ROB LONG EXPLORES THE MYSTICAL WORLD OF RECORDING DRUMS: THE BACKBONE OF ANY GOOD RECORDING.
Getting a great drum sound is often one of the most challenging, yet rewarding processes in the studio. It often requires mastering a whole range of skills, combined with acquiring and setting up a bucketload of equipment. But not always! This is a two-part article that discusses attaining different types of drum sounds by looking at various methods used throughout the years and across a range of genres.
The fundamental ingredients are obviously a good drummer, a good kit, and a nice room to put them in. Needless to say, there’s a thousand variables, and not all factors will necessarily be under your control. You’ll need to work with what you have, and there will usually be some compromise involved.
As well as this – and this is the focus of the article – you'll want to think about the type of drum sound you’re chasing. The way the drumscape is laid out will greatly influence the way the entire track sounds, and a good foundation is imperative.
The standard procedure of setting up a mic (or two) for each drum, plus a set of overheads and possibly a room/distance mic or two is totally fine, provided you have access to enough mics and preamps to do so. However, it may not be necessary – or even appropriate – to go to those lengths. Thousands of classic drum tracks have been recorded with the simplest of setups, so it’s highly probable that you could snag a great drum take without needing to break out the entire armoury.
Firstly, you'll want to do some research on the genre of music you’re working with. There’s no end of information and resources on hand these days. If you’re working on a track that is based on a particular era or distinctive style, you’ll easily find lots of great references. If it’s more a hybrid style or something unique you’re after, you can still explore the known conventions and use them as a starting point.
Let’s have a look at some of the differences in drum recording techniques through the various eras and across a selection of genres.
Starting with some early recordings made in the 1950s, the first thing to acknowledge is that drum kits were most often looked upon as one entire instrument, rather than a group of individual sound sources. This, of course, ties in with the fact that the equipment was so basic that micing individual drums wasn’t even an option. With only four tracks to play with and very basic consoles, one mic on the drums is usually all that was possible.
And that's the beauty of it. There’s loads of charm and character to these early recordings, and replicating
them can be fun. It just might give your track the edge it needs, too.
One other thing to note is that at this point in time, the kick drum was nowhere near as prevalent in the overall picture as it was in later times. The low end, both sonically and rhythmically, was more the domain of the bass – and in the earliest recordings, we’re talking upright acoustic bass.
Placing that 'one’ mic is therefore going to be critical. There are a few options here.
Start with a single room mic – usually a large diaphragm condenser or a volume-friendly ribbon – placed about two metres in front of the drum kit, at around the height of the drummer’s head but below the cymbals. In some ways, this is simulating the ‘ spill’ position from a vocal or instrumental mic. Often in ensemble situations, the drums didn’t need to be miced directly, as the spill through the other mics in the room was plenty – to the point where the drummer would need to adjust their playing so as not to override other elements!
What you’re likely to get here is a fairly roomy, overall balance of the kit, but without the dominance and full depth of any individual element. This will give the right track a great ‘live’ energy.
A more direct, less ‘roomy’ image of the drums can be captured by placing one mic almost in the centre of the kit – neatly between the snare and kick, and under the rack tom. A novel twist on this is pictured – two condensers strapped to the kick drum, set to omni to capture in all directions.
In many engineers' minds, the best snare sound achievable actually comes from an overhead, rather than a close position. The sound takes space to develop and interact with its environment. This may not be the case for all styles – for example, detailed brushwork may not be captured with this technique. Using a single overhead mic rarely gives you a full, usable picture of the whole kit, either. It tends to emphasise the upper part of the kit and fill the view with cymbals. Overheads tend to work best in tandem with another mic. Hence, the next logical step is to move to a two-mic setup. And yes, you guessed it, the first thing to add is a kick drum mic.
A purpose-built dynamic kick mic is virtually an essential purchase, unless you’d like to go for a more boutique option like an EV RE20, which is a very versatile (and cheap) mic. Don’t forget to check for phase issues – by flipping the polarity on either of your mics, you’ll either hear a beautiful, full warmth or an empty, hollow sound.
Placement of the kick mic is critical, but you’ll have to use your ears here. You’ll soon discover that ten millimetres in any direction will make a difference, especially in/out. If there’s a typical hole cut into the front skin, try placing the mic about three
centimetres away from the hole and see what you get. Placing it inside the hole will give you a lot more of a low-frequency sound. This can be a good thing, but it can also get rather boomy depending on the drum and the tuning or dampening.
This simple two-mic setup can be used for anything from basic rock, old school '50s and '60s pop, rockabilly, retro funk, and even RnB. In the '60s and early '70s, British producer Glyn Johns developed a classic three-mic setup whilst working with the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Who. Engineers still refer to these recordings for inspiration – it was revolutionary at the time, and it's still relevant today.
He simply used a combination of an overhead about one metre from the snare, a dedicated kick mic, and a second overhead placed near the floor tom – around a metre away and pointing across the kit towards the hi hats. This last mic captures a lot more of the kit than you may expect. Imagine standing in that position – the attack is very focussed, and you also pick up a bit of batter head from the kick drum.
Next in line is adding a fourth mic placed directly on the snare, in the common position just above the rim and under the hi-hats. Once again, placement a few centimetres in any direction will yield different results.
An interesting moment in drum recording occurred when The Eagles hired Glyn Johns as their producer. After a couple of successful albums together, the band wanted to move in a different direction. The drummer, Don Henley, really wanted to explore the studio more, and make each element of the drums have its own focus.
Thus, things developed fairly rapidly in the '70s, with larger consoles and multitrack recordings quickly becoming the norm. The limited mic count was no longer an issue, and producers began to explore adding more mics, and processing them individually with EQ and compression.
Room sound was eliminated as much as possible, as was overt drum resonance. Drums were tuned deeper, and dampening and blanketing were used heavily. Mics were placed right on the skin, or even inside the drum for further isolation. The rooms themselves were more heavily treated and designed with less reflection and flat frequency response. As the control rooms expanded, each individual element of the kit could be processed individually. At the high point of this trend, it was almost as if the sound of the drum was used as a trigger for the FX.
In the next issue, we’ll look more closely at the drums themselves – tuning and playing styles, and what happens in the control room both during tracking and during post-production. Meanwhile, break out the sticks and get into it!
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