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Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals

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At last my friends we come to the final leg of our journey, the overheads! Up until now we have looked at the kick and the snare and how to best optimize recording them in a home recording environment. Today we will begin Part 1 of the overheads which will include both toms and cymbals.


Also available in this series:

  1. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 1
  2. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 2
  3. Snare Drum Compendium - Start with the Best Sound
  4. The Snare Drum Compendium - Recording and Mixing Techniques
  5. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals
  6. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals Part 2

From an engineer's point of a view the overheads could arguably be the most important part of the drum kit to get right. Why? Because we when in doubt it will give you the most natural (or unnatural) representation of the drum set in which you can build your drum mixes off of. Now of course it is common place to give each tom its own mic, but the principles for close micing a tom are the same as the snare hence why the toms do not get their own tutorial.

So why overheads? Most home studio enthusiasts have less than ideal room acoustics, mic selection, etc. and will need all the tricks they can get in order to get the best overhead sound possible. That is where this tutorial series comes in! In this first tutorial we will examine the toms and cymbals from an instrumental standpoint and how they function musically and acoustically so we can have a better idea of how to record them. In the next tutorial we will then take our recorded overheads and start processing them; you can't fake the perfect sound in the mix, it has to start with the drum itself.

So if you are ready to take your tom and cymbal sound to the next level, read on!


Functionally

The toms from an acoustical stand point operates much like any other drum while the cymbals are their own beast. In regards to the toms, the batter head is struck and this causes the head to resonate back and forth. As the head resonates air is moved inside the drum and this causes the opposing head to resonate as well as the rest of the drum shell; this resonance produces the tone of the drum. Finally, the fluctuating air pressure escapes from the small vent holes place in the drum.

Everyone knows that the cymbals are a large metal circle that when struck will resonate. However what some forget is that, much like a drum, depending on where you strike the cymbal will control which overtones come out of the cymbal. In addition we (usually) have a bell at the very center of the of the cymbal that when struck will give off a higher pitched almost bell like sound. Unfortunately cymbals as a whole are much harder to customize and tweak due to the fact is solid metal and not a tunable head.

Now why should we care about all of this? To start with, we need to understand what can be changed from the instruments stand point and what cannot. Sure we could switch out cymbals but that is usually reserved for studios with a budget big enough to have a lot of cymbals. The toms while usually miced only from the top are still greatly shaped by the tuning of the resonant head below. Because of these and other factors, we have to really understand how the instruments operate to compensate for our lack of proper acoustics, equipment, etc.



The Tone Controls

Like every instrument, there are natural built in tone controls that allow us to shape the sound of the instrument. A drum however is a little more unique than most other instruments. What makes drums unique is that there is usually only one or two dynamic variable present in a drum; for the toms it is how the player hits the drum and for the cymbals is is how it is hit and the stick used. Every other tone control is static and will only change from either excessive use or cheap parts.

This makes getting a solid unchanging sound much easier for drums than say a violin or voice. Let take a look at what these static tone controls are and how they affect the tone of the instruments.

  • Batter Head: Greatly influences the sound of the initial attack of the toms. Can range from thin clear heads to thick coated heads which offers a great variety of sound. It also has some weight as to what the overall pitch of the drum is but nowhere near as much as the resonant head. It also has a bearing on what overtones are present depending on its tuning and material. The overall projection of the drums attack is controlled here.

  • Resonant Head: Controls some of the drums natural tone and has a large influence on the fundamental pitch of the drum. In addition, it can greatly affect the harmonics and how much the harmonics ring.

  • Tuning Lugs: These lugs will help pitch the drum and what frequency the heads will vibrate at. The area around each lug has its own pitch that effects the overall pitch of the head. Ironically the lugs effect the opposite side of the drum more than the location of the lug.

  • Sticks: A sometimes overlooked part of the sound of a drum, and particularly cymbals, is what sticks are being used. Everything from the weight to the shape of the tip can subtly effect the tone which will add to the overall sound of instruments. While easily changeable, generally drummers do not change their sticks mid song so we can consider it a static element to the tone.

  • Dimensions: Controls the optimal range and sound of the drum. Deeper drums usually are lower in pitch as are wider ones. Of course different combinations will render different results. In addition different sizes and thickness of cymbals will also play a role in the sound of the cymbal.

  • Rivets and Chains: Some cymbals have rivets placed inside them that freely sway up and down when the cymbals is hit that cause a sizzle type of sustain on top of the tone of the cymbal itself. The chains that screw on top of the cymbal achieve the same effect.

Some of you may be asking why does this matter to me as a recording engineer? Well for starters we can get a general idea of how the overheads will sound before ever hearing it. If you know what kind of heads are present and what the size of the drum that is being used then you are well on your way to knowing how the tone will sound. If the cymbals are thin and bright you know not to put a bright mic on them as they will already be bright enough. Finally, in a best case scenario we can go and change some of these aspects to get our ideal tone; new heads, cymbals, etc. Remember, a good overhead sound starts at the drums not at the microphone!

As far as batter heads go, there are a slew of options available for toms. For jazz you will almost always find a coated strong 2-ply head that will give off a balance of attack and tone. For rock however you usually will find clear coated heads that offer a more controlled but open sound. In addition you can also have batter heads with built in dampeners such as rings and pads which will shorten how long the head resonates and give a shorter more pronounced sound with more focus on the attack. Another consideration with batter heads (and drum heads in general) is whether it is 1- or 2-ply, and how thick those plies are. A thicker ply will give a slightly darker tone as will have two plies as opposed to one. You will often see metal drummers playing with thick 2-ply heads because they give a tight controlled sound in addition to being more durable.

Resonant heads usually are usually much thinner than the batter heads and are almost always clear. Unlike with the snare you can get away with not having them on toms but generally they are still found to add sustain and tone to the toms. If your resonant head is tuned low you will get a deeper looser sound, but if however you tune your resonant head higher you will usually end up with more harmonics. Of course there are always exceptions to these rules that we will look at more later.

The tuning lugs will be the most obvious method of tone control since by adjusting the tension of the head you can change the pitch of the head drastically and the overall tone of the drum. There are many different ideals people have about how the head lugs should be tuned. The primary idea to keep in mind when tuning is how the audience will hear it. If it is being close miced then you will need to worry about how it sounds from up close. If however you plan on doing light sound reinforcement at a church without just the overhead microphones then you will probably need to reconsider how you go about tuning your heads.

When it comes to the sticks it will really come down to a to playing vs sound preference. If you want a big beefy sound you are going to want to play with heavier sticks or at least sticks with more weight in the front of the stick. If however you need a lot of control and rebound to work with then thinner sticks with an appropriate tip would be in order. Where you will really the difference in stick tips is when you play a ride cymbal. Rounded, oval, wood, plastic, and countless other variations all contribute to different sounds.

In regards to the dimensions of the instruments we come to arguably the most important aspect of the instruments. If you really want a deep sounding tom then you are going to need a large toms dimensions. If you want a high pitched rototom sound then you obviously will need those dimensions. However not all of us have a range of toms to choose, we usually only have three or four toms period! So instead we end up having to make the most out the tuning of our toms. For cymbals diameter will usually dictate pitch with large being lower (but not always) and thickness controlling the timbre. A thinner cymbal is going to sound bright and usually decay quicker where as a thicker cymbals tend to be darker and ring out a little longer. However some cymbals are so large and thick that they end up having very little (audible) sustain at all!

Finally when concerning ourselves with the rivets and chains we usually have very little control of these parameters. Some rivets can be removed from the cymbal and sizzle chains can always be added or taken away. Generally these are used to brighten up darker cymbals or add a false sustain to a drier cymbal. You need to be careful with your overheads if the cymbals have these as if you get too close to the cymbal you will end up with a seemingly never ending sustain and hiss like noise.


The Tuning Recipes

Now that we have real good grasp of the toms and cymbals as instruments we can really begin to tune them. To help you along with your tuning needs I have included a list of different formulas for particular genres that can act as a good base for your recordings. Keep in mind you will need to tailor the drums to your own needs.

Note that there are so many variables in creating a drum tone that not every possible combination of heads, tuning, sticks, etc. can be written down. Instead I will try to give you some good general places and ideas to work from. There will be a few variables I will keep constant for the audio samples as I do not own every single piece available and as a home studio engineer you probably do not either. My batter heads will be a generic clear 2-ply which have been beat pretty well. (Let's be honest a lot of drummers don't change their heads as often as they should and you need to be expecting that!) The resonant heads are a clear 1-ply, and the tom sizes are 10, 12, and 14 inches.

For the recordings I will be using a pair of Audix i5s spaced evenly above the toms facing directly down. While there are of course other techniques and obvious better mic choices, that is not the point of this particular tutorial; we will cover that in the next installment. I choose these mics and micing techniques because they are common and easily accessible by those in the home studio realm. In addition, the i5 and the SM57 are almost (note almost) the same sounding mic. Once an gain structure was established, the gain was not touched again for the rest of the tunings.

Finally before we move keep these tips from the snare tutorial in mind when tuning...

  • Make sure you tune the heads with the other one muted. Placing the tom on a towel usually will be just fine.

  • For a clean tone you need all the lugs on a head to be in tune with each other. Furthermore when you hit your stick near a lug you are actually tuning the harmonics as hitting a head by the edge produces more harmonics than striking the center.

  • To tune an offending lug you usually will need to tune either the lug exactly across from it or the lugs on either side of it.

Without further adieu, the recipes!

Rock

For a generic rock sound you are going to ideally want to use clear coated heads that are slightly on the thicker side but maybe not the thickest you can get. Also consider trying out a single ply head that has a pin stripe if you can. The goal here is to get a clear tone, balanced attack, and a medium to short sustain.

What makes rock toms interesting is typically they tend to be smaller toms around 10, 12, and 14 inches respectively. But what rock drummers tend to do is take these smaller drums and tune them down to the lowest clear full tone they can get. A smaller drum with a the same pitch as a larger one has a different sound to it that most rock players tend to enjoy.

For cymbals you will most likely want thin to medium cymbals that are bright but full sounding. The idea here is to cut through the guitars and other instruments.

Metal

A metal sound is going to be similar to a rock sound at first but there are some notable differences. Since modern metal is so fast paced there is not time for lingering sounds and because of that you will need the driest toms sound you can get that still allows for a tone.

Ironically you cannot get away with a lower tom sound than rock because a lower pitch will naturally ring longer and will get in the way of the music. (This is why most metal kicks are all click and no boom.) I recommend a nice thick clear 2-ply batter head with a resonant head that doesn't add any unnecessary sustain.

For cymbals you will find every from thin to thick but generally drier is better. However it is common to of course is in opposition to the metal ideals. Keep in mind some slower metal genres will of course have a bigger tom sound because there is more time for the sound develop.

Jazz/Latin Toms

If jazz or Latin music is more your thing then you actually will ideally want the exact opposite of the rock drums. Toms in this genre tend to be larger but tuned higher. In addition more often than not you will find coated heads as opposed to clear heads. Drummers in this genre want their toms to sing and almost provide them with truly discernible pitches. In addition the middle tom is almost always omitted.

Cymbals for this style can vary wildly. Sometimes more rock style cymbals are useful where as sometimes really harmonically rich sounding cymbals are more useful. Generally speaking however volume usually isn't the primary concern for jazz and Latin cymbals. The most important thing however is a really tight sounding hi-hat regardless of its pitch. Because of this some drummers either (A) slam their foot or (B) use very thick hi-hats that will not slosh around on them.


Conclusion

Now hopefully you have a better idea of how to go about tuning the toms and the different options you can have for cymbals and heads for a particular style. However, if you want to really see the benefit of tuning the drum right then all you need is a little compression to really push the nuances.

So what have we learned? That you need to have a good idea of tone you want before you even go ahead and start tuning away. There are a lot of options available to us to shape and craft the tone of the toms and cymbals for the overheads. Spend some time and think about what tone would best fit the style of music you are going for and if you have the time to correct that tone then by all means do it!

But this is only half the battle. Next time we will cover how to record and mix the overheads with only the few options available to us as home studio engineers.

Until next time! Thanks for reading!

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