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Michael Tarsia

Getting the Drum Sound You Want
By Michael Tarsia

This month let's explore the science and magic of recording of the foundation of any modern music mix... the DRUMS.

First and foremost in capturing the drum sound is to ask the drummer what feel he is going for. Tell him to bring in a CD that has the drum sound he is shooting for. Keeping in mind the tight/open philosophy below, have the drummer hit the snare in different parts of the room where the snare would fit if the kit were moved there. Listen to the tone and ambience changes and pick an area that projects the flavor that he gave you as a reference. Once you find the area that sounds closest to his vision, set up the drums. Listen to the overall sound of the full kit and imagine how and where the microphones should be placed again using our tight/open guide. Remember, it is easier to get the sound right in the room than to fix it in the mix.

There are varying philosophies to art of recording drums. Let's go over 2 of the main camps here. As you develop your own sound you will most likely synthesize these basic viewpoints into your own philosophy.

The idea here is a tight very controllable sound. Ambience is sacrificed for control and most often is added later using a plug in. The microphones are placed very close to their source, so that each element of the kit is mic-ed separately. The overhead mics really turn into cymbal mics and a lot of times the kick drum is covered with a blanket.

Pros: You can control each element

Cons: Drums need more EQ to make them sound correct as the mics are choked. Balancing the levels of each part of the kit becomes the job of the engineer. The drums also need room and reverb plug ins to put air around them.

The concept behind the open and natural approach is that drums need to breathe and should be miked as a kit. The overheads are used as the main sound foundation and the mics on the individual pieces are used as fills. Getting the overheads to best represent the kit and its ambient value is paramount.

Pros: Drums have a natural, airy sound. They need less EQ, balancing and FX to make them sound good.

Cons: What you captured is what you get. You have much less control of the overall soundscape. If a tighter sound is needed it will take selective, major EQ, gating and other processes to reign in the sound.

Setting Up
While in the room with the drummer, listen to him play the full kit. Are there resonant tones from the kick drum making the toms ring? Is there a piece of hardware rattling? Do the drums sound tuned correctly? Take the time to fix any issues with the drum sounds with the drummer before you put up any microphones. If the kick on the CD reference he supplied has a hard knock sound make sure the drummer is using a wooden beater or a flat felt beater with a disk on the head. If it has a soft puffy sound make sure he is using a round felt, a little harder than puffy use a flat felt. Hopefully the drummer will have chosen the right heads and beaters to get the sound that he is shooting for. Set up the microphones on the kit using the standard microphone list for drums below.

Capturing the Sound
Utilizing the compliment of the microphones listed above, capture your sound.
While at the recording console/work station, have the drummer play the kick drum. Ask him to play it at the dynamic level that the band will be playing the song [he never will it will always be a little hotter when they are all getting into the groove as a band, so add some headroom when setting levels] and set your preamplifier accordingly. Do this with each part of the drum kit and then have the drummer play the whole kit performing the song the band will be recording. During this period you should start roughing in the drum balance and panning scheme to your monitor section.

Once things are roughed in it is important to check how the drum microphones interrelate as phase issues arise when multiple microphones are positioned in close proximity to one another. It is best not to have EQ and dynamic control plug ins inserted at this stage as you may be masking problems that are in the studio. Start with the kick drum solod in your monitors and then add the snare top, then snare bottom, then toms. After that, add the high hat and overhead microphones. Flip the phase switch back and forth on each added channel to see which one sounds best. Once this is done have the drummer play the song a capella while recording the performance. Play back the music and, again as always, use the supplied CD as a reference guide to what you are striving for. Make any adjustments as necessary.

In short find out what drum sound the drummer is searching for. Decide what miking technique will best represent that vision. Set up his kit in the sweet spot of the room that best projects the soundscape. Pick the appropriate microphones, get good levels to record medium and a balanced monitor mix. And always remember.

Listen, Utilize and Create!

Michael Tarsia is a 2 time Grammy recognized Engineer, with 19 Gold and Platinum album credits. He is also a Director and Instructor for the Sigma Soundz Recording Arts Program, , 8-778-SOUNDZ.

This article courtesy of Disc Makers

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