How to Record Drums Part 2

How to Record Drums

How to record a live drummerThis our second installment explaining how to record drums and over the years, we’ve tried lots of different mic’s ranging from super cheap to ridiculously expensive. By far the most versatile microphone for recording drums is the Shure SM57. Not only is this dynamic mic brilliant at handling extreme transients but you can buy them new for around $99.

For kick drums I prefer the AKG D112 which does a fantastic job of capturing bass frequencies.

For room ambience, we’ve started using our favourite vocal mic, the brilliant SE Electronics Z3300A which is an absolute bargain. At the end of the day your choice of mic’s is purely a matter of taste. If you’ve got the budget to experiment with high end mic’s, you should definitely try it out but don’t expect miracles.

Mic Pre-Amps – Do I really need them?

The answer is No you don’t NEED them, but it would be nice to use the best Mic-pre’s you can get your hands on. If you can only get your hands on a stereo mic pre-amp, you’ll need to decide which parts of the drum kit are most important. Typically these would be either the 2 overheads or the kick and snare.  Our microphone pre-amp of choice is the Focusrite Liquid Channel and we usually just use this on the snare mic.

Compression and EQ – Yes or No?

If this is your first time recording live drums we would advise against adding any colouration to the sound at the recording stage. If you get this wrong, you’ll have to correct it later and that might add noise and ruin your mix. If you’re well versed in how to use compression and EQ, you’ll find a little bit of a squeeze on the snare and overheads really helps to get a punchy sound at the recording stage.

Keep it subtle so that you’ve still got plenty of dynamics left at the mixing stage. If you’re recording at 24 bit, 96 Khz you’ll have lots of headroom for dynamics while keeping the noise levels as low as possible.

Mic Cables and plugs.

Don’t skimp on the mic cables and hardware. Even though drums are very loud instruments that doesn’t mean that the noise floor won’t find its way into the mix. Remember, you’ve got 8 or more mics on the go and if you’re using cheapo cables with poor quality XLR connectors, all that noise is going to add up and find it’s way on to the tracks.

If you cant afford to buy good quality cables try to borrow or hire them. The same goes for the mic’s and the mic pre amps.

Drum Mic Placement

Drum Mic PlacementThere is no right or wrong way to do this. Usually I will at first try to get the mic as close to the point of contact as I possibly can and then I’ll move it around until I hear the best results. If you don’t have the luxury of a control room and an assistant to help with this you’ll find those Industrial strength, full enclosure headphones I listed earlier very useful right now.

While the drummer hits the drum head, you need to move the mic around to listen for that sweet spot. Move the mic further away from the drum head and you’ll get a more natural tone but this will allow the other parts of the kit to bleed into the mic, so it’s always a compromise.

For the kick drum, you can often get a much more natural tone by placing the mic on the outside of the front drum head. Obviously this will result in more bleed from the other parts of the kit so it depends on the type of sound you’re after.

A common practice is to place the mic deep inside the bass drum and about 5 inches from the beater head. Angle the mic slight to the left so that wind energy produced by the moving beater head doesn’t produce plosive sounds in the mic pickup. This will give you a more ‘clicky’, defined tone and will also give you a better separation. The ideal situation would be to use both methods if you have enough inputs.

Depending on your style of music, you might want to stuff lots dampening into the bass drum. If you’re recording a jazz drummer, you’re probably going to want to leave it ‘un-dampened’ for a nice boomy tone. For metal, you want it to resonate much less, so stuff some cushions in there and see how it sounds. Here is a loop from our Jazz drum loops collection that had nothing inside the bass drum, you can hear how boomy it is with a clear bass note and not a lot of click.

Compare that to a drum loop from our Metalcore Death Metal Drum Loops collection and you’ll hear how this bass drum is really clicky, has less resonance and a much tighter bass note. This is all down to how you tune and dampen the drum. Oh, and of course the drum itself has certain characteristics that suite certain types of music.

For the snare, you have two options. Over the top head of the snare drum or under the snare drum. mic’ing the underside of the snare drum is a bit of a luxury and in my opinion should only ever be used as a subtle enhancement to the other mic that is placed on the top of the snare.

Typically I’ll place the top snare mic close to the rim of the snare and then I’ll try to angle it away from either the hi-hat or the hi-tom depending on which gives me the most bleed problems.

One technique I’ve favoured for the overheads is the so called “Drummer Man” mic placement technique. It’s extremely simple and captures a well balanced stereo signal of the entire drum set. Skip to 2:17 of this video to see how it’s done.

My basic method is to to start with this mic technique and then blend it with the individual close mic’d drums. This gives you a really good acoustic sound with more control over the separate parts of the drum kit. I used this exact same technique for recording our Power Ballad Rock Drum Loops because I wanted a more natural sounding kit with a tasteful room ambience.

Reset Your Ears

It’s worth spending 15 minutes listening to your favourite drum sounds just before starting on the mic placement and maybe even before the drum tuning stage. Your goal is to get this drum kit sounding as good as possible before recording anything. Constantly reference your kit against your CD collection of top drum sounds.

Setting the Input levels

We’ll assume you already know about setting recording levels – basically get the loudest level possible coming into your audio interface without clipping. What you need to know about drummers is that no matter how many times you ask them to play as hard they can (and thus setting the desired input levels), your drummer will always play that little bit harder during recording, usually at the magic moment when he’s really in the zone and playing the best performance of his life – that’s the moment when your levels will go into the red and you’ll have to ask him to do it again after you’ve adjusted the levels.

Too late, the moment is gone. The moral of the story is to get those max levels and then back it off slightly in anticipation of the inevitable drummers ear splitting crescendo. Mark my words, it happens every time.

During Recording

Headphone Amp for recording live drummersThe worst nightmare for a drummer is the dreaded click track. Killer of all feel and spontaneity. Unfortunately your drummer is going to have to get used to this if your recording is ever going to by synched up to midi or DAW sequencing. The only drummer we’ve ever worked with that actually prefers a click track is Ray Luzier from our ‘Total Metal Drum Loops Pack‘.

In order for your drummer to hear the click track or the backing track, he’s going to need to use that essential headphone amp. These days you can pick up a decent headphone amp with a stereo feed and multiple outputs very cheaply.

The main thing to look for when recording drums is that the headphone amp is loud enough for the drummer to hear over his own drumming. If you can get the headphone amp right next to the drummer he can adjust the volume himself which saves you a job.

Your audio interface should have a control room output, feed this to the headphone amp while you monitor via your own headphones plugged into the interface headphone out socket. Ideally you’d be in a control room monitoring both through speakers and cans.

If you do have the luxury of a control room be sure to regularly monitor the inputs with headphones as this can often reveal unwanted noises much better than your near field monitors. Remember your control room has computer fans, room fans, chatter, creaking chairs etc so you might not pick up on unwanted noises during the recording.

During the mixing stage you’ll find it very useful to have the drummer play a few minutes of sound checking so that you can apply processing. For example you don’t want to have to listen to the entire song to get to the drummers tom tom fills in order to eq and compress them accordingly.

If the drummer plays a full minute of just toms for you it’ll be much easier to tweak the processing just on the toms. The same goes for all other parts of the kit, just like when you hear a sound engineer sound checking the drum kit at a live concert. The drummer only has to do this once and you can loop the parts you need until you’ve tweaked the sound to your liking. This will save lots of time during mixing.

Playback and Checking

Have the drummer play all parts of the kit individually and then together, get him to hit his fills as hard as possible (see my notes above on levels) and then go for a coffee break for 20 minutes to let your ears recover. Watch a bit of TV or even listen to some white noise to reset your brain for listening. When you come back to listen to the playback you’ll have a clearer perspective and you’ll be able to hear any trouble spots in the levels, tuning, mic placement and performance.

Listen for the sticks hitting the mic and adjust the mics accordingly, solo each track to isolate any trouble spots.

Protect Your Ears

When recordign drums you should always wear earplugs when exposed to volumeAfter all the tuning, setting up and sound checking, the most important thing of all is to protect your ears.

Now that you’ve got everything sounding great, it’s time to pop in those earplugs if you’re recording in the live room. Make sure your drummer wears some ear plugs too, he’ll still be able to hear the click track and his own drums, it’ll just be a few decibels quieter that’s all.

That pretty much sums up the preparation and process of recording a live drummer. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to do this, just experiment and allow for lots of time setting up.

I was once told by a drummer for a metalcore band that when his band was recording their demo they informed the engineer that he had only 4 hours to mic up and record the drums so that they could have 4 days to record the guitar parts. Needless to say their demo sounded pretty shatpank.

The drums are the most important part of a live band sound, if you get that right everything else is easy. Take the time to get it right and you won’t be disappointed.