Recording Drums: A Beginner's Guide

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An Introduction

Drum Kit With Microphones
Recording The Drum Kit. Joe Shambro

Drums are one of the most complicated instruments to record; not only do they take a lot of skill on both the part of the drummer and the recording engineer to get right, but they take up a lot of space and use a lot of resources to record. In this guide, we'll cover the basics of recording drums in your studio.

If you're a Pro Tools user, you may like my more detailed tutorial on mixing drums in Pro Tools!

For this tutorial, I'll be using a Yamaha Recording Custom drum kit with a kick, snare, single rack tom, floor tom, and cymbals. Because most home studios are limited on their inputs and microphone selection, I'll be limited to using only 6 commonly available microphones on the entire drum kit.

I'll also cover the basics of compression, gating, and equalizing the drums after you've recorded them to help them sit better in the mix.

Let's get started!

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The Kick Drum

Kick Drum Recording
Recording The Kick Drum. Joe Shambro

The kick drum is the centerpiece of your song's rhythm section. The bass guitar and kick drum are what keep the groove flowing. Getting a really good kick sound takes a lot of factors; I wrote a more in-depth article on the subject, and I think it's pretty important to read, especially if you run into any problems here. But for this article, let's assume your drummer came to the session with their drum kit tuned properly.

For this recording, I'm using a Sennheiser E602 ($179) microphone. You can use whichever kick drum mic you like the best, it's totally up to you. If you don't have a specialized kick drum microphone, you can get away with using something multi-purpose like a Shure SM57 ($89). You can also add a second mic, as I did in the picture; I added a Neumann KM184 ($700) to experiment with added shell tone; I did not end up using the track in the final mix, but it's an option you can consider trying sometime.

Start by having the drummer play the kick drum. Take a listen to the kick. How does it sound? If it's boomy, you'll want to place your microphone closer to the beater for clarity; if it's exceptionally tight, you'll want to back up the microphone a little bit to capture more overall tone. You'll probably experiment a few times to get the placement right, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. Remember, every situation is different. Trust your ears!

Let's take a listen; here's an mp3 of the raw kick drum track.

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The Snare

Recording The Snare Drum With A Beta 57A
Recording The Snare Drum. Joe Shambro

Getting a good snare drum sound is very easy if the snare itself sounds good; fortunately, most drummers take care of their snare drums even if the rest of their kit isn't perfectly in tune. Let's start out by listening to our kit again.

If the snare sounds good, you can move right on to placing your microphone. If the snare rings too much, try having your drummer tune the head a little bit more; if all else fails, a product like the Evans Min-EMAD ($8) or even a small piece of tape on the drum head will help dampen the ring.

For this recording, I chose to use the Shure Beta 57A ($150). I placed the microphone halfway between the high-hat cymbal and the rack tom, facing at about a 30-degree angle. I placed the microphone about an inch and a half above the rim, pointed towards the center. One thing to watch out for: you may possibly get a lot of bleed from the high-hat; if so, move your microphone so that it's pointing away from the high-hat as best you can.

Let's take a listen to the recorded track. Here's the snare as it sounds naturally.

If you find that the sound is too strong, consider moving the microphone back a little bit, or turning your preamp's gain down. If you don't get the sound you want from one microphone, you can also add another microphone to the bottom of the snare to help pick up the crunch of the metal snares; any microphone you like for snare will work on the bottom, too.

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The Toms

Recording The Toms
Recording The Toms. Joe Shambro

On most drum kits, you'll find several different toms, all of a different tonal range; usually, a drummer will have a high, a mid, and a low tom. Sometimes you'll find a more diverse drummer who makes use of several toms all tuned differently. I once did a project where the drummer had 8 toms!

For this recording, our drummer decided to use only two toms - a rack tom tuned high, and a floor tom, which is tuned low.

For the high tom, I placed a microphone very similar as I did for the snare drum: about an inch and a half off away, pointed at a 30-degree angle towards the center of the drum. I chose to use a Sennheiser MD421; it's a relatively expensive microphone ($350), but I prefer the tonal qualities on toms. You can get a perfectly comparable sound using a Shure SM57 ($89) or Beta 57A ($139) if you prefer.

For the floor tom, I chose to use an AKG D112 kick drum mic ($199). I chose this microphone because of its exceptional ability to record the low-end of an instrument with punch and clarity. I usually use the D112 on kick drums, but this floor tom had a particularly good sounding range and was very well tuned, so I decided to use the D112. Your results may be better with another microphone; again, it all depends on the drum. Other choices for tom mics are the Shure SM57 ($89), and on- floor tom, I also particularly like the Sennheiser E609 ($100).

Let's take a listen. Here's the rack tom, and floor tom.

Now, onto the cymbals...

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The Cymbals

Recording The Cymbals
Recording The Cymbals with AKG C414 Microphones. Joe Shambro

On a lot of very polished commercial recordings, you might be very surprised to find out that the best drum sound sometimes comes from a very simple source: the overhead microphones, combined with a kick drum microphone. Getting the right cymbal recording can make or break your drum recording.

How fancy you want to go is totally up to you, your drummer's kit, and how many microphones and input channels you can spare. Most sessions will mic the high-hat, the ride cymbal, and then a pair of overheads panned in stereo. I find that on most recordings, even if I do run separate mics for the ride and high-hat, I don't use them because the overheads usually do a great job of picking them up naturally. It's up to you; remember that every situation is different. I chose to set the microphones about 6 feet apart, about 3 feet vertically above the hat and ride cymbal, respectively.

For this recording, I chose to use a pair of AKG C414 condenser microphones ($799). While expensive, these are a great, accurate microphone that gives a good picture of the overall tone of the kit. You can use whatever microphones you want; the Oktava MC012 ($100) and the Marshal MXL series ($70) also work very well for this purpose. Again, it's up to you and your situation what you use.

So let's take a listen. Here are the overheads, panned in stereo. Notice the bleed coming through - you're hearing the snare, kick, and the overall sound of the drums in the room.

Now, let's mix!

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Using A Noise Gate Plug-In
Using A Noise Gate Software Plug-In. Joe Shambro

Now that you've laid the perfect tracks, let's look at what it takes to get them to sound good in the mix. The first step is gating.

Gating is the technique of using a piece of hardware or software called a noise gate; a noise gate is essentially like a quick mute button. It listens to the track and ducks it in or out to help minimize ambient noise. In this case, we'll be using it to help minimize the bleed from other drums.

That being said, sometimes bleed is a good thing; it can give a better overall sound to the kit. Trust your ears.

Listen to the raw snare track. You'll notice that you can hear the other drum elements around the snare - the cymbals, the kick drum, the tom rolls. Putting a noise gate on the track will help keep these elements out of the snare mic. Start by setting the attack - how fast the gate opens after the snare is hit - at around 39 milliseconds. Set the release - how fast the gate closes after the hit - at around 275 milliseconds. Now take a listen to the same track, with a gate applied. Notice how there's not any bleed from the other instruments? It may sound "choppy" by itself, but when in concert with all the other elements of a song, this snare would fit great into the mix.

Now, let's move on to the topic of compression.

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Using A Software Compressor
Using A Software Compressor. Joe Shambro

Compressing drums is a highly subjective topic. It always depends on the style of the music. For example, the song we're using as our reference is an alternative-rock song. Heavily compressed drums fit well with the overall sound. If you're recording jazz, folk rock, or light country, you'll want to use less if any compression. The best advice I can give you is to experiment with these techniques and decide, along with the drummer you're recording, what works out best.

That being said, let's talk about compression. Compression is using a software or hardware tool to reduce the sound level of a signal if it goes past a certain threshold level. This lets your drums fit in the mix with more punch and clarity. Much like a noise gate, it has separate settings for attack (how fast it reduced the sound level) and release (how fast the reduction is backed away).

Let's look at a ​​raw kick drum track. Notice how it's got a solid sound, but it's not very polished; in a mix, this kick wouldn't stand out in the mix enough. So let's gate it, then compress it using a 3:1 ratio (a compression ratio of 3:1 means that it takes a 3db increase in volume to allow the compressor to output 1db over the threshold), with an attack of 4ms and a release of 45ms. Can you hear the difference now? You'll notice more punch, less ambient noise, and better definition.

Compression, when used right, can make your drum tracks come alive. Now let's look at mixing the overall drum sound.

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Mixing Your Drums

Digidesign Control 24
DigiDesign Control 24. Digidesign, Inc.

Now that we've gotten everything sounding how we want it, it's time to mix the drums with the rest of the song! In this tutorial, we'll be referring to panning, which is moving the signal left or right in a stereo mix. This allows your drum kit to have much better realisim to it. If you're a Pro Tools user, you may like my more detailed tutorial on mixing drums in Pro Tools!

Start by bringing up the kick into the mix, panned center. Once you have the kick drum at a comfortable level, bring the bass guitar up to match it comfortably. From there, bring up the overhead mics, panned hard right and hard left.

Once you get a good sound with the kick and overheads, bring up everything else. Start by bringing the snare up, panned center, and then the toms, panned where they sit on the kit. You should be starting to get a overall mix.

Another option is compressing the whole drum mix; for this song, I created an extra stereo auxillary input in Pro Tools, and ran all of the drums into one stereo track. I then compressed the whole drum group very slightly, at a 2:1 ratio. Your mileage may vary, but this helped the overall drum sound sit well in the mix.

Now that we've mixed the drums together into the song, let's take a listen. Here's what my final mix sounds like. Hopefully your results are similar, too. Remember, again, every situation is different, and what works here might not work for your song. But with these basic tips, you'll be up and recording drums in no time.

Remember, trust your ears, and don't be afraid to experiment!