BY STROTHER BULLILNS
Recording Professionals Discuss Bass Drum Tracking
There may not be hard and fast rules for effectively capturing the natural sound of a kick drum but there are plenty of well-worn guidelines worth following. These tips, generously shared by prolific audio pros Rob Tavaglione, Cameron Webb, Russ-T Cobb, Mike Plotnikoff, and Mark Trombino, may not be an exact blueprint for building each drummer’s ideal kick sound, but they are certainly a starting point, serving as a guide around the many pitfalls of what can be a laborious recording task.
“On a record, the kick and snare are heard more than anything else,” explains Webb, a producer, engineer, and owner of Orange County, California’s Maple Studio, who has worked with artists such as Mötörhead, Limp Bizkit, Bleed The Dream, and Social Distortion. “That’s what is really up there, and the sound of the kick is very important. It helps to have a decent tone and something that is full enough to provide punch. I always say that every aspect of a band is important, but the sound of the drums and the vocals are most crucial.”
START WITH A KILLER KICK
Preceding any clever microphone techniques or studio trickery, a killer bass drum sound begins with a truly killer bass drum. According to Tavaglione — producer, engineer, musician, and owner of Catalyst Recording, Charlotte, North Carolina’s de facto indie music laboratory — drummers should carefully consider the size of their chosen studio kick. “Above all else, size matters,” he insists. “We often think ’big’ with kicks. I’ve seen people come to the studio very proud of their 26″ drum, but they are difficult to mike and difficult to tune. Think smaller — 22s are really nice, and I’d only go with a 24″ if it were an exceptional quality drum, a brand known for great craftsmanship. Even a 24″ is large enough that it can get out of hand if you’re not careful.”
Unless you’re an exceptional tuner and the music requires it, try either a 22″ or 20″ drum. “They’re often where it’s at,” Tavaglione confirms. “Some may say that 20s are ’too punchy,’ but I’m not so sure about that; I like their punch and definition. Any missing sub-sonic or low-end frequency stuff we don’t get from the 20 is often EQ-able later. It’s much easier to tune a moderately sized drum and milk choice frequencies out of it than to have a large drum with a wide frequency response and so much tuning difficulty that we can’t seem to harness it. Think small!”
Atlanta-based Russ-T Cobb — engineer for many of the productions of Butch Walker (The Donnas, Sevendust, Avril Lavigne) and an accomplished producer in his own right — frequently chooses from component kicks depending on the song to be recorded. “It’s important to choose the right drum for the right song,” he explains. “We use a couple of different kick drums that are great.”
Choosing from a variety of kicks usually comes down to the sonic vibe desired, the recording environment chosen, and even tempo. Since faster songs have less time in between kicks, a really resonant bass drum may simply not work. “At Ruby Red (Walker’s recording facility) we have three different rooms with completely different sounds. We cut a lot of drums in what’s considered a small vocal booth because it’s dry and dead — we call it the ’Stevie Wonder Drum Room.’ For the Avril record, we put the drums in there because we wanted it to sound like The Ramones. And of course, the bigger-sounding stuff is cut in the bigger room.”
If a drummer happens to be in the position to shop for a bass drum with the studio in mind, Webb suggests considering the choices of respected drummers within your own musical genre. “I think that the best examples of choices lie in the styles that you like,” he says. “Pick three or four of the best players and see what they’re playing. You may not know for sure what they used on the records, but you can know what they prefer to endorse.”
MISCELLANEOUS YET MEANINGFUL
After selecting the best bass drum for the gig, miscellaneous yet meaningful choices such as beaters, beater pads, heads, and dampening methods remain. Especially in the studio, the interchangeable combinations of these four variables can dramatically affect the sound of any kick drum.
For Tavaglione, a bass drum sound often hinges on a beater/beater pad combination. “I think of the beater and the beater pad as being two halves of a whole, and we should complement the choice of a beater with the beater pad. For example, a hard pad might sound particularly good with a felt beater to get you the ’ahss,’ the bottom of the felt, and the attack of the pad. Other times you’ll see people use the hard plastic beater with maybe the softer, fiberglass pad.”
Choosing a beater pad also helps to prolong the life of a new drumhead, which Tavaglione says is absolutely crucial in a studio environment. “If you have a dent where the beater has been striking, it’s too late: you’ve already lost tone,” he muses. “That’s another nice thing about the harder beater pads. They can provide a lot of protection and prolong the life of heads.”
As in drum selection, choices of bass drumheads — both batter and front — can vary widely and still work nicely. Because of the musical styles of his clients, Plotnikoff (My Chemical Romance, Hoobastank, P.O.D.) most often uses thicker, coated heads. “Coated heads sound better in the studio,” Plotnikoff reasons. “They don’t last as long, and you need to tune them more often, but I think they sound better under a microphone.”
Tavaglione, other the other hand, isn’t as particular regarding heads. He does, however, have very specific opinions about how to treat your front bass drumhead. “I don’t think that the kick drumhead is terribly critical — not as critical as the beater and the pad — and subsequently, it’s not as critical as the resonant head,” he explains. “To me, how the heads are used is where the game is won or lost. If you don’t put a hole in the front head, you can get a lot more sustain and fullness, even for rock. I know that really limits microphone positioning options, but if you’ve got a great drum and good heads on it, you can usually tune that resonant head so perfectly that the kick sounds huge. The decay of the drum will be smooth, long, and round with a nice, proportional attack. That’s assuming that you’re using a great drum, though. If you don’t have a great drum — or if it just won’t tune properly — you should look at putting a hole in that resonant head.”
Stylistic considerations are also a sizable factor in the “hole/no hole” conundrum. “I’ve seen rock guys that use that resonant sound to get a great rock sound, but it’s tricky. Not all kick drums are going to tolerate that sensitive of a tuning and application. The more aggressive you need your sound to be, the less decay you need — like maybe a fast punk thing. Those are the cats that definitely need the hole. Maybe they’ll even take the resonant head off, but I’m not too fond of that. I like the head being on there.”
In between the two heads of your chosen kick drum, dampening options abound. As previously illustrated, this choice of personal preference and musical style is best made with a goal of moderate balance in mind. “I say that unless you’re going for a Led Zeppelin tone, put something inside the kick drum,” says Webb. “You can use as much as a little towel or if you want something super muffled — like a Fu Manchu record — you may put a pillow in it.”
Webb also cites an old trick that engineer George Martin used while recording classic Beatles records that still works well today: “When they wouldn’t use pillows, they would shred up newspaper and put that in the kick drum. It’s like putting a pillow in there, but it keeps more of the drum’s natural resonance.”
Finally — and after checking drum lugs and the kick pedal for rattles and squeaks (tighten and lubricate as needed) — appropriate and skilled tuning will complete the preparation of a kick drum for an ideal tracking session. Tuning, says Webb, is where the vast majority of problems arise in recording bass drums: “Usually the biggest problem is that drums aren’t tuned correctly. They either have it way too cranked or way too sloppy.”
Tavaglione feels that a two-person tuning team is the best way to tweak. From the drummer’s vantage point, it’s nearly impossible to know what the kick drum really sounds like from the position that counts: out front. “It takes two people to do this, one guy playing and one guy tuning, maybe even switching roles,” he explains. “The differences in the room with how a kick sounds is enormous, and it’s not apparent to the drummer performing. There is some sweet spot on that resonant head that not only makes it in tune with the drum itself, but also in tune with the room, if you will. When that resonant head is tuned right — and we’re assuming that we have a good beater and beater pad — then it seems like almost any microphone choice would work.”
While tedious, all of this detailed preparation is a must for great kick drum recordings. “If the drum doesn’t sound good, no kind of microphone, EQ, or compression is going to make it sound good going to tape,” concludes Plotnikoff. “It’s just like you can’t get a big Marshall guitar sound if you’re miking a tiny Champ amp.”
KICK DRUM MICROPHONES
It’s relatively easy to choose an appropriate microphone for recording bass drums. Bass drum microphones, in general, should be directional (cardioid), which helps to reduce bleed from other sound sources such as cymbals, toms, and snare drum. Directional microphones also have a tendency to cause proximity effect — or bass boost — when used at “close-to-source” distances, which can be quite desirable considering a kick drum’s sonic characteristics. Appropriate microphone choices are largely dynamic models (as opposed to condenser microphones needing phantom power) because of the generally high SPL output of a bass drum. Larger microphone diaphragms are preferred to better capture low-end frequencies. There are a variety of great microphone choices from various manufacturers, and while each mike offers slightly different aural characteristics, most moderately priced (between $200-$500 MSRP) microphones designed for kick drum can sufficiently capture desired results.
“Pretty much any of the large diaphragm kick drum mikes made specifically for kick drums are great,” offers Tavaglione. “There isn’t a single one of them that I don’t like, whether it’s a Shure Beta 52, AKG D112, Audix D6, or a Sennheiser e602. They’re all great.”
While recommending the AKG D112, Webb also reveals that he has used the fairly low-cost, yet impressive Audio-Technica ATM25 ($275 MSRP) on many recordings with remarkable results. “I’ve used them since the Limp Bizkit Significant Other record — that was an ATM25,” he explains. “It’s like an Electro-Voice RE20 — also a great mike — but it’s cheaper and slightly ’scooped’ frequency-wise.”
After investigating the many available bass drum microphone options and still finding nothing to suit a restricted budget, both Webb and Cobb agree that you can’t beat a ubiquitous Shure SM57. “I use SM57s on a lot of stuff,” says Cobb. “It’s a $100 microphone and I’ve used it everywhere: on kick drums, overheads, toms, snares. They’re just great.” If purchasing a microphone (or several) specifically for recording kick drum, however, don’t overspend. “Don’t get a $1,000 kick mike and not be able to buy anything else,” advises Webb.
When miking a bass drum with a single microphone and a ported resonant head, a good starting point is to position a boom-mounted mike inside the kick drum with its diaphragm off-center and a few inches from the batter head. Moving the mike toward the batter head can add fullness to the sound, and moving it back can add some high-frequency snap. When closer to the center of the head, or nearer to the spot of beater impact, punch can be emphasized, while moving it away increases the presence of shell tone. Since small moves can lead to large sonic differences, all adjustments should be made carefully.
Another internal, single-mike option is the use of a boundary or PZM (pressure zone) microphone, which can be simply set inside the drum. “The one that comes to mind most readily is the Shure Beta 91,” says Tavaglione. “There are two things that you can do with it that are great. One is to put in inside to get some nice click and attack off the beater, which might free you to use another mike outside the drum to get some long decay. Or, if you’ve got a rock guy with a drum that has no hole in the head, the Beta 91 is great. Simply remove the resonant head, place the Beta 91 on his pillow or blanket, and run the tiny, narrow cable it uses through a vent hole. Then you can put your resonant head back on, still getting a nice, sealed, resonant sound with some beater attack.”
It’s advisable to attempt to get a great kick sound using only one microphone first. If you can get a great bass drum sound with one mike, then further experimentation with multiple microphones, positions, and other tricks are icing on the cake. For Webb, two mikes per kick is generally his modus operandi. “I’ll put one inside — closer than normal to the batter head — and the other on the outside, out front,” he explains. “The one on the inside is for the high-end of the kick drum, the other’s for low end. With the outside mike, I may even roll off the high-end so that you’re not getting bleed from cymbals. Then I blend that with the other mike, which gives you a fuller tone.” This technique works well with either a dynamic or PZM microphone inside, as well as with ported or solid resonant heads.
Another blending technique endorsed by Mark Trombino — engineer and producer for such acts as Jimmy Eat World, Finch, and Blink 182, among others — is simple and commonly used, largely relying on overhead microphones for a natural, roomy kick sound. “Sometimes it’s good to be conservative with the number of microphones you use. You can even start with a three-mike thing: two overheads and a kick mike. It depends on what kind of music you’re doing, but on what I do, it’s preferred to have fewer mikes and have it more roomy-sounding anyway. Listen to the room mikes first, then add the kick mike until it’s balanced.”
However, when getting a bass drum sound with an overhead/kick microphone combination, be sure to keep signal phase in mind. “Usually I flip the overheads out of phase because they’re usually out of phase with the kick drum anyway,” offers Plotnikoff. “You’ll be able to tell — once you put your kick drum in with the cymbal mikes, you might lose a bit of your bottom end from the kick mike, or you’ll think you need to turn the kick up. That’s how you’ll know. Usually putting the cymbals out of phase will correct the situation.”
Needless to say, bass drum miking combinations and positions are limitless, and nearly everyone knowledgeable of the subject would encourage experimenting with positioning. However, there’s one guideline that’s always worth following — the 3:1 distance rule. In order to maintain phase integrity, the distance between two microphones must be at least three times the mike-to-source distance. For example, if an internal kick mike is 6” from the batter head, then an exterior or secondary kick mike must be 18″ or more from the first mike. By following this rule, phase cancellations — often “hazy” or “shallow” sound qualities — won’t plague your bass drum tracks.
As one would expect, seasoned studio pros such as those profiled within this feature have had ample opportunities to experiment with a few unusual bass drum miking configurations and other interesting ideas. The most common trick — creating a “bass tube” in front of the resonant head — can lead to a boomier, deeper kick tone. You can make the tunnel using packing blankets and microphone stands, allowing an exterior mike to be far away from the kick, yet fairly isolated from other sound sources.
“Distance equals depth,” says Cobb, who uses an extra kick drum shell for the tunnel. “I always use an outside kick drum mike and put an extra kick drum on the end of the kick drum. This way, you can put a microphone two or three feet away from the kick drum. It’s still inside of a drum, which protects it from the cymbals, and adds more depth to the kick drum. I’ve even done that using a conga. Let the kick push air inside of the bottom of the conga, then mike the head of the conga. If you want a Roland 808 sound and you don’t have a drum machine, that’s a cool trick.”
Another trick yielding a similar result is using a studio monitor or other speaker wired as a microphone, which is then mixed with a primary kick microphone. “Everyone used to use that old trick,” recalls Webb. “The woofer wouldn’t pick up any highs, you’d just get the thud.” While using an actual speaker will certainly work for this application, Yamaha has improved on this trick with the introduction of a legitimate product, the Subkick SKRM100 kick drum “microphone.” The SKRM100 features a speaker-like dynamic transducer mounted within a birch/mahogany drum shell and captures audio lower than 100Hz.
PERFECTION NOW, MANIPULATION LATER
Once great bass-drum tracks are captured upon recorded medium via digital audio workstation, analog tape, or any other multitrack destination, the song’s aural characteristics most appropriately determine further manipulation. While many seasoned engineers print equalization, compression, and other effects to tape, most would also agree that the safest bet is to record pure tracks to tape, since virtually all modern recording systems allow non-destructive effects to be added at a later date and in more informed circumstances.
“There are enough compressors around, especially in the software world, where you can commit that stuff after the fact and not destroy your tracks,” explains Cobb. “For instance, you can commit compression in Pro Tools and save it on a different track so you don’t lose the original signal. If you compress a snare drum or kick drum going in, and you do it the wrong way or a little too much, you can never get that sound back. It’s gone.”
The same thing goes for equalization, reverbs, and other effects. “Get the best sound you can with the mikes that you have,” offers Cobb. “Before you go to grab an EQ or whatever, just grab the mike and move it. The less you mess with stuff, the more natural it sounds. The more you EQ something, the more it takes away from the natural sound of the drum.”
Certainly, compressing kick signals — along with other drum tracks — to tape is often done and can give you louder, more consistent transients on tape. Webb, for instance, always compresses kick drum. “You have to be careful, though,” he says. “If you’re not experienced with a compressor, you should learn to use it first. You don’t want to make the mistake of over-compressing it. There’s no turning back. If you must, keep the ratio down to a 3:1 sort of thing so that it’s not super aggressive.”
Cobb concurs. “It needs to be something really subtle, like 2:1 compression. And only use it to get enough signal in, just have it knock off a couple of dB, just enough to get the full bandwidth of the A/D converters.”
Most importantly, if you’re a drummer performing popular music, act as your own compressor to tape: simply kick with consistency. “In the studio, we often don’t require that much subtlety,” explains Tavaglione. “From a rock perspective, I’m looking for consistency of volume. Actually, I’m even looking for a lack of dynamics in regards to the kick. Modern productions aren’t terribly dynamic. The drummer is often the timing foundation that doesn’t change volume a whole lot in the final mix, which is kind of unfortunate, but that’s how it is. So I would suggest to play every kick solid, full volume, and as consistent as possible.”
As always, concludes Webb, it all comes back to being a great musician: “The most important thing out of all of this is if you have a great drummer, he can make any kick drum track sound great.”