Drums are probably the most complicated instrument(s) to record in the world of modern production. Actually, the recording itself is not the real issue, it's getting the drums to sound AMAZING that is.
If you take your standard spot-overhead-room mic combination (which serves as the miking technique for the vast majority of productions across various genres), regardless of the exact and specific mic placement, getting a pristine sounding drum track can be very tricky. You have so much information to capture in extreme detail, occurring not only simultaneously, but also in very close physical proximity to each other. Not to mention the fact that drums are a prominent, usually loud, acoustic instrument that is very much influenced by the room that is recorded in, and it is pretty rare to find a room that is able to contain this sound, especially in today's home studio production standards. Then, you have the quality of the instrument and how well kept it is as well as the quality of recording tools available. And this is just in a purely technical aspect; You still have to get a great performance played, which we all know is the real key to a great sounding recording. That's a whole lot to handle, especially when you're pressured with time (and between us, what session was ever NOT recorded under pressure? Not a common scenario...)
All of these add up to a pretty difficult task to handle, and a whole lot of problem solving to deal with.
So what does all this have to do with resonating drums, and why producers and recording engineers tend to dislike them?
Well, as I see it, the most basic part of achieving your drum sound is the way the kit is played and sounds acoustically in the room, and that has a lot to do with the way it resonates.
One of the most common sights to see when encountering a drum set is massive amounts of tape, moon gels, or toilet paper placed sporadically around the drum heads purposed to dampen the sound, or "kill" the resonance. This is one of my personal least favorite sights to see. Drums are musical instruments, specifically made to resonate in a certain way. You wouldn't put gaff tape between the hammers and strings of a piano would you? (Unless you're shooting for a VERY specific sound..) Of course you won't! The rich resonance of the instrument is a feature sought for when capturing piano sounds. But unlike the piano, the drum set is not a pitched instrument, and is therefore not required to a specific tuning in order for it to work well in a musical setting. Where the drums are just like the piano, and basically like any other acoustic instruments, is in how they resonate. They have a very certain "sweet spot" (or spots) in which they produce the most full and rich body of sound. In this state, they have a beautifully pronounced attack to them and a full body of resonance which decays perfectly and does not overpower the attack and the rest of the kit.
And even more than just individual drums sounding best on their own, the fact that they are placed adjacent to other drums also influences the way they resonate and respond. Overtones are produced from each drum separately, not necessarily even when it is played, and create an entire resonating sound of the drum set. When an entire drum set is tuned to each drum's "sweet spot", and the summation of the overtones produced from the whole set is taken into account, the set resonates and interacts with itself, producing the most rich sound. But because it is usually not a simple task to bring a kit to this place, resonance, overtones and ring are associated with ruining and interfering with the sound, rather than maximizing it. That is why this issue is usually addressed by dampening of the heads, which results in a very focused and dark yet tremendously less rich and powerful sounding drum and set. This is the fast remedy, and we all know these kinds of solutions usually lead to mediocre results.
The sources captured in this case would usually go through processing in order to make them fit in the mix and compensate for the less defined sound resulting from dampening (mainly by EQ, but also compression and gate for instance). This is a utterly useless process in my opinion. I mean, why compromise an instruments sound by dampening it, and then later create the illusion of a better sounding instrument by processing? In addition to the fact that in later stages to follow the tracking stage, there are some things you will never be able to achieve or reconstruct by processing. The full and rich sound of a properly tuned drum is definitely one of them.
So what's the point here? Well for one thing, you should not be afraid of resonance. Let your drums gel into each other. Let the kit breath. Dampening and killing the overtones of a drum should not be your first action. It should actually be the final step taken when all else fails. The first thing you should address is tuning; there is so much influence and so many sounds to achieve by tuning alone.
Experiment with tuning. Try balancing the batter and resonance head to the same tension. Then try having one of them higher than the other. Maybe get the pitch higher or lower on both sides? Maybe it's time to change heads? (and yes, resonant heads also deserve attention and maintenance. You'd be surprised at how much beating those guys take without even being struck...) Or maybe you just have an inappropriate head for the specific drum or musical context?
Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against dampening, and sometimes do so myself when the context dictates it. It just seems to me that it is the most commonly implemented solution for a problem that I don't even consider problematic. And I have come across so many cases in which engineers and producers struggle effortlessly to get drum channels sound the way they want, when the problem lies in a much deeper, earlier stage in the process that cannot be fixed in any other step of the way other than the most basic one, when getting the actual sounds from the drums.
And remember, drums are just like any other acoustic instrument. Pianos wouldn't sound like pianos, guitars wouldn't sound like guitars, and even crash cymbals for instance, would not sound like crash cymbals if not for they're resonance, decay, and blend with the rest of instruments playing. That to me is where the magic is. That is the difference between a just okay sounding drum track, and a pristine and unique one. A drum recording that sounds organic, powerful, harmonious and full bodied.
If you have any questions about this article or about drum tuning in general, or think my opinion presented here is totally wrong and you have other ways of seeing things - feel free to get in touch with me!
Always rock and always hit hard,
Ariel Shafir - Drum Sound Design
Drummer, Drum Tech, Recording and Mixing Engineer
Agree. It all starts with a great-sounding kit- right there in the room!
I couldn't agree more! Well put.