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How to Record the Best Live Drum Sound Ever

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Read Time: 4 min

Recording drums is a bit of a lost art. Engineers used to spend a year experimenting with mics before they were allowed near a Fairlight or a Synclavia (old school samplers for the young among you).

There was no Logic Pro, plug-ins or even very good effects, so it was all down to clever mic techniques and improvisation. Here’s a few tricks I picked up over the years—tips and tricks which come in handy time and time again.

1. The Kick Drum Canon

Take the front skin off the bass drum. Get a roll of carpet or roll up a rug. It needs to be about 4 to 6 feet long. Roll it up so that there is a tunnel about 3 to 4 inches in diameter down the middle. Place one end just inside the drum and then place your mic just inside the tunnel at the other end. Try a few different mics. SM58s work well. Beta 52s or RE20s work better. You’ll still need to mic the skin itself with another mic, but this will give you a very distinctive and big sound.

2. The Scary Snare

Time to get clever with some gaffer tape. Take a small condensor mic like an AKG C451 and mount it inside an empty toilet roll tube. Make sure the mic doesn’t stick out past the end of the tube, it needs to be just inside. Mount this in the usual way, pointing at the upper snare skin. I’d still recommend using a SM57 on the bottom of the snare (don’t forget to reverse the phase). This should give you a very snappy snare sound with an unusual twist.

3. The Drummer’s Ear

This is simply a vocal condensor microphone mounted just behind the drummer’s head, slightly to one side so that it can pick up what the drummer hears. It’s always really handy to use this in the mix. I usually compress the hell out of it and just bring it into the blend a tiny bit. It really gives drums an edge. Play with the attack and release settings on the compressor on this to get a really great suck and blow drum sound which you can fade in and out when you like.

4. The Nosy Mic

I often set up a regular 58 on a mic stand just outside the door to the live room where the drummer is playing. Then I leave the door slightly open when we’re recording. Again, it sounds good when it’s heavily compressed and just eased into the mix a bit, and it’s good for breakdown sections.

5. The NS10 Kick Mic

Take a regular NS10 bass driver and wire it up to an XLR mic plug. Then mount the bass driver right up close to the kick drum skin (the outer skin, not the inner skin). Yes, we’re using the speaker as a mic… and it works! It will give you some serious bottom end to your kick drum. It works with other speakers, but the good old NS10 seems to sound the best.

6. On-Plane Overheads

This is more of a placement trick than anything else. Instead of mounting your overhead mics pointing down at the cymbals of your kit, mount them in front of the kit on the same plane as the cymbals but pointing at them from the front rather than the top. This lessens the amount of snare and toms that bleed into the overheads. Not ideal for every project, but useful when isolation is key.

7. Board It Out

If you’re using a carpeted room for recording drums, you might find it’s a bit too dead. Get a hold of a sheet of plywood and set the kit up on it. The reflections give a much brighter and livelier sound.

8. Lose the Ringing

If the snare or toms are ringing and you want to deaden them quickly, use a short length of PVC tape and make a little loop. Stick it on the skin at one of the edges where the drummer won’t hit it. Different sized loops attenuate different frequencies of ring. For stubborn rings and rattles on snares and toms, tape on some rolled up tissue paper.

9. The Phil Spector Snare

The old tambourine and snare in unison on every two and four beat was a staple of some huge tunes years ago and it still works now. You can save a pair of hands by just using gaffer tape to stick a tambourine to the outer shell of the snare at a right angle on the side that faces the hi-hat. The snare mic should pick it up quite well, but you can add a dedicated mic if needed.

10. The Can-Clamp Mic

This last one’s a bit mental. It’s one of my own inventions. Get a pair of closed headphones and wire up the cable so that it feeds out to mic sockets. Clamp the headphones on the snare drum so that one ear picks up the top and the other gets the bottom. Reverse the phase of the bottom mic using your desk or DAW, and there you have it—a very strange (but usable) snare sound. You sometimes have to tape them on as they can slide off.

There you go: 10 ideas to try next time you want to experiment with your live drum recordings.

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