7 Tips for Recording Drums
I’ve been having fun with drums for just over 20 years and absolutely love recording them. That being said, it’s never a simple task and I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes. But all these experiences both good and bad have helped me grow enormously and I hope that sharing some of these with you will help when recording drums in your own studio.
1) Get the source right
Tuning is Your Friend!
I cannot stress how important it is to record with a drum kit that has been tuned. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive kit in the world, but it does have to be in tune. Being able to sit at any kit and know how to make it sound better is such an invaluable skill. Spend some time learning how to tune a drum set. There are plenty of informative resources online that will teach you how to tune drums. Also, don’t be afraid to ask those around you or visit your local drum store and get some advice. If you’re at a show and the drums sound amazing, ask the drummer how they tune it. Everyone has their own approach and drummers love talking about nerdy stuff like tuning. 😉
Tune for the Song
Listen to the song you are wanting to record and have a think about what kind of sound you’d like the drums to produce. Is it a sparse acoustic piece where the snare and toms would work well tuned down low? Or are you working on a jazz track that incorporates open sounding drums that each have a clearly defined note?
Don’t be afraid to experiment with both different tunings and drumheads. Find those magic combinations that work well together and test them out at your next recording session.
Drum Rings and Moon Gel
If you’d like to damped the drums and remove some of the open sounds, try either a drum ring (RootsEQ rings are amazing) or a small amount of moon gel (both of which I couldn’t live without 😉). I also use a wonderful accessory called a Big Fat Snare Drum which instantly makes your drums sound like those vintage kits from the 70s. There are multiple Big Fat Snare Drums to choose from and they are all extremely effective. Pillowcases and tea towels are super effective if you’d like an authentic Beatles sounding kit.
Texture is produced by whatever we use to hit the drums. Traditional methods would be sticks, brushes, mallets, hotrods to name a few. You can dive deeper into each of these, for example; trying bigger or smaller sized sticks (with wooden or plastic tips), using brushes that are made from plastic, metal or other materials, different types of mallets etc. Each of these will creature texture from your drums and combined with tuning and choice of drumhead, you’ll soon find amazing combinations that sound unique and interesting.
Always be open to thinking outside of the box. For example, have you tried playing drums with just your hands? Or maybe using a stick in one hand and a mallet or brush in the other? There are so many wonderful combinations available to you, experiment and see what works.
3) Don’t Forget about the room!
Drummers the world over will know that you can play a show one night and your kit will sound one way, but the following night at a completely different venue, the exact same drum kit will sound completely different. Why? The room!
It’s the same with recording. Most of us with home studios don’t have a treated drum room, so we have to improvise in order to make things work.
Listen and understand what’s great about your room and what isn’t. Place the drum kit in different locations and find that sweet spot. Know that bass accumulates in corners, so you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Also, try not to put a bass drum right up against a wall as bass frequencies need more time to materialize.
If you have a ‘lively’ sounding room with a lot of reflections, try introducing a ribbon mic into your set up. Ribbon mics have a darker tone and when incorporated with other mics can help add color and character.
Something I love about my current recording set up is that I am totally mobile. I can pick up my gear and record anywhere. So, if you come across a great sounding room you can set up your kit and record tracks there. Give it a try! It’s a lot of fun.
4) THE PLAYER
Another thing to take into consideration is who will be playing. What’s their style? Are they a slam-the-heck-out-of-the-kit-no-matter-what kind of player or will they be hitting the drums softly? Hitting drums extremely hard or very soft produces a totally different tone which will greatly affect the overall drum sound. In an ideal world you want the drummer to play at an appropriate volume that best suits the room you are in, for them to make the drums sing and most importantly, to play what is appropriate for the song.
5) RECORD AND LISTEN BACK
I’ve been amazed at how many times I’ve thought a snare drum sounded crappy and yet recorded it sounded awesome (and the same applies the other way around!). It’s worth recording your lovely drum sound and adjusting to what’s being recorded, not necessarily what’s hitting your ear when sitting behind the kit.
6) BE OPEN TO CHANGE
After deciding what mics I feel are appropriate for a situation, I set them up and sound check, but if the configuration doesn’t seem to be working or something is missing, I immediately change my approach. This could be simply moving mics closer or further away or changing mics completely.
All the elements I’ve covered (the player, the room, the kit, the sticks) are all elements that need to be taken into consideration and they greatly affect the overall drum sound. Always be open to change, and even if it sounded great last week when you did that session, it may not sound great now. Don’t be afraid to move mics and adjust things as needed.
7) UNWANTED NOISES
Try to eliminate external noises as much as possible. Room mics are particularly sensitive to this. That means switching the A/C off, waiting until the annoying person outside finishes mowing their yard, etc. Applying a low cut / high pass filter to certain mics (especially room mics / condensers) helps reduce low noises and rumble sounds, such as cars driving by.
Always make sure that none of your mic stands are touching cymbal or drum stands. Many moons ago I recorded a brilliant take, only to find the base of an overhead mic stand was touching my cymbal stand and the sound vibrated up the stand and into the mic, completely ruining the take. DOH!
Buzz, Rattle n Roll
Before any recording session, you want to make sure your kit is not producing any rattles or squeaking while you play. I’ve been a part of sessions where we’ve spent considerable time trying to figure out where the heck that annoying rattling sound is coming from. Good kit maintenance as well as checking for any issues beforehand will prevent time being spent on tracking down unwanted noises during a recording session.