Recording huge drum sounds in a home studio is something like The Ultimate Struggle. You typically don’t have fabulous microphones, and the recording space is usually your dining room, living room, or garage. So you may decide to go the loop-and-sample route, royally pissing off your (hopefully) loyal drummer, and causing the band to perhaps revise all the parts the members had worked out to groove with the drummer’s feel and his or her specific input into the songs. You don’t have to do that— unless you want to, that is.
It is totally possible to get some bombastic drum sounds at home with less-than-insanely expense microphones if you follow a few simple recording and processing guidelines. You can record your songs the way you’ve always played them, keeping your drummer rocking to the material the band has worked on together, and retaining that wonderful vibe that occurs when a good band plays a good song. Here’s one way to go about it. . . .
Don’t worry about them. Great mics are wonderful, but if you don’t have them (or can’t borrow them), don’t sweat it. Except for almost toy-like models, most mics can at least deliver a clean and relatively clear sound.
Start with the snare. Find a suitable dynamic mic, and position it about a half inch off the drumhead, pointed from the drummer’s left arm towards the kick pedal. Look for a relatively dry and clean swack. The next critical element is the kick drum. If all you have is another small- to mid-sized dynamic mic, don’t sweat it. Larger models, such as a Sennheiser MD421 or an AKG D112 can capture great wallop and boom, but even a Shure SM57 can give you enough kick attack and bass to serve up a rockin’ drum sound. Tighter kick sounds can be achieved if the front head is off (or if there’s a “mic hole” cut into the head), and more boomy and resonant sounds are produced when the head is left on. Start by positioning the mic somewhere near the midpoint of the drum shell, and angled inward towards the rear head. Amend the positioning until you get a nice, big smack or punch.
Finally, position a mic in front of the kit, three feet away, and at about the height of the drummer’s chest. This mic will capture the overall sound of the kit, as well as some nice room ambience. If possible, keep the ambience to a minimum. A little is cool, but too much may wash out the drum sound, and we need to get maximum impact from the three mics we’ve used.
At this point, your unaffected drum sounds should be tight, clear, clean, and punchy. If not, reposition the mics until you hear some slammin’ tones. Try to avoid using EQ, but if you hear too much mud or edginess, go for subtractive EQ at the offending frequencies. In other words, try to cut, rather than boost, but do whatever is needed to make the drums rage.
A decent compressor or compression plug-in will help dial in punch and impact. Set compression to taste on each track (a good start for aggro sounds is a 4:1 ratio at a –10dB threshold with a fast attack and release), but route the compression returns to dedicated stereo tracks. At mixdown, you’ll want to be able to blend the uncompressed drum sound with the compressed sound to taste. It’s kind of like “doubling” the drum track, although this trick works best when the compressed sound is just audible enough to add punch.
Now, let’s go after some John Bonham-style ambience. Find a nice room or hall program, assign it prefader to the “room-mic” track (so you get all effect and zero dry source sound), and, once again, return the reverb signal on separate stereo tracks. You’re working with some big wet stuff, and you don’t want to wash out the drums. The trick is to subtly fade in the reverb so that you initially hear the dry-ish impact of the kit, and then perceive a beautiful decay in the background. If everything works out right with your blends of source sound, compression, and reverb, you should get a marvelously articulate punch that sounds Zeppelin big—and all recorded in your home with three mics and some studio magic.