Nothing sounds quite like the explosive nature of a live acoustic drum set recording. Sure, drum samples and electronic drum sounds have their place in music production — that’s not debatable. But on the other hand, not every producer/musician wants to build tracks at their local Starbucks with a pair of Dre Beats. Some people want that live drum sound, but lack the technique and skills it might require to pull off recording a great — or crazy! — sounding drum take.
The good thing is that you don’t always need U47s and Neve preamps to pull off a better drum sound. Some of the best drum tracks were recorded with a single mic in a dirt floor basement. This blog post is less about equipment and more to do with technique and patience. Read on for a few tips and tricks I like to use.
1. Tune Up
This might seem like an obvious step, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across drums that just didn’t sound right out of the case, and the drummer couldn’t figure out how to tune for the tracks. This is where it pays as an engineer or producer to get familiar with drum tuning. Drums sound different from room to room due to reflections, modes, and all sorts of nerdy stuff. The best thing to do is to get them sounding right by ear.
Before you put up any microphones, move the drum set around in the room you’re recording in, and find where it sounds best to your ears. Pay attention to the decay of the drums; if you’re looking for a more live sound, move some rugs around and find more reflective floors and a larger room (a la Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”). If you’re looking for a more dead sound, try for a smaller room with lots of absorption on the floors, walls, and ceiling (a la Queens of The Stone Age “Songs for The Deaf”).
One more thing: new drumheads can be the secret weapons to better tones! I love to use Remo Coated heads
Visit www.Remo.com to see their selection.
2. Move the Mics!
Now you’re ready to try some miking techniques. Grab your mics and some headphones, or turn up your playback and experiment with some of the techniques listed here. Mix and match to find what works for you!
Mono Mic Technique
Almost any recordist enthusiast can employ this technique. Take a microphone (preferably condenser or ribbon) and start with it positioned a few feet in front of the snare, kick, and high hat. This actually yields really balanced results, and some of the best tracks have been done with mono miking technique. Adjust the polar patterns of the microphone if you can; this will result in some different sounds. It seems simple, but big time producers and engineers still use this method today.
Glyn Johns Technique
Start with a mono condenser overhead mic. Place it about 4-5 feet above your drum set. Record and listen to playback, making sure you can hear a great balance of the drums in the microphone, and adjust if necessary. Once you have that rocking, add another condenser about 6-8 inches above the rim of the floor tom and aim it towards your snare and high hat. It is imperative you try to get these mics the same exact distance from the center of the snare. Use an XLR cable and measure from the center of the snare to the front grill of the mic above the drum set. Take the length of cable and move it towards the microphone by the floor tom, making sure the front grill of that mic matches up as well. Now your mics will be more in phase, and you’ll able to get a great stereo balanced sound from just those two mics.
If you’d like more snare and kick control, just add some close mics.
Close Miking Technique
Begin by placing close mics on all of the drums. Try different angles on your microphones; as you get closer to the drumhead, you’re going to introduce a fatter tone because of the proximity effect. Close miking is going to give you more overtones that you may not hear from distant mics or with your ears in the room. Want less fat sounds? Angle the mics away from the heads and add some distance. Checking your drum tuning and dampening the sound of the drums can change tones, too. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Mono Overhead Placement: place one mic above your drums and find the proper balance of drums and room sound by adjusting after listening to playback.
Spaced Pair Placement: place two cardioid or omnidirectional mics apart from each other using the 3:1 ratio. Measure the distance between the source and one microphone, then use three times that distance to space out the other mic. Greater stereo image, more possible phase issues.
XY Placement: place two cardioid mics at right angles and make sure you align the capsules. This will yield a concise stereo image, but with less phase issues.
This can really make or break your drum sound. Place a pair of condenser or ribbon mics in your room away from your drums, and capture the drum sound. This is where you get the depth of the drum sound. Sometimes you want a little or a lot of this technique. Experiment with polar patterns and listen to playback and adjust.
HOT TIP: Add some fast attack and release compression to these microphones; your drum sound will explode.
3. Long Term Phase Relationships
After talking about all of those fun microphone placements, we have to come to a hard truth. The more microphones we add to a recording, the more important the phase relationship between all the mics becomes. Employing the 3:1 rule when miking and flipping the polarity of microphones as you add them to a recording is a must. You can actually make a drum set sound smaller with 16 mics than if you blended 5 well placed mics together.
Checking your phase relationship is rather simple though. I normally start with everything in mono and pull up one overhead mic. Then I bring in each mic and check it against that overhead. You can use any mic as your baseline, but I prefer my overhead being my baseline. As you add mics to the mix, mute and unmute them; if low end, clarity, and punch disappear, you need to flip the polarity on your mic preamp. If this makes your mix sounds bigger, you’re in phase. Sometimes your mic might be in a spot where flipping the polarity isn’t going to make a difference, you won’t hear a change. This is all part of drum sounds, sometimes everything isn’t going to be perfectly in-phase. Lots of incredible drum recordings weren’t. It is just important that you like the vibe that’s going on with the phase relationship you have. Some people will spend tons of time using phase aligning plugins and all sorts of things and it just makes your drum recordings sound less impactful. I really just like to make sure everything feels and sounds right, if not I try flipping the polarity. If that’s not vibing, then I move the mic. It is just experimentation.
Cutting mics out of a mix is not uncommon at all. You may track sixteen inputs but only end up using nine. Professional mix engineers will do this all the time. Less can definitely be more in some scenarios.
The truth is that 95% of drum sounds rely heavily on the player, the source, the tuning, and the room. Adjust those things, and you will get better results. But remember, there are no rules to drum recording. Sometimes broken cymbals, messed up drumheads, wacky percussion, out of phase drums, broken mics, or other little things can set your drum takes apart from the average drum recording. Have fun with it and find sounds that inspire you!
If you’ve got any questions, leave them in the comment section below, and I’ll get back to you!