the “real” element to the kit as a whole, you don’t want to be heavily limited on how loud you can use them in the mix.
Since ambient mics fulfill a completely different role, treat them as the unique tool that they are. The job of the ambient mics is to bring some real room sound to the drum recording. While room sizes vary, real ambience is often very useful in a recording.
An XY pair can be used for a true stereo image, but you will often enough find a wide AB pair in use with the mics spread far apart in the room. Be sure to keep a reasonable distance from all walls and ceilings so you don’t run into comb filtering effects.
Some studios simply install boundary mics on the walls or ceiling of the recording room. These mics have the benefit of catching room ambiance without any early reflections from the walls.
Plenty of audio engineers will use ambient mics with them aiming at the drum kit. Don’t rule out the possibility of having the ambient mics facing the opposite direction so they cancel out the direct sound and pick up more room.
I am going to go through each common drum in a kit and list some of the more popular mics to use for each one. This list is not exhaustive by any means, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
Everyone knows what an AKG D112 looks like. It’s that egg shaped mic you see in front of nearly everyone’s kit. These mics have an even response down to 20kHz and a slight presence boost at 4kHz to help the kick punch through the mix. The D112 can handle a staggering 168 dB, so there is no need to worry about heavy footed drummers.
The Audix D6 is another familiar sight when it comes to kick drum mics. Its frequency response goes from 30Hz to 15kHz. The D6 has a VLM (very low mass) diaphragm, allowing it to respond to transients from the beater very well despite the fact that it is a dynamic mic.
A nice addition to a normal kick drum mic is a sub-kick microphone such as the Yamaha SKRM100. This bass grabbing specialty mic looks like a little drum that you put in front of your kick drum. It picks up the deepest lows in a way that most mics can’t. Blend this with a normal kick mic and bring the “bump” into your tracks.
It would be a crime not to mention the Shure SM57 when it comes to snare drum mics. Although these mics are inexpensive, they sound great on the snare and can stand up to high SPLs and even an occasional errant beating by a drum stick. If you don’t already have a few of these in your mic locker, you should.
The Electrovoice N/D468 is another strong contender in the world of dynamic mics for snare. It has a large dynamic diaphragm and is designed with a supercardioid polar pattern so as to reject sounds from nearby drums. It has a pivoting head that makes precise aiming easier.
When you record styles that involve a bit more finesse, consider using condenser mics on your snare drum. The AKG C414 XL2 is a nine pattern mic that you will certainly use on more than just the snare drum. Place this large diaphragm condenser mic under the snare to pick up the snare wires. Be sure to flip the phase of the underside mic so that it combines well with the top side mic.
A very popular mic for the high hat is the Shure SM81 small diaphragm condenser. Its 20Hz to 20kHz range will pick up the swish of a half open high hat in great detail. The low-frequency rolloff switch allows you to cut unneeded lows right from the source.
As the successor to the KM84, the Neumann KM184 makes a great high hat mic from a company that is known the world over. Though it may be pricier than the SM81, it is found on high hats quite frequently. The KM184 features reduced off-axis coloration. This means that sounds coming from the sides will not become frequency-hacked problem areas in the mix.
The side-stick design of the Audio Technica ATM450 makes it easy to position on the high hat without the back end of a mic protruding up and possibly in the way of cymbals. If you mic the high hat from underneath, you will definitely appreciate this side-address feature. The ATM450 is a cardioid condenser mic. It will pick up the nuances of the high hat and reject the sounds of drums from behind it. A low frequency rolloff feature is always welcome on a high hat mic, and the ATM450 has one. This is a reasonably priced mic with some nice features for high hat recording.
Just as with the snare drum, let’s not let the Shure SM57 go unmentioned. The SM57 is a true workhorse mic that has recorded many of the toms we hear in popular recordings. Give them a try on toms and you may find that you do not need to sell your mom’s BMW just to be able to record a whole drum set properly.
As an alternative to the SM57, consider the Audix i5 dynamic mic. It can handle SPLs up to 140 dB and sports a low mass diaphragm, enabling it to pick up more detail than a heavier diaphragm is capable of. This is another mic that will not empty your wallet but will still shine in particular applications.
Taking a small step up in price (and hence, trust in the drummer to not bash your mics) is the well-known Sennheiser MD421. These mics are found just as frequently on vocalists as they are on tom-toms. High SPL handling makes them good for drum recording. Although the MD421 is a bit bulkier than a SM57, the sound quality is worth the extra work to tuck them out of the way while miking the toms.
All the tom mics mentioned thus far have been dynamic mics. Let’s look at the AKG C519 condenser mic for recording toms. This micro-sized condenser mic clips unobtrusively to the side of the drum and picks up the kind of detail that you would expect from a condenser mic. Angle the cardioid pattern towards the center of the drum to pick up a healthy dose of attack. These mics are convenient to use and nearly invisible if you choose to use them on stage.
Overhead and ambient mics
I tend to place a lot of importance on the role that overhead mics play in a drum recording. For that reason, I am going to mention that spending the extra cash for a pair of AKG C414 XL2 microphones is well worth it. I can guarantee that you will use these versatile large diaphragm condenser mics on a lot more than just drum recordings. The nine selectable polar patterns will allow you to use these as an AB spaced pair, MS stereo pair and a host of other applications that will get you your money’s worth.
A pair of Audix ADX51 mics for overhead work will not set you back as far as the C414s will, and they will do a quality job as overhead mics. They are fixed on cardioid pattern and have a useful bass rolloff switch centered on 150Hz.
Somewhere between the hefty price tag of the C414 and the moderate cost of the ADX51 lies the Neumann TLM102. I am not one to go for a product just for the brand name, but I do pay attention when Neumann has an offering for a particular application. These large diaphragm condensers work well as overheads or as ambient mics.
If you would like to mount some ambient boundary mics on your studio walls, consider the Sennheiser E901. Since it can be hard to affix a pair of mics to just one application, the moderate price tag on the E901s will ease your mind a bit when you mount these on the ceiling or walls. Although many boundary mics are made to not pick up deep bass sounds, these feature a frequency response that extends from 20hz to 20kHz. This means you get to grab as much of the room ambience you want and shave off whatever low frequencies you don’t want in the mix.
A pair of ribbon mics works quite well for ambient miking. Grab a pair of Beyerdynamic M130s. Use the figure eight patterns to make a Blumlein pair. For an explanation of a Blumlein pair, check out this article and scroll down to “Use multiple mics”. You will find everything you need to know to set up a Blumlein pair.
Start with a mic kit
It is a really good idea to start your drum mic collection with a pre-packaged mic kit. This is an economical way to get started on a modest budget or with a bit extra to spend on added quality. Let’s take a look at a few such kits.
The Audix DP7 drum mic kit gives you seven mics to capture a drum kit with. Some of these mics were already mentioned individually above. Mic clips and an aluminum storage case round out this kit.
Another worthy seven piece kit is the Sennheiser E600 mic kit. The kit features a kick drum mic, four tom/snare mics with rim mount clips, a pair of super-cardioid condensers for overheads and a protective aluminum case for safe storage.
On the more unique but very worthy end of the spectrum, check out the Earthworks DK25/L drum mic kit. It may surprise you to find that there are just three mics and an inline pad in this kit. This is a different approach to miking drums. The DK25/L kit has garnered much deserved attention from top notch professionals in the audio industry. This simple method uses one mic for the kick and the other two as overheads. Detail, clarity and a cohesive sound is what you get from this kit.
Processing recorded drum sounds
Now that we have meticulously recorded all of these drum sounds, what kind of post-tracking treatment are they likely to need? Just like the miking techniques and choices, let’s handle this one drum at a time.
Gating a kick drum to eliminate bleed from the rest of the kit is usually pretty easy since the mic will be getting such a powerful signal from the kick itself as compared to bleed from the rest of the kit. Just find that threshold setting where every kick drum hit is triggered.
If you would like to further help the gate in distinguishing the kick from other drums, use the side-chain input and run a duplicate (or bussed signal) of the kick drum to the side-chain. This side-chain signal must first be run through a low pass filter set to 1kHz. Excluding the high frequencies from the side-chain input will reduce false triggers from other drums.
EQing a kick drum is often necessary to trim and tighten it up sonically. Here are some guidelines to help:
- Use a high pass filter to trim off all of the deepest bass tones that you do not want in the kick sound. Failing to make good use of a high pass filter will result in rumbles and low frequency artifacts getting into your mix. When setting the high pass filter, be sure to ask yourself if the kick drum or the bass guitar will occupy the lowest frequencies. Set your high pass filter accordingly.
- Bump: The “bump” character in a kick drum is the deepest undulations it produces on each hit. You will find these frequencies in the 40 to 100Hz range. If you do not have a studio sub-woofer, be careful of boosting in this range. Without a sub-woofer, you may be boosting a range that your monitors cannot reproduce well, causing your mix to be far too sub-bass heavy once it is played on a system that features a good sub.
- Thump: The “Thump” is the low frequency range that most normal speakers can reproduce. You will need to ensure that your mix has nice content in both the “bump” and “thump” ranges. This will result in the kick drum having impact when played on smaller sound systems as well as the larger ones. Reach for the 100 to 200Hz range to affect this feature in the kick drum.
- Boom and mud live in the 200 to 300Hz range. Lots of instruments have content in this range. The resulting danger is that you will have frequency pileups in your mix if all instruments are allowed to fill this common space. This often calls for cuts in this range.
- In the box: If your kick drum sounds like you recorded it in a cardboard box, find some liberating cuts in the 300 to 700Hz range. Utilize this cut before you attempt to boost in the presence range (detailed below).
- Snap: Every kick drum needs a bit of “snap” to help it cut through the mix and support the rhythm. A boost in the 2 to 5kHz range will provide some of this important element.
- Trim the upper end with a low pass filter set to 10kHz. This will help shave off noise from cymbals without sacrificing any useful content in the kick drum.
Compression on a kick drum will thicken it up and smooth each hit out a bit. Be careful to not overdo compression. Over-compressed tracks are the mark of an amateur. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
- Start with an attack time of 4ms and a release time of 200ms. The actual release time will be based on the tempo of the song and how “rapid-fire-happy” the drummer is. Faster kick equals faster release time. This will ensure that the kick drum compression is being triggered properly for each kick event.
- Start with a ratio of 4:1. Heavier music will benefit from higher ratios while lower ratios suit styles like jazz quite well. Just be sure that you are not removing all of the finesse from the kick performance.
- Your threshold setting will be based entirely on how the particular drum track was recorded. Lower the threshold down until you see about 3dB of gain reduction happening on the drum hits.
Gate: Hopefully, you got some good isolation from the high hat when you placed your drum mic. If you didn’t, first have your assistant slap you across the face so you will learn your lesson. Getting a clean snare sound before reverb is used will add up to cleaner reverb sounds. When you are setting a gate for the snare, keep a couple of things in mind:
- Set your threshold to ensure that no snare hits or nuances are missed. Listen for the softer “nuance” hits that a drummer will do and be sure to not accidentally deprive the mix of these.
- Listen to the tail end of the snare sound. Use the release setting to nip and tuck this tail into the tempo of the song. This detail does a lot for the sound of the snare.
Compression: Find some “alone time” with just you, a snare drum and a compressor and manipulate, over-manipulate and then manipulate some more. The sound of a snare can be drastically changed with the use of a compressor. Part of the reason for this is the added elements it possesses over other drums. The attack, body and snare wire sounds can all be changed with just a compressor. Consider these admonitions:
- The attack setting will determine if the stick striking the drum head will be enhanced or reduced. A fast attack will bring down the initial attack of the snare. The result will be more body in the snare sound. A slower attack setting will let the first “pop” of the stick through while attenuating the subsequent body of the sound.
- The ratio should be set according to the style of music and the consistency of the drummer. When mixing rock or metal tracks, feel free to clamp down on the snare with a ratio of 5:1 to 10:1. Jazz and some pop tracks require that you use gentle compression ratios like 3:1. The name of the game is to not eliminate all finesse and style from the track.
- Lower the threshold setting down until the transients trigger a 3 or 4dB gain reduction. This setting is also very dependent on what style of music you are mixing.
EQ: The EQ settings you will use on the snare drum are also quite critical. Part of the reason for this is the massive amount of mid-range sound in the snare. Any manipulations you do on this mid-heavy instrument will be easily apparent to human ears.
- Use a high pass filter set to 150Hz to trim off all of the unneeded deep bass from the snare.
- Bulk: Increase or decrease the “bulk” or “weight” of the snare sound by using the 150 to 200Hz range. Although I do frequently caution people to watch for “frequency pileups” in this range, I think that this range adds some nice girth to the sound of the snare.
- Roundness: round out the body of the snare drum using the zone around 500Hz. This can accentuate the body quite nicely.
- Crack: Reach for the 1.5 to 2.5kHz range to boost the “crack” sound of the snare.
- Snare wires: Would you like to bring the snare wire sound out a bit more? You can find the wire-enhancing frequencies in the range of 3 to 6Khz.
- Brilliance: A boost or cut in the 10kHz range will affect the brilliance of the snare.
First off, I would like to say one thing about gating and compression on the high hat: NO. Unless you are going for a specialty sound with the high hat, don’t compress or gate it. Simple enough? I am sure there are exceptions to this rule that will send an EDM (electronic dance music) artist into convulsions after reading this. I think I can live with that.
EQ for the high hat can be a very useful tool. You can trim, shape and sculpt it quite a bit with an EQ. Check out these key frequency ranges:
- Metallic clank: You can find this clanking noise around 200Hz. You may want to set a high pass filter as high as 300Hz and be done with it. This will eliminate that annoying clanking sound and cut the unneeded low frequencies off all in one slick move. When you set this up, be sure to listen to the character of the hat and be sure you are not trimming off too much low end.
- Girth: Adjustments in the 400 to 800Hz range will affect the girth and weight of the sound.
- Nasal: A gentle, wide cut in the 800Hz to 1.2kHz range will attenuate a nasal-ish sounding high hat.
- Clarity: If you need some additional clarity in the high hat and cannot get it by cutting another frequency range, try looking for it in the 5 to 7kHz range. Again, I am going to suggest that you first attempt to get clarity by cutting mush out rather than boosting something. This is always the best policy.
- Sparkle: The 10 to 12kHz range will add some sparkle to your high hat.
- Air: Get some of that “breathy air” sound in the high hat by gently boosting at the 16kHz zone.
- Harsh: A harsh sounding high hat could benefit from a roll off starting at 17 or 18kHz. This will nicely round off the high end of its sound.
- Reevaluate your boosts: I strongly suggest that you look back over your EQ boosts and ask yourself if you could get the same effect using cuts in the zones that you did NOT boost. Try it. Boosting different zones is the fastest way to apply your EQ treatments, but it is often the most destructive to the overall sound of the track due to phase artifacts that are often introduced with EQ boosts. Go ahead and boost zones initially. After finishing with all the boosting, try to get the same effect by inverting your method. This will train your ears to listen for needed cuts rather than going straight for the easy boost.
De-esser: If you find yourself sweeping the frequencies with an EQ to get a harsh sound under control, try employing a de-esser on that harsh frequency once you have found it. This method will allow you to keep the important high frequency content through the bulk of the track but only attenuate it when it gets out of control.
Gating on the toms is frequently required to get the tail end of their sound under control. A finely tuned set of toms will be a blessing at this stage of the game.
- First, let’s deal with the issue of toms ringing when other drums are hit. This is simple enough to set a gate for. Set the threshold just high enough to where it only opens for real tom hits.
- Secondly, listen to the tail end of each tom hit and decide if you would like it to ring out as long as it is. Use an appropriately timed release setting to tailor how fast the ring fades out.
- You may want to consider slicing and removing long, quiet sections where the gate is closed. When you remove these unneeded sections of the waveform, it lightens the load on your DAW.
Compression: Toms may not need much compression at all. If you do need to compress, consider setting up this effect “New York” style (also called parallel). This works particularly well on toms. To use an effect in “parallel” mode, duplicate the track and compress one while leaving the other alone. Blend these together to taste. Most classic compressors do not have a mix% knob. If you do happen to have one on the particular plugin you are using, adjust that percentage rather than duplicating tracks.
- Attack: Try using a moderate attack time of 10ms to allow those important transients to shine through before the compressor kicks in.
- Release time will be dependent on just how long you want the toms to ring and the tempo of the song. Start with 300ms and adjust from there.
- A ratio of 4:1 is a good starting place. Keep in mind that the body of a tom hit can be pretty dense sounding. Listen for changes in this portion of the sound when using compression.
- The threshold setting should be dialed down until you see 3 to 5dB of gain reduction happening on each tom hit.
EQ: Quite often, when toms are miked reasonably well, minimal EQing may be all that is needed.
- Always use a high pass filter on toms. They can create a lot of rumbling and noises in the super-low frequency range that may convince your listeners that you subtly mixed in the sound of an elephant having problems with indigestion. Set your high pass filter to the 60Hz zone. Fine tune this setting for each tom’s sound as they get progressively deeper.
- Bump: Be very careful with mixing in the “bump” element in toms. This tonal character can be found in the 60 to 100Hz range. A combination of wise EQing and properly set release times on your gate will keep this region under control.
- Attack: The highest transients in the attack of a tom are in the 3 to 5kHz zone.
- The “stick on the skin” portion of the attack lives in the 6 to 8kHz region. I like to get this sound naturally through good mic placement, but if you need to adjust this element, this is the EQ range to use.
Compression: You are only likely to need compression on the overheads if you are relying on them for a “whole kit” sound. Still, you need to be VERY careful here. It is really easy to ruin the sound of the overheads with compression. Always treat these two mics together in a stereo compressor as if you were applying master buss compression. A failure to follow this rule will result in your overhead image “swimming” back and forth, pseudo-panning itself left and right. Be very gentle here and use your ears to catch any over-compression.
EQ: When setting out to EQ your overhead mics, you will need to decide what role they will play. Do you intend to pick up mostly cymbals or will these mics provide realism for the whole kit? This is going to dictate the kinds of EQ moves you will make.
- High pass filter: If the overheads will be mainly for the cymbals, you will need to set a high pass filter anywhere from 80 to 300Hz. I know that is a mighty wide range, but this really depends on just how much you want to focus on the cymbals. If you would like to capture more of the whole kit with the overheads, then start your high pass filter around 40Hz. Move this filter up if you would like the bass guitar to dominate that super low range around 40Hz.
- Sweep for resonances: This move is often useful in a number of instruments, but the overheads deserve a special mention here. Use a narrow Q parametric filter with a moderate boost to first find annoying resonances. When they pop out at you, invert the filter to cut rather than boost. It is possible to significantly improve the sound of overheads using this method without butchering the overall sound.
- Brighten the cymbals up with a boost in the 5 to 8kHz range. The brightness of the cymbals will often showcase the beautiful high end in your mix.
Drum replacement or augmentation
Just in case I was making the purists a bit too happy with all the talk about getting good sounds from the source, I am going to make a quick mention of adding or replacing drum sounds to get the end result you want. Before you take the route of reinforcing drum sounds, be careful to ask yourself if the real drums need to be violated beyond recognition. If the extra help is needed, then feel free to replace or reinforce drums with additional drums or sounds that have nothing to do with drums at all. We won’t dive into the specifics of drum augmentation in this article. Just be aware that it is a viable option that is in common usage today.
Tips and tricks
After you invest the time in solid recording technique, a healthy bag of tricks to use in the studio is always a fun thing to have. Here is a good handful of some tasty tricks to spice up your drum recording sessions.
Use a golf ball
I once knew a speed metal drummer who liked to remove the normal head off his kick drum beater and glue a golf ball in its place. He would drill a hole in the ball and glob some epoxy in there before mounting it as his new beater. It gave a very defined attack that is needed for the fast footwork in metal.
Stacked kick drums
The same drummer that I mentioned in the previous tip could also be found removing the resonator head from his kick drum and attaching a second headless kick drum in front of the first. This made for a very long kick drum that shot powerful waves of bass at you if you were standing in front of it.
Coins on the kick drum
Tape a silver dollar (if you can find a musician who has a dollar) to the kick drum. This should be placed exactly where the beater strikes the head. Depending on the style of beater you are using, this can result in all of the attack you could possibly want.
Pillows in the kick drum
The only way you will not know about this move is if you are an audio engineer who does not play drums. Place a pillow or blankets inside your kick drum to deaden the sound. As an alternative, some drummers use sandbags or studio foam.
Dampen with Moongel and gaffing tape
When dealing with resonances and ringing drums, employ the use of a product called “moon gel”. A small piece will dampen those sympathetically resonating drums quite well. If you would like to make your own Moongel, check out this tutorial right here.
As an alternative to Moongel, use gaffers tape placed on the drum head to deaden it. A piece in the center or several pieces distributed a few inches from the edge of the head will deaden a lot of ringing.
What to do with rattling hardware
If rattling drum hardware is plaguing your attempts to record clean drum sounds, use a bit of sticky tack to silence the errant hardware. It is easy to use and leaves no residue afterwards.
What good drummers know
Good drummers know that they should hit cymbals softer in the studio than they would live. This manic cymbal bashing is often required when playing live to help the cymbals cut through the mix, while more finesse is called for in the studio. Tactfully remind a drummer of this when needed and the result will be better sounds from the overheads.
Who would overdub the drums?
After the drum tracks are recorded, ask the drummer if he could play the song again, only using his cymbals and high hat. Blend this cymbal-overdub in subtly in key places such as choruses. This results in a sound that is more intense and subtle at the same time.
Loosen a lug
When tuning up the snare drum, annoying resonances can be dampened by slightly loosening a single lug on the top drum head.
Extend your cymbal sounds
For mellower kinds of music, a long, drawn out cymbal decay can really sound sexy. Accomplish this by using a long section of ball bearing mini-chain (the kind that they use for military dog tags and bathtub stoppers). Hook a keychain to both ends and hang it from the center of your cymbal. The chain should extend from the center of the cymbal and hang off the edge. Strike the cymbal and listen as it seems to go on and on. If this specialty sound is recorded individually, you can slowly pan this sizzling cymbal across the soundscape. This makes for a beautiful effect.
Shaping your transients without compression
When you are about the business of ensuring that each drum hit has nice attack, keep in mind that a compressor or EQ are not the only tools for the job. As an alternative, check out a transient shaper such as the Sonnox Transient Modulator. A transient shaper is often a better tool for the job if all you are trying to do is manipulate the transients.
If you are looking for some creative sounds to blend in with a regular kit, don’t be afraid to mike up a bucket or a cardboard box. Some great drum sounds have been recorded without the help of drums at all.
Mount some guts on the wall
Remove the guts (the harp) from an old piano and mount it on the wall of your drum room. Mike the piano strings as they are blasted by the drum set. Use the resonating effect from the strings just like a plugin. It sounds HUGE!
Kudos to you for making it through such a detailed article on recording drums. The next challenge is to take each of these techniques and make them yours by trying them for yourself and maybe even modifying them a bit. If you do this, you will be rewarded with many great sounding drum tracks to come.