By Strother Bullins
Most drummers would agree that collaborating with a seasoned, knowledgeable engineer and/or producer is an ideal recording situation. However, such a scenario is not feasible for everyone. To get the best out of a do-it-yourself recording session – or to be better enlightened for future pro studio adventures – Russ-T Cobb of Ruby Red Productions (Avril Lavigne, Sevendust, Default); Mike Plotnikoff (P.O.D., Hoobastank, Cold); and Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182, Finch) explain five ways to record ideal drum tracks.
1. Carefully Select Your Kit And Get It Studio-Ready
First of all, preconceived notions about what a complete drum kit is are best disregarded – use whatever configuration is best for the session. “We know the sounds that we want from the beginning,” tells Cobb. “We say, ‘Okay, I’ll use this kick, this snare, these toms, and this floor tom.’ It’s rare that I ever use one particular kit together.”
“No microphone or effect is going to make a drum sound good – it has to sound really good on its own first.”
Regardless of the kit used, fresh, carefully chosen, and correctly tuned heads are necessary. “If the drums aren’t tuned properly, they will not sound good,” stresses Plotnikoff. “No microphone or effect is going to make a drum sound good – it has to sound really good on its own first.”
Isolating and eliminating extraneous drum kit squeaks and rattles can be time consuming, so be sure to take care of those pre-session. Plotnikoff: “A little WD-40 will take care of most squeaks.”
In regards to cymbals, darker, warmer, less aggressive ones often provide the best recorded results. “In the studio, darker cymbals sound better and cleaner,” says Cobb. “In comparison to brighter cymbals, they resonate at frequencies that are lower and more audible.” Further, warmer cymbals often have reduced cymbal resonation, and overly loud cymbals can dramatically affect tracks recorded via overhead microphones: “Less aggressive cymbals allow the drums to sound louder,” explains Plotnikoff.
2. Position Your Kit Within A Prepared, Great Sounding Recording Environment.
Because recording any instrument is simply capturing what it sounds like within a particular environment, correctly positioning a drum kit in a musically complimentary room is of the utmost importance.
“Personally, I’d rather have a bad-sounding live room than a great-sounding dead room,” chuckles Trombino, who often places kits backed up against a wall or in a corner of a comparatively reverberant room. “It’s nice to have the reinforcement of a back wall instead of competing with lots of reflections.”
Plotnikoff suggests creating some uneven angles if recording in a square room: “Square rooms cause standing waves, which can cause problems. Break it up by creating some odd angles with plywood in corners, or throw a blanket on a wall. Just try to mix up the reflective surfaces a bit.”
While live, dry, or in-between recording environments may vary depending on personal preference and musical style, being comfortable while drumming is most crucial. “Many engineers will agree that the higher the cymbals are positioned, the better,” explains Plotnikoff in regards to reducing cymbal bleed in drum microphones. “However, you have to do it to a point where the drummer is still comfortable. Don’t sacrifice a performance for a sound.”
Illustrating the many variances of opinion among engineers, Cobb actually prefers to have cymbals positioned lower: “I tend to use the overhead mikes for an overall, main kit sound. I try to get the overheads in low; that way, it sounds like a drummer playing – not individual drums.”
3. Choose And Correctly Position Good Drum Microphones
While many microphones can yield good recorded results, meticulous, thoughtful mike positioning is the true key to capturing a great sounding kit. “Probably the hardest thing about miking drums is that when you get a bunch of mikes all together, you really have to worry about phasing,” Cobb explains. “Try to make both overheads the same distance from the snare, and at least the same distance from the floor.”
“Try setting up a couple of overheads or room mikes and then see what’s missing.”
Using fewer microphones often equals fewer headaches as well as an overall better sound. “You don’t need a ton of mikes,” Trombino explains. “For what I do, it’s almost preferred to have fewer mikes and have things more roomy-sounding. Try setting up a couple of overheads or room mikes and then see what’s missing. Add a kick drum mike if you need more kick and so on.”
Both Plotnikoff and Cobb say that they mike drums at a slight distance. “That’s the way our ears hear sounds anyway,” explains Plotnikoff. “You wouldn’t be listening an inch away from a snare drum, so I get it as far away as I can without getting too much leakage.”
So what are some great all-around drum microphone choices? “You can’t go wrong with Shure SM57s and Sennheiser 421s,” claims Trombino. “They’re relatively inexpensive, too.”
Cobb says that he often uses SM57s on everything – from kicks to overheads – but a pair of overhead condenser microphones is preferable. “Neumann KM-184s are great, but there are lots of good and inexpensive condensers available, too.”
4. Use Signal Processing Wisely
Simplicity rules when it comes to using signal processing while recording, whether it’s compression, equalization, or various effects including reverb. In other words, don’t use ’em. According to Trombino, the best method of equalization while recording is simply moving the microphone.
“Personally, I don’t do anything going in,” he plainly states. “Just move the mike until it sounds good and leave it alone. You can always apply things later, and it’s non-destructive at that point.”
Cobb agrees: “The best way to do processing is to not do it. Especially in Pro Tools and the software world, there are enough compressors, EQs, and effects so that you can do stuff after the fact and not destroy your tracks. If you compress something the wrong way or a little too much while tracking, you’ll never get the sound back. It’s gone.”
If you must process while recording, Plotnikoff suggests doing so with an “effect” mike, but not with your main microphones: “If anything, I’ll compress a mono room mike and just blend it in as an effect later.”
5. Record And Mix With The Complete Musical Product As Your First Priority
No matter how great – or how mediocre – your results may be from a recording quality perspective, getting ideal drum tracks is primarily about capturing well-executed, appropriate performances. “Get what you want going in,” explains Cobb. “When it comes time for mixing, be sure that you have the best performances and best sounds to represent you. Just realize, though, that you have to mix for the song.”
Also, comparing your results to major recording acts may not be the best means of success measurement. Plotnikoff: “You have to remember that after we’ve recorded the drums, they are edited in Pro Tools and the best takes are put together. After that, we add samples on top of the real drum sounds. Obviously someone on their own isn’t going to get that same quality or level of detail, but do try to get things sounding as good as you can.”
Beginning his musical career as the drummer for influential early ’90s band Drive Like Jehu, Trombino can certainly empathize with drummers he records and produces. Through firsthand experience, he clearly knows how hard it can be for drummers to keep the “big picture” in mind. “When I recorded myself with Jehu or Aminiature,” he explains, “I would often be overly fixated on the kick drum sound, the cymbals, or something really stupid. When it’s your playing, it’s hard to let it go. Once it’s all within the context of a song, however, that stuff ain’t that important. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to realize.”