Get ready to improve your drum recordings today.
Drums has to be one of most complex instruments to record for songs. I’ve spent the last eight years of my recording journey trying to figure out how to improve my drum recordings. Before reading this article, I am sorry to break it to you but there is no given equation that can solve the search for the perfect drum sound. After all this time, I feel like I am getting closer to achieving my perfect drum recording sound. I broke this article down into categories I felt were essential in improving your overall sound.
1. Drums, Drumheads & Cymbals
It is a given fact that the better the drums are, the better it will come out in recordings. Each wood that the drum is made out of will have its own tonality. If you are looking at a series of drums that a company makes, they will try their best to get all of them to sound the same. Realistically this isn’t possible. All woods or steels are not created equal, but that is the beauty of instrument making. They are all different.
It is possible to get a great sounding snare with a fifty dollar drum.
Please be aware of your drumheads. I have used Aquarian Drumheads exclusively for the past five years and I have discovered that they are my preferred drumhead company. Not to say Remo and Evans are bad heads, its just that for recording and playing they are not my favorite. That being said, each drumhead company will make heads that are designed for each genre. I would recommend going to each of the companies’ websites and listening to samples of them with a good pair of headphones. My favorite for folk and rock sounds are the Studio X and Modern Vintage Medium Heads from Aquarian. Find what you like best and what brings out the best in your drum sound.
Cymbals can have a great effect on your sound too. Having a great cymbal library with you is fantastic, but it’s not practical money wise. So finding versatile cymbals are essential.
Ask yourself: what is the genre I will be most playing?
Is this cymbal dark or bright? Do I love it? Most drummers might have two sets of hi hats, four crashes, two ride cymbals then china and splash as extra. Cheaper cymbals do sound cheap, so please invest in a decent set.
Microphones can really affect the actual sound that comes across in recordings of your drums. Most microphones have a frequency response on which they will hear more of the low end, mid range and high range. This will actually change your drums tonality. Thats why having a perfect sounding drum will not be present in some recordings. If you have the means to purchase them I highly recommend DPA and Neumann microphones. They will capture the true sound of what your drums and cymbals sounds like by the human ear. These are very high-end microphones and most home studios will not have the budget to afford this.
I have included a list of what microphones I recommend for under $400 to put on each drum.
Some microphones might be present twice. Please listen to samples of each one online.
Bass/Kick Drum– Shure Beta 52a, AKG D112 MKII, Sennheiser E 602-II, Audix D6
(For that thump, beater sound)- Shure Beta 91A, Beyerdynamic TG D71c)
Snare– Shure SM57, Shure Beta 56a, Sennheiser e604, Sennheiser MD421 II, Audix i5, Beyerdnamic M 201
Toms– Earthworks DM20, Beyerdynamic TG D58c, Shure Beta 98 AD/C
Sennheiser e604, Sennheiser MD421 II
Overheads– AKG 214, AKG P170, Shure KSM 141, Audio-Technica Pro 37, Warm Audio WA-84, Audix F9,
Great on everything– Warm Audio WA-47/JR, AKG 214, Blue Baby Bottle
3. Microphone placement and techniques
Where you place your microphones are so essential to achieving a better sounding drum recording. Before starting and building your microphone library ask yourself: How many inputs are you going to be using?
Drummers like Mike Johnston now use a matched pair of Audio Technica ribbon microphones for his recordings and they sound great. He uses one on the kick several inches away off center. Then a single overhead directly above him over his right leg. There is a four microphone setup which allows for a stereo pair of overheads, kick and snare. I would highly recommend this if you are getting into drum recordings and you will be very happy with your results. Then there is a close miking setup which gives each individual drum and/or cymbals a microphone. Sometimes even top and bottom of each!
Once you nailed down the perfect microphones you wanna use, you still gotta figure out how to use them for each drum. For example, I recently discovered that having the microphone looking across the drumhead in a line is my favorite for snare and floor tom. For me it picks up more of the body of the drum than the attack. I used to prefer and many others of just aiming the mic at a 45 degree angle at the center of the head. With both techniques the sound changes if you are further or closer to the drum.
Kick drums are great once you find the sweet spot. I love to put one mic very close to the beater inside the drum. This gets more of an “attack” sound of the bass drum over the “boom.” A boundary microphone like the Shure Beta 91a can achieve this too. For more of the low end sound, you want to experiment with a microphone outside of your resonant head. Move it around until you find a spot that you like. Change it for each song you are working on. With a blend of the two you should find a nice kick drum sound.
Hi-hats are particularly hard for me. Where is the best spot?
Two spots that I have found to be nice is to:
1. Point the microphone capsule at a 45 degree angle towards the bell of the hi-hat to get that hard hitting sound.
2. Point the capsule towards the outside of the cymbal to get the wash sound and put the microphone directly down. Experiment with the space between and don’t forget to try micing from the bottom too!
Overheads are my favorite to put up.
There are so many techniques to try and I would highly recommend researching each one and trying them. Some of favorites are X/Y and A/B spaced pair. Other good ones that engineers like to use are ORTF, recorderman, and mid-side. Typically most people who start recording drums will do something between recorderman and spaced pair without even knowing it.
Room microphones are essential for getting that perfect drum sound.
Have you heard when the “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin? That’s an iconic drum room sound. It’s so compressed and crushed it sounds so good! You can hear his kick, snare and hi-hat perfectly. Seriously consider adding it into your mix of recordings. Throw the mic down your hallway and play with the door open or just throw it up high in the middle of the room. Blend it. Use only it. Do it.
Wurst technique involves using a single microphone usually a large diaphragm condenser located above your bass drum; around where your ride and rack tom would meet on a 4 piece drum setup. Make sure that the capsule faces towards the bass drum. I have recently experimented with changing the polar patterns on my microphone to omni directional and the results pick up more of the whole drum set.
What makes the Wurst’s work, is to compress the heck out of that microphone.
Fast attack and fast release. It makes your kick sound so punchy and brings a nice compression sound to rest of the drums. Many engineers use just kick, snare, single overhead and wursts. Sounds perfect!
At the end of this technique part, please remember to get experimental and have fun with it. Move the microphone around and try not to get used to using the same position over and over again. I would also recommend adding muffling using gaffers tape, towels or pillows when you record, this might be a sound you are looking for.
4. Replacement and Doubling
So you have done everything. Good heads, good microphones, sweet spots, and your signal chain is on point but it’s still not working out. Have no fear replacement is here!
Replacement is the ability to drop samples at the point of your drum hits.
Got a bad snare? Oh here is a 1970s steel snare I can throw on. No one is the wiser. Be warned, sometimes you will need to do further editing to get it to sound natural. Most auto replacement tools will read your velocity from your hits and sometimes it comes out not very pleasant sounding. Some are loud and some are quiet. Just like a real drummer! You will need to adjust accordingly. What is great about these tools though is you can leave your real snare, kick, or cymbal sound in with your new samples. There is never a greater feeling of layering/doubling a Roland 909 in with my kick. Sometimes that’s all it takes you make your recordings better. You might be lacking that beef in your bass drum.
Adding in another sample layer might do the trick.
If you are wondering how to do this, there is a great tool built into Logic Pro X. You will be shocked on how easy it is. It takes highlighting your track, selecting the audio that you want to replace and changing your threshold of what the tool will read. The tool also gives you the ability to select kick, snare, toms or cymbals so when you change your software instrument, it will be in the midi note range of that drum. Then once you are done, the tool will automatically make a new midi track of your replacement! Please look it up!
5. Plug Ins
Our plug ins are essential in finding our perfect drum sound. They can alter or change the attitude of the drums. Keep in mind, it is super important that:
if your drums sound great with just a simple compressor or EQ, don’t add more plug ins because you can.
When I use the Wurst technique to my drums I just put CLA-2A compression on and squash that incoming signal and that’s it. If you love it don’t change it. At the fundamentals try to lock in your EQ and compression for each drum track. Read online about trouble-some frequencies that each instrument has. For example the high ends might be too much on your cymbals from 1khz-5khz or 10khz-16khz. With your drums you will have to find the troublesome frequencies that are just sticking out too much.
Using an EQ notch you find all the frequencies you need to get rid of.
These frequencies are different from one set to another and will change depending on what kind of drumhead you are using. If you are inexperienced in mixing drums I highly recommend plug ins that are build exclusively for drums. They will include EQ, compression, reverb, presets that are designed for each drum or overheads and some sort of flare that makes that plug in just sound great. These plug ins will just make the drum sound just pop.
Some on my favorites: JJP Drums, CLA Drums, Eddie Kramer Drum Channel from Waves
I can not stress this enough to find a plug in channel strip that works for you. In the future I will try write an article with my preferred plug in chains and outboard gear chains for drum recordings.
To be a drummer and decent recording engineer can be very beneficial into a great career especially going forward into a world post-Covid. This virus has changed the way we work and now is the time to get your drum recording setup going. VisionQuest Sound has great tutorials and podcasts about getting your studio workflow set up. I would highly recommend using the blogs here and this article you’re reading now to make wise investments for your future. Continue searching for the best sounding drums and use the topics in this article to push yourself forward.
Article by Jacob Pflum