How To Get Started Recording Drums
Drums are always fun to record. They sound great in the room with the drummer, but when it comes to recording you have to take a lot of things into consideration: microphones, phase, dynamics, frequencies, textures… and most importantly, how to combine all of them and transfer that sense of power felt in the room into any speakers or headphones. That is the real trick. Thanks to modern digital audio it is easier than it seems. All we need is a microphone, an audio interface and a computer. To help you get started recording drums we’re sharing some tips and techniques on how to set up your session to hit the ground running.
Listen To The Room
The drum sound happens way before it reaches the microphones. It is defined by the drummer, the pitch of each drum, and the room’s sound. That is why recording drums isn’t just about capturing the sound that comes out of the instrument. It’s about the sound generated within the space rather than each individual element isolated. Something that engineer Michael Paul Stavrou, author of Mixing With Your Mind, defines as “connect the drum to the room”. To do so we need to find the perfect spot where the room and the instrument will give the best sound. A good starting point is to play the bass drum around the room until you feel you get the best tone out of it and then position the rest of the kit around that spot.
What Microphones Should I Use?
In short, the ones you have at your disposal. There isn’t really a wrong choice, especially nowadays that you can get good quality and versatile microphones at a very affordable price. You can achieve a really good recording with just one or two microphones. What is important is knowing how those microphones sound when you put them in front of the drums and position them where they give you a good representation of the sound you hear in the room.
Here are some techniques that you can try with just a couple of microphones and inputs from your interface.
One Mic Wonder
If you only have one microphone you have fewer things to worry about and more chances to get a great sound. Get yourself in the room with the drummer and place the microphone where you hear a good balance from all different elements. Once you find it, try pointing the microphone towards the snare and the bass drum or right in between those two since they will most likely be the foundation of your drum sound.
The Perfect Pair
If you have two microphones you can start experimenting a bit more. You can start by supporting the previous one microphone setup and placing the second microphone close to the bass drum. This way you will capture a more focused low end while still getting a full picture of the drums. You can then mix both in your DAW until you get the right presence and punch for the bass drum.
If you are looking for a more solid and powerful sound you can place the first mic as an overhead of the drummer pointing towards the snare. Now you will still get an overview of the drum kit but you will also capture more of the backbeat to work with your bass drum microphone.
Don’t forget to always listen to the recording to make sure that you are getting the sound that you want and don’t be afraid to tweak the position of the microphones until you are completely happy.
Glyn Johns DRUM RECORDING TECHNIQUE
If you want to record drums in stereo and you have 3 microphones, this technique is for you. Developed by classic rock producer Glyn Johns (The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin), for this technique you would need to place one microphone above the kit aiming down at the snare and another microphone at a lower height on the floor tom side of the kit (also aiming at the snare). Both microphones should be positioned at the same distance from the snare and the bass drum and then panned to taste on your DAW to obtain a stereo image of the drums. Finally, just like in the previous two microphone setups, place one spot microphone on the bass drum to get a more solid low end on your recording.
Once you have the microphones set up and before starting to do takes, we need to check the recording levels in the computer. We need to look at the metres from your audio interface and your DAW and make sure that you have a healthy signal to work with. The most important thing is not to clip your audio during the recording. Most audio interfaces will provide some visual feedback (red light) indicating that your microphone gain input is too high. If that’s the case just bring down the gain knob until you’re out of the red zone.
While the drummer plays the groove, adjust the gain until your metres show a peak around -6 dBFS at the loudest section of the performance. This will give you plenty of dynamic range to work with during recording and mixing.
Now you are ready to start tracking.
One thing to consider when more than one microphone is used is phase. Without getting into too much detail, phase is an important characteristic of sound that has to do with the time it takes to reach each microphone and the relative distance between the microphones with the drums.
Every DAW allows you to flip the phase of each track. To check if you are having any phase issues just swap the phase of your tracks one at a time and then listen to all the microphones together. If it sounds better, move to the next microphone. If you hear that you are losing body on the drums, just flip it back to the original position and check the next track. By doing this you will make sure that no low end is missing in your recording and the tracks are ready for editing and mixing.
Curious to know more?
We have a Drums Recording Masterclass coming up that is open to all, led by Sound Engineer Haydn Bendall with credits such as Kate Bush and Paul McCartney and world-class session drummer Ralph Salmins. Book your place now! Our music production students learn these and many other techniques for getting great results recording drums during their studies. They learn from industry experts like Alex Scannell or Sylvia Massy and take these skills back into our dedicated studios at Abbey Road and Angel to practice and develop.
Blog collaborator and sound engineer Carlos Bricio, together with plug-in company Sonimus, ran a drum recording workshop last year in Madrid, Spain. They spent one day with a fully practical experience at GG producciones studio. You can read more about it in the following blog post.