There may not be hard and fast rules for effectively capturing the natural sound of a kick drum but there are plenty of well-worn guidelines worth following. These tips, generously shared by prolific audio pros Rob Tavaglione, Cameron Webb, Russ-T Cobb, Mike Plotnikoff, and Mark Trombino, may not be an exact blueprint for building each drummer’s ideal kick sound, but they are certainly a starting point, serving as a guide around the many pitfalls of what can be a laborious recording task.
“On a record, the kick and snare are heard more than anything else,” explains Webb, a producer, engineer, and owner of Orange County, California’s Maple Studio, who has worked with artists such as Mötörhead, Limp Bizkit, Bleed The Dream, and Social Distortion. “That’s what is really up there, and the sound of the kick is very important. It helps to have a decent tone and something that is full enough to provide punch. I always say that every aspect of a band is important, but the sound of the drums and the vocals are most crucial.”
Preceding any clever microphone techniques or studio trickery, a killer bass drum sound begins with a truly killer bass drum. According to Tavaglione — producer, engineer, musician, and owner of Catalyst Recording, Charlotte, North Carolina’s de facto indie music laboratory — drummers should carefully consider the size of their chosen studio kick. “Above all else, size matters,” he insists. “We often think ’big’ with kicks. I’ve seen people come to the studio very proud of their 26" drum, but they are difficult to mike and difficult to tune. Think smaller — 22s are really nice, and I’d only go with a 24" if it were an exceptional quality drum, a brand known for great craftsmanship. Even a 24" is large enough that it can get out of hand if you’re not careful.”
Unless you’re an exceptional tuner and the music requires it, try either a 22" or 20" drum. “They’re often where it’s at,” Tavaglione confirms. “Some may say that 20s are ’too punchy,’ but I’m not so sure about that; I like their punch and definition. Any missing sub-sonic or low-end frequency stuff we don’t get from the 20 is often EQ-able later. It’s much easier to tune a moderately sized drum and milk choice frequencies out of it than to have a large drum with a wide frequency response and so much tuning difficulty that we can’t seem to harness it. Think small!”
Atlanta-based Russ-T Cobb — engineer for many of the productions of Butch Walker (The Donnas, Sevendust, Avril Lavigne) and an accomplished producer in his own right — frequently chooses from component kicks depending on the song to be recorded. “It’s important to choose the right drum for the right song,” he explains. “We use a couple of different kick drums that are great.”
Choosing from a variety of kicks usually comes down to the sonic vibe desired, the recording environment chosen, and even tempo. Since faster songs have less time in between kicks, a really resonant bass drum may simply not work. “At Ruby Red (Walker’s recording facility) we have three different rooms with completely different sounds. We cut a lot of drums in what’s considered a small vocal booth because it’s dry and dead — we call it the ’Stevie Wonder Drum Room.’ For the Avril record, we put the drums in there because we wanted it to sound like The Ramones. And of course, the bigger-sounding stuff is cut in the bigger room.”
If a drummer happens to be in the position to shop for a bass drum with the studio in mind, Webb suggests considering the choices of respected drummers within your own musical genre. “I think that the best examples of choices lie in the styles that you like,” he says. “Pick three or four of the best players and see what they’re playing. You may not know for sure what they used on the records, but you can know what they prefer to endorse.”
After selecting the best bass drum for the gig, miscellaneous yet meaningful choices such as beaters, beater pads, heads, and dampening methods remain. Especially in the studio, the interchangeable combinations of these four variables can dramatically affect the sound of any kick drum.
For Tavaglione, a bass drum sound often hinges on a beater/beater pad combination. “I think of the beater and the beater pad as being two halves of a whole, and we should complement the choice of a beater with the beater pad. For example, a hard pad might sound particularly good with a felt beater to get you the ’ahss,’ the bottom of the felt, and the attack of the pad. Other times you’ll see people use the hard plastic beater with maybe the softer, fiberglass pad.”
Choosing a beater pad also helps to prolong the life of a new drumhead, which Tavaglione says is absolutely crucial in a studio environment. “If you have a dent where the beater has been striking, it’s too late: you’ve already lost tone,” he muses. “That’s another nice thing about the harder beater pads. They can provide a lot of protection and prolong the life of heads.”