Enhance the Source
This is one of those unavoidable situations where a crap source sound will produce a puny and horrible result— no matter how much you process the disaster later on. So, if your drummer hasn’t changed his or her heads since the Clinton presidency, it’s time for some tough love. Aging heads tend to sound paper-y, ringy, and unfocused, and the old guys usually have a tough time cutting through a mix with explosive impact. A good set of fresh heads, however, should provide a foundation of resonance and tone from which to capture a tremendous boom.
Unfortunately, crafting a great tom sound doesn’t stop with buying new heads. Sooner or later, you must deal with the sublime torture of tuning those pups. Here’s the typical dilemma: Some drummers are great at tuning drums, and some drummers suck at it. In the drum-toneand- click-track obsessed ’80s, engineers would sometimes kick the drummers off the throne, and start cranking the drum keys themselves. While a few engineers were adept at terminating rings, buzzes, and other anomalies, the activity didn’t do a lot for retaining the “tonal personality” of the drummer.
My tactic is to let drummers tune their drums, but if ringing or flappy sounds compromise the recording, I’ll step in and suggest taping heads, muffling heads, or leaving one tuning peg completely loose—all the stuff engineers have done for ages to rein in fractured drum sounds. You may want a specific tom sound that the drummer isn’t getting, and choose to tune everything yourself. There’s no right or wrong—unless the drummer pounds your face in for messing with his or her tone—but keep in mind that whatever sound goes in, will very likely come out. This is about recording technology—not magic.
Choose the Right Mic
Obviously, the mic is a critical component of the signal chain. Audition dynamics, condensers, and ribbons to see which types of mics deliver the most glorious impact. I’ve had great luck on rack toms with those small, clip-on dynamic mics. They usually capture a snappy swack as the stick hits the head, as well as a warm, low-mid resonance. For floor toms, I like a large-diaphragm dynamic— such as a Sennheiser MD421 or an Electro-Voice RE20—in order to document a meatier thud and boom. However, I’ve also had great luck with large-diaphragm condensers (if I want a bit more midrange and highend resolution and a hint of room sound) and ribbons (for a more organic sound).
Put the Mic In Its Place
Whether you go for a clip-on or the ol’ mic-on-boom-stand routine, a classic method is to position the mic about an inch over the top rim, and pointing towards the head. If the drummer has two heads, use a mirror image of this technique for the bottom head, but take care that phasing doesn’t rear its head and “thin out” the combinedmic tone. Always listen carefully to the sound the mics and mic positions deliver, and don’t be afraid to move mics up, back, sideways, down, or forward if the resulting sound prompts you to shout, “Oh, yeah!” Experimenting is key—as is joy.
A good, vibey compressor is a wonderful tool for dialing in thick, warm, and resonant tom sounds. But that same wonderful device can also screw you big time if you go nuts and squash the sound too much. Too much of a good thing can bring the snare, cymbal, kick, and hi-hat sounds into your tom track, limiting the amount you can boost the toms in the mix without also bringing up a wash of everything else. (On the other hand, the messy, squashed thud and sizzle approach didn’t hurt those early Who records.) Start at a ratio of 2:1, and a threshold of –3dB, and then tweak until the toms knock you out of your chair.
As with compression, you should take care not to slaughter your toms with indistinct waterfalls of reverb. However, a tight small-plate can add a bit of dimension and sustain to each tom hit. If the reverb program is too bright or diffuse, tweak the parameters until you get a subtle, yet powerful slap that intensifies the ramrod effect of the drummer’s majestic pounding.