Record­ing Tips


Australian Guitar - - Contents -

In the last is­sue, we took a brief look at the evo­lu­tion of drum sounds through his­tory, and dis­cussed dif­fer­ent ways to ap­proach your mi­cro­phone count, choice and place­ment. There are, how­ever, count­less fac­tors in­flu­enc­ing the way drums sound on a record­ing be­fore the mics even come into the equa­tion. As a home pro­ducer, the more of th­ese vari­ables you're aware of, the more chance you’ll have of deal­ing with is­sues, chas­ing tones, guid­ing mu­si­cians and be­ing able to pro­duce an out­come, rather than sim­ply throw­ing mics up in front of the kit and hop­ing for the best.

Fair warn­ing, this ar­ti­cle isn’t ac­tu­ally aimed at drum­mers; it’s aimed at the peo­ple who work with them and want to learn how to tweak the sound at the source. Get­ting a great tone is a team ef­fort be­tween the drum­mer and the en­gi­neer. Rather than reach­ing for plug­ins, ef­fects or re­place­ment sam­ples in or­der to res­cue or com­pletely re­work drum takes af­ter the fact, en­gi­neers should make de­ci­sions about the fi­nal sounds be­fore the drum­mer has even played a beat.


The evo­lu­tion of the drum kit is well doc­u­mented, from the late 19th cen­tury when mul­ti­ple drums were played by mul­ti­ple peo­ple to cre­ate rhythms, to the in­ven­tion of the bass drum pedal, which al­lowed one per­son alone to build sim­i­lar rhythms, but in a new way. Thus, an in­dus­try was born, and drum de­sign is ever-evolv­ing to this very day. Un­less you’re hir­ing in tai­lor-made kits, it’s un­likely you’ll have the chance to choose the per­fect kit for ev­ery ses­sion – a lit­tle back­ground knowledge is still handy, though.

Most drums are made from some type of tim­ber and are con­structed of ply­wood (lay­ers of sheet tim­ber glued to­gether). But as you’ll soon find out, that’s just the be­gin­ning! The shell ma­te­rial, thick­ness, con­struc­tion style, di­am­e­ter and depth all play a part. For ex­am­ple, ma­hogany shells are gen­er­ally softer, warmer, and pro­duce deep lows, whereas birch shells tend to be louder a brighter with a stronger at­tack. Thin­ner shells are more sen­si­tive and tend to pro­vide a richer tone, but less vol­ume and at­tack. As you'd prob­a­bly come to ex­pect, thicker shells are the op­po­site. Ob­vi­ously, larger di­am­e­ter drums pro­duce lower tones – as do deeper drums.

Snare drums vary the most. Gen­er­ally, wood is warm, full-bod­ied and rich, while metal is louder, brighter and sharper. Snares are typ­i­cally a sig­na­ture el­e­ment in a track, so nail­ing them is crit­i­cal. Most ex­pe­ri­enced drum­mers have their favourites, but as a pro­ducer, it’s often nec­es­sary to sug­gest chang­ing things up in some way – es­pe­cially if you're work­ing on an EP or full-length al­bum. Hear­ing the same snare on ev­ery song is a lit­tle mo­not­o­nous and fairly lim­ited cre­atively. I have about six dif­fer­ent sound­ing snares in my stu­dio, and I strongly en­cour­age their us­age.

The key is to be aware of a range of tones and sub­tle dif­fer­ences. Are you chas­ing a ‘crack’ or a deep, fat thud? A short hit, or one that's long and res­o­nant? Dry? Wet? Is there too much snare rat­tle, or not enough? Audition a set of snare sam­ples and pic­ture what kind of song each would suit. As an ex­er­cise, lis­ten to snare drums across a broad range of gen­res and eras (rock, coun­try, jazz, metal, '60s, '80s and so on) and see if you can find a sam­ple that matches a spe­cific tone. This valu­able ear train­ing fa­mil­iarises you with what’s ‘typ­i­cal’ for var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions.


This brings us to the ‘black art’ of drum tun­ing. With a stringed in­stru­ment, you’re tun­ing for pitch, and it’s ei­ther cor­rect or it’s not. With drums, you’re tun­ing for pitch

and tone. Two drum heads – top and bot­tom – equal dou­ble the com­plex­ity. The top ‘bat­ter head’ is gen­er­ally thicker than the bot­tom ‘res­o­nant head’, which res­onates in re­sponse to the top head.

There are as many ways to tune a drum as there are drum­mers, but the gen­eral con­ven­tions are that the top skin is looser, and also that the ten­sion on each lug is as con­sis­tent as pos­si­ble. Each drum tends to have a sweet spot where it ‘sings’. The top head con­trols at­tack and ring, while the bot­tom head con­trols res­o­nance,

sus­tain, overtones and tim­bre. If the bot­tom head is too tight, it will tend to pro­duce longer overtones which can be boomy and gen­er­ally un­pleas­ant. If it’s too loose, you tend to get an un­nat­u­ral and choked ‘donk’ with lit­tle res­o­nance and clar­ity. With kick drums, many peo­ple will tune the front, res­o­nant head lower that the bat­ter head to get a deeper note.


Next, let's look at the other dark art: damp­en­ing. Rea­sons for damp­en­ing a drum in­clude the min­imi­sa­tion of ring­ing, overtones and sus­tain, or to cut high-pitch fre­quen­cies, tone or vol­ume. Re­mem­ber, drums nat­u­rally res­onate, and a well-tuned drum has a pleas­ing res­o­nance! When any in­stru­ment is put un­der stu­dio mics, it inevitably sounds dif­fer­ent to re­hearsals or a gig – ev­ery lit­tle rat­tle and over­tone is am­pli­fied.

Thus, too often a badly tuned drum ends up with the top head cov­ered in tape be­fore any at­tempt is made to deal with the tun­ing – usu­ally be­cause it’s an ‘easy fix’. Over-damp­en­ing may leave you with a life­less sound­ing card­board box, in which case the drum should be re­tuned from scratch.

Of course, the type of drum head heav­ily in­flu­ences the sus­tain and res­o­nance of the drum, and it’s not ridicu­lous to keep at least a cou­ple of snare heads at hand in the stu­dio.

There’s a wealth of heads avail­able with built-in damp­en­ing ef­fects, in­clud­ing dou­ble ply heads, heads with in­laid rings around the edge, hy­draulic heads with a layer of oil

be­tween two skins... The list goes on.

Min­i­mal damp­en­ing is to­tally le­git, and there are many ways to ap­proach it. Duct tape is cheap, and one strip to­ward the edge of the head can be enough to tone down the sus­tain; a small piece of pa­per towel or felt taped to the head can also be ef­fec­tive.

Com­mer­cially made Moon­gel is a great prod­uct to keep in your stu­dio. It’s a non-toxic and self-ad­he­sive gel that sticks to drum heads and doesn’t leave residue. Muf­fling rings are pre-cut out of drum skins that run the whole cir­cum­fer­ence of the drum and sit neatly in­side the rim. Sim­i­larly, an old drum­head with the metal rim cut off can be placed di­rectly on top of the skin to act as a dual layer damp­en­ing sys­tem. Then, there's a per­sonal favourite: the wal­let on the snare.

By de­fault, when you strike one drum, any other drum in the room will make a sound as well through ‘sym­pa­thetic res­o­nance'. Some­times you’ll be go­ing for a nice, open, res­o­nant sound with lots of ‘room’ in the mix. In this case, the res­o­nance is gen­er­ally your friend and adds colour. But there are times when it can get ugly – the most com­mon sit­u­a­tion is when a rack tom is trig­gered by a snare, or vice versa. This usu­ally hap­pens when drums are tuned too closely to­gether. Tun­ing one a lit­tle higher or lower should help min­imise this.

Of course, there are many gen­res that call for each drum sound al­most as if they are com­pletely iso­lated from the rest of the kit. Gen­er­ally, noise gates can deal with this in mix­down. But lit­tle things can help – a blan­ket laid out over the front half of the kit that also cov­ers the kick mic; a piece of foam strad­dled over the snare and tom mics be­hind the cap­sule to nar­row the pickup area; set­ting the hi-hat pedal ab­nor­mally high about the snare drum to stop hats spilling into the snare mic (most drum­mers will hate you for chang­ing their setup, though).

Ei­ther way, make sure you lis­ten to the kit as a whole as much as you lis­ten to each in­di­vid­ual drum. Mon­i­tor your tom mics and see how much spill you are get­ting from the kick and snare, for ex­am­ple – many en­gi­neers will lit­er­ally delete or mute the tom tracks when they are not be­ing played.


Last but not least, choos­ing the right im­ple­ment to hit the drums with can re­ally turn a track around. While pos­si­bly 90 per­cent of tracks call for typ­i­cal matched wooden sticks, it’s nice to change things up ev­ery once in a while. Heavy sticks are a ten and steel brushes are a one on the loud­ness/at­tack scale. The op­tions in-be­tween are worth look­ing at, and it's cru­cial to know what they sound like. I love the sound of ‘hotrods’, which are al­most like a bunch of ke­bab sticks taped to­gether – you’ll still plenty of at­tack, but still not trig­ger a drum to the same ve­loc­ity as a full stick.

Nylon brushes are heav­ier than steel; they’ll give more at­tack and be eas­ier for non-jazz play­ers to use. Fi­nally, a set of mal­lets is great for cym­bal swells and at­mo­spheric tom tom work (think tim­pani). Like­wise, check out the range of dif­fer­ent kick beater op­tions – th­ese are typ­i­cally wooden, plas­tic or felt. They all have their place. As for the kick drum, the old "20 cent piece taped to the kick skin trick" is great for adding some ex­tra ‘click’ to your sound!

Ev­ery en­gi­neer and pro­ducer should spend time with a drum­mer and com­pletely pull down a kit, tune and re­tune each drum, swap out snare drums, and just gen­er­ally get their head around some of the pos­si­bil­i­ties be­fore a mi­cro­phone even comes into the room. It’s the only way to re­ally iso­late is­sues and get to know the pos­si­bil­i­ties.





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