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.”
Fig. 1 An AKG D112 positioned inside a bass drum with a ported resonant head.
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.”
As in drum selection, choices of bass drumheads — both batter and front — can vary widely and still work nicely. Because of the musical styles of his clients, Plotnikoff (My Chemical Romance, Hoobastank, P.O.D.) most often uses thicker, coated heads. “Coated heads sound better in the studio,” Plotnikoff reasons. “They don’t last as long, and you need to tune them more often, but I think they sound better under a microphone.”
Tavaglione, other the other hand, isn’t as particular regarding heads. He does, however, have very specific opinions about how to treat your front bass drumhead. “I don’t think that the kick drumhead is terribly critical — not as critical as the beater and the pad — and subsequently, it’s not as critical as the resonant head,” he explains. “To me, how the heads are used is where the game is won or lost. If you don’t put a hole in the front head, you can get a lot more sustain and fullness, even for rock. I know that really limits microphone positioning options, but if you’ve got a great drum and good heads on it, you can usually tune that resonant head so perfectly that the kick sounds huge. The decay of the drum will be smooth, long, and round with a nice, proportional attack. That’s assuming that you’re using a great drum, though. If you don’t have a great drum — or if it just won’t tune properly — you should look at putting a hole in that resonant head.”
Stylistic considerations are also a sizable factor in the “hole/no hole” conundrum. “I’ve seen rock guys that use that resonant sound to get a great rock sound, but it’s tricky. Not all kick drums are going to tolerate that sensitive of a tuning and application. The more aggressive you need your sound to be, the less decay you need — like maybe a fast punk thing. Those are the cats that definitely need the hole. Maybe they’ll even take the resonant head off, but I’m not too fond of that. I like the head being on there.”
In between the two heads of your chosen kick drum, dampening options abound. As previously illustrated, this choice of personal preference and musical style is best made with a goal of moderate balance in mind. “I say that unless you’re going for a Led Zeppelin tone, put something inside the kick drum,” says Webb. “You can use as much as a little towel or if you want something super muffled — like a Fu Manchu record — you may put a pillow in it.”
Webb also cites an old trick that engineer George Martin used while recording classic Beatles records that still works well today: “When they wouldn’t use pillows, they would shred up newspaper and put that in the kick drum. It’s like putting a pillow in there, but it keeps more of the drum’s natural resonance.”
Finally — and after checking drum lugs and the kick pedal for rattles and squeaks (tighten and lubricate as needed) — appropriate and skilled tuning will complete the preparation of a kick drum for an ideal tracking session. Tuning, says Webb, is where the vast majority of problems arise in recording bass drums: “Usually the biggest problem is that drums aren’t tuned correctly. They either have it way too cranked or way too sloppy.”
Tavaglione feels that a two-person tuning team is the best way to tweak. From the drummer’s vantage point, it’s nearly impossible to know what the kick drum really sounds like from the position that counts: out front. “It takes two people to do this, one guy playing and one guy tuning, maybe even switching roles,” he explains. “The differences in the room with how a kick sounds is enormous, and it’s not apparent to the drummer performing. There is some sweet spot on that resonant head that not only makes it in tune with the drum itself, but also in tune with the room, if you will. When that resonant head is tuned right — and we’re assuming that we have a good beater and beater pad — then it seems like almost any microphone choice would work.”
While tedious, all of this detailed preparation is a must for great kick drum recordings. “If the drum doesn’t sound good, no kind of microphone, EQ, or compression is going to make it sound good going to tape,” concludes Plotnikoff. “It’s just like you can’t get a big Marshall guitar sound if you’re miking a tiny Champ amp.”
Fig. 2 While an SKG D112 is inside the kick drum — positioned inches from the beater's impact point — an exterior, large diaphragm microphone picks up the drum's low-end frequencies from outside the resonant head.