Moment In History: The Story Of Drum Recording
Sound engineers first started recording musicians around the 1880s. At this time, the primary goal was to capture as accurately as possible the music as it sounded in a live setting. While this was a noble goal, drummers often got the short end of the stick. Prior to the 1940s, recording gear was so primitive and sensitive that drummers were often unable to use an entire kit or otherwise play as they naturally would on stage. (For instance, if a drummer hit too hard it would knock the stylus off the wax cylinder.) As such, it’s tough to rely on early recordings to tell us how drummers actually played back in the day.
Studio As Lab
By the mid-1950s, technology had improved so that effects like reverb and echo could be added during the recording process, giving the result a “larger than life” sound. These effects became standard tools in the burgeoning world of rock and roll, and with the advent of multi-track recording, groups like The Beatles turned the studio into a laboratory where a sonic piece of art could be created after the fact.
Muffle Your Shuffle
By the 1970s, the post-production process was so valued that engineers intentionally muffled the natural sound of drums. This was the era when drummers began cutting a hole in their front bass drumhead (or removing it altogether), pulling the bottom heads off their toms, and miking each drum and cymbal up close. The goal was to minimize the tonal aspects of the drums, allowing producers to create their masterpieces without a lot of boom-y overtones getting in the way.
By the ’80s, this “fix it in the mix” philosophy had gone into overdrive. In addition to electronic drums, which could achieve a huge sound artificially, many pop and rock records featured reverb-drenched tracks that were so over the top they sound dated today (think hair metal). It wasn’t until the ’90s that natural sounding drums started making a comeback in recording (think grunge). Today, any recording technique is fair game, and engineers will often employ a particular miking choice with the goal of imitating the sound of a previous era.