Record­ing Tips

ROB LONG EX­PLORES THE MYS­TI­CAL WORLD OF RECORD­ING DRUMS: THE BACK­BONE OF ANY GOOD RECORD­ING.

Australian Guitar - - Contents - Rob Long is a multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and pro­ducer work­ing @FunkyLizardS­tu­dios in New­cas­tle

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!

BE­LOW: CEN­TRE-STAGE

ABOVE: STRAP YOUR­SELF IN, BOYS!

ABOVE: FO­CUS ON THE IM­POR­TANT THINGS IN LIFE

ABOVE: SIDE TO SIDE

BE­LOW: LEVEL-HEADED, OR HEAD-LEV­ELLED?

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