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Capturing drums can be one of the most challenging aspects of the recording process. For one thing, there are so many pieces in the average kit that need to be mic’d. And they take up so much room. And they are so loud. And they have to be performed perfectly. And they are hard to edit if the drummer makes a mistake. Starting to get the picture? Damn drummers!
DEAD OR ALIVE?
So it starts with having the right space to not only comfortably set up the drum kit and all the microphones, but also a room that make the drums sound good as a whole. Drums generally don’t sound that great in unfinished basements and garages – there’s just too much exposed concrete. They need a good mix of absorptive floor, ceiling and wall treatments (e.g. carpets, rugs, gobos, tapestries, etc.) to contain all the sound energy and yet some reflective surfaces, preferably wood, to make them sound natural.
Also you need some way to contain all that sound energy from leaking onto other instrument tracks during rhythm tracking. Here at Night Train Studios, we accomplish this by having four iso rooms of varying sizes, with adjustable curtains that allow us to alter the amount of reflection so that we can “tune” the room to the drum kit. But if you’re not in a studio setting you can still attain some level of separation and absorption by using gobos.
Gobos are simply small moveable walls that you can place around an instrument. A poor man’s gobos can be a single mattress and some big couch cushions. Or you can build fairly inexpensive and simple gobos to fit your needs – for instance a band we had in the studio recently had used a few portable garment racks covered with heavy blankets and comforters to help isolate their drummer for less than 40 bucks. Or if your budget is a bit higher ($150 – $400) you can buy pre-made gobos like ClearSonic Sorber series, which are freestanding rigid fiberglass panels encased in heavy-duty carpet and come in a variety of sizes.
The reason the drum kit has to sound good in the room is that we usually want to record not only close mic’d drums but we also want to capture the drum kit as a whole with a stereo microphone setup. Drum kits are made up of many individual pieces but it is essentially one instrument, and to make it sound coherent it should live in the mix in its own space. So we start by close mic’ing the snare, kick, hi-hat, and toms. To cut down on space we like to use specialized mic clips, like the Audix D-Vice ($30 retail) which clip onto drum rims and hold the microphone close to the drum head (about 1-2 inches) without the need for awkward mic stands and booms. Shure SM57s are a great choice for the snare, toms and hi-hat if you are on a budget.
For the kick drum, you’ll want a specialized mic, like our favorite the AKG D112 ($199) or the Shure Beta 52A ($189). For this you’ll want to use a small boom mic stand and whenever possible try to get the mic inside the kick drum (about 6 – 10 inches away from the beater head) pointed towards the beater. If your drummer uses a closed outside head, you can try setting up a small “tent” outside the kick drum to help reduce unwanted leakage. This “tent” can be cushions or blankets draped over some small mic stands. If the sound is too “thuddy” or “boomy,” try setting up a second mic on the beater side next to the kick drum’s foot pedal. This can often be difficult to physically fit unless you use a small desktop mic stand.
Similarly, if you’re not getting enough “crack” from the snare, you can set up a second mic below the snare drum pointing up to capture the snares. Remember that when simultaneously recording a drum from opposite sides, you’ll want to flip the phase (on your DAW or mixer) of one of the tracks or you will get unwanted phase cancellation.
Experiment with mixing these tracks together until you get just the right amount of slap from the kick and crack from the snare, mixed in with the overall tone of each drum.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at zac at nighttrainstudios.com.
Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at brent at blackcloudproductions.com.