While it is true that the world has clocked more than 100 years of recorded music, it was not until the 1950s when drums became louder and prouder on most of the records that dominated the pop charts. I say, “What took so long?” The people have spoken, and they want the beat! And if you’re tackling a project in your home studio, it’s going to be up to the drummer and the engineer to ensure the people get their groove on.
One way to accomplish this is to deliver a drum sound that catches listeners’ ears and intensifies rhythmic impact. Getting there means you’ll have to be versatile, flexible, and up to the task of pulling different sounds from the one kit your drummer probably brought to the session. Let’s say the drummer is using a standard, five-piece set consisting of a 22"x16" kick drum, a 14"x5.5" snare, a 12"x8" rack tom, a 13"x9" rack toms, and a 16"x16" floor tom. For cymbals, he has 14" high-hats, a 22" ride, and 18" and 19" crashes.
Now, sure—size matters. But like they say, it’s all in the way you use it. I have heard small kits sound as big as a house, and giant kits sound like a pencil tapping a piece of paper. Our reference kit is smack dab in the middle of the small kit/big kit range.
So how do we get five completely different sounds out of this setup? First, you need to deal with tuning the drums. Knowing how to tune drums is as important as knowing how to play. If the sound isn’t right coming off the drum, it will be a lot harder to get the sound you want, and no microphone or signal processing can magically compensate for poorly tuned drums. On the upside, a single drum can produce an amazing array of sounds to compliment whatever style the music demands. So don’t be afraid to experiment with different tunings until you find the one that knocks you out.
In addition, what you use to bang the drums also affects tone. Fill your stick bag with different-sized sticks, as well as some brushes, Blasticks, and rods that will deliver variations of percussive and tonal response from the kit.
Now, here are the recipes for those five drums sounds. . . .
Let’s begin with an approach that is sparse and quick to set up, and one that you’ve heard on a ton of hit records. As this setup utilizes only four microphones, it does require a player with finesse, as well as a room that has a smooth, balanced ambience. Dynamics are key, so work with the drums (and drummer) until they produce a consistent volume level, and listen closely to the drums/cymbals ratio to ensure the relationships are pretty even.
Kick drum. Set a large-diaphragm dynamic mic a few inches from the front head. For more boom, point the mic at the middle of the head. For more punch, offset the mic about 60 to 75 degrees.
Snare. Point a trusty Shure SM57 (or similar dynamic mic) right at the head, and away from the hi-hat.
Overhead one. Position a largediaphragm condenser (set to its cardioid pattern) about three feet above the kit, pointing at the rack toms and snare.
Overhead two. Place a largediaphragm condenser (set to its cardioid pattern) about six feet above the floor tom, and facing the hi-hat across the snare.
Dry As a Bone
For this popular sound that originated in the ’70’s, set up the drums in a small, dead-sounding room with low ceilings. This environment will effectively capture a tight and percussive drum sound with minimal amounts of room artifacts such as “ringing” or odd slapback echoes. Remove the front head from the bass drum, as well as the bottom heads from all of the toms. Dampen the snare and tom heads until they “thud,” cutting down on clear notes and ring. You can make like the Beatles and employ tea towels to deaden the drums, or you can simply gaffer’s tape some paper towels to the offending heads. Fill the kick drum with pillows or dirty clothes—just enough so that the attack is tight. Loosening the heads can further deaden the sound.
Kick drum. Put an Electro-Voice RE-20, an AKG D-12, a Sennhesier MD421, or similar large-diaphragm dynamic inside the drum. Cover the front of the kick drum with a piano blanket (or any thick, large blanket) to control signal leakage.
Snare. Position a Shure SM57 or Beta 57A close to the head, and angled away from the hi-hat.
Toms. Place large-diaphragm condensers about 2" from the heads.
Overheads. Position a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers left and right, aimed at the cymbals.
Hi-hat. Place a small-diaphragm condenser 3" or 4" from the hi-hat to get a more “direct” sound than the ambient hi-hat sound that will be picked up by the overhead mics.
Room to Breathe
This is a “roomier” sound that can be achieved with the same mics used for the dry sound. First, replace all the bottom drum heads on the toms and the front head on the kick drum. Cut a 3" or 4" hole in the kick-drum head slightly lower than the middle of the head, and off to one side. You’ll need to retune the drums to taste—I recommend letting the tone open up so that the drums sing as well as bang. Some dampening may be needed on the toms and snare, and if the resonance or ring on the kick drum is too much, remove the head, place a pillow inside the shell, and then replace the front head.
Now, move all of the mics about an inch or two further away from each drum. For the kick drum, position the mic in front of the hole you cut in the head at a distance of a couple of inches. Experiment with whether you like the sound produced by positioning the mic straight-on, or angled slightly away from the head. Also keep in mind that a fair amount of air is going to be rushing out of that hole, so you may need to pad the mic to avoid signal overhead or a woofy sound. To intensify this openroom perspective, place two largediaphragm condensers in different corners of the room. You can move these two mics around to taste, listening carefully to ensure you’re capturing the sweet spots in the room (where the combination of ambience and source sound is thrilling), and that you’re not introducing any phase-cancellation problems that will thin out the drum sound.
Boom Boom Room
Using the same mics and mic positions employed for the previous setup, open up the tuning, and let the drums bark. Overtones and leakage be damned as with this approach—you want to prove the big bang theory. Now, add a single large-diaphragm condenser down a hallway or in the next room—wherever the sound can travel that will produce a bright ambient timbre. This is your “power mic.” At mixdown, you’ll blend in this track to introduce a huge and ungodly cacophony to the overall drum sound. Of course, when you’re recording, make sure the drummer beats the living daylights out of the drums, and doesn’t get meek and mild on you.
Separate But Equal
Now, let’s break all the rules, and try recording one section of the drum kit at a time. Pick the mics of your choice and go nuts with the mic positions. Yes, you are going to individually record the kick, snare, toms, and cymbals. Yes, your drummer may freak out at being asked to play his or her snare part independently, then the kick part independently, then add the tom figures independently, and finally track the cymbal and hi-hat parts. And, yes, this is a wild way to go, but it has worked for many producers and engineers—just check out most of Jeff Lynne’s productions. Obviously, this approach will take longer to record, but the mixing possibilities are endless