Tracking drums and percussion is a huge topic.
You could fill a very big book on either of these topics, and many have, and still have left plenty unsaid. I didn’t have time today to go on about specific microphones or positioning too much, other than in general terms, but all kinds of information is nonetheless contained herein and I think you’ll find something here of value.
A great drum sound is very hard to get, but it can be done at home with care and the appropriate approach, depending on your circumstances and equipment. In some ways, you can’t do a lot about your space. It either sounds good fundamentally, or it doesn’t. In a lot of ways, however, you can use incremental changes in numerous areas to raise the bar considerably and get far better sounds than you ever thought possible.
It does not really require a great deal of equipment, but common sense goes a long way and there are a few things you really do need. Patience and time are two of them, because it takes a while the first few times you attempt to record a drum kit. Bless the patient drummer.
The easiest approach is to buy a complete package of drum mics from a single manufacturer, such as Rode, Sennheiser and others. This way, you get a user manual telling you about each mic and where to use it for good basic results.
These are quite good quality, and introductory, and will work well for a while. However, the best sounds will come from a more piecemeal approach, in many cases, but it takes a fair bit more investment since you will need quite a few mics that each exceed the qualities of their corresponding equivalents within the all-in-one bundles.
The number of microphone stands grows dramatically with the change to selecting each microphone yourself, since the all-in-one options of bundled drum mics are supplied with small mounting clips for the most part, negating the need for a forest of micstands around the kit.
Take it from me, once you are using five or more microphone stands around the kit, things may get cramped and difficult when you want to adjust things a bit for musical reasons, to avoid the drummer’s sticks, or for the more mundane but equally essential reason of maintaining phase coherence for good mono compatibility.
One thing you will want to do but may not expect is to gather a bunch of sandbags (or similar) as weights to hold stands from toppling forwards with mics on them into the drummer! Old phone books at a pinch, I guess, but both personal safety and fair sums of money may be involved here.
In place of sandbags, my sensible wife came up with using small Zip-Loc bags, each filled with a pound or two of dry rice, sealed and placed into a home-made cloth bag. This helps prevent the “sand” bags from bursting when manhandled, spilling rice pellets everywhere, and looks nicer than raw rice see-through bags.
You’ll need at least a couple of condenser mics (which can be small pencil types) and a couple of dynamic mics (a Shure SM57 and any large-diaphragm dynamic will do for these), and also at least one mic that can capture very low frequencies (at least as low as 32Hz) at high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels), such as an AKG D112 or an ElectroVoice RE-20. These all need mic cables, and mic preamps to connect to, which can be built into your DAW’s audio interface at a minimum.
You can get a decent result with just two mics, so it need not be a big production to track drums! A common and very useful sound can be obtained from three mics, one snare, one kick, and one mono overhead. This is a good, solid sound, but is best used as a point source kit, meaning it appears to come from one place only in the stereo image, usually right at dead centre of the balance at 12 o’clock.
Amazingly, if you don’t need a kick drum for some reason, and you are happy to have a mono “point source” sound for drums panned to a single place within your final stereo mix, you can actually get away with one mic. This works well for making your own drum and percussion loops that will sit atop a MIDI bass drum pattern from a virtual instrument in hybrid drum productions.
For the rest of the time, you’ll usually want a minimum of four microphones (kick, snare, stereo overheads), thereby breaking your recording out across three DAW tracks (two mono, and one stereo track, making a grand total of four incoming audio channels).
Another thing to note is that there are a plethora of instrument types involved in the playing of drums and percussion. It seems as if a gazillion trillion things can be pressed into service as percussion or drum instruments, and that’s without deploying official drum and percussion instruments.
The world is your oyster with this area of DIY music-making, and that is a wonderful thing. Perhaps the only downside is that there is no one way to record drummers and percussionists in general.
For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to ignore the artificial drums. In that category, I include sample-based virtual drum and percussion instruments (e.g. Spectrasonics Stylus RMX or Avid/Digidesign’s BOOM), full electronic kits (e.g. those by Alesis, Roland or Yamaha), MIDI hardware drum sample playback modules (e.g. Alesis SR-16 drum machine), and any handheld synth modules that can be struck or otherwise triggered, often using built-in playable rubbery pads (e.g. Roland Handsonic HPD units). All of these things I will not be discussing here.
Today’s blogpost is solely concerned with recording the real drum or percussion instruments themselves, not triggering samples in any way.
If you are recording to a DAW or other hardware digital recorder, this means sound is entering a microphone, being converted to an electrical signal. This is amplified by going through a preamp, which converts it from a microphone level signal to a line level signal. From there, it is fed to an A/D converter (analog to digital converter) which renders a digital output you can record to the DAW track for playback or editing.
If you have a DAW interface with one or more mic inputs, then you will complete this chain to the DAW track from the microphone simply by connecting the mic to a suitable mic input on the interface.
Optionally, you can intervene by using a different external preamp to reach line level, and then put the line level signal into a line level input on your interface (instead of using a mic level input on the interface). This lets you use other preamps, which may suit the type of sound better, and may well be significantly cleaner and better-sounding than the preamps in some low-budget DAW interfaces. Preamps can be transparent or obvious in operation, often adding specific desirable qualities to the sound, such as tight, punchy mids on a small cocktail kit snare or high airy treble for a stormy ride cymbal overdub.
This means the influence of the room around your instruments on their sound will loom large in your recordings, and you should do what you can to prepare and treat the space for acoustic purposes. You need to control what you can since it is extremely difficult to get rid of unwanted reverb and flutter echoes generated by the room surfaces (walls, doors, floor, ceiling, furnishings, fittings, objects, appliances, TV screens, bookshelves, sofas, etc). You can add artificial ambience easily later on in many ways, including room mics for real ambience on a speaker playback you record, but it’s more or less impossible to remove time-based effects of any sort once they have been embedded into the signal and recorded that way.
How do you prepare the space for drums? This might mean temporarily placing blankets and duvets to absorb and prevent reflections from returning to the mics. This might mean placing hardwood at a distance, acting to deliberately brighten the complex web of reflections creating sound near a far room microphone, but being too far from the drum close mics and any overhead mics to be picked up by them to any noticeable degree.
You might build a “drum tunnel” of blankets draped over a chair in front of your bass drum, which will exclude a lot of the brightest leakage from other parts of the kit into the bass drum mic placed in the home-made “tunnel”.
There are many things you might do. Let’s talk about them for a bit.
THREE APPROACHES TO CAPTURING REAL DRUMS
The easiest way to start is by looking at the acoustic drum kit (or drum set), and considering what you need to capture to set your song in the best possible light. Usually, the groove is arguably more important than the specific sounds, but both aspects are required to be great if you want to get a great result.
In a nutshell, you have three options for capturing “real” drums for your songs recorded at home. That is, at least, once you know when your neighbours won’t be troubled by the volume of your uninhibited playing.
OPTION ONE – Record One Element At A Time
The first choice is to take the Jeff Lynne approach (ELO, Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison, Tom Petty) and record the kit one piece at a time.
According to interviews, he has said he likes to record himself playing a few bars of hi-hat in a useful, simple groove, maybe for two bars, and then he will loop that throughout a song’s structure as his starting point for the drums. After that, he will add a bass drum part, and once that is done, he adds a snare drum. Fills are also added as overdubs. Crash, splash and ride cymbals would be last to be recorded.
This method has upsides and downsides.
It allows for perfect isolation of each sound, which is excellent in many respects, but does not sound the same as the sound of spill of other parts of the kit leaking into neighbouring kit microphones during a real drummer’s performance on a whole kit. The result is highly controllable, but is also unnaturally clean and isolated.
There is a key advantage, however – a technical ace in the hole. You won’t suffer from any phase issues in your drum tracks with this approach, and phase issues can very easily mar a recording of real drums where multiple mics are used at the same time. All it takes is careless positioning of the microphones relative to each other and using incorrect polar patterns.
There will be perfect phase in your kit recordings if you capture sounds one at a time, with a single mic each time (it need not be the same mic each time, of course) since each recording is in perfect phase and is NOT made at the exact same moment in the same space as any other mic recording in the final mix.
Phase is entirely relative – physics being what it is, a mono recording has phase issues ONLY when it is aligned with another recording of the same simultaneous events and the overlying waveforms do not agree as to synchronization of wave position within the recurring waveform cycles at each frequency at all points along the timeline of the recording when played together. If the two recordings are not contemporaneous, then all is well when you combine them.
It’s the fact that a waveform is said to travel 360 degrees from peak to peak. If one wave is actually at position 180 degrees when the other is at 360 (a.k.a. zero) degrees, then the two are said to be in opposite phase, and they will destructively combine to cancel each other perfectly. There will be no sound produced when they are played together. If they are at, say, 45 degrees instead, then they will cancel in part, and so on with all points along the wave cycle. It’s not worth fussing too much about, but read my blog post on cool tools to consider adding to your studio from early May 2013 to see the complete deal on this and how to manage phase and mono compatibility issues on a low budget.
Listen to any Jeff Lynne album, such as the recent one under the ELO moniker called “Zoom”, and you will hear what I mean. He just doesn’t enjoy the somewhat messy, complex sound of a whole kit performance relative to the controlled sonics and feel of his own unusually clear and clean approach to nailing the drum tracks.
I know exactly how he feels, and so I like this method a lot, although it depends on genre whether this is an appropriate idea. You would NEVER do this with a jazz trio, obviously, since they are improvising live off each other’s performances, and certainly there are many pop, rock and folk styles where the sounds of real drums are not wanted, whether recorded one element at a time, or all played together in a single take.
The “one drum voice at a time” method has another benefit – it makes it much easier to play the drums since you don’t have to co-ordinate more than two limbs at a time!
OPTION TWO – Record The Entire Kit In One Go
The second method is the traditional method – playing the whole kit all at once in a single performance. This is the most popular method and suits a great many styles, but it does require enough room for a whole kit to be set up and played, together with a forest of surrounding micstands and a spaghetti dinner’s worth of mic cables.
This latter method also requires enough space around the kit that reflections from nearby surfaces do not bounce straight back into the microphones, generating strange flamming sounds on the drum attacks, and so-called “flutter echoes” in the critical area of the midrange. On the upside, the performance (hopefully) sounds more cohesive, and can be recorded much faster than when overdubbing a single drum at a time. The whole instrument leaks into each of the mics used on it, which gives a certain sonic result.
Finally, people are used to hearing a kit played as a whole. It sounds natural, and it sounds right, given a suitably appropriate acoustic environment to play within.
OPTION THREE – Create Hybrid Drum Tracks (Backbeat Takes Followed by Fill Overdubs)
The third option is to take a hybrid approach, recording the kick and snare together in a groove in a single take, with or without the hi-hats and any ride cymbal parts in the musical arrangement as you feel it best. After this, tom fills and crash and splash cymbals can be overdubbed as required to complete the whole kit’s performance.
You can, of course, implement MIDI drum sounds alongside any of the techniques mentioned in this blog, provided you maintain tight enough playing of the real drums (or editing after the fact) to prevent phase cancellations damaging the mono version of the mix. Mono matters in a lot of areas, unless you are just going to listen to your own work at home for ever more with no thought to other listeners.
There are two main advantages here. First, fills can be designed to suit the track perfectly, and don’t need to be performed perfectly at the time the basic groove is being recorded. Secondly, the basic groove will remain focused and hold together in a steady way, without the disruption of breaking flow with fills that perhaps don’t work out exactly. Or, they do sound great, but you can’t seem to get back in the pocket afterwards straight away with the kick and snare pattern that follows on from the fill.
The downside to the hybrid approach is that you might break the flow of fills within the timeline out into what sound like discrete units, rather than getting a synergy in the performance, a completeness, that unique flowing vibe for the drum tracks on your project that only really comes from a single inspired performance accomplished in one go by a solid, consistent player.
It’s very important, wherever you are recording, that you consider the room acoustics you are working with.
ROOM ACOUSTICS AND DRUMS OR PERCUSSION
You might imagine you need a flat, neutral sound in a room for recording drums, but in fact the opposite is true. Although the sharp transients involved in a cracking set of drums will obviously cause severe reflections from nearby hard surfaces, like tables, floors or walls, it is still a good idea to prevent deadening the room too much.
The classic dead drum sound is of course from the mid 1970’s, perhaps best personified in countless funky soul records from the USA, and early Elton John records produced so well by Gus Dudgeon in the UK. The dead sound of drums was very popular for a long time, but it rarely works now. It is claustrophobic by nature, and that has an emotional imprint on the music that is not commonly desired. It might come back, you never know! It’s a cool sound, but it’s not for all music styles, that’s for sure.
The last thing you want when you record drums is a room with a totally flat frequency response, so forget all about that. If you did manage to flatten your room’s response, you would hate the results anyway for it’s unnatural, lifeless sound. You would feel very uncomfortable when listening to anything in the room, and recordings would be far too sterile and unappealing for musical purposes.
Frequencies can be reinforced or dampened by the surrounding materials in a room, such as curtains, sofas, bedding, etc. Your best bet is to minimize reflections that can enter into the microphones you are setting up around the kit, while being very careful to allow sightlines to the drummer for any visual communication purposes. If you are recording another instrument at the same time, such as a DI bass guitar, then eye contact between that player and the drummer will make a big difference to the groove and/or emotional impetus in the playing from both parties.
Cymbal wash also travels around a room quite easily, so see-through screens might help, but they might also reflect the sound back into the mics in a loose, arhythmic mess of high end sizzle or low midrange swells and booms.
Try to keep a kit well away from the walls and corners of the room. Although you may find you get great low end nearer the corner, it will often be too much and have to be reduced in mixing anyway, plus you will be plagued by midrange flutter echoes on the entire kit.
The best spot to start looking is a little away from the exact middle of a room, such that it is a different distance to each room boundary or surface, and that none of them are too close for comfort. Obviously, you may not live on a grand estate or in a crumbling castle, and the room may be 10 feet by 8 feet. My advice is to use the largest space you can at home, or, in the alternative, defaulting to renting out a suitable room or small hall if you need to for a few hours of peaceful recording of drums without excessive traffic noise and so on.
If you have a fridge, freezer, or forced air vents in the space, you will need to turn them off while you are recording into open microphones. Make a BIG RED NOTE to yourself that you MUST turn the freezer on again, or it may be an expensive error you will never hear the last of. Been there, done that.
I’ll start with looking at the drum set as a single, complex, yet complete instrument, and one that is made up of elements intended to be played at the same time. Swallowing the whole enchilada in one bite, as it were.
CAPTURING THE WHOLE KIT AS ONE INSTRUMENT
The thing to remember about a set of drums is that they are usually assembled as a set with sonic relationships between the pieces. They function in a context with their neighbouring components.
There may be some mismatches amongst the pieces involved, but they are meant to be played as a set and so drummers will try to use drum elements with sounds that are related to each other in a musical context and feel as if they belong together when you hear them played together at the same time. It’s not just a matter of tuning the toms apart, it’s making a sumptuous whole from sometimes disparate ingredients.
Much like a good cook in a strange kitchen, you must attempt to mix a whole meal from a collection of ingredients that do not necessarily go together as well as you might hope.
A carpeted room is best for drums at home, since the walls are usually very nearby. In a studio, a hardwood floor is preferable, with rugs placed nearby to kill local reflections (those near the mics). The hardwood livens up the sound, brightening it and adding a complex mix of subtle early reflections that help to build the sound in the room in a flattering, diffuse way. The echoes are less defined by the time they reach the microphones, because they have had to bounce around the room awhile before finding an easy path back into those microphones.
Bear in mind that a surge of air can damage sensitive microphones of the ribbon type. Avoid placing a ribbon mic within five or six feet of a drum kit, and ideally do not use it at all for drums or percussion. It is not really a suitable microphone for anything that produces a blast of air at high sound pressure levels, since they can snap the ribbon taut with sufficient violence to break it, resulting in a costly repair bill before you can use the mic again.
Condenser and dynamic mics are the two types you will need.
The condensers are good for overhead mics (which means a lot of cymbal sound in most cases, since they are nearer the mics), all types of cymbals, rack toms, and also for placing underneath snares. These are bright mics, usually with clear, open highs and plenty of detail.
You have to supply power to a condenser, in the form a battery in some cases, but usually in the form of phantom power at 48 volts delivered down the mic cable from the connected preamp or interface. Without power, they do not work.
The dynamic mics are great for kicks, floor toms and (top) snares. Small diaphragm dynamics like the SM57 are excellent on snares. The large diaphragm mics are better for the kicks and floor toms – anything with serious low end. They are punchy mics, and can take very high SPLs so they work great on the loudest drum elements like the kick and the snare.
They can take a beating and survive – handy around a drummer – and they do not require any power to be supplied to them.
HOW CLOSE TO PUT THE MICS, AND TIPS ON USING OVERHEAD MICS
If the drummer flails around all over the place, you don’t want to impede that body language as he or she plays, for your mics will suffer the consequences and the recording will feature sounds you did not intend to capture.
If they play tightly, economically, and carefully, taking little room to move, then you can safely get a little closer to the action.
If the drumheads have a dent in one main place, then the player is accurate and focused. This is another clue.
Another consideration is to aim the mics slightly away from dead on at the head of the drum, so as to lessen the impact of the wavefront that emanates out to the mic. This may prevent low plosives with toms and kicks and snares, and prevent nasty square-wave sound effects from cymbals. However, be aware that many people like these aspects and will deliberately use mics head-on to the drum at a distance of an inch or two, and sometimes even closer.
Typically, the overhead mics should be at least three to six feet above the kit, looking down at it, but it’s very important that you keep the two mics apart at least three times as far from each other as they are from the kit to keep phase problems at bay. This is the 3:1 rule of mic placement. If you are still puzzled, google the phrase and read more.
Alternatively, use an X-Y crossed pair for the stereo overheads (again, google the phrase to learn more). Using two matched microphones as an X-Y pair (a simple mounting method) has the advantage of excellent mono compatibility due to well-aligned waveforms entering the two mic capsules virtually simultaneously at all but the very highest frequencies.
TOP AND BOTTOM SNARE
If you intend to use two mics on the snare, one at the top, one below the snare to capture the rattle, then you must check that they are in relative phase with each other if you are to maintain a full and punchy snare sound. In almost all cases, you will find you must switch polarity (a.k.a. phase) on the bottom mic signal so that it is opposite to that of the top mic.
Pressing the PHASE button on one software mixer channel live during playback also does this, if you do not have a switch on the preamp to record it with the correct setting initially. You can also permanently phase invert a recording after the fact with DSP processing using a phase inversion plug-in.
The very same issue can arise when double-miking any part of the kit but the rack toms and floor toms are a common cause of phase issues when any or all of them are miked from above and below simultaneously.
HI-HATS AND CYMBALS
Condensers win here, with the Shure SM81 being a fairly popular choice at home. There are many cheaper condensers that will do a fair job of hihats and cymbals, but the more you spend on the condenser, you more likely you are to have a cleaner, prettier sound, as opposed to bright and trashy.
Solid-state mic preamps are great at clear cymbals, I find, and tubes have a lot of jazzy warmth. It depends what you need for the song.
Being a little off-axis from cymbals is a good thing, much of the time. You often want to cut low mids on a cymbal a little, so they don’t resonate or boom too long after being struck, and you may find the note of the cymbal, the pitch it naturally has, is not in the key of the song, or worse still is in strong conflict with it. However, being off-axis helps a bit with this if you can’t swap out cymbals for more suitable ones.
I find six to eight inches is a good distance from a hihat, and more like two or three feet works well for rides and crashes. In many cases, I only use overheads and do not bother to mike up the ride and crashes, since they are so loud in the overhead mics.
Since overhead mics make a good sonic picture of a kit from above, with somewhat accurate relative balance to many of the element of the kit, they are often the loudest signals in the drum balance at mixdown (other than kick and snare, which form the spine of the beat).
This can be aggressively loud, and so keeping a foot or two away is often wise. The transients are very loud in these types of instruments, and you will likely want to keep peaks registering at no more than -10db on your input meters while you record them.
Timbales in particular are bright and sassy, with a lot of volume produced. It’s a good idea to watch your hearing around these and other loud instruments at all times.
The dynamic mics often sound great on Latin percussion especially, being punchy and capable of taking high SPLs, but you will also want to consider condensers where the instrument has a lot of detailed midrange or pitched information, such as bell tree, cabasa or guiro. Most percussion is by its very nature midrange-focused. These things cut through a mix.
DON’T RECORD WITH NOISE GATES
Noise gates let you mute and unmute the drum tracks based on the level present at the input of the noise gate. They can also simply drop the level by a fixed amount when the input signal falls below the chosen threshold.
They are often used for cleaning up the spill on drum mics from other neighbouring drum elements.
My advice to you is to avoid using them until mixing. It’s a bad idea to gate during the recording process, since it can be done afterwards with perfect precision in a number of ways. There is no real advantage to doing so ahead of recording to a digital medium like a DAW, and it is all too easy to mis-set the gate “on the way in”, and thereby fail to capture audio you need when the gate closes too soon on a fading note, damaging it permanently on your recording.
Don’t bother with noise gates until mixdown.
OTHER DYNAMICS PROCESSING
Personally, I take the same approach with all dynamics processing as I do with noise gates, in order to do a better job later at mixing.
Compressors, limiters, expanders, gates, transient designers, and so on – all these things can be done in mixing. The ONLY reason to do these things ahead of time is that a musician needs to hear the appropriate sound in order to respond appropriately when playing. If the musician requires the vibe to perform, and most do, then make it so. You can still do this ahead of time, and yet still leave it until after recording, if you don’t record the musicians at the same time as each other, and allow time to insert and set up a dynamics processing chain as required for the second player to listen to it through.
My next blogpost is going to be about recording acoustic pianos. See you there!