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How To Record a Drum Kit - Tips and Techniques
Written by Brian Knave - © 2005, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. Reprinted with Permission.
The drum set is generally considered the most difficult instrument to record well. One reason for this is that a drum kit is a hodge-podge of many instruments: typically four or more drums, a half-dozen or so cymbals, and any number of bells, blocks, and other percussion instruments. The resulting “instrument” produces a huge range of sounds. In terms of frequency alone, a drum kit can cover the entire audible spectrum, from the rib-rattling lows of a big kick drum to the shimmering, harmonic-rich highs of the cymbals. And don't forget the snare and toms, which nicely fill out the mid-range.

The drum set is also capable of producing extremes in dynamic range: on the one end, the whisper of brushes; on the other, the potentially deafening pound of a bass drum. Add to that the challenge of integrating the sounds of so many disparate pieces. Although the drum set is considered a single instrument (based on how it is played), in terms of recording, it is considered both as one instrument and as many.

Is it any wonder, then, that the drum kit's complex blend of sounds has given rise to so many different recording techniques? For those people trying to educate themselves about drum recording, the problem, ironically, is a glut of information: countless books, articles, and interviews, each with a different take, a different favorite microphone (typically one that is too expensive), and, of course, contradictory advice.

If that information overload has you in a pickle, you've come to the right place. The following “holistic” approach to recording drums simplifies the process, helping you get the best sound with the least amount of hassle (and gear). I assume you are a personal-studio operator working without an assistant rather than a professional recording engineer. You probably have only a handful of mics at your disposal, and you might be forced by space limitations to track in the same room where the recording gear is set up. No matter. This approach will help you get the most from the tools you have and capture a drum sound you can be proud of.

Free Yourself
One way to make anything easier is to reduce the fear of failure. To get over any trepidation you might have about recording a drum kit, remember that there is no right or wrong when it comes to recording drum-set sounds. The only “right” drum sound is the one that works best for a given song. Sometimes that results from a stellar kit surrounded by a dozen or more microphones and processed with a ton of gear. Other times it results simply from a brush smacking a phone book miked with an inexpensive dynamic mic. Either way, it's the song that dictates the drum sou nds, and not the other way around — unless, of course, the song began with, or was inspired by, a drum beat.

Just as there are no right or wrong drum sounds, there are no rules for recording drums — at least ones that can't be, and haven't been, successfully broken. Let that fact free your mind so that your creative juices flow. The world is always open to a new drum sound.

That said, there are some general recording rules you should follow. Being general, they hold true for recording any instrument. The two most important ones are to avoid phase problems and maximize the signal-to-noise ratio for each channel. (I'll expand on these two points later in the article.)

Simplify, Simplify
Although drum recording can be as complex and exacting as the inner workings of a Rolex, some of the finest drum sounds ever recorded were captured using a minimum of gear. Consider, for example, any number of tracks from Sun Records, Motown, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. The point is that unless you are a seasoned drum recordist, it is often best to opt for taking the simplest path.

Break It Down
A way to simplify drum recording is to break the process down into parts. That helps organize things, and keeps your eye on the big picture.

You can break down any kit recording into four key components, each of which is fundamental to the quality of the finished recording. These components are the drummer, the drums, the recording room, and the recording gear. Having a serious problem with any one of those four elements can doom your efforts, no matter how good the other parts are. In other words, you can't shrug on any of them.

If, however, you're recording a great drummer playing a well-tuned set of quality drums in a room with good sound, most of your worries are over. All you have to do is capture the resulting sound.

For most of us, though, the confluence of a great drummer, great drums, a great room, and great mics is an uncommon occurrence at best. Be prepared, therefore, to bolster the quality of each component.

The Drummer
Generally speaking, the better the drummer, the better tuned the drums will be, and the more musical the cymbals will sound. Nevertheless, it's astonishing how great a crappy old drum set can sound in the hands of a seasoned pro. Indeed, a gifted and inspired drummer can make all the difference in how your recording turns out — no matter what you record it with. Conversely, all the killer gear in the world can't salvage a bad performance.

You should therefore do whatever it takes to get the best from a player. In addition to being personable and helpful, you should see to the drummer's basic creature comforts such as providing fresh water to drink, pleasant lighting, and comfortable room temperature. A relaxed musician is closer to his or her muse than a distracted one.

The Drums
If the drums don't sound good from the start, then there's work to be done — sometimes a lot. Can you hear squeaks and rattles as the drummer plays? Locate and squelch them. If the drumheads are full of dents and sound dead, have them replaced. If the cymbals sound unmusical or just wrong for the song, get better ones. (Yes, you should be listening for such things.) Have a drum key ready and offer to help if the drummer doesn't know how to tune the drums well.

In some cases it might be best to postpone the recording session to allow enough time to get the drums sounding their best. The sound of the kit, after all, is a key component of the final recorded sound. As the recordist, it's your responsibility to listen carefully and ensure that the sound coming from the kit is as good as it can reasonably be, and certainly not marred by readily “fixable” things.

Given the fundamental role of drums in contemporary music styles, it makes sense that engineers, especially self-starters, learn how drums work and how to tune them. The basics are not hard to grasp. If you want to learn to record the drum set well, it helps immeasurably to become familiar with its many parts and how they function.

Once all the drums are well tuned and any squeaks and rattles are tamed, you might also need to dampen one or more of them. A well-tuned drum, especially if it's of a good quality, will resonate freely, and will produce a much longer decay than a poorly tuned drum. Those free-ringing toms probably will not present a problem if you are miking only from a distance (with stereo overheads, for example). Close-miking, however, can present certain problems: for example, even when the toms aren't being played, they resonate sympathetically with the other drums, which gets picked up by the close mics, resulting in a murky rumble that can spoil the kit sound. (In certain jazz settings, however, that rumble might be regarded as part of the sound — and the drummer would have your head for tampering with it.)

Most drummers dampen their kick and snare drums, at least a little, as a matter of course. But be prepared to dampen further, if necessary. Common items for dampening kick drums include blankets and pillows (down pillows usually sound best), strips of felt (running beneath one or both heads), and various patented dampening systems. “O-rings” — donut-shaped pieces of Mylar, cut the same diameter as the drum head — are good for dampening snare drums. O-rings can quickly be laid on top of the drum or removed, as needed. They also allow the drummer access to the full playing surface of the snare drum.

To dampen toms, tape a folded cotton handkerchief, a small rectangle of foam rubber, or some similar material (tissue, cotton gauze) onto the top of the drum head, close to the rim and away from the drummer. In most cases, a small amount of material taped an inch or so from the rim is sufficient; to increase dampening, move the material toward the center of the drum, use more material or do both. Tip: use sturdy masking tape or some other type that's easy to remove — duct tape will muck up heads and hardware. This is an excerpt from the following article: Capturing the Kit.

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