Studio Tips: How To Capture Your Kick
Fig. 3 To create a drum-shell bass tunnel, a 22" kick drum with ported resonant head is internally miked in front of an 18" kick drum with an intact resonant head. The primary kick drum could be additionally miked with a boundary microphone.
As one would expect, seasoned studio pros such as those profiled within this feature have had ample opportunities to experiment with a few unusual bass drum miking configurations and other interesting ideas. The most common trick — creating a “bass tube” in front of the resonant head — can lead to a boomier, deeper kick tone. You can make the tunnel using packing blankets and microphone stands, allowing an exterior mike to be far away from the kick, yet fairly isolated from other sound sources.
“Distance equals depth,” says Cobb, who uses an extra kick drum shell for the tunnel. “I always use an outside kick drum mike and put an extra kick drum on the end of the kick drum. This way, you can put a microphone two or three feet away from the kick drum. It’s still inside of a drum, which protects it from the cymbals, and adds more depth to the kick drum. I’ve even done that using a conga. Let the kick push air inside of the bottom of the conga, then mike the head of the conga. If you want a Roland 808 sound and you don’t have a drum machine, that’s a cool trick.”
Another trick yielding a similar result is using a studio monitor or other speaker wired as a microphone, which is then mixed with a primary kick microphone. “Everyone used to use that old trick,” recalls Webb. “The woofer wouldn’t pick up any highs, you’d just get the thud.” While using an actual speaker will certainly work for this application, Yamaha has improved on this trick with the introduction of a legitimate product, the Subkick SKRM100 kick drum “microphone.” The SKRM100 features a speaker-like dynamic transducer mounted within a birch/mahogany drum shell and captures audio lower than 100Hz.
Perfection Now, Manipulation Later
Once great bass-drum tracks are captured upon recorded medium via digital audio workstation, analog tape, or any other multitrack destination, the song’s aural characteristics most appropriately determine further manipulation. While many seasoned engineers print equalization, compression, and other effects to tape, most would also agree that the safest bet is to record pure tracks to tape, since virtually all modern recording systems allow non-destructive effects to be added at a later date and in more informed circumstances.
“There are enough compressors around, especially in the software world, where you can commit that stuff after the fact and not destroy your tracks,” explains Cobb. “For instance, you can commit compression in Pro Tools and save it on a different track so you don’t lose the original signal. If you compress a snare drum or kick drum going in, and you do it the wrong way or a little too much, you can never get that sound back. It’s gone.”
The same thing goes for equalization, reverbs, and other effects. “Get the best sound you can with the mikes that you have,” offers Cobb. “Before you go to grab an EQ or whatever, just grab the mike and move it. The less you mess with stuff, the more natural it sounds. The more you EQ something, the more it takes away from the natural sound of the drum.”
Certainly, compressing kick signals — along with other drum tracks — to tape is often done and can give you louder, more consistent transients on tape. Webb, for instance, always compresses kick drum. “You have to be careful, though,” he says. “If you’re not experienced with a compressor, you should learn to use it first. You don’t want to make the mistake of over-compressing it. There’s no turning back. If you must, keep the ratio down to a 3:1 sort of thing so that it’s not super aggressive.”
Cobb concurs. “It needs to be something really subtle, like 2:1 compression. And only use it to get enough signal in, just have it knock off a couple of dB, just enough to get the full bandwidth of the A/D converters.”
Most importantly, if you’re a drummer performing popular music, act as your own compressor to tape: simply kick with consistency. “In the studio, we often don’t require that much subtlety,” explains Tavaglione. “From a rock perspective, I’m looking for consistency of volume. Actually, I’m even looking for a lack of dynamics in regards to the kick. Modern productions aren’t terribly dynamic. The drummer is often the timing foundation that doesn’t change volume a whole lot in the final mix, which is kind of unfortunate, but that’s how it is. So I would suggest to play every kick solid, full volume, and as consistent as possible.”
As always, concludes Webb, it all comes back to being a great musician: “The most important thing out of all of this is if you have a great drummer, he can make any kick drum track sound great.”