Drum Recording Techniques
If there's one thing guaranteed to make a recording seem amateurish, it's a bad drum sound. It's always the hardest sound to get in the studio. I remember many, many sessions where I've got sounds on all the instruments in 40 minutes or so — even including a bass with a bad speaker - but the producer's gone on and on trying to get a drum sound for a couple of hours, until the whole band's exhausted. Even if they managed to start recording, nothing fresh would come out.
Of course, choosing a drum sound is an extremely personal decision. The snare and the bass drum usually give the most problems, with the snare probably the more difficult of the two. Bands usually require a "thick" sound and although this is comparatively easy to get by rolling off some of the top and the upper middle frequencies it usually leaves the drum sounding very lifeless.
I prefer to start work on the drums themselves. Most drummers have their kits tuned for volume. The bigger bands who can mike up most of the drum kit on stage concentrate more on sound, but it's still a very different sound to the studio product.
Four or five years ago, it seemed as though all drums had to sound like wet cardboard being hit with a cricket bat. I honestly believe that Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends" began that trend. Bands were constantly trying to get thicker and heavier drum sounds. Usually this was achieved by smothering the drum with tape and a blanket and adding echo and harmonic response on the board.
Thankfully, people have returned to a live sound, although they're more meticulous now.
No matter who's recording, speed is always important when getting sounds up. If it's not for the sake of economy, then it's for the sake of the artists who have to perform later in the session. If a drum sound goes wrong, everybody's nerves fray quickly and usually the drum sound gets worse instead of better. There have been many times when, after two or three hours, every bit of EQ is removed and every piece of tape taken off the drum and the whole thing is started all over again.
I have a very strict procedure when getting drum sounds. Although every musician and producer has his own favourite drum sound, it's necessary to reduce the kit to a manageable sound before starting to build the desired sound.
The first thing to do is to listen to the kit. The usual mike arrangement is one bass drum mike, one snare drum mike, one top cymbal mike and one floor tomtom mike (optional). Occasionally the cymbals are miked up in stereo with a pair slung well above the kit. More rarely the whole kit is recorded by 2 mikes binaurally. The choice of mikes depends very much on what's available and what suits your particular studio set-up.
Let the drummer play for some time to warm up and make sure that he's hitting his drums as hard as he usually does. Many times I've managed to get a drum sound that everybody seems happy with — until we're into a take. Then we realise that the drummer's playing a lot harder and that there's a terrible ring on his snare drum or that his cymbals are crashing way over the top.
If he's playing properly, the most likely criticisms of the sound will be the terrible cymbal crashes, a bass drum with a boom and a snare drum that sounds very weak. This is the usual result of listening to a stage-tuned kit in studio conditions.
There's only one answer to the cymbal problem — use different cymbals. Cheap cymbals will always sound like cheap cymbals in the studio, so if it's at all possible I suggest hiring a good set of cymbals for the recording — Zildjian or Paiste are typical of good quality cymbals — and they'll make all the difference. If you're really stuck with bad cymbals, try masking tape to take the excess sibilance out and then you'll have to try EQing to lose the tinny part of the ring.
The bass drum always presents a problem. Most producers prefer a dry, clean thud for the bass drum. The easiest way of getting it is to remove the front skin. Nine times out of ten, this is the fastest way to do it but I'm a bit perverse and I often try to get the drum sounding right without removing the front skin, as I believe that the soundwaves set up a sympathetic vibration on the front skin which — if it is tuned correctly, can sound good and at the same time have no boom or ring.
The easiest way is certainly to remove the front skin — remove all fittings that screw or clip off. Otherwise, there's a good chance they'll clank during a take — and either tune up or tune down the skin, depending on whether you want a tight or a soggy sound. If a dead sound is required, tape a blanket to the inside of the back skin and that will effectively damp the whole sound down.
As a general rule, it's better to ignore the built-in dampers on drum kits — relying on them to hold their pressure over several hours has often caused the cry "I'm sure that's not the drum sound we started with" and you may have missed a take.
The choice of a wooden or soft beater for the bass drum is usually down to the drummer, but whichever is used, you'll have to adjust accordingly.
The snare is often the most stubborn. You'll probably be able to get it to sound right on it's own fairly easily, but when you listen to it in conjunction with the rest of the kit, it'll sound terrible. Most probably the snare will ring or rattle sympathetically with one of the tomtoms or the bass drum. It's hard to tune away this condition, there's not really the precision of tune necessary.
Careful taping and re-tensioning of the snare itself should finally resolve any difficulty in this area and I'm usually against any major re-tuning of the snare drum itself. It needs to be meaty and the best way to do this is to remove a little of the top skin's ring with a thin duster taped over a top segment and a few strips of masking tape on the under-skin to stop unnecessary snare rattle.
Once again the tom-toms will need tuning. The drummer will usually tune the drums so that he gets precise intervals between his drums so any major tuning of the tom-toms will inevitably lead to re-tuning of other drums.
The top tom-tom usually presents few problems. Perhaps just a touch of the taped duster to remove skin-ring and you're there. The floor tom is quite a bit more difficult.
For some reason drummers never feel that floor tom-tom sounds different enough. More often than not they'll tune and re-tune until they go past the point where they're able to judge what is the correct pitch (unless of course they're reasonably experienced in studio work). The reason for this is usually that they're not at all used to hearing their drums in studio conditions (especially if you're recording dry, and for this same reason it's not a bad idea to be liberal with the use of monitor echo) and it'll be awhile before they accept that the tom-tom really does sound that dull.
I always think it's important to hear the kit as a whole inbetween each drum decision. I've boobed more than once by getting the individual drums right and then putting the whole thing together.
If it's at all possible, I believe in putting the bass drum, snare and tomtoms on separate tracks. On occasions, it's nice to spread the kit over stereo tracks and the positioning is obviously a matter of personal taste although it's unusual to have the bass and snare anywhere but in the centre.
One last point — on echo. The rule has to be as little as possible, most on the snare of course, and ordinary reverb is often better than a tape delay.