Secrets of Recording Drums

For most new recording engineers and producers, capturing a loud and dynamic drum sound can be very difficult. With a drum set containing so many various elements like kick, snare, cymbals, toms, woodblock, pedals and whatever else you can bang, it’s no wonder most amateur recording engineers have a difficult time capturing that awe-inspiring drum sound.

Understanding the basic elements of drum tuning, mic distances, quality equipment and the importance of a well-rehearsed musicians can make the worlds difference in capturing a compelling drum take. Although recording drums at first can be very intimidating, discovering why these elements are so important will lead you to creating better and better drum sounds in the studio while taking your production skills to the level. So, let’s explore the secrets to recording drums.

New Heads:

I cannot stress this enough that new drums heads are essential in the studio. There are no hiding imperfections while recording. A microphone will instantly reveal a player’s instruments musical discrepancies. From tuning to intonation to tonality, there is no masking of anything in front of a mic.

Although new drum heads can be pricey, please explain and discuss to the band how important it is to have new heads and that it is totally worth the investment. New heads hold their tuning better. Sound warmer and more percussive. They are easier to manage during the recording process, particularly with loud, aggressive players. Transients will come through your DAW more clearly and be easier to edit. Plus, your drums will just sound better, period. If you as a band are paying for a recording, you need to invest in quality equipment if possible. New heads, on even a mediocre drum set, can really be made to sound phenomenal in the studio by an experienced recording engineer

Tuned Drum Heads:

I am going to come out and say it. Most drummers do not know or understand how to tune a drum set. They do not understand common notes or overtones or why their drums are resonating so horribly. They do not understand the interaction of the top and bottom heads nor why muting can be an effective tool but comes with a cost of tonality.

These are things that you as an engineer need to learn in order to take your level of production to new and professional heights. The engineers working for the major labels know exactly why a drum set is causing unwanted overtones or why the snare doesn’t have that “snap” the artist wants. Drum kits are such dynamic instrument that cover the whole frequency range and do in fact produce notes. Be sure to read the “How to Tune Drums” blog to gain further insight.

Learn it. Do it. Even if you don’t play drums. Having the talent to produce a quality professional drum sound will get you more clients, trust me.

Mic Distance:

When you first begin recording, microphone distance might be hard to understand simply because you haven’t worked with various microphones. Different microphones produce and recreate sound differently from others. The problem with live drums is that they are so loud. Their transients are fierce and if recorded too hot will blow your speakers or at the very least ruin a good take.

Each part of the drum kit is different from the other. Toms respond differently to mics than snare and kicks. Mic distance can be used to enhance high and low-end information without having to use EQ. The closer you get; the more low-end information is captured. The farther away a mic is from its source, the more transient you get but you lose critical low end.

Microphone distance is something you need to experiment with when recording a drum set. You will never use the same setup or mic distance for any two projects. Place your initial microphone setup around the kit. Record it. Then see what could possibly be moved to enhance or decrease frequencies. Solo each individual part of the drum kit and see if they are coming in loud and clear or is there something missing.

Proper mic placement takes time when recording drums. Do not rush this part of the recording process. Drum setup can often take days here in our studio. We do not move on until we know we have tried our best to capture a great drum sound.

Drum Room:

“I want my drums to sound big!”

I often hear this statement in our pre-production meetings almost daily. Well the truth of the matter is, size does matter when recording drums. This might not be too practical when first starting out but understand if you record drums in your bedroom or garage, it’s going to sound like you recorded your drums in your bedroom or garage. I often advise younger engineers that if you do not have access to larger rooms to record drums in, use virtual drum software like Steven Slate or Superior Drums for you drum tracks. These programs will take that potential amateur nightmare and push your recordings to sound more radio friendly which is the end goal anyways.

If you have the option of multiple mics in your recording studio and would like to record a real live drum sound, I suggest scouting locations if you can. Large houses, churches or even barns can be ideal. You just need a large enough space for the drums to “breathe”. They need to reverberate without so many early reflections coming back to the mic so quickly.  Large rooms also work amazingly well with compressors when it comes time to mix. Compressors can add that whack and largeness when placed on room mics or overhead to achieve that “big” sound.

Try it and experiment with different rooms. Drive around town or setup up in your uncle’s mansion for a few hours. You’ll soon quickly learn that room size is such an important sound of a recorded drum set.

Quality Cymbals:

For me cymbals were always the most difficult aspect of a drum kit to record. They are just so loud and all over the place with their high-end frequencies. These hurdles are thus made a million times worse by cheap cymbals. Cheap cymbals sound exactly like cheap cymbals. Unnecessary overtones with dull reverberation are a very common description of cheap cymbals.

You will ultimately find yourself mixing in high end frequencies that aren’t there when you’re in the mix process. This will create unruly high-end information from the entirety of the drum kit making it hard to balance the high end with the other instruments later in the mix process.

When meeting with the band in your pre-production meeting, always stress that investing in themselves is always a good idea, particularly with drums.

If possible, with a decent budget, purchase your own “in house” set of cymbals that bands could use for free. Not only will this be a good selling point to potential clients, it will unify your studio sound thus creating quality recordings every time.

Well-Rehearsed Drummer:

This last secret to recording a great drum sound is often the most overlooked. In my years as a touring musician and jumping from band to band, I have realized that finding a good drummer is just as hard as finding a good singer. Often times, drummers tend to play above their abilities when writing music with their bandmates. This attempt of appearing better than they truly are will ultimately be exposed in the studio when it is realized that, “Our drummer is really not that good.”

  • Off tempo
  • Unable to follow a click track
  • Not understanding the song’s structures
  • Sloppy drum playing

These are just a few things that come out in the studio with a band who are not properly prepared.

If a band is paying you, it is your job to emphasize how important it is to be well rehearsed before you even hit the record button. They should know the songs in and out and play them exactly the same every time when in the studio.

On the other hand, if you have a drummer who is dedicated, rehearsed and understands the importance of a well-established back beat, you and the band will have the time of your lives in the studio. A well-rehearsed drummer, typically the first part of the recording process, will excite the band from the get-go and provide well established tracks for the other bandmates to lay down their parts. Thus, making it way easier and enjoyable when mixing the final product.

Critical elements such as timing will be easy to address when recording a prepared drummer. This will lead your focus more on creating a clean and large drum sound in the mixing part of the session. Drum samples will be easier to overlay within the track as well as time aligning the whole song together will be a breeze.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Conclusion:

Drums are undoubtedly the main driving force in creating and molding a song’s structure and need to be understood prior to hitting the record button. Drums are often thought of as the most difficult part of the recording process because of the many elements that come with a drum set. If you take the time to understand the concepts above though you will begin to understand how fun it can be to record drums. This is undoubtedly my favorite part of the recording process for me. Over the years I have come to love the anticipation of recording drums because I truly understand what needs to be accomplished prior to hitting that record button.