How to record a drum set

How to record a drum set.

The easiest way to get a good drum sound is to put a microphone on every drum and add two overhead microphones (see picture above). I’ve also had luck with two overhead microphones and a mic on the bass drum and one on the snare.

There are other methods you can use, a bass drum mic and then two or three mics positioned around the drum set at somewhere around the drummers shoulder height pointing at the drum set.

If the drum set has good heads and hardware and are ‘tuned’ then your job will be a lot easier. As an engineer/producer, I gravitate more to a little ‘deader’ sound. It’s just something I like. But it really doesn’t matter if it’s a good player with a good drum set.

One of the best drum sounds I ever recorded was with a 10 piece big band. I used a bass drum mic and one microphone aiming down at the drum set. I moved it around until I got what I liked and it turned out great.

Many engineers have go to signal processing gear that they run certain drum microphones through. Compressors, limiters and EQ’s are all part of their arsenal.

When going into a DAW, I will tell the drummer to play at her or his loudest, set my levels slightly below clipping and go from there with no processing in the recording chain of the drums. Sometimes Adrenalin gets flowing and you have to do the track again.

Many drummers have distinct drum sounds (think Phil Collins) that use processing and effects go get a particular sound. In Phil’s case I think it is reverb and heavy compression with a gate to cut it off. People call it a gated reverb sound but I remember Hugh Padgham in an interview saying it was the talk back mick in an SSL mixing board that gave him the Idea.

Here is Hugh Padgham from the PSN Europe site:

A feature of the B Series was an integrated reverse talkback circuit, which allowed those in the control room to hear the people in the studio as well as speak to them. In the Townhouse this was possible though a STC (BBC) 4021 ‘ball and biscuit’ dynamic omni-directional microphone fitted in the ceiling. This came into its own during the Gabriel sessions, on which the former Genesis frontman had invited his old band mate Phil Collins to play drums.

One day Phil was playing in the studio and I inadvertently pressed the talkback button,” recalls Padgham. “Out came this ginormous sound, which everyone in the control room said sounded incredible. They all said, ‘Let’s have a bit of that on something’ but the problem was that because the talkback was built into the desk it couldn’t be recorded.”

To get round this Padgham asked the studios’ maintenance engineers to go into the console, take a feed from the talkback and put that into the jackfield so it could be patched back into the desk for recording. The next day the new effect was played to Gabriel, who decided to write a song round a treated pattern played by Collins. “We started recording and almost for a laugh I switched in a noise gate,” says Padgham. “That’s where the cut-off sound came from. So we now had something that sounded enormous but with no die away.”

So it goes without saying, experimenting is good and just happening upon a sound can and does happen. I know engineers who run drum signals through guitar modelers to give the drum a touch of distortion.

Recording (and subsequently mixing) a drum set is a very unique and personal matter. There are so many variables, that the engineer sometimes becomes as much of the drum sound as the drummer and drum set.

When I mix, I very seldom do a submix of the whole drum kit, unless I have to, (because of the song) manipulate the volume of the whole kit up or down. But many engineers do it and are good at it.

I tend to try to get the drummer to play harder or softer.

Also panning the drums in the stereo field is another control at your fingertips. Another trick is to pan a drum to one side and pan a slightly delayed version of that same drum to the other side and add effects to taste to each signal.

Don’t forget to check it in mono to make sure you’re not phase canceling anything.

Next time we’ll look at using a click track and using a combination of live drum sounds with drum samples.

Author: Chad