Capturing the Kit

Practical advice for recording drum kits. It breaks the process down into four component parts—the drummer, the drums, the recording room, and the recording gear—and shows you how to maximize each of them to improve your overall results.
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The drum set is generally considered the most difficult instrument to record well. One reason for this is that a drum kit is a hodge-podge of many instruments: typically four or more drums, a half-dozen or so cymbals, and any number of bells, blocks, and other percussion instruments. The resulting “instrument” produces a huge range of sounds. In terms of frequency alone, a drum kit can cover the entire audible spectrum, from the rib-rattling lows of a big kick drum to the shimmering, harmonic-rich highs of the cymbals. And don't forget the snare and toms, which nicely fill out the mid-range.

The drum set is also capable of producing extremes in dynamic range: on the one end, the whisper of brushes; on the other, the potentially deafening pound of a bass drum. Add to that the challenge of integrating the sounds of so many disparate pieces. Although the drum set is considered a single instrument (based on how it is played), in terms of recording, it is considered both as one instrument and as many.

Is it any wonder, then, that the drum kit's complex blend of sounds has given rise to so many different recording techniques? For those people trying to educate themselves about drum recording, the problem, ironically, is a glut of information: countless books, articles, and interviews, each with a different take, a different favorite microphone (typically one that is too expensive), and, of course, contradictory advice.

If that information overload has you in a pickle, you've come to the right place. The following “holistic” approach to recording drums simplifies the process, helping you get the best sound with the least amount of hassle (and gear). I assume you are a personal-studio operator working without an assistant rather than a professional recording engineer. You probably have only a handful of mics at your disposal, and you might be forced by space limitations to track in the same room where the recording gear is set up. No matter. This approach will help you get the most from the tools you have and capture a drum sound you can be proud of.

FREE YOURSELF

One way to make anything easier is to reduce the fear of failure. To get over any trepidation you might have about recording a drum kit, remember that there is no right or wrong when it comes to recording drum-set sounds. The only “right” drum sound is the one that works best for a given song. Sometimes that results from a stellar kit surrounded by a dozen or more microphones and processed with a ton of gear. Other times it results simply from a brush smacking a phone book miked with an inexpensive dynamic mic. Either way, it's the song that dictates the drum sou nds, and not the other way around — unless, of course, the song began with, or was inspired by, a drum beat.

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Fig. 1: You can capture a surprisingly good-sounding drum track using only a single, high-quality condenser mic positioned in front of a drum kit.

Just as there are no right or wrong drum sounds, there are no rules for recording drums — at least ones that can't be, and haven't been, successfully broken. Let that fact free your mind so that your creative juices flow. The world is always open to a new drum sound.

That said, there are some general recording rules you should follow. Being general, they hold true for recording any instrument. The two most important ones are to avoid phase problems and maximize the signal-to-noise ratio for each channel. (I'll expand on these two points later in the article.)

SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY

Although drum recording can be as complex and exacting as the inner workings of a Rolex, some of the finest drum sounds ever recorded were captured using a minimum of gear. Consider, for example, any number of tracks from Sun Records, Motown, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. The point is that unless you are a seasoned drum recordist, it is often best to opt for taking the simplest path.

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Fig. 2: Usually the quickest and easiest stereo-mic setup, an XY pair positioned over a drum kit will capture a stereo image complete with movement and a realistic sense of the space.

BREAK IT DOWN

A way to simplify drum recording is to break the process down into parts. That helps organize things, and keeps your eye on the big picture.

You can break down any kit recording into four key components, each of which is fundamental to the quality of the finished recording. These components are the drummer, the drums, the recording room, and the recording gear. Having a serious problem with any one of those four elements can doom your efforts, no matter how good the other parts are. In other words, you can't shrug on any of them.

If, however, you're recording a great drummer playing a well-tuned set of quality drums in a room with good sound, most of your worries are over. All you have to do is capture the resulting sound.

For most of us, though, the confluence of a great drummer, great drums, a great room, and great mics is an uncommon occurrence at best. Be prepared, therefore, to bolster the quality of each component.

THE DRUMMER

Generally speaking, the better the drummer, the better tuned the drums will be, and the more musical the cymbals will sound. Nevertheless, it's astonishing how great a crappy old drum set can sound in the hands of a seasoned pro. Indeed, a gifted and inspired drummer can make all the difference in how your recording turns out — no matter what you record it with. Conversely, all the killer gear in the world can't salvage a bad performance.

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Fig. 3: The 3-to-1 rule, meant to minimize phase problems, is helpful any time you need to put two or more microphones in close proximity.

You should therefore do whatever it takes to get the best from a player. In addition to being personable and helpful, you should see to the drummer's basic creature comforts such as providing fresh water to drink, pleasant lighting, and comfortable room temperature. A relaxed musician is closer to his or her muse than a distracted one.

THE DRUMS

If the drums don't sound good from the start, then there's work to be done — sometimes a lot. Can you hear squeaks and rattles as the drummer plays? Locate and squelch them. If the drumheads are full of dents and sound dead, have them replaced. If the cymbals sound unmusical or just wrong for the song, get better ones. (Yes, you should be listening for such things.) Have a drum key ready and offer to help if the drummer doesn't know how to tune the drums well.

In some cases it might be best to postpone the recording session to allow enough time to get the drums sounding their best. The sound of the kit, after all, is a key component of the final recorded sound. As the recordist, it's your responsibility to listen carefully and ensure that the sound coming from the kit is as good as it can reasonably be, and certainly not marred by readily “fixable” things.

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Fig. 4: The sound that the snare mic picks up will be determined not only by the particular drum and mic, but also by where the mic is aimed, its angle, and how close it is to the drum. Start with the mic cap two inches above the head, angled 30 or 40 degrees, and aimed just shy of center.

Given the fundamental role of drums in contemporary music styles, it makes sense that engineers, especially self-starters, learn how drums work and how to tune them. The basics are not hard to grasp. (See the sidebar “Drum Tuning 101” for a quick lesson.) If you want to learn to record the drum set well, it helps immeasurably to become familiar with its many parts and how they function.

Once all the drums are well tuned and any squeaks and rattles are tamed, you might also need to dampen one or more of them. A well-tuned drum, especially if it's of a good quality, will resonate freely, and will produce a much longer decay than a poorly tuned drum. Those free-ringing toms probably will not present a problem if you are miking only from a distance (with stereo overheads, for example). Close-miking, however, can present certain problems: for example, even when the toms aren't being played, they resonate sympathetically with the other drums, which gets picked up by the close mics, resulting in a murky rumble that can spoil the kit sound. (In certain jazz settings, however, that rumble might be regarded as part of the sound — and the drummer would have your head for tampering with it.)

Most drummers dampen their kick and snare drums, at least a little, as a matter of course. But be prepared to dampen further, if necessary. Common items for dampening kick drums include blankets and pillows (down pillows usually sound best), strips of felt (running beneath one or both heads), and various patented dampening systems. “O-rings” — donut-shaped pieces of Mylar, cut the same diameter as the drum head — are good for dampening snare drums. O-rings can quickly be laid on top of the drum or removed, as needed. They also allow the drummer access to the full playing surface of the snare drum.

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Fig. 5: The area on any drum head nearest the rim will ring freely and have a preponderance of high harmonics. The area between the rim and center will produce the most resonance, and the area at the center of the drum head will sound driest and produce the most attack.

To dampen toms, tape a folded cotton handkerchief, a small rectangle of foam rubber, or some similar material (tissue, cotton gauze) onto the top of the drum head, close to the rim and away from the drummer. In most cases, a small amount of material taped an inch or so from the rim is sufficient; to increase dampening, move the material toward the center of the drum, use more material or do both. Tip: use sturdy masking tape or some other type that's easy to remove — duct tape will muck up heads and hardware. (See the sidebar “Engineer's [Secret] Drum Toolkit” for some useful items to keep on hand.)

THE ROOM

Along with making the kit sound its best, you also have to consider the recording space and how it affects the drum sound. Sound can't exist in a vacuum; it is always part and parcel with the surfaces reflecting it (an effect made eerily clear in anechoic chambers, in which you can hardly hear yourself speak). The drum set is usually played loudly, making room reflections more apparent. The room can't help but be a component of the drum sound; it's impossible for its “sonic imprint” not to appear on the tracks. Without fail, you will be working with — or against — that imprint at every stage of the mix.

In short, the kit has to sound good in the room. Fortunately, this part of the puzzle can be enhanced with practically no knowledge of acoustics. You just need ears and a willingness to experiment.

The goal is simple: find the place where the drums sound “best” in the room. Of course, if they happen to sound great just where they're sitting, then you can advance directly to Go. The idea, after all, is to improve the sound. Just as the slightest movement of a microphone can result in a big change in what the mic hears, relatively small changes in the orientation of a drum kit inside a room can make significant differences in the overall sound.

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Fig. 6: All directional mics naturally form a null point, or an area at which no sound is picked up, behind the front of the diaphragm. This can be used to your advantage when you need to isolate one mic's pickup from another's—a most useful technique on close-miked drums.

Sure, moving the drums from one spot to the next can be a hassle. But if you care about getting the best sound, it's worth it. Finding the “sweet spot” for the drum kit is something that can hardly be done without experimentation. True, the more you do experiment, the easier it gets, and in time you will develop a sixth sense about it. (Experienced drummers often instinctively set up in the best-sounding spot.) But ultimately, rooms are quirky and unpredictable, and you'll find that experimentation will yield surprising results.

The main thing to listen for is a favorable balance between the kick, toms, and snare drum. Turn the snares off so you can better hear the drums ringing. Is anything noticeably out of whack in terms of volume, resonance, or decay? If so, try a different location. Does one of the drums cause the snares to buzz excessively? Repositioning the drum set — or just that one drum — might solve the problem. Is the kick drum lacking in oomph? Try setting up the kit so that the drummer sits in a corner looking out into the room (assuming a rectangular room, that is). Are the toms sounding thin? Try pulling the kit more toward the center of the space. Is the room just not working for you? Then find another. I have rented church halls (surprisingly affordable), warehouses, and art galleries to get the drum sound I was after.

The other side of the coin is acoustical treatment for the room. You can tame, for example, nasty flutter echoes with judicious placement of acoustical foam rubber. Don't have the budget for that? Try hanging blankets, thick curtains, or rugs from the walls or the ceiling (or both), or positioning large pieces of furniture, full bookshelves, or what have you around the room so as to deaden it. If the room is too dead sounding — a small, thickly carpeted and curtained study, for example — try such things as arranging large wood panels along one or more of the walls, setting up the drums on a wooden riser, or both — anything to provide some helpful reflective surfaces.

THE GEAR

Many assume that gear is the most important component in capturing a good drum sound; more specifically, the mics and mic preamps. Good mics and preamps are a tremendous help, but as long as the source sound is less than desirable, that's all your good mics and preamps will capture — something less than desirable.

We're trying to make drum recording easier, so let's start by paring the signal chain down to the basics. All you really need for each channel is a microphone, or mic preamp, and a track to record on. Leave your compressors, EQs, and other doo-dads for the mix. That saves time, and it forces you to find the best mic (and mic position) for the job, as well as to set the gain properly on the preamp.

Setting the gain right is no big mystery, but you do need to pay attention. While the drummer is playing at record volume, simply dial in the hottest levels you can get for each track — for the whole song — before peak distortion. That's called maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio.

Note the differences between digital and analog level setting. Analog tape has a higher noise floor (hiss) than digital recorders, so it's especially important to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio when recording to tape. After all, the hotter the signal, the less tape noise you hear.

In fact, drums are typically recorded “hot” (above 0 VU, that is) to tape to create a particular sound. The hot signals saturate the tape, which flattens out transients, resulting in a compressed sound that many engineers and musicians favor, especially on kick, toms, and snare. (Overheads and hats are usually recorded “colder,” to preserve the accuracy of transients.) You should familiarize yourself with the tape machine, because decks differ in how they handle distortion (based on tape size, tape speed, types of heads, and so on). But generally speaking, any decent multitrack tape recorder will let you run drum levels +3 or more into the red with no problem; indeed, that's where the sound starts getting good.

With digital you never want to go “into the red.” In other words, make sure that the drummer's hardest hits register close to 0 on the meters (so you use up as many bits as possible), but not above it. Unlike analog distortion, the sound of digital distortion is never pleasant. Fortunately, even if you do get a few digital peaks, you might be all right. Most digital recording devices allow a few decibels of headroom above the red before distortion kicks in. Moreover, distortion from a few peaking drum hits might not be audible anyway, due to the fast transient nature of loud hits. So if peaking is there but you can't hear it — both before and after processing the track — then don't worry about it.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPONS

Next comes determining how many mics you will need to work with and where you should put them on the kit. First, sort the mics by type; use dynamic microphones (moving-coil mics, not ribbons) for close-miking duties and condenser mics on everything else.

There are several reasons that dynamic mics are generally preferable for close-miking. They can better handle the extreme SPLs generated by hard-hit drums, and they're less likely to be damaged by stick hits. In addition, dynamics typically provide better rear rejection, and they often feature a presence boost around 5 kHz, which helps accentuate the attack of the stick striking the head. Because they are directional mics positioned close to the drums, they can enhance the low end as well (thanks to the proximity effect).

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Fig. 7: When miking both the snare drum and hi-hat, you can minimize leakage by using directional mics and angling them slightly away from one another.

Condenser mics are typically more sensitive and accurate than dynamics. Thanks to their extended frequency response (especially on the high end) and more accurate handling of transients, they capture the true sound of instruments better, whether at close range or from a distance. That makes them ideal for hi-hats, overheads, and room mics, as well as for miking percussion arrays.

Alas, condensers are also more costly and fragile than moving-coil mics. You should think twice about putting even modern condensers, some of which can handle surprisingly high SPLs, within reach of flailing drum sticks. With drummers whose playing you trust, however, you can use condenser mics on kick, snare, and toms and get great sounds. The only potential problem is leakage — no matter how tight the polar pattern, condensers usually capture more sound than you want coming from the rest of the kit (and the room).

As for microphone sizes, the only rule you need to follow is to reserve your largest-diaphragm mic (usually a dynamic) for the kick drum. Ideally that will be a mic designed for bass drum or other low-frequency duties. But if all you have is an assortment of handheld dynamics, you should audition them all to see which gives you the lowest, most authoritative kick sound. The same goes for determining which mics are best for the snare and toms; you just never know until you've tried each mic in each position.

It's advisable to reserve a few hours for mic testing before the session begins, especially if you're new to drum recording. Only by systematically testing various positions with each mic (and keeping careful notes, of course) can you determine what's going to give you the best results.

ONE, TWO, THREE?

Do not despair if you have only one microphone, especially if it's a condenser. You can get a great drum sound from a single, high-quality condenser mic placed strategically near the drum kit. In this case you are mixing drum levels on the spot, so listen carefully to the tonal balance as you position the mic. You are also mixing ambience — the further back the mic is from the drum kit, the more room sound it captures.

Start with the mic a few feet in front of the drums, five or six feet above the floor, and tilted down a bit so as to include some kick drum (see Fig. 1). That's usually a good single-mic position because it lets you get the most kick in the mix. Other viable positions are behind and above the drummer. Try recording a minute or so of drumming from all three positions — in front, behind, and above the kit — and compare the results. Then make your decision based on what works best for the music. If the song features an important tom fill, for instance, you might prefer the overhead position because it highlights attack from the toms.

If you have two identical or very similar mics, you also have two good options: either put one mic on the kick drum and the other positioned as just described, or use the pair as stereo overheads. Allow the musical style to determine which approach is better. For example, you might take the former setup for a dance tune, and the latter for a jazz ballad.

THE STEREO EFFECT

Stereo recording is a huge topic unto itself, and one deserving of study by any recordist. But it's especially worth the effort when you are limited to only a few mics, or any time a natural sound is desired. (For more information on stereo recording, see “Double Your Pleasure” in the June 2000 EM, available at www.emusician.com.)

Two simple but effective stereo-miking techniques are XY coincident and AB stereo. Both techniques require two identically modeled microphones, preferably a matched pair of condensers (although I've captured some great-sounding drum-overhead tracks using mismatched mics; generally speaking, though, use like mics).

Directional polar patterns — cardioid, hypercardioid, and supercardioid — work best for XY coincident techniques, whereas any polar pattern can work for an AB pair (though traditionally, each mic is set to the same pattern).

The XY coincident technique is usually easiest because the two mic capsules are positioned as closely together as possible (coincident). That eliminates time-of-arrival (phase) differences between the left and right signals, thus maintaining the frequency response even when the signals are summed to mono.

The “XY” refers to the orientation of the mics, which often are adjusted with a 90-degree angle between the two caps (see Fig. 2). But don't hesitate to experiment with the angle — I often stretch it out to 110 degrees or greater to get a more dramatic stereo spread. Typically, the XY pair is positioned a few feet above the drummer's head, pointed down at the kit. Raise the pair higher to capture more room sound, or lower to get a closer, more focused kit sound. Also, experiment with the mics positioned a bit behind or in front of the drum set.

The AB stereo setup, also called a spaced pair, is more challenging because of the risk of phase discrepancies between the left and right signals. But this bugaboo can foil any drum recording employing two or more mics — not just stereo tracks.

The trick in avoiding phase discrepancies is to heed the 3-to-1 rule, which states that the distance between any two mics should be at least three times the distance between the mics and the sound source (see Fig. 3). In rooms that are small, acoustically dead, or both, I prefer omnidirectional mics for spaced overheads; in larger, more reverberant spaces, I typically opt for directional mics.

COUNT THE WAYS

If you have three mics and two of them are identical, use the like pair as overheads and put the third mic on the kick drum. There are several workable positions for the kick mic: in front of the drum, slightly inside it, all the way inside it, and behind the drum. Try them all out, and get familiar with how each affects the sound differently (see the sidebar “Milking the Kick Mic”). Then you're more prepared to handle whatever comes your way — an unusual-sounding drum, a funky-sounding space, or whatever.

If you have four mics including a like pair, use the pair as drum overheads and put the other two mics on the kick and snare drums, which typically are the two most important drum elements in the mix. (The snare-drum mic can be positioned to pick up some of the hi-hats as well — actually, it's hard to do otherwise. Just pull the mic back a tad and give it a slight tilt toward the hats.)

By the way, I use this four-mic array on a regular basis, both for demos and albums. Not only is it fast and economical, but as long as the first three components (drummer, drums, room) are sounding good, this mic setup is often all you need. It gives you individual control of the main drum elements (kick and snare) and provides a true stereo image to fill in the rest of the kit. The resulting tracks, when well mixed, can sound huge — and in some cases indistinguishable from a fully miked kit.

HEADS UP

When positioning mics on drums, especially close mics, a good guideline is to angle the mics and avoid forming parallels between mic diaphragms and drum heads. This technique helps to prevent adverse phase interactions caused by reflections between the head and the diaphragm.

On the snare drum, start with the mic above the head, angled downward 30 to 40 degrees toward the head, with the diaphragm roughly even with the rim of the drum (see Fig. 4). The trick is to find the balance between what sounds best to the mic, what provides the best rejection of unwanted sounds, and what's comfortable for the drummer. This can take some doing. You can't just position mics in a haphazard or formulaic way and expect to automatically capture the best sounds.

Note first how any (unmuffled) drum's response varies across the head (see Fig. 5). The sound is “ringy” and high pitched (rich in high harmonics) near the rim, and it is most resonant exactly between the rim and center. At dead center the sound is driest, and thus strongest on attack (this is because the resonance gets dampened by cancellations along the head).

The drummer has primary control of these tonal variations, by striking the head in different spots. But the mic, in addition to hearing what the drummer is doing tonally, hears the drum differently depending on which of the three areas it is focused on.

When close-miking with a dynamic, you can also affect how much “air” you put around the drum. Many engineers automatically position snare and tom mics as close as possible to the drum head, often with the mic angled steeply so that the cap points into the head close to the rim. That may give better isolation, but capturing the best sound from the drum is ultimately more important than reducing leakage.

Typically, putting the mic too close tends to choke the sound. The drum will sound fuller and more natural if you give it a bit of breathing room. Simply pull the mic back an inch or so, and reduce the angle of attack. That will open up the sound and increase attack simultaneously (assuming the mic is aimed more at the center of the head). And you might even find that the extra leakage works to integrate the sound of the kit.

To sum it up, you have three things to play with when listening for the sweet spot: the angle of the mic, how close it is to the drum, and where it's pointing. Whenever possible, make final mic-position tweaks based on what you're hearing, rather than on what you're seeing. Just close your eyes and let the sound guide where you position the mic. (A tip for those recording in the same room in which the gear is set up: wear closed-ear headphones and have the drummer play softer than usual, at least to get started. That gives you a fighting chance of determining the best place to put the mic.)

Another way — more tedious, but also more telling — is to record identical passages of drumming with the mic in a slightly different position each time. Three or four variations is usually sufficient. Afterward, compare the tracks on the monitors.

HIGH FIVE

If you have a fifth mic at your disposal, common practice would dictate putting it on the hi-hats. And depending on the song you're recording and the emphasis you're going for, the hi-hats might well be the best place for it. But unless the song cries out for separately miked hats, consider using the fifth mic to record room sound, particularly if you're loving the sound of the drums in the space.

A condenser mic with an omni or a figure-8 pattern is usually best for room miking, but try whatever you have. Sometimes a funky old dynamic can capture a hip ambience. No matter what mic you use, though, the mix engineer will probably be thankful; a good room track can add that extra something special to the drum mix.

Assuming that you already have one or more overhead mics on the kit, try positioning the room mic on the other side of the room, far from the drums. Walk slowly around the space while the drummer plays and listen — with ears only at first — for an appealing balance of drum elements (lows, mids, and highs) and ambience (room sound). After finding the general good area, put the mic there and fine-tune the position while listening through closed headphones (or the control-room monitors if you have a control room and an assistant). Move the mic around a lot and listen — it might even sound best aimed into a wall or a corner.

Experiment with putting the room mic up near the ceiling and down close to the floor. Not surprisingly, many pro engineers prefer a stereo pair of mics for capturing room sound. Again, it all depends on the sound you're going for and the gear that's available.

Of course, depending on the song, that precious fifth mic might be better used elsewhere — for example, on a tom that is played repeatedly as part of the groove. If you use it on the hi-hats, be sure to position the snare and hat mics (assuming they're directional) so as to maximize isolation between them. You do that by taking advantage of each mic's null point, which is the sound-rejecting area directly behind the capsule (see Fig. 6). The reason you want maximum isolation is so the two tracks can be processed differently in the mix without affecting each other too much. It's frustrating to bring up the hi-hat track and have it ruin the snare sound.

When miking hi-hats, position the mic so it's looking down toward the bell of the top cymbal, or just to the edge of the bell, at a slight angle. This emphasizes the clear highs coming from the bell area, and keeps the diaphragm clear of air blasts coming from between the cymbals. It also avoids the gonglike quality that cymbals typically produce when miked near the edge.

In addition, keep the hat mic a safe distance from the top cymbal. Placing the mic any closer than three inches to the cymbal will cause you to risk picking up a weird-sounding phase change as the cymbal moves toward and away from the mic. You also risk the cymbal crashing into the mic. Some drummers keep their hats quite loose and with a fair space between the cymbals, so pay attention to the throw of the hat cymbals as the drummer plays them hard. To keep it safe, position the mic capsule at least five inches above the hats, angled slightly away from the snare drum to reduce leakage (see Fig. 7).

Finally, when recording hi-hats, be sure to engage the mic preamp's highpass filter (assuming it has one). Many hat cymbals are quite thick (especially the bottom one) and produce an unpleasant low-frequency roar that is better filtered out from the start.

NO LIMITS

If the number of mics, preamps, and tracks is not an issue, the logical next step is to mic each tom. But before doing so, it can be useful to get a good overhead sound first. That way your first impression is how the kit sounds as a whole — a good foundation to build upon. From there you can supplement the sound by adding the various close mics.

Remember to keep the null points in mind when positioning tom mics. As with the snare, start with the mic at about a 45-degree angle, pointing more or less toward the center of the head. Then move it around from there while listening for the sweet spot. You might need to go in at a steeper angle to increase isolation, depending on sight lines of the mics.

Here's a tom-tom recording tip that will serve you well at mixdown. In the course of a typical four-minute song, the toms might be struck only once or twice each — not much to work with when you're trying to dial-in compression, EQ, and other processing. Therefore, on a separate section of tape (just before or after the song), record the drummer playing a dozen or so whole notes on each tom, making sure the hits are at the same level as those played in the song. At mixdown, you can loop this section to work with while processing the toms. (If you're recording to a DAW system, this won't be necessary, because you can simply loop one of the sections featuring the toms and have it play repeatedly while you're tweaking.)

HOLY HOLISM

So there you have it: the four components of recording a drum kit. Each is vital to the quality of the final product. Think of them as four stages to getting a great sound: by working to maximize each stage from the start, you ensure higher quality overall. Even when working with minimal gear, don't underestimate the power in getting all four components just right. When a drum kit is slamming in the room, a single well-placed mic can capture a track that will knock your socks off in the mix.

In short, capturing a great drum sound is a sum of many parts, and not merely the result of using certain gear. What's needed, and what all great recording engineers necessarily use, is a holistic approach — one that takes all variables into account while keeping the big picture in mind. I hope this article clarifies that approach and helps make your drum recordings easier as well as better.

Brian Knaveis a former senior associate editor atEM.He now lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where he is converting a dog kennel into a recording studio.

DRUM TUNING 101

A drum is essentially a cylinder with a vibrating head stretched tightly over each end. Hoops, typically made of metal but sometimes made of wood or plastic, hold the heads against the bearing edges of the drum shell. The hoops are held in place by a number of tunable lugs (typically 5 to 12, depending on the size and type of drum) positioned equidistantly around the drum shell on either end.

Your first objective when tuning a double-headed drum is to get each head in tune with itself. Start with either head. While the drum is suspended (whether on a mount or by hand), tap the head with a finger, stick, or mallet at each lug point and tune so that all points are the same pitch. Now do the same for the other head.

Next, get the drum's two heads in tune with each other. Generally, the best interval to start with, at least for toms, is with both heads tuned to the same note, or in “unison.” The note does not have to be a particular pitch; it should, however, be in a comfortable range for the drum, neither too high (tight and choked sounding) nor too low (loose and flappy). When you find the just-right combination, the drum will sing its note freely.

From unison, there are two directions you can take the tuning: make one head tighter than the other, or make it looser. (Tip: tune from the bottom head so as not to affect the desired playing response of the top head.) Experiment with these tuning variations to learn how they affect the sound differently — there's a big range of sounds at your disposal.

On a snare drum, the bottom head is typically thinner and, for many styles (such as jazz), tuned higher than the top (batter) head. Such a tuning maximizes a “crisp” response from the snares. Conversely, tuning the bottom head looser than the top makes for a lower, heavier sound — more rock and roll.

Note, too, how the tension of the snares affects the drum sound. As with the heads, if the snares are too tight, the sound gets choked. If the snares are too loose, they're likely to buzz excessively.

Like toms, double-headed kick drums usually sound fine — if not best — with the heads tuned in unison. Often, though, drummers tune the batter head lower than the front one so as to get a lower note from the drum. Though a low kick-drum note is generally desirable, make sure the drummer hasn't made the batter head too loose — the head should not be flappy to the point of showing wrinkles, or else the drum's resonance can “dry up” beyond recognition (at which point you might as well be recording a cardboard box).

An overly-resonant double-headed drum can be dampened by leaning a pillow or blanket against the front head. A thick blanket thrown over the whole drum — a helpful technique for isolating the kick-drum mic — can also dry up the tone a bit. If the kick has only one head, or a sizable hole in the front head, you can adjust the balance of attack (dry thud) and decay (resonance) by altering the position of the dampening material inside the drum (blanket, pillow, or whatever). Push the material more up against the batter head to increase attack, and pull it more away to increase resonance or “tone.”

ENGINEER'S (SECRET) DRUM TOOLKIT

Here are some items that can prove indispensable to getting you through the obstacle course of a drum-recording session. The trick is to pull them out only when necessary; you don't want to give the impression you're infringing on the drummer's territory. Fortunately, most pro players will have all contingencies covered; that's one of the reasons they carry a trap case. But you can never be too prepared.

Essentials:

Drum key(s)
Cymbal felts and sleeves
Can of lightweight oil (to squelch squeaks)
Roll of fine, strong twine (for securing snares and other duties)
Assorted pieces of cloth, felt, and foam rubber (for drum dampening)
Sturdy masking tape (for attaching drum-dampening materials)
Duct tape (for just about anything else)
Scissors and single-edged razor blades
Adjustable wrenches, screwdrivers, and heavy pliers
Assorted blankets, pillows, and towels
Drum rug (preferably with a rubber bottom)

Handy Additions:

Snare-drum batter head (14-inch coated is standard)
Snare-drum bottom head (14-inch clear thin is standard)
A pair or two of drum sticks (5A and 5B are common sizes)

12 TIPS FOR BETTER DRUM RECORDING

  1. Keep it simple. Learn to get a great sound using a minimum of gear, and then build on your successes from there.
  2. See the big picture. The final recorded sound is determined not only by the gear and how you use it, but also by the drummer, the drums, and the recording space. Do what you can to bring out the best in each.
  3. Learn the basics of drum tuning, and acquaint yourself with the drum kit's many parts and how they work. To be fully prepared, keep a drum toolkit on hand (see the sidebar “Engineer's [Secret] Drum Toolkit”).
  4. Seek out great-sounding rooms to record in — if you don't have a decent drum room, that can make a huge difference in the final sound. Think large rooms, high ceilings, wood floors (churches, art galleries, warehouses).
  5. Find the drums' sweet spot in the room. A drum kit will project different tonal balances depending on where it's positioned in a given space. If you're after a great sound, it's worth the effort to suss out the best-sounding location for the drums.
  6. Make the drummer comfortable. Much depends on his or her performance.
  7. Select microphones by type. Typically, dynamics are used for close-miking kick, snare, and toms (with the largest diaphragm reserved for the kick), and condensers are used for overheads, hi-hats, and assorted percussion. But don't be afraid to buck convention — use what sounds good and works best for the song.
  8. Use proper stereo recording techniques. They can not only add a delicious spatial realism to your drum recordings, but a stereo pair can also cover the whole kit sound when you don't have enough close mics to go around.
  9. Minimize phase distortion between mics. Use the 3-to-1 rule, but also do test recordings and listen in mono to ensure phase coherence, especially between drum overheads and other mics.
  10. Maximize signal-to-noise ratio for each track. With digital, the loudest hits should use up most of the bits; with analog tape, hit it till it hurts, then back off a touch.
  11. Angle the mics rather than positioning them so their diaphragms are parallel with drum heads. That can lead to problematic phase interactions caused by reflections between the parallel surfaces.
  12. Use your ear, not your eye, to do final mic-position tweaks.

MILKING THE KICK MIC

Where you position the kick mic can make a big difference in the sound that you capture. However, kick drums and kick-drum mics vary so much that it's hard to generalize. You need to get familiar with a mic to accurately predict what it will do in a given situation. Moreover, a different model won't always behave in a similar fashion — it might behave quite differently.

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Fig. A: to minimize ill effects of air venting forcefully from the "sound hole," angle the microphone on both the vertical and horizontal planes. The drum pictured here is very resonant, even with all the dampening. Thus, the mic is angled also to aim at the beater-strike area, which increases attack.

Here are a few generalizations. As with any drum, the attack is greatest at the center of the batter head. To increase attack, aim the mic diaphragm more toward where the beater strikes the head. You can also increase attack by moving the mic closer to the batter head, at least up to a point. To increase resonance, turn the mic away from where the beater strikes and more toward the resonant part of the head, or position the mic farther back from the drum, or both.

Kick drums come in three head setups: single headed, double headed (no holes), and double headed with a hole in the front head (perhaps the most common setup). Single-headed bass drums excel at producing a very dry, “thuddy” kick sound. The amount of thud can be fine-tuned by moving the packing material inside the drum. Miking single-headed kick drums is fairly straightforward: start with the mic somewhere between “slightly inside” and “all the way inside” the drum, and tweak from there.

Double-headed kick drums with a hole in the front head present more miking options — a good thing, because they're typically harder to get a great sound from. A good starting point is with the mic diaphragm flush with, or slightly inside of, the hole, tilted so that it looks at the beater-strike area from an angle (see Fig. A). If the mic picks up too much resonance from this position — not uncommon — try taking the mic off the stand and laying it inside the drum (on top of a blanket or whatever) more or less in the middle, with the diaphragm facing the batter head at a slight angle.

If the sound is still boomy, try putting the mic on the other side of the kick drum, next to the pedal. Position the diaphragm so that it looks at the beater-strike area yet minimizes sound coming from the pedal (see Fig. B). This position will greatly reduce resonance and provide a strong, solid attack (although isolation will suffer, naturally). Of course, another alternative is to remove the front head from the drum. However, that might not sit so well with the drummer.

Double-headed kick drums with no hole in the front head leave few options for miking. All you can do is put the mic a few inches in front of the drum, facing the head, and move it around until you find the best position. As with the double-headed-with-hole kick, if the drum sounds too boomy (or lacking in attack) no matter where you position the microphone in front, try miking from the batter side.

Although it's generally best, when miking any drum, to avoid aligning the mic diaphragm parallel with the drum head, on kick drums, you might want to experiment with breaking that rule. With the microphone aimed directly into the batter head at close range (one to three inches), the reflections bouncing between the parallel surfaces, not to mention the sheer force of air, can make for a radically slamming sound. But again, you never know until you try — different mics respond differently in that kind of situation.