Drum Heads: How to Record Trigger-Ready Drums

A new band called Seed started cutting rhythm tracks for their first major record at Sound Logic, my studio in Indiana. As the future mixing engineer, I thought I’d stop in during a tracking session to see how things were going. There was a huge Tama drum set miked up in the studio, and the tracking engineer was Scott Rottler—who is known for tuning a kit and getting stellar drum tones within a very short time. I was excited to hear how the drum tracks sounded, so I eagerly opened the control room door, and was assaulted by the most hideous, boxy sounds I’d ever heard.

I took Scott aside, and asked, “Are you okay? What’s with the drum tones?”

He replied, “Come back in an hour or so. You’ll see.”

Exactly 60 minutes later, I opened the door, and out came some of the best-sounding drum tracks I’d heard in a long time. What gives?

“The main reason the drums initially sounded so boxy and harsh is because they were tuned to serve as triggers,” explained Rottler. “I always intended to replace the original sounds with samples.”

Of course, that answer only made me wonder why Rottler didn’t just use traditional drum-trigger pads, rather than acoustic drums tuned to sound awful.

“I want to capture the full sound of the drum kit,” he said, “because I rely on the room mics to add the gloss and polish, and the triggered samples to contribute the velocity and tone of the individual sounds. So the drums that are going to be triggered need to be in tune when they’re picked up through the overheads and room mics (see Figure 1). I’m using a beautiful-sounding AKG C12 in front of the kit, and a Neumann U47 behind the kit to pick up all of the room tones. By working this way, I don’t have to deal with the overhead and room mics picking up the tick-tick sounds of the drummer hitting trigger pads. Also, the drummer is way more comfortable playing his own kit.”


Relying solely on a miked acoustic kit can be a challenge. For example, Seed performs quite a few metal songs, and many speed-metal players aren’t consistent enough with the way they hit the drums—especially when they’re using two kick drums. Triggering drum samples offers a relatively easy solution to some common drum-attack problems.

“It’s just not possible to get the same tone and timbre out of each kick drum—especially in certain blast beats, where the drummer is playing two kick drums very fast for a section of the song,” says Rottler. “Even if the kick drums are the same model, with the same heads, and both kicks are tuned the same way, it will be very hard for the drummer to apply an equal amount of pressure to each drum—which is the only way to get a consistent tone. It’s the same for fast tom rolls. It’s nearly impossible for a drummer to always hit each tom with equal power, and, as a result, the drums can sound weak.”


Rottler’s preparation begins with tuning the drums in order to get perfect samples for triggering later on. He does this half by ear by hitting notes on a piano positioned next to the drum kit, and half with a dynamic mic plugged into a guitar tuner.

“We’re going after great drum sounds for the sampling session,” he says, “so I mic the kit as I normally would, using Sennheiser E604s, E609s, and an AKG C 414 for the tom mics, AKG D 112s for the kick drums, and an AKG C 451 on the bottom of the snare with an E604 on the top. Then, we spent quite a bit of time having the drummer hit individual drums. When the source samples were completed, I adjusted everything to capture drum sounds that would be more conducive for triggering. I lowered the mics so that they were about a finger’s width away from the heads on all of the toms, and I used Moon Gel to deaden the heads as much as possible (see Figure 2). You could still hear the pitch of the toms, but after finding the right positioning of the Moon Gel, I didn’t have to worry about any resonance from the toms being picked up in the overheads and room mics. To further diminish signal bleed, I boosted 4kHz by about 6dB on the toms, and rolled everything off below 400Hz. I didn’t really care what the drums sounded like while recording, because I knew the drum samples were going to sound great once they were triggered with Digidesign’s SoundReplacer.”

To deaden the kick drums, Rottler relied on a very common item found in today’s recording studio—a pillow (see Figure 3).

“We packed both kicks full of pillows, and put the mic inside the shell, right on the back heads, and maybe two fingers off the beater,” says Rottler. “The kicks sounded very boxy, but all I cared about was getting the attack from the beater. Initially, I had the front heads taken off the kick drums, but the drummer said his pedals weren’t reacting the same, so we put them back on. Then, I then built an ‘acoustic shell’ using Auralex LENRDS bass traps that surrounded the front of the kicks to stop any sounds from bleeding into the room mics. I also rolled off everything below 200Hz in the overhead mics.”


There are tremendous advantages to recording drums tweaked for triggering, but let’s admit to one failing: The band has to listen to drums that sound “bad” throughout the tracking process.

“I’m very happy that Seed trusted me to try this,” admits Rottler. “Even though we tried listening back primarily to the room mics, we still had to turn up the bad-sounding trigger tracks in order to hear everything that was going on. The band members had to sit through two days of listening to floppy kicks and dead-ass toms before I got all of the triggered samples in place.”
And, as the drum samples were edited and snapped to a rhythm grid, the bliss of triggered drum samples was extremely apparent. For one thing, drummers can’t complain about the drum sound, because the source samples are constructed from their very own drums. However, if you want to change the pitch of the drums to better match the key of the song, it’s easy to use a plug-in such as SoundToys Pitch Doctor to “tune” the drums to a major third, fourth, or fifth. In addition, punching in is way easier, because the drummer doesn’t have to worry about matching the precise timbres of the already recorded tracks.

“We punched in a lot during the drum sessions, and there’s no way I could have been able to get the drummer hitting the kick drums and toms with a perfect, repeatable attack all day long,” says Rottler. “By not having to worry about the tones, the drummer was free to concentrate solely on the performance of his punches and overdubs, and that definitely made the punch-in process less stressful for him.”

To hear the recordings discussed in this article, visit Seed’s MySpace page atwww.myspace.com/seedfinklestein.