Kit setup, working with the drum room, mic choice, and more!
By Bruce Kaphan
One look at a professional multitrack track list should make the complexity and importance of capturing a good drum kit sound obvious. Even the most conservative approach to a good drum kit recording will consume at least three tracks, but more often than not the number is more like ten. This is because in most drum kits there are at least that many distinct instruments, cleverly positioned to be played with the drummer’s hands and feet.
In this article we’ll explore recording drum kits—from choosing and tuning elements in the kit, to microphone choices and techniques, to matching subsequent electronics for the desired sonic outcome.
To my knowledge and in my experience there is no such thing as a “standard” drum kit. A minimal drum kit might include one kick drum, one snare drum, one rack tom, one floor tom, a hi-hat, a ride cymbal, and a crash cymbal. A very large drum kit might include two to three times as many drums and cymbals, gongs, wood blocks, tambourines, and so on.
For the purpose of this article we’ll consider recording an “average” drum kit. In my experience this kit would include one kick, one snare, one hat, two rack toms, one floor tom, a ride cymbal, and two crash cymbals.
When I embark on recording an album, the all important pre-production process includes many elements: choosing songs, their key, structure, tempo, orchestration, and arrangement. When I consider how to orchestrate and arrange a song, I do it by means of backward engineering. That is to say I auralize (imagine the sound of) the finished production, then try to figure out what it will take to produce that sound. Having a good idea of a sonic target gives me all the information I need to plan how to begin.
If I find myself in the luxurious position of having access to a variety of drummers, who in turn have a variety of drum kits, I’ll choose the drummer whose playing style and equipment options best fit my concept of how the drums should eventually sound for the song to be recorded. Session planning should begin with a conversation about the sonic concept, giving the drummer a chance to bring a collection of drums, cymbals, and striking implements that will suit the sonic goal.
If time and money allow, installing new heads on all of the drums is a worthwhile pursuit; new heads stand a better chance of being perfectly tunable than old heads. Many tuning methods exist. I’m aware of video courses on the subject, and I’ve seen drummers approach it from many different angles.
A good place to start is with a high quality drum, and especially for toms, a mounting system that decouples the shell from its mounting hardware. The first of this group of products was known as RIMS. RIMS (Resonant Isolation Mounting System) is a clever acronym describing a system whereby the tom is attached to its mount by means of its rim. This allows the shell to vibrate more freely, giving the drum more projection and better sustain.
Some drummers will attempt to tune their toms to particular pitches. One manufacturer even prints a note name on their drum shells, indicating their notion of the center pitch of that drum. If the song to be recorded includes a great deal of tom work, especially a tom ride or ostinato, tuning to a particular note on a particular drum might be just the ticket to making the tom an integral part of the harmonic picture, not just the rhythmic picture.
Other than this type of specific instance, though, I think tuning to specific predetermined pitches is not the most effective way to get a particular drum to sound its best. Getting the most out of a particular drum requires listening to how it sounds and judging the pitch at which the drum sounds best in the conditions under which it is being played—the room, atmospheric conditions, how loud the drums are being played, striking implement, etc.
Toms: Starting from scratch, remove the old drum heads, both top and bottom. Install the bottom head first. Slowly bring the head to pitch, moving from lug to lug in an attempt to bring the whole head to pitch evenly. Using a drumstick, tap near each lug, listening carefully to the pitch, matching the pitch from lug to lug, gradually adjusting your way around the drum.
Just as a guitar player has to stretch out a new set of strings, a new drum head will stretch out a bit as it is tightened and seated on the shell’s bearing edge. For this reason, tune through the sweetest spot in the drum’s response; you’ll know this sweet spot when you hear it! This will help you determine the pitch of this sweet spot by first being under it (an extreme case of this condition and the drum will sound floppy), then going through it, then being above it (an extreme case of this condition and the drum will sound choked), then finally settling back into it.
Doing this will stretch the head out in the process, so that after having gone too sharp, when you return to the drum’s sweet spot there’s a better likelihood that the drum will not drift flat afterwards. Once the bottom head is tuned, follow the same steps with the top head.
If you like the pitch-bending tom sound where the pitch of the drum descends as the sound decays, tune the bottom head tighter than the top head. If you want the most robust and even tone, tune both heads to the same pitch.
When the situation allows, I use no muffling/damping on toms. If you’re in a situation where the drums have not been fitted with new heads and subsequently can’t be well tuned, or you’re working in a room that is causing one or more of the toms to resonate in an unpleasant way, a number of different products is available to minimize unpleasant resonance. Two such products are Moongel and ZerOrings. Use these muffling devices to taste to control unwanted resonance.
Kick: Getting a kick drum to sound good is a little more specialized than getting toms to sound good. But you start by following the same method to install and tune the head(s).
Whereas most of the time toms are two-headed drums (occasionally players will choose not to have a bottom head), a few players choose to have a single head on their kick drum. Most players have a front head on the kick, and in this front head a cutout area designed both to shape the acoustic tone of the drum and to allow for insertion of a microphone. Some players (I’ve seen this mostly with jazz players) choose to keep a fully intact front head.
Of these three possible front head configurations, the one-headed drum will have the least resonance and the fully intact two-headed drum will have the most, with the cutout head somewhere in between.
Generally I don’t like the sound of muffled toms—I like to hear a well-tuned tom ringing. But even though there are some styles of music in which an unmuffled kick drum works for me (jazz being an example), generally I feel that an unmuffled kick drum takes up too much sonic space rumbling away in the lower frequencies.
Some excellent muffling products are available for kick drum. The major drum head manufacturers offer kick drum heads with mufflers built into them. Remo makes a product called Muff’ls that mounts between a kick drum’s head and shell, forcing a small amount of foam against the head.
Small pillows, blankets, and packing blankets also work well laid into the bottom of the kick drum shell, pushed up against the head(s). In the case of the fully intact two-headed kick drum, installing these kinds of mufflers inside the drum is not useful, because one of the heads must be removed in order to adjust the muffler.
For the fully intact two-headed kick, besides heads with mufflers built into them and Muff’ls, a couple of external muffling options exist. Muffler arms that attach to the rim of the drum can apply an area of felt to the head. In the absence of a bona fide muffler, blankets or pillows can be leaned against the heads.
Snare: Recording a snare drum well presents the biggest challenge to both the player and the engineer. Most session drummers carry at least a few snare choices to each session. Snare drums come in a huge variety of diameters, depths, and materials.
Whereas almost all kick drum and tom shells are made of wood, snares are often made of either wood or various types of metal. Generally speaking, wood snare drums sound a little richer and have warmer body, while metal snare drums have a sharper attack—often referred to as “crack.”
In addition to choosing the right snare drum for a particular song, there are many choices for heads and for the snares themselves. Generally, a wider set of snares will impart more snare rattle to the sound of the drum.
I have seen widely disparate methods for tuning snare drums. The one that seems most effective to me is to follow the tom tuning recommendations, but with special attention to work toward the top of the acceptable range of the sweet spot. Just be aware that it is possible to tune too high and cause the drum to choke, so aim as high as you can without choking! When tightening the snares, the same principles apply: too tight and the snares will choke too easily.
The final thing to remember about recording snare drum is that in order for the recording to have a consistent sound from attack to attack, the drum must be played consistently. Even with the best players, this is no mean feat.
Positioning and positioning
Having a good sense of the acoustic pluses and minuses of the room in which you plan to record the drums is paramount to getting a recording that conveys the power of the drums.
If you’re working in a room in which you’ve never worked before, ask people (whose judgement you trust) on the studio’s staff where a good place to put the drums might be. If the room is at least somewhat symmetrical, try to put the drums equidistant from side walls—unless you purposely want the reflections from these side walls to appear at different times, thereby imparting a perceptible imprint of the lack of symmetry in the acoustic space to your recording.
I like to be able to position distant microphones in front of the drummer, especially to capture the long low frequency waves produced by the kick drum. This usually means that the drummer should be sitting closer to the back wall, facing the front wall.
I always try to accommodate players I’m recording in every way possible, up to the point where doing this would have a negative impact on the quality of the recording. Some drummers set up their kit so compactly that it is essentially impossible to place microphones usefully. If this is the case, try to find a middle ground with the drummer so you’re given enough room to place your mics without hurting his or her chance of giving you the best performance.
Once you’ve chosen the drummer, the kit, tuned the drums, placed them in the recording environment, and damped the drums that needed to be damped, it’s time to listen to the way they sound in the room. Ask the drummer to play his or her conception of the part for the song to be recorded, using the striking implement to be used in the first take.
Now is the time to reflect again on where the production is headed. Go back to your pre-production auralization and get back to work on continuing to shape the sounds in the direction you originally envisioned.
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to choosing microphones for a particular task. Great engineers gravitate to their mic choices over lengthy careers, and are influenced by what’s available, personal experience, recommendations, and other forces.
Since mic lockers vary immensely from one studio to another, it would be ludicrous to even try to get specific about suggesting the quintessential drum kit mic set. Pay attention to what works for others, but always listen. Do what works for you.
If you’re lucky to be working in a commercial studio with a huge mic locker, have some fun! Experiment. Make sure that the studio doesn’t have limitations on the use of their mics. Some studios don’t want you using their vintage one-of-a-kind mics to close-mike a snare drum…
If you’re working in a project studio, chances are good that you barely have enough mics to cover the drums at all. This is art. There are no rules whatsoever other than if it sounds right, it is right. Some engineers prefer using mostly dynamic mics on drums and mostly condenser mics on cymbals. Other engineers prefer mostly condenser mics on both drums and cymbals. Ribbon mics can make very lovely distant mics. Mix and match to taste.
If you’re working in a great-sounding room and other sounds won’t be polluting your sonic environment too badly, here’s a three-mic approach that could work.
Start with a large-diaphragm condenser directly in front of the drum kit, at about three to four feet in height, about six feet away from the kit. The main purpose of this mic is to capture the power of the drums, especially the kick. Pan it center. This mic should be the best mic you have available, whether it’s rented or one you own. Upscale models would include the Neumann M 49, U 67, U 47, AKG C-12, or any of their descendants or lookalikes, but today there are countless affordable alternatives.
Hang a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers about seven or eight feet off the ground, equally spread slightly in front and to the sides of the drum kit. Pan these hard left and right using your choice of audience perspective or player perspective. This type of mic includes the Neumann KM 54, KM 84, KM 83, AKG C 451, C 452, C 460, or any of their descendants or lookalikes. Affordable alternatives include the Shure SM81, Oktava MK-012, Aston Starlight, and countless other models.
Or if you’re really lucky and working in a studio with a Neumann Binaural head mic, hang this directly over the center of the kit and combine it with the center mic! Either of these approaches will net an open, natural sound. On the other hand, if you’re looking for each and every drum hit to punch you in the solar plexus, you need to close-mic…
If you have the channels and mics and preamps and stands and cables and disk space—and desire—by all means, take a big picture! If I’m trying to get a big, powerful drum sound on the “average” kit described at the beginning of this article, I would close-mic the kick, snare top, snare bottom, each tom, the hat, stereo overheads, and a ride cymbal mic if the ride wasn’t cutting through well in the stereo overheads. (The kick may present special problems dictated by the style of music, and I’ll suggest solutions to these problems in a minute.)
In addition to these close mics, and of critical importance to the overall believability and power of the drums, I’d put up a distant pair or trio. If available, I’d also put up a stylized mic or two—either a ribbon feeding a compressor or perhaps a cheap mic with a lot of character or perhaps a mic interpreting the events through some sort of acoustic filter (à la Tchad Blake, a producer and engineer known for his binaural recordings).
If your mic choices are limited and you have an assortment of dynamics and condensers, I would put dynamics on the drums, the larger the drum, the larger the diaphragm. A few examples include the AKG D12, Electro-Voice RE20, or Audix D6 on the kick, Sennheiser MD 421 or MD 441, Shure SM57 or Audix i5 on toms and snare. For cymbals/overheads including the hat, use small-diaphragm condensers like those described earlier. For distant mics, use the best large-diaphragm condenser mics you have.
In all cases, let your ears tell you where to place the mics. Remember that the fundamentals of live sound reinforcement do not necessarily apply to studio recording. On a loud live stage, microphones are placed inches away from the sound source to which they’re assigned. This is to minimize feedback from onstage monitoring and to maximize rejection of other signals.
In a well-set-up recording studio, feedback shouldn’t be a consideration. Rejection is an issue, but is usually not a problem, especially if care is taken to do a reasonable job of isolating players from one another, and microphone pickup patterns are carefully chosen.
I don’t have experience with every microphone on the market. Based on my own experiences and conversations with other engineers, if I were outfitting a studio from scratch today and the object was to get the best recordings I could on a relatively low budget using contemporarily available mics, here are some recommendations:
The kick drum—a special case
Different styles of music require different kick drum miking approaches. Once the kick drum has been selected, tuned and muffled to fit the context of the music in which it is to be played, selection of microphones, preamps and signal processing further focus the sound for its specific application. If the music calls for a relatively steady dynamic, for instance in rock music where the kick typically provides a very powerful, steady pulse, close-miking is usually the most desirable.
A typical signal path for such a recording might include a kick drum with a hole in the front head, an AKG D112 dynamic microphone a couple of inches outside the front head, with its element focused inside the hole, a stalwart preamp—if you have any Neves, this is the best place to use one, and a stalwart limiter—my favorite for kick would be an Empirical Labs Distressor.
Then there is the other end of the sonic spectrum. Jazz players coax many shadings of soft sounds out of kick drums, a technique called “feathering,” and for accents they do what’s called “dropping bombs”—no prize for guessing what that sounds like. So for jazz recordings, or for that matter any type of music for which the kick drum shouldn’t be huge and powerful on every attack, but detailed and capable of reflecting a large dynamic range, I would take the following approach.
If both heads are fully intact, two microphones may be required—one on the batter side to capture the articulation of the attacks, and one on the front head to capture the resonance and power of the drum.
I would certainly opt for a large-diaphragm condenser on the front head, the best one you have. For project studios, a good choice would be a Neumann TLM 103. For the batter side, I’d likely choose a dynamic mic, any of the following would be contenders for this application: an AKG D112, or D12, Sennheiser MD 421 or MD 441, or an Electro-Voice RE20.
When using two mics on the kick, be careful about their phase relationship. Start by bringing each mic up individually, positioning the mic to make it sound as good as you can get it for its application. This of course requires using your ears and judgement both listening to the drum itself and the microphone’s interpretation…
Then combine the two signals. If the kick drum sound becomes larger and louder when you do this, the signals are in phase. If the kick drum sound becomes quieter and comb filtered, the signals are out of phase. This problem can be remedied either by flipping the phase of one of the mics or by repositioning one of the mics. This type of phase check ultimately should be performed on the whole kit.
For jazz, I prefer a stalwart preamp such as a Neve, but I might also be tempted to use a tube preamp to get as much clarity and dynamic range as possible. If I felt the need to do any limiting, instead of a Distressor, I’d be more likely to use something like a Universal Audio UREI/Teletronix LA-2A, or a UA LA-3 or even 1176.
A great mic as heard through a mediocre preamp will sound mediocre. A decent mic (a Shure SM57 qualifies) through a great preamp has the potential to sound great. Every experience I’ve had has reinforced my certainty that the most important element in the recording signal chain is not the mic—it’s the preamp.
Similar to choosing microphones, there is no substitute for experience in choosing a preamp on a per instrument/channel basis. Three basic types of technology have developed over the years.
The first preamps were all tube. Their sound is characterized by smoothness, transparency, and warmth. The first solid-state equipment used all discrete components—no integrated circuits. This sound is characterized by solidity and punch.
Contemporary circuits can emulate these older designs or can include aspects of either or both of them as well as integrated cicuit technology. Simply put, contemporary circuit design can be characterized as fresh, especially as digital modeling develops.
Each type of design imprints its own sonic footprint. Having an intuitive sense for the qualities of this footprint takes time to develop. Again, pay attention to what works for others, but always listen and do what works for you. If you’re lucky to be working in a studio with an array of interesting preamps, experiment and find out what you like.
My personal preferences for use in recording drums are Neve Class A preamps for drums and API Class A or Summit tube preamps for cymbals, but there are many other options out there.
For those lucky enough to be working in a large studio stuffed with lots of great gear, there are many options for diverting the signal on its path to the recording device—most notably equalization and some sort of levelling are frequently applied to the preamplified signal. For the project studio, much of this can be applied within the digital audio workstation. But that’s a topic for another article; hopefully this article has guided you toward setting up and miking a kit to best effect.