8+ Tips for Drummers Preparing To Record in the Studio
A good 80% how drums turn out in a recording comes down to the drummer, their technique, and how well maintained their drum kit is. Being well prepared, and knowing how to maximize the quality within the limitations of recording can make the difference between a professional sounding recording and a sloppy amateur sounding song. We HAVE awesome drums!
This seems obvious, but having your parts down before you come into the recording studio will not only save you time & money, but you won’t have to worry about making sure they serve the vision of the music. That way you can really focus in on playing consistently and perfecting the nuances of the performance.
2. New Drum Heads Make A World of Difference
All too often drummers come into the studio with worn out heads on their drum kit and wonder why their tracks don’t sound like their favorite records. While changing out top heads is the highest priority, bottom heads can have a real impact as well; though don’t necessarily need to be changed as often as the batter heads. Having new heads will make your drums have more impact & punch, have brighter crisper attack, less annoying overtones, easier to tune, and sit in the mix better from the start before EQ & Compression. Additionally choosing the right heads for the style of music and drumming you are going for can go a long way to getting the right sound from the start. Typically single ply heads (like the Remo Ambassador or Evans G1) have a brighter crisper attack, but also have more overtones. Whereas two ply heads or ones with added damping rings (like Remo Coated Controlled Sound, Remo Emperors, or Evans Genera Dry) typically have a little less crispness, but have significantly less overtones. I personally prefer two ply heads for recording, as overtones can be magnified when you put a microphone only a few inches from the heads.
3. Drum Tuning
While drum tuning can be a bit of a dark art that even some great drummers don’t fully understand, it can make a significant impact on your drum sounds. Having improperly tuned drums will increase nasty overtones and rings, while decreasing punch and clarity. There are a number of options I have seen to help with tuning of drums (such as drum dial and torque keys) but outside of simply doing it by ear, I haven’t had good results with alternative methods. Drum dials supposedly measure head tension and allow you to get an even tension around the head, but unfortunately as great of a concept as that is, it doesn’t work in reality, since by setting the drum dial on the head you are altering its tension. Torque keys also never work because you are measuring tightness of drum lugs, which can be thrown off my corrosion, poorly lubricated lugs, or even temperature changes and expansion/contraction of the metal. By far tuning by ear works the best, but can take a lot of time, practice, and experience to really get right.
The goal when tuning drums is to get an even pitch all the the way around the head at every lug. Equally as important as this is the relationship between the batter and resonant head. Conventional wisdom to tune the heads to the same pitch would be dead wrong, and can lead to out of control resonances (especially under mics). However too much of difference can also choke the drums resonance which isn’t good either. The best ratio I have found is the bottom head about a 3rd to 5th higher than the batter head. This allows the drum to resonate nicely with a nice controlled decay. Though every drum is a little different and you’ll have to experiment to find each one’s sweet spot.
Kick drums are one of the easiest drums to tune because you can actually achieve maximum low tuning without listening to the tones around the head. A easy trick for tuning kick drums is to apply pressure to the center of the head, and go around it twice loosening the head until it wrinkles then bringing it back up until the wrinkles come out. This will yield an even tension all the way around at it’s lowest fundamental frequency, resulting in a big bottom, nice attack, and great punch. Adding a small pillow inside can dry it out just enough to make it sit perfectly in the mix.
4. Kick Drum Head Porting
Outside of a few specific styles of music like jazz and folk, typically you always want a ported kick drum for recording. Without a kick port, the drum is going to be very boomy and resonate, which can be great for specific applications, but no amount of EQ or Compression is get you the attack you need to cut through a dense rock mix. Within reason the larger the hole in the resonant head the dryer the drum will be. Depending on the band I like anywhere from a 5 inch port to a larger 12” hole. I also highly recumbent investing the $8 in getting a head hole cutter so you don’t have any jagged edges that could lead to the head tearing.
5. Cymbal Choices and Condition
Having great cymbals will also make a world of difference in not only how they sound (keeping them from being harsh), but also your ability to play dynamically. I would suggest steering away from cheaper cymbals made from sheet metal (like Zildjian ZBTs or Sabian B8s) and opting for cast bronze cymbals (such as Sabian AAXs, HHXs, or Zildjian As or Ks). I typically prefer darker more complex sounding cymbals because cymbals are so damn bright anyway, that having darker ones makes it hard for them to be harsh. Cheaper sheet metal cymbals typically have a trashy, nasty, harsh quality to them, while cast ones are cleaner, smoother, and all around better sounding. This all comes down to the the molecular arrangement of the metals, how easy it is for them to flex and resonate.
6. Kick Pedal, Drum & Hardware Maintenance
Often overlooked because you may not be able to hear the squeaks or rattles of hardware when playing live, this can destroy the vibe of a track when you come to a low dynamic section and all of the sudden you are distracted by the kick drum pedal making screeching and clicking sounds. Before recording I highly recommend going over the full kit and hardware and tightening down every part as well as lubricating any moving parts. It costs nothing and can make a big impact.
7. Simplify, Simplify Simplify!
This is not just about simplifying your playing for recordings, but your kit as well. When you have 13 microphones on a kit, with everything bleeding into every close mic, you run into a lot of phase issues between the microphones. The less microphones open you can get away with having while still capturing everything, the cleaner the drums will sound. For most drummers having one rack tom and one (maybe two) floor toms is more than enough to accomplish what you need musically. If you really need extra pieces for something special you use once or twice then by all means have them on your kit, but remember the more microphones you have open the more cymbal bleed you will have in the close microphones, which means not only will the cymbal bleed make the cymbals sound more harsh, less clean, but also the engineer will have a harder time controlling the drum sound as a whole.
As awesome as a cool drum solo can be live, in the studio it’s usually all about serving the song as a whole, and simplifying your parts can make a big impact on that
8. Performance, Dynamics, and Playing Technique
The best sounding recordings sound great from the start before we start to mix. Having a good balance of drums and cymbals in the overheads and room microphones can go along way to making sure the final product sounds great. In the studio by modifying your playing dynamics you can achieve a great balance to start with. I find a lot of drummers bash their cymbals way to hard, and don’t hit the drum shells hard enough. This can lead to a cymbal heavy mix that makes it a lot harder to get the drums the way you want them to sound later. I suggest hitting the drum shells harder than you normally do, and the cymbals with a very delicate hand. This does two things, one when you hit the drums harder it increases the attack response of the drums making them more punchy, while by not needing as much gain in the preamp, reduces the bleed of everything else into that drum’s microphones. Additionally there are usually microphones that’s job is to pick up the drum kit as whole like overheads and room microphones, by having a good balance of drums to cymbals in these microphones allows you to run these microphones louder in the mix, giving you a better more natural sound to the drums from the start. I recommend crushing your dynamics somewhat in your playing so that things like ghost notes don’t get lost, and using your cymbals more as your dynamic control in your performance. By playing this way I have gotten drums to sound ‘sample’ perfect without the use of sample reinforcement, even though people have asked if I did.
9. Communicating with your Recording Engineer
Before you even begin the recording process sit down with whoever is recording you and discuss what kind of sound you want for the drums and even show some references to things you like. How the engineer approaches choosing microphones, where they put your kit in the room, and how they mix your drums can change drastically depending on the sound you want. Whether you want vintage vibe, crispy distorted drums, or clean modern sounding drums, how much stereo width you want in the kit, or even if you want an old school mono drum sound will inevitably change how I approach recording you.
It’s hard to make something into something it’s not in the first place, so getting it right from the start will make all the difference in the end product. A lot of this comes down to knowing what you want before you start recording and making sure you are adequately prepared to achieve this.
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