Drum sounds can make or break the sound of a recording. Capturing a full, beefy sounding drum kit is definitely something that takes time and effort to master. With time, you can learn the skills you need to record an exciting, well-balanced drum kit. You'll know when you've mastered the art, because artists and producers will be lighting up your cell phone, offering top dollar to get your magic engineering skills on their record.
There's much more to recording drums than I could possible cover in one article. For now, I offer you 10 fundamental tips for recording drum set. I use these principles every time I record a drum kit and they've never failed me. Give them a try and be sure to let me know how they helped you get great your drum sounds!
#1 - Don't forget, you're recording ONE instrument - The drum set is one instrument, not a dozen different instruments. Use the room mics and the overhead mics to capture an accurate overall picture of the drum set. Add direct mics to sweeten the sound. Pop music relies more heavily on the direct mics where jazz and rock will use more of the overheads and room mics. Use as few microphones as possible to get the desired sound! Less is definitely more when it comes to drum micing!
#2 - Phasing is your only real enemy - With so many microphones in one area, you must be sure that everything is in phase. If you can conquer the dreaded phasing monster you've won the battle. The rest is easy! Check the phasing between your two overhead mics. Check the phasing between the snare drum in relation to the overheads. You'll also likely need to flip the phase of the bottom snare drum microphone. Check the drums in mono and be sure the sound is not collapsing. When your phasing is right your drums have a much better shot at sounding large and in charge!
#3 - Favor the drums, not the cymbals when placing your room mics - Believe me, you'll have loads of cymbals in your room mics even if you are not aiming directly at them. Aim your room mics towards the center point of the kit (near the snare drum and the top of the kick drum).
#4 - Place the cymbals a bit higher on the kit than usual - This will keep the cymbals from bleeding too badly into the direct mics. Beware, this can be uncomfortable to some drummers and throw them off their game. If so, leave them where the drummer normally plays them. ALWAYS go for performance over sonics. Most drummers can overcome this and play just fine!
#5 - Don't place your tom mics too close to the drums - Low end is vitally important to the sound of the toms. If the microphone is placed too close, the low end will not have enough time to develop before reaching the microphone. Aim the mic towards the center of the drum for a balanced stick/tone sound. When in doubt, put on some headphones and adjust the microphone as the drummer plays!
#6 - Keep your bottom snare mic at a 45 degree angle from the top mic - This basically ensures that your snare drum will not experience phasing issues in relation to the other microphone. You'll still need to flip the bottom out of phase. Always double check!
#7 - Try setting up in different parts of the room - Every room has a sweet spot. The most obvious place to set up the drums may not be the sonic sweet spot. Move the kick drum around the room and use your ears to find a great spot. The same thing goes when placing room mics. You may need to be willing to get on a ladder and find where the room sounds best. Once you find an inspiring spot, place the room mics there!
#8 - Don't over-compress - When in doubt, compress less (or not at all.) Be sure you've got a great drummer, great drums (that are tuned well with new heads) and microphones that are placed correctly and you'll have a great drum sound without much compression. You can always add it later but you can't take it away. With too much compression you run the risk of recording a small, dull drum kit.
#9 - Don't over-muffle - Drum need natural sustain to sound good. Some drums sound loud and out of control while seated at the kit but sound well-balanced and alive from 6 feet away. If you drum is in tune, you'll likely need minimal muffling to get the right sound... that is unless you're going for a super-dead drum sound. If this is the case, muffle away!
#10 - Add a touch of low end EQ to get the drums to sound a bit meatier - I love 1073 Equalizers on drums. A little 60hz on a kick drum and touch of 110hz on the snare drum and toms will likely a beefy sound to your drum kit. Don't overdo it (if you notice, there's a theme happening here) a little goes a long way.