A Drummer’s Guide To Studio Recording
As the drummer, you probably have the most gear to haul. Check with the studio concerning the correct time for equipment load in. Some places will let you drop your equipment off ahead of time, while others won’t let you in the door until the clock is running. In the Northeast we have four distinct seasons, so summer and winter can wreak havoc on wooden instruments. Moving from your practice space to car to the studio can put your kit (as well as your bandmates’ guitars) through humidity and temperature shocks. This will make tuning difficult and might even change the tuning as the wood acclimates to the studio environment. When possible, we ask drummers to drop off their kits 12 to 24 hours before their session. If your studio offers this option, definitely check to see if your gear is covered under their insurance policy.
Another load-in consideration is parking. Many urban studios have to fight with other businesses for client parking, so a dedicated loading zone is a rare commodity. Follow the same precautions you would when playing live shows. Make sure you have enough people to watch the vehicle while your mates haul the gear in (I lost a great DW kick pedal in San Antonio thanks to someone’s sticky fingers). Remember: Thieves know where the recording studio is. They also know bands can get so excited to get there that they may fail to protect their gear. Likewise, the police might be watching to prevent double parking or excessive stays in loading zones. Have someone around to respond or move the vehicle if needed.
Now that you’re in the studio, it’s time to set up. Most recording engineers have a favorite spot to place the drums (through trial and error they have found the place where a kit will sound and record the best). Ask the engineer where they want you to set up. Not only have you just improved the quality of your future recording, you’ve started off on the right foot with the engineer. Set up your kit as usual. As you tap around you’ll notice that your drums probably sound weird. They’re in a new room, and you’re going to have to tune again. Smart engineers will send the guitarists for pizza so you can have some peace and quiet to hear what you’re doing. Get to work, and dial in your sound.
While you’re setting up, the engineer is probably placing microphones. Besides not playing when the engineer’s head is nearby (they need their ears to earn a living) there is an unwritten code of conduct for both the drummer and the engineer (though I’m about to write it). Professionals know this code instinctively, so here goes:
The engineer is never to ask you to alter your setup so he can place a microphone — unless there is no possible alternative. It is reasonable to alter your stand configuration — but only if the drum or cymbal remains in its original position. The stand is moved — the gear is not. Over the years I have seen a few cases where something had to be moved, but for the vast majority of times, the drummer’s setup should not be altered. If the recording engineer you’re working with doesn’t understand this principal, you might want to start looking for a new studio.
As for the drummer’s responsibilities: The drummer is never to move a microphone, even by a centimeter, without the express consent or instruction of the engineer. Sometimes you can do that at a live show, but not in a recording studio. Mike placement is the most important thing an engineer can do to get good drum sounds. And moving a mike the smallest amount can have significant consequences in terms of tone, bleed, and impact.
This is also the time to speak to the engineer about your expectations for your drum sound. A colleague of mine, Chris Garges, a recording engineer and fellow drummer from Charlotte, North Carolina, offered some great advice for this situation: “That little buzz or ring in your snare drum that drives the engineer crazy might be your favorite thing about the drum. Try to sort out those kinds of things beforehand. Be clear about what you want, but try to be conscious about whatever the engineer tells you about getting there.” The point is you have to communicate what you want, otherwise, the engineer will assume you’re not picky. You may end up with a drum sound that suits his tastes, but not yours.
Once mikes are set and you’re in tune, it will be time to “get levels.” This is where you hit each drum while the engineer verifies that an optimal signal is flowing from the mike to the recording device. When recordings were primarily done on analog tape, it was critical to get the highest levels possible just short of overloading the system. This allowed the recording to have an optimal signal-to-noise ratio (i.e. more drums and less tape hiss). This practice remained valuable in the early days of 16-bit digital. However, we now live in an age of 24-bit PCM digital, which does not require super-hot signals to capture a good recording. While that might seem great on the surface, there is a catch — you should not overload a digital signal. Unlike tape, which pleasantly saturates as it approaches clipping, digital has no way to process a clip. You’ve reached the end of the road. There is no value past zero. The result is a harsh, lightning sound that can hurt ears and harm speakers.
Why the lesson on digital audio? Because 95 percent of all drummers under-hit during sound check. Levels are set with the expectation that you’ve demonstrated your loudest playing. But once the adrenaline of the moment and the music in your headphones take over, most drummers begin to bash at their kits, exceeding the sound check levels. This will ruin the take and cost time. So please, make sure you hit hard enough during the sound check. Also make sure you wear the headphones you’ll be wearing for the session. Some drummer’s studio headphones are similar to shooting muffs, which may make you play louder.
While we’re on the subject of headphones, please don’t throw your headphones, whether it be out of frustration or just carelessness, after a take. Studio owners hold on to a pipe dream that headphones last forever (they don’t), but you don’t need to contribute to their early demise by treating them as disposable.