As someone who has been playing drums since a teenager and been an engineer for nearly 15 years one of the most important things for me in a song is getting a great drum sound. Before anything has been mic’d up or you’ve even got into a studio there are 3 important factors that can contribute to getting that all important great drum sound. These are ensuring the recording is being used on a professional maple or birch kit depending on the sound you are going for and not making do with a sub standard drum kit. The kit should have new heads and should be tuned to the key of the song as each drum holds a note. It should be tuned in the room it is being recorded in so the kit heats or cools to the room temperature. These points can make such a difference to a recording and to a detailed ea,r can be the difference between an average demo and a professional recording.
The second factor is to use good quality mics and pre amps as you will only get good clarity and detail in depth on a recording with good mics. If you don’t have a good source signal it will be incredibly hard to get a good final sound. The other factor is to ensure the player behind the kit is of a good standard for the music you are recording and has the ability to be tight with the band and know when to and when not to overplay. Being able to use dynamics within their playing can make a difference on a recording and paying attention to detail is always important when playing drums on a recording. The most important thing though is to be as tight as possible with the rest of the rhythm section.
The Bass Drum
One of the most important decisions when recording drums is to decide what mic or mics you want to use and getting the right positioning for them. The most commonly used bass drum mics are dynamic mic with the AKG D112, Shure Beta 52a, Audix D6 and the Electrovoice RE20 being popular choices. I personally would favour a Senheisser 421 on the beater and a good Neumann outside the bass drum to pick up the sub frequencies to blend with the clicky signal.
The close mic on the bass drum will have spill from the other drums and cymbals in particular the snare and tom toms. The best way to get around this is to use a gate. The attack should be set quite fast like with most other drums, in order to get a punchy sound. The release should be set to close fully once the sound has finished so you don’t hear the spill but watch you don’t set the release to quick and lose some of the source sound. Most drawmer gates can do a job on a kick drum.
The next thing is to set up a compressor on the bass drum. If you set an attack time which is a little slower (10 to 20mS), it will allow the click of the drum hit to pass through the compressor it is being compressed. To help get that clicky sound on the kick, use a ratio of around 3:1 and have the threshold set around an average of -4dB of gain reduction to each beat beat, the release should return to normal before each beat. A good kick drum compressor I find the TLA Audios Valve 5051 is a good kick drum compressor. You just need to make sure you drive the input to get a punchy sound.
If the kick doesn’t have enough presence then try equalizing around 4 and 7kHz on a mid Q just adding a little gain where you feel appropriate around these frequencies. This should give the kick more definition and make it cut through the mix. Most good Equalizing units should work but a personal requisite of mine is to use a valve EQ for added warmth. A good EQ for this although not valve and used more for mastering is Massenburgs GML 8200, this unit has several bands of fully parametric EQ for ultimate control.
The SPL Transient Designer allows you to change drum sound envelopes, meaning it possible to add or subtract attack and sustain. Once this has been done listen to the kick drum with the overhead mics and see how they sound together. With the overheads added the Bass drum should sound more natural and slightly ambient. Adjust the compression and EQ again if it needs it, but bear in mind that once the rest of the mix is added that the sound will might need minor adjustments again.
The best way to record a snare drum I find is to use 2 mics, one above and one below the snare drum with the above mics phase reversed. Shure SM 57s tend to be a popular choice while I sometimes find 2 AKG C451s can do a good job.
Snare mics tend to pick up a lot of unwanted low spill from the kick drum and toms, and may pick up the hi-hats to. For this again gating is necessary preferably a frequency based gate with some bass end and treble rolled off where the problem occurs the side-chain input could be useful if found necessary. If the snare needs more definition I tend to find adding around 1.8khz on a fairly tight Q is where the crack of the snare is and can make it cut through the mix really well. If you need any extra crispness, then try a little high EQ at between 4 and 7kHz. To give a bit more body to the snare, sometimes a little gain between 110 to 160Hz can work well but watch you don’t add to much as too much in this frequency range can muddy your mix.
Compression on the snare is also recommended to get a tight punch sound. Try not to over compress and be sure not to have the gain reduction go over -3 or 4 dbs. Most drawmer mics can do a good job on the snare although I quite like using an Urei 1176.
The most common Tom mics are the dynamic Sennheiser MD421 which tends to be clipped onto the toms. As toms are normally hit during fill-ins and rarely anywhere else, then a gate is needed when they are not in use. Take off some low end from the gate’s side-chain input will eradicate false triggering from kick-drum spill. If you struggle with getting a suitable gate a good alternative is lose the spill after the recording in your sequencer or tape machine.
I tend to give the Toms some definition give the small tom some boost around 6k the mid tom 5k and the floor tom some 4k. Obviously this is hugely subjective and depends on the sizes of the toms you are working on. Adding between 100Hz and 200Hz I tend to find good frequencies to work with for picking out the resonance of each tom. A fairly small reverb can be a good idea also to have the toms sit in their own space in the mix and also give a bit more of a live sound that the processing might have lost.
Again compression can be a good idea when recording the toms. Be sure to listen to the Toms with the overheads and not just isolated as the overheads play a large part in the final sound of the drums.
The AKG C451 is a popular hi-hat mic which works really well pointed away from the kit. No gating is needed for the hats. Rolling off all the low frequencies is advised to lose the spill of the bass, snare and toms.
AKG 414s tend to be very popular overhead mics for a majority of people although I sometimes find them a little clinical. A personal favorite of mine are Coles 4038 or 4040 Ribbon Mics. They seem to get a great smokey sound that oozes expense to me. As Overheads pick up the cymbals and hats getting good definition on these mics is really important. For indie and jazz, using a lot of the overhead mix can be imperative. For rock and pop, I tend to use more of the individual mics and add a little over-heads subtly. I tend to find the overheads need no compression and should never be gated so an open sound is achieved.
A little equalizing is sometimes necessary on the low end where the kick overspill may be a little much and there may be some phasing issues on the low end having used several mics in a relatively close space. Rolling a little low end here can help with both these potential issues. If the drums were recorded in a fairly small room sometimes a reverb can be added. I tend to find a Yamaha SPX 900 or the more expensive Lexicon PCM 80 can do a really good job here.
Post by: Matt Walters
Matt Walters is an experienced drum player and has 15 years experience as a sound engineer. He currently runs his own recording studio.