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6 Steps for Recording Drums
Great drum recordings start with great preparation. By properly selecting and setting up your palette of microphones, you can create a reliable template for recording all sorts of drum parts in a home studio.
- Tune your drum kit. Any recording engineer will tell you that the most important element to a great-sounding recording is a great-sounding instrument. You can’t take a tone-deaf singer with a half-octave range and make her sound like Adele on a recording. Likewise, you can’t take flabby un-tuned drums and make them sound crisp and precise on a recording. So grab your drum key, and tune your heads. The snare is most important since it’s the most prominent instrument in the drum kit. But make sure your toms sound great, too. You need them to provide low-end girth, but you don’t want them muddying up your final mix.
- Mic the kick drum. A kick drum can be mic’d in multiple ways, depending on the design of the drum and the number of mics at your disposal. Most home recorders will place a single boundary microphone about three inches away from the drum’s outer head. If there is a circular cut-out in the outer head, you can also place a microphone inside the drum. This will block audio bleed from the other drums in your kit. If you have enough mics available, do both. This will give you options once you mix. The most popular kick drum microphone is the Shure Beta 52A, although the AKG D112 has legions of fans as well.
- Mic the snare drum. The snare drum defines the character of a drum set. Some would even argue that the snare defines the of the entire band. For proof, compare the sound of Metallica’s seminal records Master of Puppets (1986) and Metallica (1991) to the sound of St. Anger (2003). The difference is striking, and it largely owes to Lars Ulrich’s choice of snare drum—which he abandoned shortly after that record. Snare drums should be mic’d with a dynamic mic hovering about 1.5 inches above the drum head, suspended over the plastic hoop that lays on top of the drum, and angled toward the center of the instrument. Those with extra mics and mixing inputs may wish to also place a mic beneath the drum, which produces an exciting blend of tones. Good snare mics include the Beyerdynamic M201TG and Shure SM57 (which are dynamic microphones) and the Neumann KM 84 (which is a small diaphragm condenser microphone—and a pricey one at that).
- Set up overhead microphones. If you have limited resources in terms of the number of microphones and mixing inputs—and most home recorders do—you can absolutely get a very good drum sound using only four microphones. In fact, many of the most legendary drummers (including the likes of John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Tony Williams) were recorded using four-microphone setups. So with one mic dedicated to the kick drum and one mic dedicated to the snare drum, suspend two mics over the entire kit. This stereo pair will account for the rest of the drums—rack toms, floor toms, bongos, cowbell—as well as all of your cymbals. Many engineers use large diaphragm condensers for this, like the AKG C414, the Shure KSM44A, or the Neumann U87. To be sure, these are expensive microphones (particularly the Neumann), but if you’re on a budget, you can still get great sound with a lower-priced condenser like the Audio Technica 4033. You can also use small diaphragm condensers like the Rode NT5 or even a ribbon microphone like the Royer R-121 or (much more affordable) the Cascade FAT HEAD.
- Mic more individual drums (optional). If your budget allows it, you can add more microphones to the mix. The next instrument to closely mic would be your hi-hat cymbal, followed by individual toms. You’d still want to maintain a stereo pair of microphones for an overall kit sound, but having more drums that are close mic’d gives you more options when you mix. If you’re micing a loud drummer, use dynamic microphones here, like the SM57. If volume isn’t a concern, feel free to use any condenser in your mic locker.
- Set a preamp and compression sound. Most drum recordings have a compression effect added to level the overall dynamics. However, many recording engineers do not use compression when tracking the drums; they add the effect after the recording is finished. Remember that if you compress your audio signal during recording, there’s no way to “get it back” during mixing. So try to record as pure a tone as possible and save the compression for later. That said, most engineers do use a preamp before sending audio into their mixing board. Preamps add subtle amounts of distortion, so don’t overdo it—again, you can always make a clean tone dirtier, but you can’t make a dirty tone cleaner. For recording on a budget, the Art Tube Opto 8 is an excellent value. It uses tube amplification and has eight input channels and a digital output. Other good affordable preamps include the Focusrite Octopre MkII and the Presonus Digimax D8. Another thing you can do is mix down all your drums to a single channel and send that audio through the Universal Audio SOLO/610. The UA 610 is a fantastic sounding preamp, but it only has one input channel. So you’d effectively be putting the same amount of preamp tone on your entire drum sound.
Once you have your mics set up and a preamp selected, it’s time to start recording drummers. And this is where you’ll truly learn your technique. As you experiment with different microphones and preamp levels, you’ll hopefully develop a signature tone that makes drummers seek you out for their next recording.
Learn more about making and layering drums in Timbaland’s MasterClass.