How to Easily Record a Great Drum Sound in the Home Studio
Recording drums and getting a powerful drum sound can be one of the most challenging tasks an engineer can face.
One of the requirements of my final project back at SAE (School of Audio Engineering) was that it had to have real acoustic drums because the school wanted you to know how to record drums.
Because drum recording sessions are so inherently complex, you needed to be familiar with every aspect of recording them.
In this guide, I’ll condense all the lessons I learned back then, as well as the other ones I’ve learned since then.
Tuning Makes Drums Sound Better
The easiest way to get a good drum sound is to have a drum kit that’s actually in tune.
Many beginners overlook the importance of tuning the drum kit. Tuning isn’t only for guitars and other instruments. Drums need to be tuned just as well. A well-tuned drum kit needs much less work on the engineering side than a bad-sounding one.
It’s a bit more difficult to tune a drum than a guitar. Unless you’re an excellent drummer (most engineers aren’t), then you will need a tool like a drum dial to get an accurate tuning.
If you are replacing the heads of all your drums and re-tuning them, follow this guide:
- Once you’ve put the heads on, push down on the head to stretch them out. You don’t want to tune a head that hasn’t been stretched out. It won’t stay in tune.
- Using a drum key, tighten the lugs in a star pattern until they’re not loose anymore. Don’t tighten them much, just enough so that they aren’t rattling.
- Put the drum dial an inch or so away from each lug and measure the pressure. Aim for 80 on the drum dial for each of the higher toms and a little lower on the floor toms.
- Tighten the lugs in a star pattern until you’ve accomplished the desired pressure at each lug.
- Now lightly tap on each part of the drum hit, about one inch from the lug to hear if all parts of the drum sound the same.
- If one part of the drum sounds higher or lower than all of the others, you need to modify it so that each place has the same sound. This will give an even tone to the whole drum.
- Repeat for all the other drums for both top and bottom heads. Tuning the drums is one of the most important things to do to a drum kit before recording.
Tune them correctly, and your job will be easier.
Dampening Your Drum Sound
If your drums all sound in tune but they ring too much, you can dampen them with Moongels or tissue paper and tape. You don’t want toms ringing too loudly; you want a tight tone that decays rapidly but naturally.
In case you didn’t know, moon gels are small gels that you put on the toms to kill the sustain. They still sound great when you hit them, but they don’t ring out too much, nor bleed muddiness into the other mics. You want those drums to sound powerful and heavy, but it’s terrible if your 16″ floor tom is resonating into the overheads.
It’ll be messy and muddy.
If you don’t want to spend money on moongels to dampen your toms, here’s a cheap trick you can use instead.
Go to a toy store and find those funny little miniature sticky hands instead!
They’re a little thinner, but they work just as well. And the best part is, they’re waaaaaaay cheaper than the overpriced moon gels.
So next time you’re having drum sustain problems, take a ride to the toy store and get some sticky hands to make those drums sound punchy.
When it comes to the kick drum, you don’t want it to be empty. It’ll sound too resonant. Dampen the kick drum by stuffing some blankets into it. This will tighten the sound and give you a punchier and less resonant tone.
Once you’ve tuned and dampened your drum-kit, it’s time to think about the room you’re recording in.
Different Rooms for a Different Drum Sound
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, not all rooms sound alike.
A large concert hall sounds significantly different than your living room; therefore, your drums are going to sound different depending on the room they’re recorded in.
No one room is the most desirable of the bunch. The reason why we have so many different reverb modes is that we all have different tastes when it comes to what a good room sounds like. Some prefer halls; others prefer rooms.
The room you’re recording in is going to have some effect on your drum sound. How much depends on the microphone technique you are using. Close mics are relatively unaffected compared to overhead and room microphones. Room microphones, not surprisingly, are affected primarily by the room around them.
I realize that you might not have an abundance of room types to choose from, but if you have access to nice sounding studio rooms or natural sounding halls then, by all means, give them a go. Typical living rooms and bedroom studios are usually the worst choices when it comes to tracking drums. Low ceilings, tight walls, and carpets don’t do much for a great drum sound. High ceilings, larger rooms, and hard floors can make a drum sound come to life.
If you are stuck with your carpeted living room, then don’t despair. There are a few different ways to jazz up a drum-kit to make it sound a little better.
Create reflective surfaces – If your living room has carpet then putting down a few panels of plywood or any hard surface in front of the kick drum will add some liveliness to the kick drum. It will make the kick drum sound a little bigger.
Minimize reflections into the overheads – Use absorption to try to shield reflections coming back into the overhead microphones. Try to shield the microphones in such a way that they are only listening to the drums and not the reflections coming back from the ceiling.
Use close miking – A technique like the Recorderman overhead method is a great way to reduce the sound of the room in the overhead mics. You might end up with a very dry drum sound, but it might sound pretty punchy as well. Spice it up while mixing with some reverb, and you might fool anyone that it was recorded in your living room.
Create a drum tunnel – If you have plywood lying around (who doesn’t right?), then you can extend the bass drum by creating a tunnel that extends out from it.
After you’ve created a hard surface tunnel, you can lay some blankets over it to tighten the sound and minimize bleed from the outside. Now you can place a kick drum mic at the end of the tunnel.
Since bass frequencies are longer, there will be more low-end energy a little farther from the kick drum. And with the drum tunnel, you can mic it up without worrying about the microphone picking up all the other drums.
These are just some of the ways you can get away with recording drums in your less than ideal space. And if you can get a great drum sound in a lousy sounding space, just imagine what you can do in a great sounding room!
Mike Senior, author of Recording Secrets from the Small Studio, has a great resource library filled with different mic placement techniques. He’s demoed all these different mic positions, so you don’t have to. Check out the library here and find the sound you like the most from his different placements and use that knowledge as your starting point when you’re recording.
Getting a Good Kick Drum Sound
The kick drum is one of the most critical pieces of the drum-kit. It lays the foundation of the groove and needs to have enough low-end for thickness and punch to cut through the mix.
To capture the low-end as effectively as possible, you need a large diaphragm dynamic microphone. There are many microphones designed explicitly for the kick drum and other bass instruments, such as the Audix D6, the AKG D112, and the Shure Beta52. These microphones have a better frequency response in the low-end spectrum due to the larger diaphragm. They capture the oomph and bass you need for a good kick drum recording.
Sometimes, one microphone doesn’t quite capture the full nature of the bass drum. You do want the bass response of the kick, but you also need the click of the beater. One solution to this problem is to use a PZM microphone, such as the Shure Beta91 inside the kick drum by the beater. The PZM is then used to bring out the beater while the large dynamic is used outside the kick drum to capture the fullness.
Depending on what kind of sound you want from the kick drum, placement may vary. Usually, kick drums have a small hole where you can place the kick drum mic. Experimenting with on and off-axis response is a good idea; you never know what kind of sound you’ll end up with. Refer to Mike Senior’s library to hear the difference between all these different positions.
Putting the mic farther away from the drummer side will give you more bass response. Placing the mic just outside the front head will gives you the best balance between thump and snap, or bass and beater. If you’re able to use a drum tunnel as I mentioned before, you can further extend the microphone to pick up an even bassier kick drum sound.
If you don’t have a PZM or can’t find a good way to put a microphone inside the kick drum to pick up the beater, you can always mic up the beater on the outside. Just put a microphone by the beater and be careful that the drummer won’t knock it down while drumming.
Snare Drum Miking
The snare drum is the backbone of the beat. You need a snappy snare that’s not muffled in any way. Even though the snare sound will always change depending on how you record the overheads, getting a great snare sound with a close mic is important.
Also, the type of snare you use will dictate how it sounds. Five different snare drums will all sound different, so if you have the chance, get a few different snare drums to try out. Maybe one type of sound will jump out at you.
The standard is a dynamic microphone, usually a Sm57, but you can try any dynamic that you think sounds cool. I like the Audix i5, but there are many others to choose from. If you want a different take on your snare sound, you can also try a condenser microphone. A large diaphragm condenser could give you a more natural sound.
You can’t go wrong with a forty-five-degree angle pointing at the center of the drum. It will give you the attack you want from the snare.
How to Approach Recording an Undersnare
Placing a microphone underneath the drum, pointing at the snares themselves is also a great way to give your snare drum a little more character and depth.
Some people like a rattlier snare sound so a microphone underneath the snare will give you a broader sound. Just be careful to flip the polarity of the under-snare mic since it’s pointing in the opposite direction to the top one.
Toms need to be punchy and tight to make those fills sound good. Although I’ve always found that I need to get the toms sounding good in the mixing phase, making sure you’re recording them the right way is a step in the right direction.
Dynamic microphones like the Sm57 and the Sennheiser MD421 to name a couple, are usually seen on toms. They pick up the attack and punch of the toms, and even though they don’t have as broad of a frequency response like a condenser, they do an excellent job of translating those tom hits. If you are in the mood for something different, using condensers on toms creates a different sound.
Condensers are more sensitive, and they will pick up bleed from everything that is going on around them. But if you want a natural an open sound, putting condensers all over might create a different drum sound.
Mic Placement for Toms
Beware of placing the microphones too close to the tom heads. I did an A/B/C test a while ago where I put the microphones at varying distances to the toms. The first was pretty high over the toms, like almost a foot. The second was about eight inches off the heads, and the third one was really close to the tom heads.
After a lot of listening, we decided that the second placement, the one around eight inches off the toms was the best. We were using condensers at the time, and the first pairs were too far off, almost sounding like mini overheads. The ones that were closest to the toms were too bass-heavy and muddy.
This is the proximity effect at work. Putting a microphone too close to a sound source will enhance the bass response of the instrument. Sometimes this is desirable, but in this case, we knew it was going to create muddy sounding toms that we would need to fix in the mix. Better to place the microphones a little higher and get a more transparent and defined tom sound.
Recording Drums With Two Mics
The overhead sound is the most important aspect of your drum sound. It captures the drum-kit in its entirety. There are a variety of overhead techniques you can use. Overheads are placed over the drum kit to get the complete sound of the drum-kit. There are a few factors you must keep in mind.
The Phase-Free X/Y Technique
The X/Y stereo microphone technique is the easiest one to use for a simple overhead sound.
Place the two microphones so that both microphones are picking up the complete kit. A good rule is to place it a little bit over the drummer’s head.
The drummer sits at the most optimal position, and he can hear every aspect of his drum-kit. Therefore, placing the stereo pair just above his head angling toward the kit is a great way to capture the kit.
The A/B Spaced Pair Overhead Technique
A spaced pair is also a popular microphone technique to use as overheads. This involves placing the microphones on each side of the kit. Use the 3:1 ratio when you’re placing them to avoid any problems when recording.
That means you place both microphones at three times the distance from each other than from the highest point of the kit.
Also, when you’re placing a spaced pair, it’s a good idea to have them at the same distance from the snare drum. If one overhead is closer to the snare drum, it will skewer the snare drum to one side. This can cause problems when you listen to both the overheads and snare drum mics.
Since the snare drum microphone is in the middle and the overheads are to each side, the resulting sound will push the snare drum to one side. This is not desirable since it can cause phase problems.
This is a great overhead technique if you want to minimize the room sound. It’s also a great technique for recording drums if you only have two microphones. It’s kind of like a close-miked overhead technique and gives a great punchy sound. In conjunction with a kick and a snare mic, this might even be enough for most genres.
Getting a Good Room Sound
If you want to capture the drums in a room, using a dedicated room microphone is a good idea.
There are many uses for a room microphone. You can use it to create the space around it, like a reverb. You can also compress it heavily and use it to add punch during mixing. Lastly, you can also just use it to get a wider sound to your drum-kit.
Maybe you’re using a close miking technique on the overheads, like the Recorderman and you want some space around the kit. Then using a room microphone is a great idea.
Microphones for Drum Room Recording
Depending on what you’re going to do with the room mic, you can use any microphone. A condenser is great if you just want to pick up the ambiance and reverb from the room. You can also use a dynamic, especially if you later want to add some effects like compression or distortion. Some engineers like throwing up dynamic in a room just to have one microphone they can experiment with.
I don’t think room microphones have a “right” position. There are many ways to place a room microphone, and here are some tips.
- Waist level – Placing the microphone lower to the floor, facing the kick drum gives a more direct sound to the room microphone.
- In the hallway – Sometimes drums sound cool when you’re listening to them in another room. If you have an adjacent room, try placing a room microphone in there to capture the different sound it makes.
- In the corners – Place two condensers in the opposite corners of the room. This can give great results.
5 Tips for Recording Drums Frustration-Free
Let’s look at some simple ways you can not only make your drums sound better, but you’ll also make the experience more fun.
Recording drums can be stressful when you’re setting up and boring when you’re doing take after take. Instead, follow some of these tips and make it effortless and easy.
1. Find a Bigger Space
Recording drums in a small space will usually give you a small and boxy sound. There’s no way of getting around it. Using close-miking techniques and the Recorderman overhead method might work in a pinch, but if you can move the drums into a larger room your sound will reward you for it.
2. Be Comfortable
Stick with what you’re comfortable with. There are a lot of different mics out there you can use on drums. It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the options but sticking to your trusty microphones is a better way to get a more consistently good sound.
Don’t go it alone. Ask the drummer for his opinion and preference over his sound. Ask him if he wants his drums to sound a certain way and then try to recreate that sound.
Being an engineer is all about converting the band’s words and ideas into awesome sounds.
4. Avoid EQ
The drums must sound good in the room. Then they must sound good through the microphones without any EQ. If you want to tweak the EQ immediately after tracking, maybe you should spend more time on mic placement. Get it right at the source, as the gospel says.
5. Track for Tightness
There’s a reason buddy cop movies are so successful. Nobody wants to be the grumpy hero that goes it alone. Except Clint Eastwood I guess.
The same goes for your drummer. Have him track with another musician, like a bass player. Tracking bass together with the drums can result in an extremely tight foundation for all your overdubbing dreams.
Making the session comfortable and encouraging communication between yourself and the band is key to a good performance. Recording drums is no exception. Once you’re comfortable and enjoying yourself, you’ll spread the mood to everyone else.
How to Record Drums with Only One Microphone
Dealing with limitations can often be pretty fun.
For instance, recording drums with only one microphone poses some interesting challenges.
If you’ve ever found yourself holding a single microphone with only one channel left on your interface to record drums, then you need to approach the process completely differently.
It makes you approach the drums much differently than if you had all the tracks and microphones in the world.
Placing the drum-kit is pretty important if you’re going to use a single microphone. The drum kit will sound different depending on its placement in the room. Getting the absolute best sound from the room is pretty important so taking the time to move the drums around will give you different sounds to choose from.
Tune the drums. A tight-sounding, well-tuned head placed well in a good-sounding room will go a long way towards a great recording.
The Mic Placement
Mic placement with only one microphone is obviously crucial. You want to pick up the whole drum kit somewhat evenly. If you place the mic too high or point it towards the cymbals, they will overpower your sound. Place it too low, and you’ll get too much power from the kick drum that creates a boomy sound that’s too kick-drum focused.
A happy medium is somewhere in the middle, picking up everything evenly.
The Polar Pattern
Use a cardioid pattern if you don’t want extra room sound. You’ll inevitably get some, but with a directional pattern, the mic will focus more on the drums than the room.
If you have a great-sounding room and you want a drum sound with a large “live feel,” then an Omni pattern works well.
I hope those techniques help you the next time you’re recording drums in your home studio. If you’re comfortable getting a great drum sound in the recording phase, your next step is to continue and check out my free article: A Powerful Guide to Mixing Killer Drums in 6 Simple Steps.