How to Record Drums Like an Expert: Basix
Drum recording is one of those things that you need to get right. There is much less room for experimentation in drum sounds. What I mean to say is, you can have the most alternative guitar sound or effected vocal sound in the world but if the drums don't sound right nobody is going to care.
Sure, you can experiment with different mixing techniques and try different production tricks later down the line, but the first order of business is to nail that drum sound. If your kick drum sounds like a cardboard box beaten with a marshmallow then no amount of mixing is going to fix it. Get it right at the source or don't do it at all.
Correct placement and microphone selection is important to the sound of your recorded drums, but so is the room you are recording in. Let's get busy with some drum recording tricks.
Clap your hands say yeah! Indie music aside (not a big fan), clap your hands. Do it. Right now. If you're in a typical office or living room then chances are it's not going to last that long. The echo will die down within a second since the size of your room don't allow for a lot of buildup of reverb or reflections.
Now, imagine if you were in a gymnasium and clapped your hands. The perceived “bigness” of the echo and reverb of the sound is dictated by the size of the room you are in, therefore clapping your hands inside a big gymnasium will result in more reflections, a larger reverb and a longer “decay” time for the sound of your handclaps to die down. For more on reverb and reflections see my other Basix tutorial “How the Hell do I Use Reverb Anyway?!?”
So, if we intend to record drums we need to take the room into account, since those reflections from your handclap are just peanuts compared to the amount of echoes and reflections a whole drum kit will make inside a gymnasium. Your ears heard them, and your microphones will most surely do so too.
If you have a mobile recording rig, which today means a laptop, an interface and some microphones and access to some different rooms you can create a whole different feel to your drum sound depending on which you choose. Many engineers opt for a dead, or a very quiet room to track drums in since that will allow them to add the type of reverb they want later on during the mixing process. While this method is sound and valid, just look at all those great rock records that were made before the advent of digital reverb. Recording studios used to have amazing sounding live rooms to track drums in, and that became an inherent part of the drum sound.
If you want to go the safe route, try to find a nice (preferably acoustically treated) room that doesn't have a whole lot of liveness. But if you are up for experimentation then finding an interesting or great sounding room might yield some impressive results.
Gourmet dishes are not cooked from leftovers. You don't wear dirty clothes to a wedding. And you certainly don't record worn heads and out of tune drums if you want great results.
Make sure to replace each drum head and tune it so that each drum sounds both great in its own right and as a part of the kit. If you, or the drummer don't know how to tune a drum properly (I don't really know how, and most drummers are pretty bad at it) get someone that can.
A great sounding drum kit in a great sounding room and you've won half the battle. Next we have to look at what types of microphones we want to be using.
A few considerations when choosing the right microphone for recording drums.
How Many? – How many microphones are you going to be using? Are you trying to mike up the kit with only one microphone? Then a full sounding large condenser should be the best bet. It has a broad frequency response and will most accurately capture the kit, especially compared to a dynamic microphone.
Condenser microphones – Condenser microphones (small or large diaphragm) are usually the default microphones of choice used as overheads. Overhead microphones are placed over the drum kit to capture the overall sound of the drum kit from a close distance. Condenser have the capacity to capture all the nuances of the drum kit, from the low end of the kick drum to the swash of the cymbals.
Dynamic microphones – Dynamic microphones can take more volume, but they lack the frequency response and accuracy of a condenser. They can take the pounding and volume of the kick drum and they have no problem with the incredibly loud whack of the snare. If you decide to close mike every drum, then you would usually opt for a good sounding dynamic at each drum; kick, snare and each of the toms.
Ribbon microphones – Ribbons might be a good choice if you can afford it, especially if you are only using a few microphones. Ribbons have a smoother sound, but they are more delicate than the average condenser, and way more fragile than a sturdy dynamic.
Remember, each microphone sounds different and they will all act as a piece of the drum recording puzzle.
Collection of Instruments
One of the things you have to be aware of is that recording drums can be much more complex than recording a “regular” instrument that only has one sound source. Take vocals for example, the most standard way of recording vocals is placing a microphone in front of the singer's sound source, i.e. his mouth.
But when you are recording drums, every single drum is a sound source, and you also need to portray the overall sound of the kit as a whole. That's the reason why modern drum recording puts a microphone on every drum and then some overhead mics to capture the complete kit.
People want to control each drum as a specific sound source and then treat the whole drum kit as one sound source as well. Then, by mixing and matching the overall volume of all the tracks in the mixing phase people have more control over what kinds of sounds they can get from their drums.
I don't care what anybody says. The kick drum is the most important part of the drum sound. You can argue that the snare sound is all you want, and it certainly is important, but if the kick drum lacks power and definition the overall drum sound is going to suffer. The kick drum is also the trickiest sound to get right since the placement of the microphone plays a pivotal role.
Microphone – Your best bet, if you are just using one microphone to record the drums is a large dynamic microphone, such as the AKG D112, Audix D6 or Shure Beta 52A. They will usually have the frequency response needed to get the thick low end coupled with the snap of the beater.
Placement – The default position to try is just inside the outer head (I hope there is a hole in the outer head) pointing at, or just a little off axis towards the beater. In this position the microphone is far enough away as to capture both the boom and the snap. Microphones placed too close to the inner head (the beater side) can't capture the full resonance of the drum since they are facing away from the drum and are picking up too much “click” from the beater.
Placing the microphone outside the shell can give you great results, but there is a possibility of the microphone capturing too much bleed from the other drums and that it will lack definition from the beater. Great if you want a natural bass drum sound, but bad if you want a isolated and “click” heavy sound.
Best of both worlds? - By using two microphones you can capture both the beater and the boom by placing the microphones at different positions. Positioning one inside the kit close to the beater head and the other just outside the shell will result in two different sounds that can be mixed together to great results. Boundary, or PZM (Pressure Zone Microphones) work really well on the inside since they react well to transients and can usually just sit on the shell.
By combining a PZM that reacts well to transients (initial attack) at the beater and a big dynamic picking up the low end on the outside you can get the best of both worlds.
The snare drum is the master of the backbeat, and thus must sound great in order to capture the groove. Whether you are producing a heavy rock song or light jazz, careful consideration must be put into the snare drum sound.
Microphone – A trusty Shure SM57, or any other type of dynamic is a great starting point when capturing snare drum. If you looking for a different, more vintage sound then using a large condenser or a ribbon can give the snare a much different feel. Take into account how loud the drummer will be hitting the drum. If he's going to be whacking that drum for all he's got then a condenser might overload too easily, leaving you with a distorted snare instead of a smooth and full sound.
Placement – Consider angling the microphone 45° into the middle of the drum to get the right amount of attack from the snare. For a rounder sound you can angle the microphone into the edge of the drum. Make sure that the microphone isn't in the drummer's way since whacking the microphone will not result in a better sound. In general, for more harmonics angle the mic towards the edges, but if you want more resonance and/or attack then angling the microphone more towards the middle and center will yield greater results for each respective sound.
Above & Below – If you want to achieve a direct sound from the top but want to accent the rattle the snares you can place another microphone underneath the snare pointing up. If you decide to do this make sure you flip the phase of the under-mic either during the recording or at the mixing stage. Most audio programs have a phase invert switch that allow you to flip the phase of your waveform. I touched upon the why's and how's of this practice a long time ago in A Guide to Effective Drum Mixing Part 1.
If you want to have added control over the hi-hat during the mixing stage, then adding a separate microphone for it wouldn't hurt
Microphone - You usually want a small condenser to record the hi-hat. Due to the fast transient nature of the hi-hat you want to capture all the definition and clarity of the hi-hat, even though you're recording a garage rock track.
Placement - Placing the condenser by the edge give you a much different sound than placing it at the center bell of the hi-hat. Also, try placing it in the middle and angle it to or from the edge until you find the sound you are looking for.
Over or under? - Some people swear by under-miking the hi-hat, others don't see why anybody would do such nonsense. Personally, in live situation I place the microphone underneath the hi-hat, facing up but during recording it's the other way around. Why? I don't know. Probably just force of habit.
Those drum fills need to sound good. The toms need to sound clean, defined and tuned. There's nothing worse than a tom that rings for seconds after it's hit. Assuming you have made all the necessary arrangements and made sure each drum sounds as good as it can then you only have to worry about the right microphone and placement thereof.
Microphone – Dynamic microphones such as an Audix i5, Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser MD421 are a good bet to capture a full and powerful tom sound. Especially if you are playing any sort of hard music then going for dynamics is the way to go. Experienced engineers sometimes use condensers and even ribbons(!) but as always, you have to careful about not overloading those more delicate microphones. In live sound I used to use AKG C519 clip-on condensers for toms. They work really well through a powerful P.A. and can also work well in the studio. Each sound company has a drum miking package that is usually a good bet if you don't have anything to work with.
Placement – The microphone placement is very similar to that of the snare drum. If you want more attack and stick sound from the toms you should angle them towards the middle. If you want a thicker, boomier sound you should angle them straight down towards the edge of the tom so that the microphone picks up the full resonant sound of the toms.
Underneath as well? - If you have a crazy amount of microphones, an amazing kit in a sweet sounding room then more microphones will add to the sound right? Yes, well and no. If you have the resources to mike both sides of the toms then you probably shouldn't be reading this article. But the same rules apply as if you were recording the snare with two microphones. Beware of phase and make sure both microphones are capturing something different.
Overheads are usually placed over the drum kit, both to capture the complete kit but also to accent the sounds of the cymbals. There are a few microphone techniques that you can use to accurately and effectively capture both the cymbals and overall drum kit.
X/Y – The X/Y microphone technique can be used effectively as overheads. You don't have to worry about phase problems when using this stereo technique since they are a coincident technique. Meaning that you place them beside each other at a 90° angle facing down onto the drum kit.
A/B – This is the typical one microphone over each side of the drum kit. It's a good rule of thumb to adhere to the 3:1 rule so that if you place one microphone a foot (30 cm) over the cymbal the other microphone must be placed at a distance of 3 feet (or 90 cm).
Accent the cymbals – Just like engineers that place microphones on the hi-hat, some engineers want to accent specific cymbals. For example, if we're recording a minor blues shuffle we might like to record that crucial ride cymbal, giving you added control over its sound during the mixing stage.
We've talked about how to mike up every individual sound source of the drum kit. That is, every drum has been covered as a single sound source. Now we need to step back and look at the drum kit as one instrument. When we use room microphones we want to capture the complete kit as well as the room that is complimenting it. If you are in a dead room there should be more thought put into capturing the kit as one instrument, whereas in a great sounding room, there is more preference to finding a good spot where the room and reflections help heighten the drum sound to a different level.
Microphone – I'd like to say that anything goes here. If you are trying to get a nice sounding “complete drum kit” sound then a large condenser will do the trick. However, ribbon microphones can do a very similar job, and often a better one since they sound so good. Even normal dynamic microphones can be used to get an extra dimension to the drum kit by placing it in the room.
Placement - Placing a simple SM57 in front of the kit facing up towards the ceiling can give you some ambience from the room. A condenser that you want to use to capture the complete drum kit without adding too much room ambience should be placed at around waist level facing towards the kit. To get the drums an extra stereo dimension, two condensers can be positioned in the upper corners of the room.
Experiment – Lastly, room microphones and ambient miking is very fun to experiment with. There might be a weird place in the room where the drums just really work. Walk around with headphones and try to find where the best place to position your mics is. A long hallway outside the drum room might have a great alternative sound that can work for you. Throw up a few room microphones all over, record a few measures and see which ones work best.
We've covered some important aspects of recording one of the most complex instruments that us engineers face. The complicated puzzle of multiple types of microphones, placements and techniques is sure to make the beginner engineer nervous. But if we break it down into small pieces, looking at each drum as part of the puzzle and then combining it into one sound source we can more easily understand what makes drum recording such a difficult, but ultimately enjoyable subject.