Drum recording techniques

Posted: 4th April 2011 by Mezzanine Floor Studios in Recording Techniques

For those who have ever recorded multitrack drums you know it can be a challenge to get everything right. There are a lot of excellent articles on the subject (Bruce┬áMiller’s website is a great resource for this and so many other details about recording and music production: Bruce Miller’s free audio course.

For myself, I have a pretty simple checklist that has served me well.

1. Make sure the drummer tunes his drums

2. Work with the drummer to find the right amount of resonance for snare, toms, etc. Too much ringing can be distracting- too little can kill the tone of the drums, making them sound paper-like. Moon gels work great for this: RTOM Corp website

3. Never mount SM57 mics on the drums. The baffle of the 57 rattles slightly when the mic is shaken and can ruin otherwise great drum sounds.

4. Always check what the drums sound like in the room. If the room is supposed to be “live” listen to the way it sounds. If it is supposed to be “dead”, walk around and clap and listen for “flutter echo”- the sound of really quickly repeated echos that happens when sound bounces off of two parallel hard surfaces (like most walls.) If you hear some try hanging blankets, comforters, acoustic panels, pillows, whatever you can to get rid of the flutter echo.

5. When micing cymbals, ride, or high hat, don’t point the mic flatly at the cymbal. Angle it slightly so the front of the mic is not perpendicular to the cymbal. If close micing cymbals with the mic perpendicular you can get some weird “swimming” sounds from the cymbals, especially the ride. As the ride moves significantly closer and further from the mic it will get louder and quieter. I tend to aim at where the drummer will hit the cymbal to get the most attack.

6. Be sure to flip polarity on your preamp or in your recording software when needed. This is sometimes called “flipping phase.” Basically you just push the polarity flip button back and forth and listen. The setting that has the most low end is the correct one, as phase cancelling is most obvious at low frequencies. Situations where this might be necessary are numerous- room mics, overhead mics, kick mics, bottom snare mics all may need to have the polarity flip applied. There are really two reasons for doing this:

a. When multi-micing a drum like a snare it can sound weird to have one mic pointed at the top and capturing the first strike of the stick as a “sucking” away from the mic and having a mic on the bottom that “sees” this first strike of the stick as a “pushing” towards it. For this reason I always check polarity on bottom snare or bottom tom mics and 99% of the time I flip the bottom mic. This essentially makes both microphones see the stick striking the drum head as moving in the same direction.

b. Different mics will capture the same sound at slightly different times simply because of the distance between each mic and the source of the sound. The overheads are a great example. The sound they capture will always be a bit behind the sound of a close mic in capturing any drum. Anytime there is a significant distance between microphones it is good to check the polarity. Similar to over/under micing you want all microphones that capture a sound to capture it as close to pushing and sucking together as possible. Obviously with a drumset this isn’t fully possible, but flipping polarity can help in most situations.

7. Tube guitar amps tend to sound best when played very loud. There are some cool gadgets for enabling a guitarist to saturate their amp and have their cabinet put out less sound, enabling them to play more quietly and still have killer tone. There are no such tools for drums. The tone of the drums will vary largely depending on where and how hard they are hit. Snare and toms especially will tend to have the best tone when played VERY loud. Of course, volume may have to take a back seat to practical considerations (neighbors, hearing your headphones, etc.) and to musical style, but in general the louder the better.

8. Always listen to each drum hit individually. Sometimes little rattles can hide in the wall of sound when the whole kit is played, but they will become audible during quieter sections.

9. Always record at 24-bit. Some programs default to 16-bit. This greatly reduces dynamic range and makes recording drums well extremely difficult. Set the record volumes so that peaks hit -12 dB when rehearsing. The drummer will likely play louder when performing. This setting enables you to capture the most dynamic range with little fear of overing.

10. Choosing overhead placement is critical. I tend to like having my kick, snare, and mid tom sound dead center in my mixes, so that is where I want them in my overheads. I do this by drawing an imaginary line from the center of the snare through the center of the kick. This is where I want the center of my mix, so the overheads should capture sound from either side of this line. I then place my overheads so that they are the same distance from the center of the snare and the kick, and point them at the snare. (I use a belt, mic cable, whatever’s free to measure and adjust until the distances are correct.) In the diagram below the kick, snare and center tom are in Orange. The microphones are red dots, with the imaginary centerline in bold and the distance measurements in dotted line. These should all be equal.

I hope this information is useful in helping you get better (and more consistent) drum sounds.

- Joshua

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