At NRG Recording Studios we pride ourselves in having two of the best rooms in the world for recording drums. You would be surprised how much the room you are recording in influences the sound of your recording. Tracking drums correctly involves many factors that we’re going to break it up into a few different articles over the next couple of months. Note that these are suggestions. There is no correct way to record anything, but this article should help you with a solid starting point.
The first thing you should consider before tracking drums is: Has the drum kit been tuned properly? Tuning the kit is a whole article in itself, which we will cover in the future, but briefly – the tuning of each drum is critical to its sound. If the skins are too slack or too tight, the drum won’t sound or ring as it should – and if the tension is uneven, you’ll get very unpredictable results. Tricks like adding tape or other damping materials to the skins are also useful. If you don’t know how to tune drums we recommend hiring a drum technician to come in before your session and tune your drum kit to the room.
Most of the time you want your overheads to capture the stereo image of the drum kit. If the overhead microphones are placed at an equal distance from both the top of the snare drum to where the beater hits the head of the kick drum, they will pick up both in time. Usually, you will have to move the microphones around from this point because the cymbals will likely sound uneven in volume and presence, but it’s a good place to start.
An easy way to do this is to grab a string or a cable and hold one end in place by putting it against the kick drum and holding it there with the beater. Hold the foot pedal down to keep that end of the cable in place. Hold the other end at the center of the snare drum. Have someone pull the middle of the cable until it is tense. You should be able to move the cable in an arc that runs perpendicular to the center alignment of the drum kit. All points along this arc are equidistant from both the kick and the snare.
If you like the overall sound of the kit, but it just sounds a little unbalanced, don’t be afraid to move the overhead mics. But don’t just set it and forget it – experiment with the overheads in front of the kit, parallel with the toms, and even behind the player pointing at the drum skins. Listen, and put them where they sound right. Discuss with your engineer what your desired sound is. At NRG we have very talented engineers that will work closely with you to achieve the sound you’re after.
There are two main micing positions for recording kick drums, Kick In and Kick Out. Placing a mic in front of the kick (Kick In), will naturally give you a punchier sound, while placing a mic inside of the kick will give you more of the natural boominess and low end. The style of music will often dictate your kick micing options. Often times in Rock / Punk, a punchier and snappier kick is desired. In this scenario, you should probably lean more towards the sound of your kick in microphone. However, if a more round and low end sound is desired, micing outside of the kick is definitely the way to go. Experiment with different angles, microphones, and distances from the kick! Every situation is unique and it’s up to the engineer to read the situation and to be able to achieve the client’s desired sound.
Getting perfect phase relationship between the snare top and the other mics is close to impossible. A good way to approach it is finding the mic placement with the overheads on and listening to where the snare seems to “lock in” with them. Once you find that placement, the real key to getting a great snare sound is eliminating the hi-hat bleed. You can really bend and shape a snare sound if it’s isolated.
A useful way to do this is by utilizing the microphone’s polar patterns. The most commonly used microphone for recording snare drums is the Shure SM57, because of it’s cardioid polar pattern. A cardioid polar pattern only records what’s in front of the microphone and cancels out sound coming from behind the microphone. Rarely will this completely eliminate hi-hat bleed or any other form of bleed, but placing your snare mics with this in mind will help you get a better snare sound.
A very common mistake is to put the snare bottom mic too close to the bottom head of the snare. The distance between the snare and the snare top microphone should theoretically be the same as the distance between the snare and the snare bottom microphone. Remember, phase is all about equal distance. In other words, if you have a drum that’s 6″ deep, and the top snare mic is 1″ above the top head, it’s 7″ away from the bottom snare head. That means you want the bottom snare mic to be 7″ away from the bottom head. Once again for snares we recommend a microphone with a cardioid polar pattern to try and cancel out sound coming from behind the microphone.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the power of live-room microphones during a drum recording. Having an amazing sounding room to record drums in is half of the work. For live-rooms, we recommend microphones with a bi-directional polar pattern (Coles 3048 or Neumann M49 work wonders in our rooms). Slowly blend in your room tone with the rest of your kit to make it sound more “alive”. Tip: placing the microphones a couple inches from the floor at an equal distance from the drum kit, results in some amazing room sounds.
It goes without saying that to capture a great drum recording, you need a great drummer. You can have state of the art facilities, microphones, gear and drum kits, but if your player sucks.. Then your recording is going to suck. Microphone choices and placement are going to heavily depend on your drummer and how they play. A setup for a jazz drummer is going to be drastically different to from a setup for a punk drummer. Know your drummer, know their style and find out what works best for them. In the end, it’s your job to capture their performance in the best way we can.
One of the most important and overlooked aspects of drum micing is making sure that the mics are all in-phase. This is really important because if there’s only one out-of-phase mic, the whole kit will never sound right. If not corrected before all the drums are mixed together, it can be very difficult to fix.
So just what is phase anyway? Without getting into a heavy explanation, it just means that all the microphones are pushing and pulling together. If one mic is pushing while another is pulling, they cancel each other out.
A phase problem occurs when two mics are close together but not picking up the same signal at the same time. Microphone 1 would be picking up the sound a little later than microphone 2, which is a little farther away. This is why the positioning of your microphones is crucial in avoiding phase issues. In some situations, you can completely cancel out certain frequencies, which should be avoided at all cost. Play around with different mic placements and check your phase often.
Recording drums properly is a lost art these days. There are so many different factors that will define the outcome of your recording. Being able to communicate with your drummer and control these factors will ensure for a smooth and fantastic drum recording. Once again I want to emphasize that recording and in particular, recording drums is extremely subjective. We hope that this introduction to recording drums helped you out! Fun fact: Slate Digital recorded many of their drum samples in our studios. To finish things off we thought it would be cool to show you a small clip of one of our engineers playing drums in Studio B!