Zen of Recording
Recording the Band, Part 2: The Beat Goes On
Drums are always the primary challenge. Not only do they define the tempo, groove, and overall feel of each song, but they’re just so…loud. They will find their way into every mic, not just the ones you want them to, but vocals, guitars…really, any mic that is open in the same or even neighboring rooms. Attempting to isolate and contain their volume can also create myriad problems, as well. For instance, if you were to place them in their own room and close the door, you may be able to minimize this leakage quite well. However, unless this room has a window that affords visual communication between the drummer and the rest of the band (sliding glass doors are wonderful this way), this will be at the expense of sightlines and the actual sound of the drums in the room.
Start by placing the kick drum mic (dynamic models like the AKD D112, E/V RE20 or the venerable Shure SM57 are great choices) just inside the hole, and pointed toward the beater. If there’s a head with no hole, then just point the mic where one would be (at about the 4 o’clock position) 2-4″ away from the head. If there’s no outer head, again, pretend there is one and place the mic accordingly. A towel, blanket, or small pillow should be placed inside the drum to help deaden its resonance. Pushing it against the batter head, with just enough of it left over to touch the outside head as well will help to tame excess resonance, giving you a punchy and controlled “thwack,” without a lot of the ring or rumble that can quickly muddy up your bottom end.
The snare is another drum that works very well with dynamic mics like the SM57, but I’ve heard great results from condenser and tube mics as well. If you’re seated at the drum throne, the mic would be positioned at 10 or 11 o’clock, about an inch above the rim and hanging over the inside edge about an inch as well. Tilting the mic down will highlight the tone of the drum’s body, while keeping it more parallel with the drumhead will provide more “crack.” Experiment with this until you find an angle that provides the right combination for you.
Overhead mics are generally condenser models, like the Sennheiser E614, MXL 603S, and the AKG Perception 420, but really, I’ve heard two SM57s sound simply amazing in this role. They should be set out at the sides of the drum kit, lined up with the front of the kick drum. Place them at an equal distance from each other as their proximity to the snare. You can start by pointing them at the drummer, but as you rotate them outward you’ll capture a wider stereo field. Again experiment until you find the sonic “image” that you like the best. Try to keep these mics situated higher than your cymbals and if possible, not too close to any one of them. I like erring toward the direction of the ride and high hat, which helps to bring those elements out while minimizing “cymbal wash” and other potential problems.
If you have a compressor available, dedicate it to the kick drum. This is one piece that needs to be a constant presence in your mix. Set your “Attack” so that the click and other transients are able to slip through before the compressor kicks in, set at a “Ratio” of about 4:1, with a “Threshold” setting that gives you a total of about 3 to 6 dB of attenuation. Set the release to a fairly quick setting, so that the signal isn’t still being attenuated by the time the next hit comes in. Eq is variable, depending upon the style of music and what your bass player’s tone is like. However, pulling out a little at around 350 Hz will keep things clear down there and a subtle bump at both 3k and 100 Hz will bring more presence to the kick drum’s most critical frequencies.
Snare drums are often compressed as well, but I would advise against using a compressor in the tracking stage, as it can very easily be overdone, robbing it of both its tone and inherent dynamic excitement. There are quite often rings, rattles, and unwanted resonances associated with the snare drum and this is usually the element of the kit that requires the most attention. RTOM Moon Gel is a great solution, as are little pieces of duct tape or even the drummer’s wallet! The best method I’ve found is to use duct tape that has been folded to make little “fins.” These seem to absorb more energy without over-dampening the drum. Lightly run a finger along the outside of the snare head, while simultaneously hitting the drum with a stick, until you hear the offending frequencies subside. That’s where to stick your dampening material. Repeat this process for your toms as well.
It’s wise to note that no amount of Moon Gel or duct tape can take the place of proper drum tuning. With your heads properly seated and tensioned lightly tap the head near each rim lug. Using a drum tuning key, tighten to raise pitch and loosen to lower pitch until all of the lug locations ring at the same note or frequency. You want to do this in the same way you’d change a tire on your car: Tune the lug at the 6 o’clock position, then tune the one across the drum from it at 12 o’clock. Then go to the one at 9 o’clock, 3 o’clock and so on. Press your open hand onto the center of the drum occasionally to be sure you have a solid “seating.” The Drum Dial is a great product for doing this fast and easily and I’ve had good results using a simple guitar tuner in this role. Toms should also be tuned in this fashion, but be careful to check that the “notes” that the toms are tuned to are compatible with each other, if not the song itself. Otherwise you may hear “beating” or even phase cancellations that can diminish their overall tone.
Provided you have the available inputs, mic’ing the toms would be the next order of business, starting with the floor tom. Dynamic mics like the Sennheiser MD421 are once again the go-to choice, but this is an application where I’ve seen tube mics and other condensers work equally well. Pointing the mic toward the center of the drum head at about six inches up and away sounds great and keeps your precious mics from being struck by the sticks of an over-zealous drummer. Stick with a cardioid pickup pattern, as omni or figure-8 will introduce unwanted cymbal bleed. Rack toms may require a slightly more perpendicular orientation in order to help other drums and cymbals from taking over as well.
Once you have the drums sounding the way you like, you may then want to employ some subtle eq. You can a little “snap” to the snare at 4.5 KHz, as well as add some body at around 450 Hz. Try cutting or boosting at 800 Hz to dial in the right amount of ring and woodiness for your style of music. Toms like a bit of 3.5 KHz to help cut through, as well as a bit of boost at 135 Hz for a little velvety thunder. Season your low mids (250 Hz – 450 Hz) to taste.
Although the drums are obviously a collection of different components, it is best to think of them as being one instrument. Consequently, it’s often best to listen to them as a unified whole. With your snare and bass drums centered, pan your overheads hard left and right, your floor toms 50% to one side and the rack toms 50% to the other. Listening to them this way not only gives you a better “visual” picture of what you’re working with, but it also gives you instant feedback as to how your adjustments to one element is affecting all the others.
Portions of this article originally appeared in Recording Magazine. Special thanks to Mike Metlay. www.recordingmag.com