Fig. 1 An AKG D112 positioned inside a bass drum with a ported resonant head.
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.”
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.