I'm trying to get a nice spacious rock drum sound. But while my live room — or 'dining room' as my wife calls it! — sounds nice and lively, it doesn't seem big enough to do much useful with room mics, and I'm having to close-mic everything and do what I can with reverb after recording. Are there any tools or techniques you can recommend for getting a bit more of a spacious sound while I'm actually tracking? I read somewhere that tube traps might help, but I'm not sure how!
Reece Law via email
SOS Editor In Chief Paul White replies:
When recording drums in a less-than-ideal acoustic space, I find that the best option is usually to remove the influence of the space as much as is possible and then add a good convolution, drum room-style, reverb when you mix — as you're doing now! The close mics aren't usually too much of a problem, as the amount of room ambience leaking into them is generally quite small. The overheads, though, are a different story. Using acoustic foam screens or Reflexion Filters between the mics and the ceiling can help reduce the ceiling reflections (at least for the mids and highs), which are a big contributing factor to poor sound in a low room. You could even go to the extent of fixing a pair of boundary mics to the ceiling to use as overheads, which would avoid the ceiling reflections altogether. Ensuring both overheads are the same distance from the snare drum also helps keep the snare sound clean and focussed.
Mid- and high-frequency reflections from walls can be dealt with by the usual deployment of acoustic foam, duvets, furniture removal blankets and so on, but none of these treatments will do much for the low end. So if the overheads sound wrong at the bass end, try cutting out the lows and rely on the close mics to provide the punch. The main thing in this instance is for the overheads to capture the cymbals and the transient impact of the stick hits. Finally, clean up the tom mic tracks by muting everything between tom hits as that also makes a huge difference in cleaning up your drum tracks. Toms have a habit of resonating along with every other drum you hit, so that's pretty important.
With care, and providing you have a well-tuned kit to start with, you can get a very credible drum sound in a smallish room by following these guidelines, and there's no shortage of excellent reverb treatments for putting the life back into the sound. You may also want to advance the overhead mic signals by a few milliseconds to get them into precise alignment with the close mic signals, though let your ears decide what sounds best, not your eyes. If the final sound still lacks weight, consider using drum replacement software to add a deep sampled kick to the one you've recorded — there's no shame in doing that!
SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton adds: On the whole, I'm a great believer in finding a nice space in which to track your drums, and if you have any recording budget available, hiring a decent studio in which to track your drums can make a huge difference to your productions — usually a greater one than, say, adding another mic or preamp to your personal collection. If you can't afford that then why not try to beg or borrow the use of a bigger room in a local hall? You can still achieve decent results in smaller spaces, though. As Paul says, in most domestic rooms there's little to be gained by capturing the ambience of the recording room itself, and most of your efforts are probably best spent in capturing a decent dry close-miked sound and adding in 'room' sound later courtesy of a convolution reverb plug-in.
But there are ways and means if you're willing to experiment (and unwilling to shell out for a studio space!). The tube-trap trick you're thinking of is, I suspect, one where you place these vertical traps around the drum kit and then place your room mic on the other side of one trap from the kit, facing the wall. That way, the 'direct' sound that comes to the mic is travelling that bit further, bouncing off the wall, and this can sometimes successfully mimic a larger room. But you could alternatively try deploying boundary mics on the rear wall (ie. the one the drum kit is facing). These will give you the most distant sound achievable in your room without resorting to that tube-trap trickery.
Depending on the sound you're aiming for, your quest for 'real' ambience needn't end there. My suggestion would be to try putting up a random mic or two — an SM57 or 58 pointing at the wall can add a useful grittiness that suits some styles and takes aggressive compression nicely. Also, I assume your dining room has a door or two? In that case, you could try putting a mono ambience mic in one or more of the adjacent rooms. That should pretty much only pick up reflections, with very little direct sound. Experiment with compression on that and you might just have a workable 'room-ish' sound that works quite well in some rock/indie/grungey styles, though probably not in more 'natural-sounding' genres.