VOLUME 1 | ISSUE #14 | Good Vibrations: An Introduction to drum recording & Interview with Insignia

The Studio A Sound Series
Good Vibrations: An Introduction to drum recording


Whether you’re preparing your latest record in the studio or simply recording yourself for fun at home, once that record button is pushed and the red light shines, it’s show time. You’ve grabbed your sticks and a comfy stool, you’ve practiced so much you could play your parts in your sleep, and your band plays a tight set live that shakes the very stage you play on.

… But when you step into a recording studio, do you really know what you’re doing?

Recording a song is quite different than playing a live show as many musicians can attest to, but we at Studio A Audio Recording and Production are here to help both the musician in you, and the aspiring sound engineer.

The basics of setting up: Drums

It may seem like common sense, but it’s a good idea to let the drummer take their time setting up before any mics are put on stands. It’ll make them feel more comfortable once the recording light goes on, and it’ll avoid any bumps and bangs that could damage equipment.

Once the drummer has finished fine tuning the placement of each drum down to the inch, you can begin setting up the rest of the band. Yes, the entire band (or at the very least a guitarist). One of the most common misconceptions about recording in a studio is that every instrument has to be played separately, but this is almost never the case. While the focus of the initial recording may be to get a solid drum track for the remaining band members, it is entirely possible to record other instruments in separate booths at the same time. This is often done to create a “scratch track” or rough version of the song, which will then be added to or overdubbed in future recordings. The main reason for this is actually to capture the emotion that is present in a live show, which helps avoid the creation of a robotic and bland sound.

The final step to take before set up is complete is often forgotten. Many drummers forget about the tuning of their drums after they’ve been moving them around, which can have a huge impact on the sound of the instrument. Be sure each drum is properly tuned upon setting up to achieve the best possible sound.

Before the drummer begins playing, it may be a good time to introduce the click track. This is a simple metronome that is not recorded, but can be heard by the band members to help everyone stay in time with each other. Being able to follow the track is a skill that is developed with practice, but one that many people have had little exposure to before stepping foot in a studio. Experience with a click track makes it significantly easier for the audio technician to discover any timing errors, and thus can make any editing much faster and easier.

Setting up: Miking the drum set

One of the main things you’re going to have to worry about when miking a drum kit is phasing, which occurs when multiple microphones are picking up sound waves from a single source. Certain frequencies can be affected by phase cancellation, which causes a muddied or dull sound. You must be aware of each mics placement in relation to the other microphones to
minimize the negative effects of phasing.

Kick drum:

When miking a kick drum, there are a few things that need to be considered. The most obvious note to take is whether or not there is a sound hole within the resonating skin of the drum.

If there is a sound hole in the resonating skin in the drum, put the mic inside about 6 inches inside from the front skin. Good balance between the attack and the tone of the drum. Metal music for example often requires more attack to cut through and be heard. For an even stronger attack sound, it’s possible to mic the front of the drum as well. If no sound hole is available, put the microphone about 6 inches in front of the resonating skin and baffle it off. This will avoid bleed as much as possible, and again offers the best balance between attack and tone. A larger diaphragm dynamic microphone is best used in both of these situations, because they can
handle the greater amount of sound pressure that a bass drum produces.

Snare and Toms:

Typically, dynamic microphones work well on both snares and toms. However, positioning the microphones can be tricky at times depending on how the drummer has set up. A good rule of thumb would be to start the mic 2-4 inches above the skin at about a 45 degree angle, and adjust as needed. One thing to keep in mind while placing your microphones is their position in relation to the other drums. You will want to minimize the amount of bleed between drum mics - incorporating sound gates while recording is also a good way to control unwanted noise.

Provided you have enough equipment available, you should also consider miking the bottom of the snare drum as well. It complements the top side, and it gives you more control over how much snare sound comes through in the mix. If you do this though, remember that phase will affect the quality of sound being recorded, so you’ll have to flip the phase of the bottom input
to maintain a proper sound.

Overheads, High Hat and Ride cymbals:

Setting up overhead microphones requires the most thought and consideration of all, because they can create entirely different sounds or moods depending on where they are located. The reason for this is two-fold:

Firstly, overheads are greatly influenced by the acoustics of the room that the drum set is in. A room that has hard, flat surfaces will allow sound waves to reverberate throughout the room and can have a negative effect on sound quality if picked up through the overhead mics. This is where rooms that have been acoustically treated help out the most, not necessarily eliminating
the reverberation, but controlling it.

The second point to consider is what type of sound you’re looking for. Stereo miking techniques are typically used to capture a stereo image of the drum kit. A simple XY placement will usually create a good stereo image, which involves placing two directional microphones in the same position, but angled 90 degrees or more apart. If your objective is to simply capture the sounds
of the cymbals, a technique such as a spaced-pair should do the trick. This involves one mic on each side of the set at an equal height and distance from the drums, giving the feeling that the listener is sitting directly in front of it.

Ride cymbals are often the most challenging when it comes to positioning microphones due to the drummer’s set up. However, miking these separately from the other overheads has many benefits when it comes to mixing afterwards. You’ll have much more volume control, and the ability to pan them to either side, which allows for a greater stereo sound experience. If the mic
can’t be positioned above the set due to space issues, below will work as well, but the phase must be flipped.

When it comes to drumming, you must still remember that not every situation is identical, as each drum kit is different in many ways. These are meant to be general guidelines, but feel free to move the microphone around if you feel you could get a better sound.

Recording Process

All of this to consider, and we haven’t even hit or kicked a thing yet! Now that everything is finally set up and ready to go though, it’s time to get to the fun part: playing the same song over and over until you capture a solid take. It’s always best to get a full and complete run if possible, even though modern technology allows for easier editing. It ensures the track has more of a
natural feel to it, and makes it much easier for the audio tech to edit. How long this step will take is completely dependent on the skill of the drummer, though the tips above can certainly help make it a smoother process.

In our next article, we’ll be covering the process of recording guitar and bass. We’ll also feature an interview with Lawrence Cresswell, a classical guitarist from Kitchener, Ontario.

Mini Biography

Chris Colvin has been an audio engineer for over 10 years, with experience in both the music and commercial recording industry. After attending the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology, he was brought on as an associate engineer at Studio A Mirador. In 2008, Chris acquired the recording interests of Studio A Mirador and formed Studio A Audio Recording and Production.



Did you set up your drums any differently in the studio?

Yes I most certainly did. The setup of my drum kit in relation to a stage performance set up was much larger with more drums and cymbals. I found that having the set up larger made the recording process more of a creative and impulsive experience. The larger collection of drums and cymbals allowed me to accent songs in new ways to make the drum line very predominant in the mixes. In relation to the positioning of the drum kit, I made the hit-hat, snare and bass drum positioned much closer than I normally would for consistency and accuracy in my playing.

Did you change any drum patterns to make them easier/more difficult in the studio?

The fortunate part of recording is that the accents and little extras that make a drum line more exciting to the listener are added after the foundation has been set. I am generally a very spontaneous player with regards to adding fills and ghost notes in a live setting, but when listening to a recording you want to hear consistency and a drummer that is very tight with their playing. When you concentrate on laying down a solid drum foundation, the overall song becomes more fluid and brighter in the mix once all of the other instruments have been added. I found that when recording drums in the studio, you have to remember that it has to be different than a live performance. What I mean here is on a record; a drummer will shine and stand out if they concentrate on creating the foundation for a song, rather than trying to wow a listening audience. That is what a live performance if for. The recording draws your audience to
a performance.

Was there anything different you had to consider when recording in the studio?

Tuning of drum heads and type of heads used had to be considered. I found that the skins had to be a little tighter than usual and clear skins for toms made the quality and craftsmanship of the drum stand out. For the snare drum, a control skin allows the attack of the drum to be more manageable and adjustable by the sound tech. Also, resonance of the drums had to be considered and controlled prior to the recording of the drum lines. I found that a “dead” skin or well used skin would result in a “dead” tone, but quality drums and skins would create a fantastic tone that makes the low end of a song so much brighter.

Were there any differences between what you thought recording would be like, and how it actually was?

The only part that was a big surprise to me was the time needed to edit and balance drum sounds. As a playing drummer, it is assumed that the sound you hear in your head when you play is picked up and recorded by a microphone. In reality you find out that every bass note, hit, crash and accent that is played has to be tweaked to get that desired sound. This process is time consuming for the mixer and in order to produce that sound you hear in your head, it actually takes quite a while (eg. 2-3 hours for a 3 and a half minute song). I found that to be a little unexpected because I assumed those sounds wouldn’t need any changes, since that is what I hear when I play. This is something that drummers take for granted when entering the studio.

Have you ever played with a click track/scratch track before?

I have, but I do not play with one on a regular basis. For recording purposes, a click track makes it a lot easier for everyone to lay down their instruments and correct mistakes during the recording process. A click track is crucial during the recording for a drummer to perform to the best of their ability and be satisfied with their record. A scratch track was also used for a few recordings instead of a click track. I found that a scratch track makes the end result of the drum tracking a little more natural and less robotic, which can also produce a raw sound. I enjoyed using them because the overall product becomes a lot tighter with their help, but it definitely does take away a bit of the natural transitions (and mistakes) done by the player.

Was there a difference between recording yourself, and having an audio tech do it for you?

Absolutely, it’s totally different. It’s another set of ears, experience, knowledge and musical taste that allows your own drumming to advance and evolve. An audio tech can discover little things that might be wrong or sound odd during your playing that you may not notice when you play back your own recording. There is no replacement for second to second monitoring of drumming techniques and results that an audio tech provides vs. recording and playing it back yourself.

Thanks for your time Larry.

Larry is the drummer for Insignia, a talented up and coming band based in Kitchener, Ontario.
They pull inspiration from a large variety of music, but their hard rocking sound is one they have
made all their own. Check them out on their Myspace page and listen to a few of their tracks for
free! http://www.myspace.com/insigniabandrocks

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