BY GINO ROBAIR
Whether you use one mic or many to track drums, make sure that the kit sounds good before you hit Record: You don’t want extraneous sounds ruining an otherwise killer take. Often it’s the little noises that you don’t notice in rehearsal or onstage that can spoil a recording, and it’s important to mitigate them before the band starts tracking. In this article, I’ll point out some common problems and offer tips on how to deal with them.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll
As soon as the drums are set up, check the various parts for any noisy connections. You’d be surprised how often the source of a rattle is a single loose lug nut on a tom or the kick, usually on a bottom head. Tension rods can loosen themselves after a few gigs or while the drum is being transported. Fortunately, this is easy to fix by tightening them up with a drum key. Typically, before I begin setting up mics, I’ll go around the kit and check each lug by hand so there are no surprises later. It’s also a good time to make sure that the bass-drum spurs and floor-tom legs, as well as the wing nuts on the snare and cymbal stands, are tight and that nothing rattles.
Next, grab the tom mount above the bass drum and give the kit a shake. If the tom mounts rattle, find a way to mechanically secure them. If they can’t be silenced on their own by tightening all of the nuts, try wrapping the noisy part in a towel or foam and taping it up with duct tape.
While you’re still in the room, ask the drummer to play a simple beat, with occasional fills and cymbal crashes. Listen for any conspicuous noises that appear while the drummer is playing. Distracting squeaks, creaks, and rattles very often come from the hardware. If you hear unwanted sounds emanating from the kick pedal or hi-hat stand, treat the moving parts with a lubricant such as WD-40. The drum throne can also squeak as the drummer turns from side to side, and adding lubricant spray or powered graphite where the stand attaches to the seat will minimize the noise.
What’s the Buzz?
Sometimes the snare drum is the source of unwanted noise. Mechanically speaking, it’s the most complex instrument in the kit because of the snare apparatus. If any part of it isn’t set up properly, you’ll have a difficult time getting the drum to sound good.
The metal snares are connected at either end of the drum by cables or a strip, depending on the model of the drum. When the snare strainer is engaged and the snares are brought up against the bottom head, they should lie flat and be equidistant between the edges of the drum shell. If the snares are too far to one side, you can even them out by adjusting the strainer tension. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to balance their position by reconnecting the cable or strip on each side of the snare assembly. Be sure to cut off any snares that have broken or come loose and are hanging down.
Your Drum Shop
Many drummers don’t know how to properly set up a snare drum, so it’s a good idea to have a decent one waiting in the wings—well-tuned and with relatively new heads—just in case the drummer’s instrument is a lost cause. Of course, you can always use a drumreplacement plug-in later and swap out the bad sounding snare with a sample, but why not try to get the right sound up front? A quality instrument will inspire the drummer to give a better performance.
Every studio should, at the very least, have a few of the basics handy in case of an emergency: a snare drum and stand, a bass drum pedal, a couple of cymbal stands, a hi-hat stand, and extra pairs of sticks, mallets, and brushes—core items that can bring a song to a halt if they break. It’s also a good idea to have a selection of well-made cymbals in common sizes—a ride, a crash or two, and hi-hats.
Remarkably, the most important things to have around are inexpensive accessories such as cymbal felts and sleeves, a drum key, an extra hi-hat clutch, and snare cord—small items that can be damaged or lost because players rarely pay attention to them. It’s also useful to know how to tune a set of drums. Getting a lesson in tuning from a professional drummer will be money well-spent.