Recording a live drummer can be lots of fun when done right. At Platinumloops, we’ve recorded many different drummers in many different locations, sometimes in challenging circumstances.
There are a few things you can do to prepare for ‘on location’ recording in order to get the best results.
Your two main objectives are to get the best performance from the drummer and also to get the best sound from the drum kit and the room.
Before starting a session, arm yourself with these essential resources.
1 – Moon Gel
2 – Blu Tack – loads of the stuff.
3 – Gaffa Tape
4 – Some Really robust headphones with thick enclosures and long cable.
5 – A couple of tuning keys
6 – Some high quality lubricating oil – not WD40
7 – A headphone amp with stereo in and out.
8 – Some deodorant spray – things can get sweaty
9 – Lots of drinking water
10 – A thick rug or piece of carpet
11 – Some earplugs for both you and the drummer
The Recording Situation
An ideal situation for recording drums is for the drummer to be in a separate live room to the sound engineer. This allows the engineer to monitor the microphone inputs without being deafened by the shed builder on the other side of the glass, however you might not have that luxury.
Recording while in the same room as the drummer does have its benefits. First of all, the communication between engineer and drummer is far better, you can be sat right next to the drummer and it makes for much faster workflow and can often make the drummer feel more comfortable and less isolated.
In addition to this the engineer can often hear unwanted sounds within the room much better than from a control room which he/she otherwise might not notice until the session is over.
Communicating From the Control Room
The downside to recording within the same room as the drummer is obvious ear fatigue and the fact that you can only really monitor the mic inputs properly on playback while the drummer has stopped playing.
If you have a separate live room to the control room but no window between the two, you can easily setup a couple of web cams via wireless internet or use tablets and phones so that you and the drummer can communicate visually.
You’ll here the drummer through the mic’s when he talks and he will be able to hear you if you patch a mic in to his headphone amp.
The wonders of modern technology eh!
I strongly advise that you learn how to tune a drum kit yourself. I used to be a drummer (a very bad one) so I learned the basics of this years ago. There are some brilliant video tutorials on Youtube that helped to improve my drum tuning skills. If your drummer is really good, they’ll know how best to tune the kit and how much life is left in the drum skins (heads).
If your room has a nice wooden floor, you’re going to want to protect it with a thick rug or a piece of carpet. You can also buy those rubber floor protectors that will prevent your floor from getting scratched by the rough underside of the rug or carpet.
The carpet also prevents the entire drum kit from moving forwards every time your drummer hits the kick drum. If he’s a metal drummer he’s going to be hitting it pretty hard.
With the kit setup and tuned, get your drummer to play for a while before you even think about setting up the mic’s. What your listening for here are two things.
1 – Firstly, mechanical noises from the kit – such as squeaky pedals, drum stools, rattling tom mounts. I can pretty much guarantee at least one of these noises will rear it’s ugly head.
2 – The second thing your listening for are noises from the room – such as vibrating furniture, fixtures and appliances.
You might also want to experiment with the placement of the kit. Start off in the middle of the room and then move the kit to either end to compare the room sound, this is where the carpet/rug comes in handy as you can carefully just drag the whole thing wherever you want it.
Walk around the room while the drummer plays to find the sweat spot for the room ambience, this is where we’ll place a mic to add “hugeness” to the sound if that’s what you’re after. If you have a stair case or hallway at the end of the live room, try listening to that space for the sweat spot.
We’ll do some more of this later when we crack the mic’s out, for now it’s all about where to place the kit for the best room sound.
Blu Tack to the Rescue
If you’re wondering what the Blu Tack and gaffa tape are for, you’ll have figured that out pretty much as soon as the drummer starts playing. Tom mounts are notoriously rattly and creaky, especially in older drum kits or cheaper drum kits.
Use the blu Tack to stuff into the gaps on the tom mounts to silence the rattling, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll use. Blu Tack is also really good because it doesn’t leave much of a residue on the drum hardware and your drummer will thank you for that.
When we recorded our Ultra Metal Drum Loops V1, we used a spectacular sounding Premiere PK Cabria Drum Kit with Sabian and Zildjian cymbals and a Pearl double kick pedal. Unfortunately the tom mounts rattled and squeaked so badly that we ended up using two full packs of Blu Tack to silence the pesky things – and this was a brand new kit.
For our Power Ballad Rock Drum Loops V1 we used a brand new Mapex M-Birch kit that had a far superior tom mount system that needed no such Blu Tack treatment. The birch kit was much louder and the hardware was easier to use with no nasty noises to content with. We liked this kit so much that we kept it as our stock studio kit.
The Snare Drum
The gaffa tape is essential to use as a dampener on the snare. If you’re recording a funk drummer or a rock drummer that wants a really tight and ‘pingy’ snare with minimal rattle, you’re going to need to reduce the snare buzz. Use a 6 inch piece of gaffa tape across the centre of the snare then add more if required.
If you want a very natural, roomy kit sound, you might be able to get away without dampening the top head on the snare drum. We like snare drums to be tuned really high so that they cut through the mix, but this tends to make them more prone to resonating when playing other parts of the kit.
To counteract this problem use one or two chunks of moon gel to dampen the resonating top skin. It’ll still sound good but won’t ring on every time the drummer stamps on the kick drum pedal.
The Kick Drum
Use some heavy duty lubricating oil or grease on the Kick drum pedal and maybe even on the hi-hat pedal. Even once the squeak has gone you still might get some rattle from the kick pedal so get the drummer to adjust the tension on the pedal so that you get a happy compromise of playability and quietness.
An ideal situation is to have a few other pedals on hand just in case, but if the drummer is using a double beater that’s not very likely.
The squeaky drum pedal has been the cause of many delayed sessions, so it helps if your drummer is able to be flexible with the pedal tension. Better still, ask your drummer to make sure it’s perfectly quiet before they arrive. Time is money.
The beater on the kick drum pedal is also an often overlooked factor. Your drummer might not like the feel of a wooden or plastic beater but you might prefer the sharp clicky sound that it gives you.
If this is going to effect your drummers performance, you’re going to have to give way and let them use the felt beater. Try adjusting the height of the beater for both playability and sound quality. You want to get as much definition and punch from the kick drum as possible without making it difficult for the drummer to play.
Tuning toms is an art form in itself. We won’t get into the details of how to tune toms, you can find hundreds of instructional videos on Youtube for that. Let’s focus instead on how to overcome some common problems you might experience when recording toms.
It’s more than likely that your toms will need some form of dampening to prevent them from resonating every time the drummer hits the kick. After you’ve spent the last hour tuning them to perfection, you’ll feel like crying when you hear how crap they sound after you’ve slapped a couple of moon gel patches on the top skin.
Don’t despair. They might sound a bit lame with the dampening on but by the time you’ve mixed the kit, added a bit of compression to the toms and then a bit more to the overall stereo kit, they’ll sound fantastic again and you wont have as many ‘resonating problems’.
One other problem with toms is that you’ll usually find one tom is much louder than the others, namely the hi-tom. You can overcome this with tuning but that’s going to compromise that cool tone. Your only option is to leave it up to the drummer to try and balance them out with his playing – that, and shed loads of compression during the mix stage of course 😉
Balance out the Volume
Finally, listen for imbalances in the volume of the separate kit parts. Even after what I just said about the toms, don’t be tempted to leave certain problems up to the mix because there are some things you just cant fix.
For example, rock drummers tend be really heavy on the hi-hat and no matter what you do during the mixing stage, you’re going to find it difficult to get the snare sounding sharp and bright without inadvertently boosting the already over loud hi-hat that’s bleeding through onto all the mic’s.
This is where having a quieter set of hi-hats can be a godsend. Your aim is to get your transient levels as even as possible before you even record. If one of the toms is louder than the entire kit try re-tuning it, adding some dampening with moon gel or even replacing it. The same goes for your cymbals. If your crash cymbals dominate the entire drum mix, you’re going to have serious problems down the line.
You can always ask your drummer not to hit certain parts of the kit quite so hard but that’s like asking Lewis Hamilton not to drive fast.
Now that you’ve got the kit and room sounding splendid, the next stage is to bring in the mic’s. Assuming you’ve only got 8 audio inputs in your audio interface you’ll need to prioritize.
If your drummer is playing a 5 piece kit, you’re probably best to use 7 mic’s on the kit and one mic in the sweat spot of the room if you want some room ambience in the mix.
If you’re after a tight, closed in sound and you’re not bothered about room ambience, bring that 8th mic back in and place it on the hi-hat or some other part of the kit you feel is important. Here’s how I would mic up a 5 piece kit.
- Kick Drum – AKG D112
- Snare – SM57
- Hi-Tom – SM57
- Mid-Tom – SM57
- Low-Tom – SM57
- Over head x 2 – SM57’s
- Room Ambience – SE Electronics Z3300A
This setup means that my hi-hat, cymbals and ride will primarily get picked up by the 2 overheads and the room mic. In most cases this is perfectly fine but obviously we’d have more control of the mix if we had more inputs and more mic’s. This just illustrates how to get the most of an 8 channel situation.
Some people don’t like to use condenser mic’s for recording drums due to the way they struggle with extreme transients, but I make sure the Z3300A is a long way from the kit and all I can say is that it sounds lush is a room ambience mic.
Read ‘How to Record Drums Part 2’.