There are plenty of good resources explaining how to mic up a drum kit, but fewer offering practical tips on setting the scene for a relaxed session that keeps the focus on the musician and the music. Here are a few gems that I’ve picked up over the years, working with some great producers and engineers.
Start with the end in mind
Firstly, what style of music are you recording? Heavier music might mean a powerful, bombastic feel is needed so a large room and room mics might be important. Jazz or funk might need a tighter sound so the detail is captured clearly and this might be helped by recording in a smaller, drier sounding space. Soul, Blues or acoustic music might be somewhere between the two.
What’s the drummer’s style and setup? Are they a session drummer, with drum and cymbal options that record well, or mainly a live drummer whose gear is designed with volume and projection in mind? If you’re working with a drummer who has limited studio experience, try and check out their playing by going to a show or listening to them on YouTube.
If you’re working in an unfamiliar room, ask the assistant (if you have one) where drums usually sound good. You can follow this up by walking around the room whilst playing a snare drum and listening to where it sounds best (full range, no weird reflections or flutter echoes). Make sure there are good sight lines to where you’ll position the other musicians.
Use acoustic screens to control the liveliness of the room – even in a very lively sounding space, it’s amazing how tight the close mics and overheads can sound with careful placement of screens, meaning you can use the close and overhead mics for punch and attack, leaving the room mics for size and excitement.
If you’re providing drums, make sure they’re tuned appropriately and set-up. I recently invested in a digital drum tuner and for my studio kit, I’ve got several tunings noted down and I can dial these in quickly as a starting place – very effective!
Consider using a drum platform on isolation mounts (Bruce Swedien style) – not every studio has them, but if they do, the kick and toms sound tighter as they’re not coupled with the floor. This also helps with keeping the really low-frequency stuff out of other mics if you’re recording other instruments in the same space.
Microphones should be mics plugged in and tested, but positioned slightly back from the drums so the drummer is easily able to tweak the position of the kit, without feeling closed-in by your recording gear. Make sure headphones are tested and any fold-back mixers are labelled.
Once the drummer has arrived, give them space to tweak the drum setup and get comfy. For a drummer, there’s nothing worse than an eager engineer positioning mics before you’re ready!
Whilst the drummer is playing and getting warmed up, listen to the kit. Even if it’s the studio’s kit and you’ve recorded it before, it will sound different when someone else is playing it. What do you like? What do you need to change? Can you use fewer mics because the drummer sounds balanced, or do you need to micromanage the dynamics and consistency of tone to leave yourself a safety net? Is the note length and attack of all the toms similar? Is anything rattling? Does the tuning need tweaking now that you’re hearing the drummer play? Listen from the drummer’s perspective, behind the kit so you hear how the kit sounds to them with relative balances between kick/snare/toms and cymbals.
When placing overhead mics, use the mics to capture the full range of the kit or as cymbal mics. Some of this is dependent on the drummer and the genre. All things being equal, I prefer the full-range option, especially if the drummer has great dynamics and balance when they play – I’d rather keep these intact than have to recreate them later.
The kick and snare will be physically offset from the centre of the drum kit so if you want both to be in the centre of the stereo image, you need to take this into account with your overheads and room mics. Doing this might mean the mics don’t “look” symmetrical – don’t worry about it! If it’s good enough for George Massenburg, it’s good enough for you!
I generally aim to get the most attack possible from each mic. Look at where the drummer hits the drums and cymbals and aim the mics for those spots. This usually provides a good starting place and you can tweak later after listening.
Are we rolling …?
Aim to record tracks sounding as finished as possible (usually involving some EQ and compression) including getting the recording balances sounding good on the way into the recorder (this is where a console helps). When you or your client open up the session later on, all the faders are at zero and the balance is already there.
Make sure the drums sound fantastic in the fold-back by working on the balance. If you’re on a rockier session you can blend in some of the compressed room mics to give the drummer added vibe when playing.
If you’re using a click track, try a pair of noise isolation headphones. These can reduce the spill and have the added bonus of saving the drummer’s hearing, although not everyone likes wearing them – they can be tight on the head and also, some drummers like hearing some of the direct sound of the drums. I like to roll off some of the top end of the click going to the fold-back as it reduces the spill slightly too.
If there’s time, record drum samples … just in case. Even if you don’t need them for this project, you can add them to your own library – great to have when mixing.
Drumming is physically and mentally taxing. Be considerate of this and build in breaks. Hit the talkback quickly after a take to avoid leaving the musician wondering what’s being said about them. Be direct about what is working but compassionate in the way you deliver info about something that needs to change.
Have fun – drum recording is one of the most rewarding, creative and fun parts of being in a studio!
Written By Mike Thorne
Rimshot Studio – http://www.rimshotstudio.co.uk