When recording drums, sometimes it’s best to go with the ‘safe’ options — but occasionally there’s time to experiment!
In a Session Notes column earlier this year (https://sosm.ag/sn-mar16), I discussed how to set your priorities when faced with a fairly short time in which to record a band. I explained how I stripped down a recording session to its bare essentials, in order to get the best result possible in the limited time available, and in particular what considerations I made when it came to capturing the drums. This month, I’ll take you through the opposite scenario: a recent drum recording session for an album where time allowed for a much more expansive set-up.
I also want to explain some ways in which you can give yourself a little sonic flexibility when recording a whole album’s worth of drums in a single sitting. Why would you want flexibility? Well, in an ideal world, we’d have an extensive pre-production process, and each song on the album would be treated to a bespoke drum selection, tuning and mic choice to match. Increasingly, though, such sessions are about striking a balance that ensures enough time and care is taken with the recordings, whilst making sure you can get what you need done in a reasonably cost-effective manner. And whilst drum recording should be a very involved and enjoyable process, drums are not the only things people will hear; it’s hugely important that enough time and money are left to record the rest of the album with an equal amount of care!
To give you an idea of how much time we’re talking about, we had two days in which to get the drums tracked for 14 songs. To get this done while achieving the right balance typically means having a fairly fixed drum-kit setup, except for changing or tweaking the all-important snare drum on a song-by-song basis. In terms of mic selection for a session such as this, I’ll try and give myself a reasonable number of sonic options that allow me to ‘future proof’ the recordings somewhat, by affording me or someone else a little flexibility at the mix stage. That said, I still prefer to commit to a certain aesthetic at the tracking stage, so I’m not left drowning in choices. Yes, that’s right, I want my cake and to eat it...
The kit we had for this session was a good-quality DW (Drum Workshop) one, with fairly new heads on the toms and snare. The basic configuration was a 22-inch kick, 12x8 rack tom and 14x12 floor. The amount of cymbals present made me a little nervous, because along with the ubiquitous hit-hat and ride there were three large crashes and a china-style cymbal waiting to be laid into!
I always make a point of chatting to the drummer when he’s setting up his kit, as I believe it’s important to get a good feel for how they prefer their drums to sound. Also, if a drummer has quite a large kit, or lots of cymbals, it’s good to establish how precious they are about using everything in the studio setting.
Drummer Danny Watts’ kit was in pretty good shape, but it’s always a good idea to check a few things. My first point of call was to ensure the kick-drum heads were in decent health. This is an important step, as the state I’ve seen some drummers’ front (beater side) kick-drum heads in is genuinely shocking. Completely loose lugs at the bottom and even holes patched with gaffa tape are not unheard of! Thankfully, for this particular session it was mainly just a case of evening up the tension around the drum and making sure the drum responded with a satisfying ‘thud’ when struck via the kick pedal. For the front head, I really like to keep it on these days where possible — and in this instance, despite a fairly small hole in which to place a mic, I felt it was important to the sound of the drum.
The snare was sounding fairly good already, so I decided not to muck around with it much until I’d heard it in context with some music. I decided that all that was required at this point was a little check that nothing too weird was going on in terms of loose lugs and a little tightening of the snares. The rack and floor toms also sounded OK in isolation, but the tuning of the low tom was barely lower than that of the smaller rack tom —that seemed to make little musical sense to me. I discussed with Danny the types of fill we’d be dealing with across the album, and we then spent some time lowering the pitch of the floor tom until we had a pleasing step down in pitch.
In terms of where the kit pieces were positioned in relation to each other, everything was pretty engineer-friendly: Danny likes his cymbals placed pretty high, and this allows me to place my tom mics just where I want them. He also has his hi-hat set up so that it leaves a huge gap for snare mic placement. If your drummer likes to play like that, or is willing to try, that’s great — though some won’t find it comfortable, and if it impacts negatively on their performance that’s a sign you should be moving the mics rather than the cymbals!
With the kit set up and sounding good, it was time to contemplate mic choice and placement. As I’ve already discussed, I was keen to give myself some options in the mix, and to experiment with the various nice mics we have here at Half Ton. It’s possible, of course, to get loads of mics positioned so they’re all phase aligned and can thus all be used with each other simultaneously, but I don’t believe it's necessary, or often even beneficial, to have 16 channels of drums in order to get a good drum sound! And not only would that approach have cost us a lot of time, but I also felt it would reduce the amount of difference between the options. Instead, then, I aimed to create different miking options, based around two sets of overhead setups (which I’ll explain more about shortly). As these didn’t need positioning so that their signals would be phase-coherent, setting up would be a much simpler and quicker affair.
Looking at the overheads first then, I began with a fairly standard spaced pair of AKG C414s, with each mic broadly focused downwards, towards the area occupied by the ride and hi-hat. With the mics set to cardioid, this placement gives you a tight but often cymbal-heavy picture of the whole kit. As with most stereo overhead configurations it’s a very good idea to measure the distance from each mic to the centre of the snare drum, as this ensures the snare sound reaches each mic at the same time, so everything is nicely in phase. Here, I ran the mics into a pair of API 312 preamps, which I allowed to be driven quite hard — to my ears, this adds a nice vibe to loud drums, and it’s very much one that I’m happy to commit to at the recording stage.
Another option I like as a drum overhead is my Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon mic. Its slightly darker and smoother response can work wonders if you have a very cymbal-heavy drummer, which was a potential source of concern on this session. It’s also a much more mono-friendly setup than a spaced pair, so I felt this mic would give me a solid, yet very different-sounding option come mix time. I positioned the SF-12 a little higher than the C414’s, and ensured the snare drum was very much in middle of the stereo image. The Royer fed my DAV preamps, which I set to apply a more conservative amount of gain than the APIs. No EQ or compression was used on either mic option while recording.
Moving on to the kick drum, I often like to see if I can get the sound I need initially with just one microphone, and then see if I need anything else to round it out. As I was keen to keep the front head on the drum, I only had a very small hole in which to position a mic. A Sennheiser 421 is a fairly good option for getting in hard-to-reach kick-drum holes, so I tried one, eventually finding a nice position that gave a good balance of weight and attack. Having an assistant is a great help at this point, as you can get them to move the mic in small increments whilst you listen for the sweet spot!
Yet, I soon began to notice what I can only describe as a kind of flappy, flabby sound, that I presumed was a resonance that the mic was picking up from the resonant head. Returning to the live room, I listened to see if I could identify where it was coming from. Tightening the head a little helped, but it didn’t eliminate the problem. I could perhaps have decided to remove the head all together at this point, but I decided instead to damp it with the combination of a little tissue and gaffa tape, and a packing blanket held in place by a very heavy weight. This inevitably reduced the drum’s overall resonance a little, but it was nonetheless very successful in eliminating that strange flapping sound. All in all, I was happy with the miked sound at this point, and after checking and then flipping the polarity, it worked well with both sets of overheads.
Despite having fairly good isolation at my studio, a little low end does still come through the walls from the live room to the control room, and that sort of thing can trick you into thinking you’re capturing more bottom end than you really are. With this in mind I made a test recording and, sure enough, the kick drum sounded a little lacking around the 50-80 Hz region. Not wanting to play with the mic placement any further, it seemed like a perfect excuse to use a couple of new bits of equipment I’d been trying out recently.
I’ve become quite addicted to using the low-end ‘cut and boost’ Pultec trick on my newly acquired Warm Audio EQP-WA tube EQ, and cutting and boosting by 4dB at 60Hz really did a lovely, lovely thing. If you haven’t used a Pultec-style EQ, I recommend you do; this cutting and boosting of the same frequency — at the same time — is one of the things that makes them so revered. The different EQ curves don’t cancel; rather they interact. Essentially, it allows you to add low-end, whilst simultaneously tightening the low mids. To my ears, the Warm Audio unit delivers this classic piece of audio magic really nicely. I also added a touch of 5kHz boost with the same EQ, to add a little ‘point’ to the kick, and the last touch was just a whisker of compression with a UAD 1176 modelling plug-in.
I was really pleased with how my enhanced kick drum now sounded, but for a final low-end option I put up the Solomon LoFreq mic that I had in for review — a sort of posh version of the Yamaha Subkick. It can sometimes be a little tricky to get these microphones in phase with your other mics, not least because they can be physically quite heavy, but after little nudging and listening I was satisfied it was bringing something useful to the party.
For the Snare drum I began with a fairly classic combination: a Shure SM57 on the top and an AKG C414 on the bottom. There’s not a huge amount to say about using an SM57 on a snare except that I personally like to try and get the mic at least a couple of inches above the drum’s edge. Due to the height of Danny’s hi-hat positioning, I also had the luxury of being able to get the rear of the mic (where rejection is greatest) facing the hi-hat cymbals, to give me more control over the snare when mixing. The bottom snare mic is often overlooked in a busy session but I was very keen for it to be a really solid and usable addition to the sound. I love using under-snare condenser mics but I do find that if you’re not careful they can really mess with your kick sound. To counter this, I engaged the C414’s 75Hz high-pass filter, and tightened its polar pattern from cardioid to hyper-cardioid. As you can see from the photos, I had this mic positioned fairly close to the drum, and so I engaged the mic’s 10dB pad, just to make my Audient mic preamp’s job a little more comfortable! A little tip for bottom snare mics is to try and angle whatever mic you’re using so that its capsule is ‘looking at’ your top-snare mic as directly as is possible — this gives you the most coherent result when you flip the polarity of your bottom mic.
After a tiny bit of body-enhancing EQ boost at 200Hz on the SM57, I was pleased with the starting point I had for this crucial element of the drum sound. Again, though, I was keen to give myself a few options. We had a nice bit of space around the drum itself, so I quickly positioned another C414 to point towards the top of the snare. As with the overheads I wasn’t too worried about this mic being in phase with the existing snare mics; I just wanted a different-sounding option. I was also keen to set the mic a little further back, so that this valued mic wouldn’t risk a beating from a stray drumstick!
Miking up the toms was a fairly simple business. I find that the tight polar pattern of the Beyerdynamic M201 dynamic mic generally gives me a good representation of the sound of the drum, while leaving me with a controllable amount of spill. I’ve been saturating my toms quite a bit in some recent rock mixes, so it seemed like a logical choice to take advantage of some good-quality outboard to do this on the way in — so I ran these mics through my Audient ASP800’s ‘retro’ preamp channels. Dialing in some of their ‘Iron’ transformer saturation gave the toms a subtle but pleasing amount of extra body, and generally made them seem more mix-ready.
Although not having a particularly large live room at our studio, I was still keen to have a few room-mic options that would offer a slightly more unconventional image of the kit. I wrote an article last year (https://sosm.ag/small-room-drums) going through a number of options you might try in a smaller drum room. I hope I don’t sound too immodest when I tell you that it’s well worth a read! The techniques I describe in there sometimes don’t add any great enhancement, but often they’ll provide something really interesting. On this occasion, given that I had three spare input channels to play with, I decided to try a Mid-Sides (M-S) mic array looking straight at the kit, along with a mono floor-facing option that I would heavily compress as a character mic.
For my M-S setup I used two Neumann U87s, one set to a figure-of-eight polar pattern with the side null facing the kit, and the other in cardioid facing the source. I do find however when using an M-S setup in a small room that you have to be a bit careful about what the Sides mic is picking up. If one side is pointed at something reflective, like a wall, and the other towards something more absorbent, it will give you plenty of width, but it won’t give you a nicely balanced stereo image. To counter that issue here, I roughly positioned a couple of spare acoustic panels, so that both ‘faces’ of the mic captured fairly similar room characteristics. Both U87s fed Focusright ISA preamps, with no compression or EQ applied. To create the full M-S image, of course, you need three channels, but as you only need two mics you don’t need three physical inputs — you can do the rest in your DAW by duplicating the figure-of-eight mic and inverting the polarity of the duplicate.
For the mono ‘character’ mic, I used a vintage GEC ribbon mic, which I’ve enjoyed using on a number of sessions recently. I positioned this very close to the reflective wooden floor in the live room, looking generally at the kit, from about six to eight feet away. I used my last available channel of 1176 compression to pulverize the sound from this mic, to create a distorted, explosive sound that I hoped could add some excitement to the drum mix. Should you capture such effects when tracking? Some would argue not, but I was quite happy to commit to a very effected sound with this mic, as I had more than enough other options available if it didn’t work, and when it comes to mixing all you need do to try the effect is raise the fader. It can also help the vibe when you’re tracking: I cranked this mic up during playback a few times whilst recording, and the band certainly liked how it sounded!
By the time we were ready to start recording, we’d spent roughly four or five hours setting up the drums, playing with sounds and fixing mic combinations. I felt for the singer/guitarist Dan, who was camped on the control room couch, nursing a raging hangover, but I felt we had to try and get at least two or three of the drum tracks down by the end of this first day. We were working to a click track throughout and as Danny was very familiar with the tracks, he only required a guide guitar to play against.
With all this time spent on prep, we could spend the next day and a half working through the 14 album tracks with a relatively small amount of fuss. Getting through this quantity of drum tracks in that time, though, required that the drum sound remain fairly fixed, except for a few small song-specific tweaks. Mostly, this involved the tuning and resonance of the snare, but I also got Danny to substitute his hi-hats in a couple of the louder songs for lighter options.
The arrangements were fairly straightforward and Danny and Dan were well rehearsed, with the only sticking points being debating certain tempos and a few of Danny’s choices of drum fills. As a last item on the final day, I made a point of recording some individual drum hits, so I had the option of making some nice, isolated drum samples that I could use for any emergency repairs should I identify any problems later that we’d missed on the day. Often I never end up using these, but it takes very little time and it’s great to have the option.
In terms of the music, which is always the most important thing, the weekend’s recording went really well. In terms of the sonic decisions, it’s harder to tell on the day — the real proof comes when the tracks come together more, once you’ve embarked on the initial stages of mixing. But I certainly felt that I’d got the balance right in terms of experimentation, sonic options and time management. My main engineering indulgence was having two sets of drum overheads, but this was mainly about using the Royer SF-12 ribbon mic as an insurance policy, should the cymbals in the other setup become too much. The all-important kick and snare mics all sounded really solid, and I’d be very surprised if the two room options didn’t feature further down the line too.
Being picky, I could probably have paid a little more attention to the toms — listening back at the time of writing, the floor tom seemed to have lost its initial tuning on some of the later tracks, and the toms sounded workable rather that great, but it’s nothing a little modest mix trickery can’t rectify. I’ve supplied examples of all the elements of the drum recording on the SOS web site (https://sosm.ag/sep16media) so do have a listen and see what you think.
One thing you might take away from this experience is the balance I consciously struck between keeping options open, and committing to decisions while tracking: technology seems to be increasing our mix options all the time, which on the face of it must be a good thing, but I believe we run the risk of it becoming a distraction to what’s really important. How things sound at certain stages in the production process shapes what follows, and the very real prospect of being able to change nearly all aspects of your sounds at the mix stage, with amp modeling, virtual pre-amps, or even virtual microphones — sounds like a world of indecision to me! Trusting yourself and committing to creative choices, in a thoughtful manner, seems like not only a tried-and-tested formula but something to still very much aspire to. Thus, on this project, I was happy to commit to processing, such as driven preamp coloration, EQ or compression whilst recording.
I’ve been both a drummer and an engineer for a few years now and I think it’s important to make the point that it’s ok to feel a little bemused or even intimidated by drum tuning! It’s a strange world that on some days can be ridiculously easy and on others a mysterious and infuriating business. Different drummers hitting the same drum can also produce a surprisingly different sound. I certainly don’t claim to be any kind of tuning Guru that can come in and make a cheap kit sound amazing, but I’m quite happy to share what I think are some of the key points I find helpful. A really important thing to consider before beginning to work on a drum is whether the size and configuration of the drum is physically capable of getting the sound you’re looking for. It can, for example, be hard to get a shallow snare to have enough body and a small rack tom is not going to give you a deep, rich sounding ‘boom’. Each drum shell has a frequency that it naturally wants to resonant at and you’ll typically get the best results by roughly staying around where the drum wants to be.
A good place to start with a poor sounding drum is to slacken off all the lugs on the top head and then tighten them up so that there is an even tension. This can be done either by ear of with the help of a drum dial, or drum tuning app. Once this top head is sounding reasonable, do the same with the bottom head but tune it slightly lower. This is really quick overview of course, but it’s the relationship between the top and the bottom heads that is going to separate an ok — from a really good sounding drum, so play around and get a feel for how it works.
Although surprisingly pricey these days, good fresh drum heads most certainly help and make sure you do the business end of your tuning in the part of the room you’re going to record in, as this make a real difference. Even in tune, how the drummer hits will have a huge impact so also make sure to get the player to do some of the hitting. You often get to a point with drum tuning where it becomes very tempting to just cover the drum in gaffa tape, or moon gel, as a way of getting a workable sound. You need to control the resonance of course but do try and hold off a little before going down this road so that you give the drum the best chance of sounding how it wants to.
The audio files available on this page accompany my Session Notes article in SOS September 2016, about a drum recording session with the Travis Waltons. The band have kindly allowed me to supply some short audio examples from one their tracks and I’ve provided clips of all the individual elements of the drum recording. As well as full details of the signal chain used, I’ve tried to supply a little extra detail to accompany the main article. All examples are free from any mix processing and are what was captured during the session.
For my close or ‘inside’ kick mic I used a Sennheiser MD421 dynamic mic paired with an API 312 preamp. Because I only had a very small hole in the drum’s front head, I had to settle on a position that lacked a little low end. To compensate for this I used the Warm Audio EQP-WA Pultec style EQ to add a little 60Hz boost. About 1-2 dB of gain reduction was also applied with a UA 1176 compressor.
On the outside of the bass drum, I used a Solomon LoFreq sub-kick mic running through an Audient preamp. This is a new brand of microphone that recreates the old NS10 speaker technique, and it certainly added some useful low-end information. I did find this mic a little hard to get satisfyingly in phase with the inside kick mic however, so it will be interesting to see how much it figures come mix time. I think on some of the sparser-sounding tracks it could be a really useful addition.
For my main snare mic, I had a Shure SM57 dynamic mic running through an API 312 preamp, which is a classic combination for snare drums. I also applied a small boost at 200Hz and 3.5kHz via an SSL 611 EQ. This gave me everything I’d hope for from an SM57 on a snare, and I also was pleased that my careful positioning had kept the inevitable hi-hat spill controllable.
As a bonus top snare option, I used an AKG C414 B-ULS condenser mic running through an Audient preamp. Although subtle, this mic, and its positioning, gave a little more natural body to the sound than the SM57, although the spill is, as you might expect, a little more prominent. It certainly imparts a slightly different tone to the snare drum, which could prove useful when mixing.
An AKG C414 B-ULS running through an Audient preamp. The mic was in its hypercardioid pattern, with the 75Hz high-pass filter engaged. Bottom snare mics can often sound underwhelming, but here I’m really pleased: it gives the ability to introduce a little more of the snare ‘rattle’ to taste during the mix, and it also seems to sit well enough with the other channels to suggest it could play a key part in the drum mix.
A Beyerdynamic M201 dynamic mic, running through an Audient ‘Retro’ pre amp with ‘HMX’ and ‘Iron’ processors engaged. My close rack-tom mic should give what’s needed come mix time and the hypercardioid polar pattern of the M201 helps give a nicely focused image of each tom hit. I used the ‘HMX’ and ‘Iron’ saturation features on the Audient preamp to add a touch of body whilst also rounding out the initial transient a little.
The microphone choice and signal path were identical to the rack tom. Being critical, the floor tom is perhaps the least pleasing aspect of this drum recording for me, as the tuning is not quite on the money. The level of spill is good though and it felt at the time that we’d squeezed what we could out of that particular drum. Although absolutely usable, it will probably require a little extra help come mix time.
This was not discussed in the article — I used an old AKG C451 pencil-style condenser mic, positioned so that the hi-hat was acting like a screen to the snare. This creates a more usable sound to me than angling the mic away from the kit.
A spaced pair of AKG C414 EB condenser mics in cardioid, looking directly down at the kit. These mics were running through a pair of API 312 preamps which I allowed to be driven quite hard. I was pleased with general the image of the kit through these mics and I liked the sense of placement for individual drums in the stereo field. I also liked how the driven API preamps gave a slightly compressed ‘smack’ to the snare drum.
As another overhead option, I used a Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon mic positioned a little higher than the 414’s. My main reason for using this mic was for a less cymbal heavy option and it certainly seemed to give me that. Not surprisingly the SF-12 provided a darker tone than the condenser style mics, and it has quite a ‘woody’ sound to the low mids. With a little EQ however this mic could be a good option for some of the more cymbal-heavy tracks.
Two Neumann U87s positioned about 10 feet back from the front of the kit. One mic was in cardioid, facing straight at the source, and the other was in fig-8, with a side null facing the drums. This sample is the individual mics from the Mid-Sides room recordings combined into a stereo file. Although the stereo image is not particularly defined — a drum kit is not actually that wide in terms of a stereo picture — it does give a nice trashy perspective of the drums in the room. I’ve also supplied the individual elements in case you’re new to M-S recording and would like get a feel for how it works.
This mic should stay fixed.
Duplicate this track in your DAW then hard-pan one copy left and the other right. Invert the polarity of just the right-panned track, then link the channel faders, create a VCA, or route both tracks to a bus, so you can change their level without changing their level relative to one another. Now balance the Mid mic against these Sides to taste. In this way, you can increase or decrease the perceived stereo width.
As a slightly more leftfield room option, I positioned an old GEC ribbon mic 6-8 feet back from the kick drum, facing the reflective floor. This mic was driven hard through a Neve 73LB mic preamp and heavily compressed with a UA 1176. The mic has a very kick-heavy sound, but it has a nice explosive character that I liked when blended in subtly with the rest of the kit.
Using the C414s as overheads and the SM57 on snare top, this is a quick example of how I might balance the drums with a little EQ and compression applied.
Something of a regular feature in my Session Notes and mixing articles, the Travis Waltons are an alternative indie-rock band based in Bristol. This recording session is for their third album, which is due out towards the end of 2016. Their previous albums, Separation Season and Your Neck Is Bleeding, are available now via Big Cartel and iTunes.