Recording Drums - 5 Pro Recording Tips

Recording drums well is one of the hardest things to do. I’ve lost count of the number of
times a client gives me an album to mix and the drums are poorly recorded.
Instead of being able to get creative and get the drums sound amazing, I’m
stuck in ‘rescue’ mode and have to work hard just to get them sounding
passable. I trust these 5 tips on drum recording help you to capture killer
drum sounds.

1. Where in the room.

The first thing you have to decide is where to set the drums up in the recording space.
This is critical because if you don’t select the right spot they will end up
lacking power and definition. I use Stav’s technique (from his excellent book –
mixing with your mind). Have the drummer move the floor tom around the room
hitting it repeatedly. The spot where it sounds fullest with the most bottom
end is where it should stay.  Then set the rest of the drum kit up around the floor tom and it should sound good in the room. It’s very important to capture both a close mic sound and a distance
/ room mic sound so the mix engineer has options.

2. What mics and where do I put them

There are so many different drum mics available these days and many are excellent so it
comes down to personal choice. What mics you should buy / use is genre
specific. If you’re recording jazz you will need different mics and a different
approach than if you are recording death metal. 
What I try to do is select mics that give me options so I can take the
drum sound in any direction I want. I like dynamic mics on the skinned drums
and condensers on the cymbals and hats. The secret with micing the drums is to
get the mic as close as possible to the impact spot on the drum. You want to
capture the attack or ‘whack’ of the stick hitting the skin. Same with the hi
hats and ride; get the mic as close as possible to the impact point but in a
spot where the drummer won’t hit it of course. One important tip here is to have all mics pointing roughly at the drummers groin. This will ensure that the mics are in phase with each other. And
while we’re talking about phasing, it’s amazing how often I get drum tracks and
something is out of phase. Switch your monitors to mono and listen to the
different mics with each other flipping the phase on them. What you are looking
for is the fullest / warmest sound. Phase cancellation seems to affect the low
end of the drums most.

My current fav mics are as follows...

Kick – AKG D112 or Beta 91 (inside) and Yamaha Sub Kick (outside) (the classic combo is AKG D12 inside and Neumann Fet 47 outside)

Snare – Shure SM57 top and anything spare for bottom (with the phase reversed)

Toms – Sennheiser 421’s

Hats & Ride – any spare pencil condenser (prefer vintage AKG 451’s or Neumann KM84’s) (sometimes I use a Shure SM7 for hats too)

Overheads – BeesNeez Lulu Fets (KM84 style mic)

If I have the spare channel I also like a mic over the drummers head pointing down
towards the snare / toms – this mic can be a ribbon or a LDC

Room mics – ribbons and LDC’s (I’m using a Neumann U87 and BeesNeez Lily on main room and
BeesNeez T1 (U47) on hallway room

Tip – make sure the drummer doesn’t set his cymbals up to close to the tom mics otherwise
your tom fills will be full of cymbal crashes.

3. Overhead mics – what approach should you take

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to overheads and they all work. What
I am sharing here is my approach based on 20 years of recording drums. I use
the overheads as cymbal mics not drum kit mics. Understanding the difference is
important as if you are wanting to use your overheads as full drum kit mics
then you would probably use Ribbon mics or LDC’s (AKG C12’s are popular – also
Neumann U87’s) and symmetry over the kit and distance from the snare becomes
critical. You want to capture a balanced full sound of the drum kit with this
approach.

My approach is more about getting a good coverage of the cymbals rather than the whole drum
kit. I like to use Pencil condensers and locate them left and right over the cymbal
clusters. I tend to pan these left and right in the mix and high pass filter
them to remove most of the lows from the drum kit sound – maybe around 300Hz
but depends on the EQ and the cymbals. I do try to set the overhead mics up at
an even distance from the snare drum but it’s not always possible due to where
the drummer sets up his cymbals – remember the overhead mics are cymbal mics
not full drum kit mics with my approach.

4. Room Mics – where the magic happens

These mics are critical to achieving a full and balanced sound with space around the kit.
In the previous point I talked about the overheads being cymbal mics. This only
works if you have room mics set up to capture the full kit sound.

Walk around the room and find a point where the kit sounds even and balanced with good low
end. Remember you are micing the room as much as the kit. I use an MS pair
here. (What is that? Read here...
http://www.uaudio.com/blog/mid-side-mic-recording/ ) 
I prefer a ribbon as figure 8 due to it’s warmth and a LDC like a U87
etc as the cardoid. I point the cardoid at the centre of the kit and adjust the
height so that the drums sound even and full. Then I sit the Fig 8 mic on top
pointing across the room left and right rather than at the kit. It’s important
to get the MS positioning of the mics correct for this system to work.

I almost always set up another room mic but this mic should be in an adjoining room if
possible. I use a LDC in omni. Again walk around and listen for the spot where
the kit sounds full and even with good low end. Sometimes I put this mic in a
hallway, stairwell or kitchen / bathroom. When mixing this mic can be
incredible for adding depth to the snare etc. (especially when compressed hard)

5. Drummers Headphone mix

Getting the drummers headphone mix right is critical to getting a performance that is rock
solid and in time. When you record the drums during the recording of a song is
up to you. Some like the drums recorded early so that everyone then plays to
the drums. Others record the drums near the end so the drummer has the full mix
to play with. I almost always use a click track and this should be LOUD – I
like a shaker sound as it seems to bleed less into mics during the recording
process. Any instruments that are a bit out of time should be dropped right
down low in the headphone mix. I like the vocal fairly loud too when I play as
long as they have a good sense of timing. I usually don’t record bass and drums
together (some may disagree with this) but always record the bass after the
drums so the player can pick up on the kick patterns etc. Having a set of
headphones with good isolation is also important (I like the Extreme Isolation
Headphones). And usually I will just put the kick and the Cardoid pattern room
mic in the headphones. Make sure there is no latency with these mics in the
headphones otherwise the drummer will be put off. I tend to monitor analog
rather than through my DAW.

Conclusion

I have shared with you some of my thoughts and ideas on drum tracking but there are
many ways to do it so research online or try your own techniques. My idea of
using overheads as cymbal mics only works when used in conjunction with good
room micing techniques. Remember, if it sounds good, it is good. 

One final suggestion; record extra hits at the end of each songs session. Single hits of
all the individual drums and kick and crashes together. You never know when you
might decide to change something or enhance what the drummer played. Also if
the tom mics are to saturated with snare and cymbals use the single hits to
replace them rather than using an unrelated sample.

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