10 Simple Rock Drum Production Tips

1. This may sound like a no-brainer, but learn to tune drums. It's a difficult skill to learn, let alone master, but you'd be surprised how many times I've been the only guy in the studio who can tune a drum...And I sure cannot play a beat to save my life!

2. When replacing or supplementing a kick or snare, lay down a "trigger track" consisting of hits from a trigger pad or even a click track. Make sure these are properly time-aligned, then base all of your replacement samples off of this track. It'll give you an accurate, fast, bleed-free reference if you find you need to add or change a sample during the mix. It's also a handy track to sidechain gates and compressors to.

3. Don't be afraid of ringy snares. I've found that in dense rock/pop/metal mixes, the ring of the snare can help it cut through the mix in a pleasing way. Be mindful of the tuning and the amount of ring, though, as these can become annoying or overpowering quickly. 

4. I follow a similar rule as #2 for toms. A lot of engineers just starting out (myself included way back when) will deaden the toms to the point of them having only a quick attack. This can be useful live, where sympathetic resonances can be difficult to control, but in the studio, I like to have well-tuned toms that have a good sustain to them. Tuning is absolutely key, here. 

5. Tracking in a small room? Try this room mic technique: Use a spaced pair of Shure SM57 or similar mics (ribbons can work wonderfully if you have them), and get them as wide as you can without them being too close to a wall. You want them both aimed directly at the snare (try to keep both the snare and kick in the center of the image, although if that's not possible, go for the snare), and set them parallel to the floor, about 8 inches to a foot off the floor. This will allow you to heavily process them without getting to much cymbal wash. If you have hardwood or tile floors, all the better.

6. Spend a good amount of time placing your overhead and room microphones (checking phase, mono compatibility, and kit image) before anything else. Getting a great representation of the kit in the overheads and rooms will do more in the mix stage than nailing down that perfect kick mic or snare mic position.

7. Commit to a sound. When I'm tracking drums on a record, I've already gone through preproduction and have a good idea of how the drums should sound. I'll EQ and compress "to tape/DAW" and commit to that sound. Of course, you don't want to process heavily, but committing at this point is key. With all of the drum replacement and programming options these days, it's really easy to fall into a rabbit's hole and lose perspective on the record.

8. Try to get a drum mix that you love, or are at least happy with, before you reach for samples. Don't rely on sample augmentation or replacement to "fix" a bad drum it unless you're out of options. It can work, but I've very rarely been pleased by the outcome.

9. Check the tuning of the drums between each take. Problem areas are on the snare and rack toms, right where the drummer's stick hits the rim. Aggressive drummers will be prone to loosening the lugs in those spots.

10. If you're working with limited inputs, forget the bottom snare mic and make sure the hi-hat and ride is mic'd up. I don't usually use those in the mix, but when I need them, I really need them. The bottom snare can be augmented, but you can't create a hi-hat or ride mic out of nowhere.

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    I agree with Niklas. I come from a band background. as a guitarist I found it hard to believe that there were so many drummers that had no clue how to tune their kit. especially in a projects like metal where the drums usually are what carry the dynamic.

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    Great article! I really like that you stressed the fact that tuning is key! Being a session drummer myself I found it strange that not that many drummers have learned this skill. To me it comes with being a drummer, I if your hiring a guitarist you'd expect him to know how to tune the guitar as well as playing it, don't you?

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