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Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 1

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If there's one instrument that producers and engineers alike seem to obsess over, it's the drum kit. And well they should since drums are the heartbeat of virtually all modern music. Wimpy sounding drums can make the entire recording sound wimpy regardless of how well everything else is recorded, so proper attention to the drums has become the primary requirement when tracking basics.


Also available in this series:

  1. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 1
  2. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 2
  3. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 3
  4. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 4
  5. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 5: It’s All In the Mix

In this post we'll look at some of the most overlooked aspects of drum recording, while the next one we'll look more at microphone placement nuances.

Here's what you'll learn in this post:

  • What a good drum kit sounds like
  • Drum tuning tips
  • Drum placement in the room
  • The best headphone mix for the drummer
  • How to record without headphones
  • Whether to use a click track or not
  • The benefits of a click track
  • What's the best click sound
  • How to prevent click bleed into the headphones

The Keys To A Great Sounding Drum Kit

Most drummers' kits simply don't record well for any number of reasons. Whether it's because of old beat up heads (the worst offender), bad tuning, uneven bearing edges of the shells, or defective hardware, drums that might be adequate or even great sounding in a live situation don't always make the cut when put under the scrutiny of the recording studio.

While many producers and engineers are willing to spend whatever time it takes to make the drums sound great, most just don't have the know-how or the time to improve the sound of the set before it gets under the mics. That even goes for top pros and as a result, virtually all big budget projects either rent a kit specifically for recording or hire a drum tuner, because no matter how great your signal chain is, if the drum sound in the room doesn't cut it, then there's not much the engineer can do to help (despite what the makers of outboard gear, plug-ins and drum replacement apps might tell you). I'm assuming you don't have access to one of the great drum tuners, so the first thing you have to ask yourself is, "Just what constitutes a great sounding drum kit?"


Tuning Tips

While the definition of great is different to different people, in the studio it usually means a kit that is well-tuned and free of buzzes and sympathetic vibrations. This means that when you hit the a rack tom, the snare doesn't buzz and the other toms don't ring along, and if you hit the snare, the toms don't ring along. So how do you achieve this drum nirvana? It's all in the tuning and the kit maintenance.

Here are a few tuning tips to tame those puppies down, courtesy of the famous Ross Garfield, otherwise known as Hollywood's famous "Drum Doctor:

  1. First of all, change the heads on all the drums before the session begins. It's the single most important thing you can do since old heads are the primary reason for bad sounding drums.
  2. If the snares buzz when the toms are hit:
    • Check that the snares are straight.
    • Check to see if the snares are flat and centered on the drum.
    • Loosen the bottom head.
    • Retune the offending toms.
  3. If the kick drum isn't punchy and lacks power in the context of the music:
    • Try increasing and decreasing the amount of muffling in the drum, or try a different blanket or pillow.
    • Change to a heavier, uncoated head like a clear Emperor or PowerStroke 3.
    • Change to a thinner front head or one with a larger cutout.
    • Have the edges recut to create more attack.
  4. If one or more of the toms are difficult to tune or has an unwanted "growl":
    • Check the top heads for dents and replace as necessary.
    • Check the evenness of tension all around on the top and bottom heads.
    • Tighten the bottom head.
    • Have the bearing edges checked and recut as required.

If you follow this advice, you'll be surprised just how good ANY kit can sound in less than an hour.


Placing The Kit In The Room

If you do nothing else, positioning your kit in the best acoustic place in the room will do wonders for the sound. More than just about any other instrument, the drums depend upon the acoustic environment they live in, so even if you can't pick a great room to record in, at least you can find the best spot in the room to place the drums.

What you're looking for is a spot where the drums or acoustic instrument sounds relatively live without any of the room cancellations. Try these following steps to find the best room placement:

  1. It's usually best to stay out of a corner. The corner normally causes "bass loading", meaning that the low frequencies will be increased because of the reflections causing your kick and floor tom to be louder than the other drums. This can also lead to increased ringing and snare buzzing, both of which we don't want. That being said, don't rule the corner out without trying it first since the extra fullness of the kick might be just the thing you're looking for in certain situations.
  2. Find the place in the room with the smoothest decay. A good engineer will usually test a room by walking around and clapping his hands. That's a good way to find a place in the room that's has a nice even reverb decay. If the clap has a "boing" to it (a funny overtone), then so will your drums when they're played, so it's best to try another place in the room.
  3. Ideally, you don't want to be too close to a wall. The reflections (or absorption if the wall is soft) can change the sound of the kit. The middle of the room usually works best.
  4. Ideally, you want the place in the room with the ceiling height is the highest. If the ceiling is vaulted, try placing your drums or acoustic instrument in the middle of the vault first, then move as needed.
  5. Whatever you do, stay away from glass if you can. Glass will give you the most unwanted reflections of just about any material. If you have no choice because of the way the room or the band is situated, try setting up the kit at a 45° angle to the glass.

The Headphone Mix

The headphone mix (sometimes call "Cue Mix") for the drummer is uniquely different from any of the other players, so it requires a bit more attention as a result. Plus, there are a few tricks that you can use that will help him perform better.

The first thing is to make sure that the kick is loud enough in the mix in the phones. It should be a bit on the loud side so that he doesn't overhit it in order to hear it. Be careful though - If it's too loud, you'll probably get a weak and uneven kick drum performance. The other things that should be louder than normal are the bass and any percussion instruments either previously recorded or being recorded with the drums. Make sure that the other instruments or more in the background. The vocal is just a guide so it should also be tucked under the bass and kick, unless there are specific cues or instruction that the drummer needs from the vocalist.


Personal Headphone Mixes

Perhaps the best thing to come along in recent years has been the introduction of the relatively inexpensive personal headphone systems. These systems allow the musician to control the headphone mix by supplying him with up to 8 channels to control. Each headphone mixer/box also contains a headphone amplifier that can (depending upon the product) provide earsplitting level. Manufacturers include Furman, Oz Audio, Aviom and Hear Technologies (See Figure 1).

It's best to provide a stereo monitor mix (what you're listening to in the control room) as well as kick, snare, vocal, and whatever other instruments are pertinent, but don't make it too complicated. A musician can get just as frustrated with a personal monitor mix and any other mix if they're not good at dialing up what they need. That's why most of these devices work on the "more me" principle where the stereo mix that you provide is the best place to start from, and the drummer can just dial more of the drums or other instruments if there's not enough to suit his tastes.


Figure 1 Hearback Headphone System

Recording Without Headphones

Many bands are so used to playing live on stage that they just can't get used to, and get their best performance, with headphones. Here's a way that allows them to get what they need while recording without having to put tiny speakers on their heads.

  • The key to not using headphones in a spread out recording situation is to keep the amps about 10 feet behind the players, but get the players sitting or standing pretty close to the drums. The visual of everyone that close together helps as well as minimizing the acoustic delay times that occur when you spread the players out too far.
  • If there are two guitar players, set them up on opposite sides of the kit. This will provide a better stereo picture for the leakage.
  • At times, a floor monitor (like at a gig) will work well for scratch vocal. Sometimes if you're trying to place the singer in the same room with the band, you'll get a better performance. Just like the guitar and bass amps, you may need to move it around to get the best balance.
  • Most of the time the singer will actually gravitate to the spot in the room where the band's balance is best.

To Click Or Not To Click

The click track, or recording while listening to a metronome, has become a fact of life in most recording. It'll be a debate that will last until the end of time regarding whether it's best to record with or without a click track, but most drummers today have at least some experience at playing to click.

Here are the benefits to cutting a track to a click:

  1. The tempo is more even so the song can feel better as a result (more on this later).
  2. Because of the even tempo, it's easier to cut and paste between different takes to obtain a superior performance.
  3. During mixing, it's easier for the engineer to time delays and reverbs to the track so they blend better.

The major downside of cutting to a click with a drummer who's not comfortable with it is that the track can sound stiff and machine like. You can have perfect time, but if the song doesn't feel good, none of the above benefits matter much.

While it's easy to believe that every hit song has an even tempo, that's not the case at all. I found the following graphs on a post called "In Search of the Click Track" that had some plots showing the tempo deviations from the average tempo for a number of songs. It's pretty easy to see where machines set the tempo and where it was all human clock.

The first example is a comparison between a Police song ("So Lonely') and a Britney Spears song ("I Love Rock n' Roll"). There's a huge deviation between Stewart Copland's playing (he's always been ahead of the beat and it sure is in evidence here) and virtually none in the Britney song, which is obviously a machine.


If we look at "Ya Ya" by jazz great Art Blakey, we see that the guy is as solid as a rock and as close to perfect as a human can get without playing to a click.


Charlie Watt's playing on "Sympathy For The Devil" is all over the place, but it's always felt pretty good to me and I never would have thought you'd find a deviation like this. It's a 17 bpm difference between the beginning and ending of the song!


But Nickelback, on the other hand, is obviously playing to a click, and the time hardly budges. The track feels great so the click is obviously not an issue.


The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" proves that Keith Moon was playing along with a sequenced synth (you can see him wearing headphones during live concert videos of the song). The thing is, he could really do it well as he still made the song feel good, even despite his unorthodox style.


So what can we learn from these charts? If the feel is good, so is the song. Tempo variations are mentally overlooked by the listener under the right circumstances, and a solid steady tempo doesn't necessarily sound boring. Each song is unique, and therefore the question of "To click or not to click" remains unanswered because there is no answer.

I believe that the difference between a good drummer and a bad one is how good his internal clock is. That is, if the drummer can play steady and even within himself (where the snare and hat always hit in the same place relative to the kick drum, despite the tempo), the drummer will be considered "solid." I think these charts prove that what makes a song is not a tempo thing, it's a feel thing. A good drummer equals a good feel, but a good drummer may not always equal a good tempo.

Playing to a click can present a number of problems however, like leakage of the click into the mics, and the fact that some people just can't play on time to save their lives.


Making the Click Cut Through The Mix

Many times just providing a metronome in the phones isn't enough. What good is a click if you can't hear it, or worse yet, groove to it? Here are some tricks to make the click not only listenable, but cut through the densest mixes and seem like another instrument in the track too.

  • Pick The Right Sound.
  • Something that's more musical than an electronic click is better to groove to. Try either a cowbell, sidestick, or even a conga slap. Needless to say, when you pick a sound to replace the click, it should fit with the context of the song. Many drummers like two sounds for the click; something like a high go-go bell for the downbeat and a low go-go bell for the other beats or vice-versa.

  • Pick The Right Number Of Clicks Per Bar.
  • Some players like 1/4 notes while others play a lot better with 8ths. Whichever it is, it will work better if there's more emphasis on the downbeat (beat 1) than on the other beats.

  • Make It Groove.
  • By adding a little delay to the click you can make it swing a bit and it won't sound so stiff. This makes it easier for players that normally have trouble playing to a click. As a side benefit, this can help make any bleed that does occur less offensive as it will seem like part of the song.


Preventing Click Bleed

OK, now the click cuts through the mix but it does it so well that it's bleeding into the mics. You'll find this mostly with drummers (who usually want to hear it at near ear-splitting levels) and string players (who play very quietly and therefore need the gain of the mics turned up). Try the following:

  • Try a different set of headphones. Try a pair that has a better seal. The Sony 7506 phones provide a fairly good seal, but the Metrophones "Studio Kans" , the Vic Firth S1H1's (see Figure 2) or even the Radio Shack "Racing Headphones" (they're mono though), will all isolate a click from bleeding into nearby mics.
  • Run the click through an equalizer and roll off the high end just enough to cut down on the bleed.

Figure 2 Vic Firth S1H1's

The following is for players other than drummers.

  • Have the players use one-eared headphones.
    Many times players will leave the phones loose so they can hear what's going on with the other players in the room. If they can have click in one ear (in the headphone) that's sealed closely to the head, then they get the live room sound in their free ear. One-eared phones have become almost standard for ensemble recording for horn and string sections, and are sometimes preferred by vocal groups as well (see Figure 3).
  • Send the click to just one player (like the drummer or the conductor) and let him/her communicate the click to the band/orchestra.

Figure 3 Beyer Single-Eared Headphone

If all else fails, try this method. It might provide the loosest feel and best groove since the drummer will end up playing to himself.

  1. Put a single mic in the room.
  2. Play the song three times with the click and record it on a single track only!
  3. Choose the best version of the three versions.
  4. Use this track for the drummer to play to instead of a click.

Using the above method, the drummer can hear the rest of the band and play along through headphones so that there should be very little bleed. Once the drums are recorded, the session can progress as normal.


When A Click Won't Work

Let's face it, not many people like to play to a click. It's unnatural and doesn't breath like real players do. But in this world of drum machines, sequencers and DAWs, most musicians have grown used to playing with a metronome and good players are pretty good at it.

But there are those times, and those players (and it's usually the drummer), where a click just won't work. The performance suffers so much that you get something that's not worth recording. No problem. Don't get obsessed with the click or the fact that the tempo fluctuates without it. Many, many great hits have been recorded without a click and with wavering tempos (What A Fool Believes, a Song Of The Year Grammy winner for The Doobie Brothers, comes to mind). Remember, feel and vibe are what makes the track, not perfection.

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