Friday, March 27, 2009

How to Record Drums (Getting a GOOD Drum sound)

This is actually quite the ambitious post I am about to make on this webpage but, if there is one question that I have found myself getting over the time I have been producing other bands it is "How do you get your drums to sound like that?". On the Wicked album my micing technique was actually quite basic. I used about 5-7 mics and just "let her rip" so to speak. I do like the sound of the drums on Wicked but, I will say that as I have worked with a lot more drummers (drumsets, mics…etc) I have grown leaps and bounds as to what I can accomplish in the drum field. So let me take a little time and maybe dispel some vicious rumors that may be floating through the heads of some people that are trying to record themselves. Maybe in the future I'll post different drumset configuration audio files so you can hear the results. My major goal with these articles is to help out the DIY bands so they can actually achieve a good sound themselves without paying through the nose for a professional studio or producer.


First of all there is no "WRONG" way to mic a drumkit. There are however, wrong ways to mix drums. I'm proud to say (and somewhat embarrassed I suppose) that I've learned the wrong ways to mix on many occasions. As with anything in life you learn from working with people who are better than you and I feel that I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing players in my day. Combine that with a little bit of trial and error and you've got yourself what some would call "Experience".

So let's get to it shall we.

"Say "ello" to my little friends" I know, I know.. lame right? But, still Mic's are important. The normal person would probably go out and buy the most expensive mics that they could afford and I will be the first to contest that… buying a mic for the name or price might not be the best bet. Let's start with the standard.

The SM57 by Shure is "Surely" (oh jesus did I just do that) the most "goto" mic you'll have in your collection. It just sounds good, on pretty much everything. Guitar Cabs, Drums, Bass Cabs (with a little tweaking) Vocals… etc. It is not the best sounding mic you'll ever hear but, dammit if it isn't the most diverse. I personally have about 10 of these in my collection. Just mic's that I've accumulated over time. They cost anywhere from $80-100 and are pretty much worth every penny. This is your first line of defense, and personally I don't think that there is a microphone out there more suited to mic a snare drum with.


The Beta 52A by Shure would be my next big suggestion. 57's are great an all but you are going to need something with a little more bottom end to get the frequencies you'll need from the bass drum. Luckily the Beta 52A has dropped significantly in price since I bought it years ago and now you should be able to pick this mic up for around $150 (Maybe less if you shop around). This mic brings tons of "PUNCH" to the table in terms of sound. It is designed to be an "Inside" mic but, I've got some amazing sounds out of it on the outside of the bass drum as well.


Shure has a whole "drum micing kit" available that you can purchase and save yourself about $50 (and get some decent tom mounting clamps and a nice box carrying case thingie). The going price for the kit is about $399 and it is probably cheaper somewhere if you shop around online. I highly suggest going for this package first as it is a nice entry level to drum recording and basically is going to get you a semi-decent sound for a hell of a price.

We now run into the "touchy" subject of overheads. I tend to use them a lot. I like to get a nice "Room" sound so I tend to use about 4 or 5 overheads at any given time. These can basically be any type of mic that pics up a signal. Christ, I've used a reverse engineered speaker as a mic before to pick up the bass drum subs. But, that's besides the point. Overheads are basically the icing on the cake. The cherry on top of the sundae. While you can achieve an okay sound without them, you are going to find that once you get in the habit of using them you'll begin to rely on them more and more for sound.

I can't even really pinpoint "must have" overhead mics because they really do range anywhere from $200-$10,000. I will however say this, do not go out and buy the most expensive mics you find just because some dude at a music store tells you it's going to get you a "superior" sound. Fact of the matter remains that there are tons of cheaper overheads (or condenser) microphones that are going to give you a great sound if you know how to blend them in your mix. There are so many subjects to touch on with EQ and Panning and I'll try to get into everything here for those of you who haven't had a chance to fiddle around with cheaper mics yet. Fact of the matter is that the room is more important than the overheads. You could have $10,000+ overheads in a shitty, tinny room and that is what they are going to capture.

You Need a Drumkit
Chapter 1: The Kit
Okay, I'm going to let you in on a secret that very few people know. This is going to change your thinking when it comes to drums and probably is going to stop you from ever listening to drums on an album the same way ever again. 90%+ of drums that are recorded today are not real drums. So, if you look on the inside of your favorite artist CD… chances are he is not using a "Pearl Masterworks" kit to get that amazing Drum sound. Chances are he is using what they call "Triggers". It's a fact of life and I would go so far as to say that 90% of the music that is produced today (if not more) "Trigger" their Kick Drum. I would say that there are a good %70 that trigger their Toms and probably about %40 that trigger their snare. It's just common practice in today's music. I was shocked to go back and listen to a lot of albums to find how many of the bands I liked in the 90's and early 00's (why does that sound weird?) that just canned their drum sounds. There are still some drummers that forge on and get a really good drum sound out of their kit but, the fact remains that triggers make a cheap kit sound better. So, keep that in mind as we go on.

I guess the major thing that I'm trying to get across here is that you don't have to go out and spend $2,000+ on a DW drumkit to get a great sound in the studio. In fact when I was talking to Vinnie Appice he told me that he recorded the Black Sabbath album "Dehumanizer" on a pawnshop Tama Rockstar beat up kit that they bought the day of recording. Again, it's all how you skin your kit, tune your kit, mic your kit, record your kit and most importantly MIX your kit.

But, let's say for the sake of argument that you are starting from scratch and need to buy a kit today. There are a few kits in the entry/intermediate range that will pay off huge for little coin.

Pacific by DW X7 – 7 Piece Drum Kit – Priced around $699.99.
I know we're starting off with a kit that's a little more pricey but, really I would say that this kit would be the best bargain for your money. A 7 piece kit (which you do NOT need all of those toms but it's nice to have a choice) made of 100% birch and made by a sister company of one of the finest drum makers in the world "DW". I personally have owned this kit. It sounds nice, holds tune well. It really is the best kit out there for the price.

Ludwig Accent with Zildjan ZBT Cymbals + Stands – Priced around $599.99
I own this kit and while it is not the kit that the Pacific is, it is still a damn fine drumkit for the price. I haven't ran into any tuning problems and I outfitted the kit with Evans G2 heads and it sounds great. Both live and on tape. The ZBT Cymbals are decent for what they are. They will record well as long as you take the time to learn how to mix in a cymbal sound. This kit comes with pretty much everything cymbal stands, drum throne (as crappy as it is). Bass drum pedal…etc. Everything you'll need to start the rockin'. I would like to push you a little more to the Pacific kit above. But, again if you need to get started on the cheap this one should do you just fine.

Mapex Meridian 6 Piece Studio Drumkit – Priced around $1,249.99
I own a Mapex Saturn kit and personally can't believe how great it is. I've played a lot of drumkits and the Mapex Saturn is by far my favorite. It's got 7 plys of Maple with 1 ply of oak around the outside. The thing just sings (HIT ME!) and paired with a nice set of Remo's Coated Ambassadors the Saturn will make you feel like you are in the middle of an earthquake. A 22inch bassdrum that is just as thunderous as any 24 I've played and a snare crack like you wouldn't believe. I love my Mapex kit… and would HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend Mapex to anyone. Their hardware is nice and durable. Their drums hold tune extremely well and their maple snares are some of the most amazing snare drums on the market in my opinion. I've played their entry level kits. (Cheaper than this) and I was astounded at how well it sounded. Again, if you're looking for a cheaper kit the Ludwig might tickle your fancy more, but if you want to bring the thunda. This kit is sure to please. This kit comes with cymbal stands and a solid bass drum pedal (for those curious).


The most important thing is do some research on the company you're buying your kit from. You always want to TRY to get a kit that has real wood whether it be mahogany, maple, birch..etc. You want to try to avoid the polyboard shit that is put out there. But, again.. if you find something used for say "150-200" and you need to make an album on the cheap. Go for it!

Chapter 2: The Heads
Okay, regardless if you buy a $3,000 drumkit or a $300 used kit in a store. Drumheads are going to be the thing that either makes or breaks your drums. A well tuned drum with fresh drum heads on it can sound like a million bucks. Don't get me wrong they are pricey, but in the longrun they are worth it.

Chapter 2 - Verse 1: On a bass drum I only go with one drumhead. It's the Evans EMAD2 drumhead. It runs around $50 and is very much well worth every penny. I've used the powerstroke in the past and really just never felt "blown away" by the sound of it. Just trust me on this one and try the EMAD and I think you'll agree your bass drum will sound huge.
Chapter 2 - Verse 2: be sure to do your research when buying heads for your toms. Ask yourself "What do I want my drums to sound like?" and then find out what head will give you the tone you're looking for. Most "Rock" drums today use Remo's Pinstriped heads. They are very nice and will produce a nice punchy sound. As for me I've moved from the Remo Pinstriped to the Evans G2 heads. I find them to produce a much nicer punch (for my tastes) and they seem to be a little more durable. On my Mapex kit I used coated heads. I've used Remo's Fiberskyn heads in the past and those produced a nice sound (They replicate the old calf-skin heads) I found that they kind of deadened a little more than I would have liked but, again it's all in your personal taste. I tend to go with Coated Ambassadors now. They sound great and are durable like you wouldn't believe. I've had them on my kit for like 6 months now and they still look as good as new and sound fantastic. Needless to say I'll probably stick with them for this kit as they do sound enormous.

Chapter 2 – Verse 3: The Snare drum is another issue altogether. I personally use the Coated Ambassador on my snare as well but I have used the Emperors as well and sometimes you get a free snare head when you buy a drum head pack. I believe I've used a coated Aquarian in the past with decent results.

Chapter 2 – Verse 4: Resonate heads (The bottom drumhead) are very important. Be sure that your resonate heads are not beat up, nice and smooth. They don't look like they've been hit much (if at all). They are going to decide a good portion of your tone. (unless you remove them)

Chapter 3: Drum Sounds

"Bang, Boom or Thud ?" is the question I ask most drummers who come into my studio.
BANG: There are a couple ways to get a really "BANG'n" sound out of drums, but the way that I find to be most effective is to remove the resonant head (the head at the bottom of the drums) on your Bass drum and toms. Leave everything open and when the drums are hit it really produces this "Pop" almost instead of a full-on note. A great resource for drums that are more "hip-hoppy". I've even mic'd the toms by clamping the mics on the inside instead of on the batter (top) head of the toms. Almost like what you do with the bass drum. Granted you have to let the overheads be the mics to capture the "attack" of the actual drum hit but it is very effective in getting an interesting tone. Again, it's all in technique and learning how to mix things down to sound right. I've gotten great results with doing that and, actually produced some really "Black Metal-esque" sounding drums using the "bang" method. Again, thing of the "Bang" sound as almost a drum machine sound. Lots of Power Metal bands like their drums to be more "processed" and this is really a way to generate this sound without triggers (Which we will get to later on)

BOOM: (said in a incredibly cheesy James Hetfield – Enter Sandman sort of way) is the way that I like my drums to sound. In fact, if I had a choice I would re-record all of my material with a nice "boomy" sound as I just feel that it is more ambient and lets the instrument breathe. When I say "BOOM" thing John Bonham, or a really solid Jazz Drummer. Think

THUD: While it is true that a nice drumkit is going to produce a nice drum sound (in theory) it is also widely known that most drummers deaden (or dampen) their kit to a point where you basically can't hear any notes out of the drums at all. Thus creating a "THUD" sound out of every drum. I don't knock this sound per-say but it is not my personal cup of tea. Thud'ing (as I've affectionately termed it) is basically done by stuffing your bass drum with a pillow (which is very commonplace), Duck taping the shit out of your toms and snare. Think of the "Pantera" type drum sound here. Toms don't really sound huge they are very attacky it almost sounds like there is some EQ placed on them with the mids pressed up. It's an acquired taste and works for some styles of music. I like my drums to ring more but, again that's my personal preference.

Chapter 4:
Stick Around!

You know what makes me laugh? When I see a drummer take all of this time to get their drums to sound amazing and they don't pay attention to what size sticks they use. Seriously, THIS HAPPENS! "Oh, I don't care I can use anything" I mean, sure you COULD use anything but, why would you want to? Different sticks produce different sounds. One of my friends who was a Berklee Graduate and a drum teacher used to use M2 Marching sticks. They shouldn't even be called "Sticks" by law. They are freakin' lumber for all intensive purposes. But, man did his snare work shine like no one I've ever recorded. That guy could sit down with a 3 piece drumkit and make it sing. Now, I'm not saying go out and buy some M2 drumsticks and demolish your cymbals. The fact of the matter is, for those sticks to work correctly you need to have a level of finesse that very few drummers I've met acquire. Most people use the standard 5a stick and I have no issues with that. I'm just saying, play around. Try different sticks to evoke different emotions and moods out of your drums. A thinner stick will produce a thinner sound. A plastic tip gives a thinner sound than a wood tip. A heavier stick will produce more punch and power yet make playing cymbal swells more difficult. Just, take the time to try out different things. Brushes, Rods..etc

So now, we have our mics, our drumkit, drum heads and I'm going to go ahead and assume you already have a recording interface and a mixing board of your choice. I have a Mackie 32x8 mixer going into two Delta 10/10 audio cards. I basically use one whole card just for drums. (sometimes more) I like to mic quite extensively and decide what I want to keep and discard later.

Recording Methods
First of all remember less is more in terms of a drumkit. Add all of the cymbals that your heart desires (I generally use about 9 cymbals on my kit when recording) but, when it comes to drums try to be as basic as you can. Remember more drums constitutes in more mics which constitutes as more bleed, which means MORE WORK to get the kit sounding nice. When I first started recording drums I mic'd my whole kit (which was 7 pieces at the time). So here I am with 5 toms (8,10,12,14,16) and a Kick and Snare. Which means 7 mics and 2 overheads. FOOLISH! I am not (nor will I probably ever be) Neil Peart and having that many drums mic'd (for me personally) just ended up being stupid. There's just too much bleed to deal with and yes, you can totally go and individually chop up every track and just keep the sounds of when the tom is being hit. But, personally I think that takes away from the "open" feel of the kit. I've done it for many customers and it works but again it's not for me (personal preference).

I would suggest recording a 5 piece drum kit. 2 Rack Toms, 1 Floor a Bass and a Snare. If you can get away with 4 you will sound even better in the long run. Especially if you are a novice at recording drums, you do not need to have to worry about phasing issues and all of that junk.

The most common drum micing technique is when you mic every drum (with the mic facing the middle of the drum that it is clamped to) and have the overheads in what is referred to in the industry as the X/Y position. Basically have the drummer in question sit on the drumthrone and have him raise his arms with the sticks in his hands as high as he will go and place the mics a couple of inches above his reach. (to insure no disasters will happen) Place 2 overheads (one on each side of the drummer) and slant both mics down at the same angle. This is the most basic of overhead placement. It is quite simple and kind of "ho-hum" to some people but, it works and it will get you a sound that is going to work for you for starters.

When micing always be certain to take the drummers strengths into account, if your drummer is very articulate on the snare then you probably should double mic the snare. Use the "Over/Under" technique. Clamp one mic to the top of the snare and one mic on the bottom (preferably one right on top of the other) Double micing the snare will really bring out the "buzz" of the snare work and add a lot of color to his playing. Again, if I'm dealing with someone who is doing a lot of fancy Hi-Hat work I will put a SM57 on his hi hat (just over it off axis so the air from the pedal doesn't make a loud "swish" in the mic). I know that earlier I said less is more in terms of micing a drumkit. However, just because you mic something doesn't necessarily mean that you have to use the tracks you recorded. I have had sessions where I've had 14 channels of drum mics and I only ended up using 6 or 7 of those tracks. As with everything else I would rather have more and take away the unneeded mics then find myself short and need to do a full re-recording.

Common sense should really guide you through your drum micing adventures. The thing with most things recording based is experimentation. Find what is right for you. Once you realize the sounds your mic's receive you'll find that there are certain applications for each mic. Just try everything and make a list (whether it be on the computer or in a notebook) about your techniques and what the results were.

Mixing with a Digital Signal
One of the most common misconceptions out there is that "digital recording" lacks the "warmth" of the old analog tape machines. To that I cry bullshit. We have amazing plugins that can pretty much emulate everything in this day and age. Tube warmth is no exception. The problem with Digital is that you're just getting a lot more frequencies than the old tape machines got. We grew dependant on the noise that the old tape machines made, how they handled sound. We mistook a less treble filled sound for warmth. Just remember when mixing a digital signal you are best served rolling down some of the high end. It gets rid of that "Digital Harshness". I could do a whole HUGE writeup about how to mix drums and what to do to get your drums to sound a certain way. But, in the end it can all be summed up in a few sentences. Experiment, play around with everything and don't be afraid to think outside the box.

To give a brief example; one of the things that I tend to do to try to achieve a nice bass drum sound is to clone the bass drum channel 2 times so that I have 3 mono bass drum tracks. I name them "Bass Inside" "Bass Outside" and "Bass Sub" on the bass inside track I want to get a nice thwack. I want to basically roll off the low end and just pull up some of the midrange. It will sound terrible on it's own but trust me we'll compensate with the others. From there I'll go to the "Bass Sub" track and roll off all of the high end and pull up the low end a bit. I want to get the "Sub" channel to almost have no note to it I just want that "rumble' to come out. We can also port that to a subwoofer channel later on in the mixing process but that's a whole other tutorial. With the outside mic (depending on the project) I will put a bit of reverb on the bass drum. A nice "Drum Plate" or a "Studio Room" we want this to be a smoother signal than the "Inside" signal. I want to to sound wet. Generally I'll create a drum bus with a nice reverb (I like the Waves Rverb Plugin).

I do not use any Compressors or Noisegate on my mics. I like to do that in the post mixing (which is NOT a common way to do things when it comes to recording) but, I just like having the bleed in case I need it for something…. (and I often do).

So, depending on the project I will create a new Drum Bus with a nice tight compression and maybe even a little reverb on it and send my Bass Drum channels and my Snare Drum channels to it. I almost want to get a bit of a distorted feel to the drums on the bus. When I feel it sounds a little TOO harsh I pull it back just a touch and then I try it in with my mix. Again, a lot of engineers eq every track of the drums. I personally just like to maybe raise the treble a bit on the toms to make the notes sing more and to make the attack of the toms a little more potent. Experimentation is the key and after recording a couple of artists you'll probably be getting a better drum sound than I do.

To Trigger or Not to Trigger
In the world of Heavy Metal we have so many intense frequencies going on that sometimes just having a straight up mic'd drumkit isn't enough. Sometimes a drummer might ask more of you than you can produce (especially the black metal guys. They really want their drums sounding tinny as hell). Over the last 10+ years of Drum recording Triggers have kind of become a staple. I personally have triggers set up on my kit but very very rarely use them in a final mix for my own projects. Again, I go with the "I would rather have the notes there" theory. Before I get to carried away on this subject I'm going to take the time and explain what Triggers are and what they do.

This is the DDRUM Acoustic Trigger Kit – Priced Around $200

To make these work, you need one of these.

The Alesis Trigger I/O – Priced Around $200

Now, for these Triggers to work you must attach those red bastids (he says in his best Boston accent) to the drum of your choice and then via a XLR to TRS cable you connect them to the Alesis Trigger I/O which then connects to your computer via USB. When a drum is struck the Trigger sends the information to the Trigger I/O and the Trigger I/O converts your hit into a MIDI note. There are other ways to go about this process but to be honest this is the easiest and most effective I have found. The Trigger I/O really simplifies the whole thing by making everything kind of idiot proof. Basically you plug your triggers in. Set the threshold, Make sure the crosstalk is eliminated (Crosstalk is when you strike one drum and another registers) You can even customize how you want the midi note to be processed. Linear signal, more on the flattened side, again it's all there to play around with. Different drummers are going to have different settings but the Trigger I/O has 20 presets so you should be able to save a setting for every style of drummer.

Once you get that you'll need something that will play your MIDI notes. There are tons of sample software out there and I'm not going to go into drastic detail about this because chances are something came with your DAW Recording Software. Whether it be ProTools, Sonar, Logic, Cubase or what have you.

Now, When I HAVE to Trigger I like to do a mix. I never want my drums to sound fake so I blend the sample behind the mic'd drum.

Which brings me to my next approach on this subject…

DRUMAGOG Software – Priced around $250
This software is actually quite useful. What it does is it reads the waveforms that your mic picks up and whenever a "hit" is registered it plays a Drum Sample. Cool thing is that it comes with some decent samples and I hear that they just signed a deal with Modern Drummer to use some really nice samples of some amazing individual instruments. Thing about DRUMAGOG is that it is extremely versatile and to my astonishment it actually WORKS. Sometimes there is some major tweaking that needs to be done but, to be 100% honest if you have a system that can handle running DRUMGOG without any latency issues I highly recommend this software. There are youtube videos of people making drumkits out of cardboard boxes. It really is something special and in a couple of years I see this rendering triggers somewhat obsolete. With that being said, it is not without it's issues. There are latency problems sometimes and there are some notes that it just WON'T pick up. The snare articulation isn't as good as a real trigger (yet) and obviously any "Bleed" you might have could actually trigger a drum sample if it's loud enough. With that being said for those meticulous types (and you know who you are) you could always copy the track you're looking to trigger and just cut it up into the portions you want to use.

I really hope this tutorial helps some of you out there. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is "I just started recording and I'm having a hard time with the drums. What should I do?" and while this article isn't the "end all be all" it is probably a start for what you'll need. What you should expect, and most importantly I hope this article gives you enough information to make you want to experiment.

All of the brand names I have mentioned in this are done with no endorsements, no sponsorship. I genuinely use the products I say I use. I have been toying with the idea of doing a Podcast about recording techniques as I am quite crazy with my different ideas. But, we'll have to see how that goes. I think that we can't forget that recording is a community, and if we all share ideas we'll all benefit from the information shared. Remember, there is no right or wrong way. There are just right ways for you and wrong ways for you. Every idea has potential it's the execution of that idea that will make it truly great.


Thanks for reading