There are a number of factors involved in getting a particular drum sound for a recording. These parameters include head selection and tuning as well as shell dimensions, material, and construction. Microphone selection and placement further influences that tonality, as will fine-tuning with equalization. Let’s take a look at these variables and see how they influence the sound of the drums.
Drum dimensions and construction have an effect on pitch, resonance, and projection. A wide diameter drum will readily deliver a lower pitch while a smaller diameter drum will pop out a higher note more easily. Deep drums typically yield a bigger, more powerful wallop (check out power toms) and shallow drums have a quicker, brighter response, allowing for distinct articulation and detail. Thickness comes into play as well; thin shells vibrate at a lower frequency and tend to be more resonant while thicker drums resonate at a higher frequency and project a drier, louder sound.
Reinforcing rings in the construction of the shell tend to decrease sustain to a degree while sounding warmer and accentuating a midrange presence, and shells without this feature will have a brighter attack characteristic and greater resonance. A 45-degree bearing edge results in bright overtones and a longer sustain whereas a 30-degree bearing edge offers a slightly more controlled tone with a bit less high-pitched ring. Rounded edges facilitate a muted tone due to the amount of shell contacting the head.
The type of hoop will also affect the resonance factor. Die cast hoops, which are more rigid, tend to constrict the resonance of the shell and result in a drier sound while adding power to rim shots. Wood hoops will also result in a somewhat drier sound, but will open up the resonance a bit and facilitates a nice fat side-stick crack. A triple flanged hoop lets the shell resonate for a more open sound.
Shells can be made of wood or metal and sometimes acrylic or carbon fiber, with the different materials having both distinctive and subtle effects on the tonality. Maple tends to offer a warm open sound with plenty of low frequency presence while birch produces a more focused tone with augmented highs and good low-end punch. Other hardwoods such as bubinga, oak, walnut, and cherry offer variations in hardness and density that affect how dry the overall sound is, how well the drum projects, its brightness, and its low-end response.
Metal, acrylic, and carbon fiber shells tend to be brighter than wood and louder with greater projection, though a thick-shelled wood drum can rival metal in projection. Snare drum shells made of aluminum sound crisp and can have woody tone. They are sensitive and can sound either bright or warm depending on heads and tuning. Copper, while a bit drier, has similar sonic characteristics to aluminum. Brass sounds darker and more resonant than aluminum, and steel sounds bright and pingy. Bronze tends to sound drier than brass, but less so than aluminum.
The heads probably contribute the most to the sound of the drum along with shell characteristics and tuning. There are an incredible number of options for every sound and situation, from clear and bright to dark and muffled and everything in between. (For a thorough treatment of drumheads, see “Inside Your Head” August 2009 issue).
In short, single ply heads allow for a ringy, open sound and double ply heads provide a more controlled sound, meaning reduced overtones, often desirable for miking situations. Thicker heads enhance low-end harmonics to a degree, adding some dimension to kick drum and toms. Heads incorporating overtone control features such as rings and dots focus attack, fatten up the sound, and put the pull the reins in on high-frequency overtones.
Clear heads tend to be bright and open sounding, accentuating the high-pitched overtones around the stick attack and enhancing resonance, while coated heads are warmer and minimize really bright overtones. Coated and etched heads provide the texture for brushwork and a crisp stick attack as well as a darker tone, which is desirable for jazzier applications.
The batter head affects the sound of the stick attack while the resonant head affects sustain and overtones. A thinner resonant head tends to enhance the high frequency tones and minimize low-end response. Using a thin to medium clear resonant head can augment sustain while using a double-ply head on the batter side can control the overtone factor.
Each drum has an optimal tuning range and resonates most freely at its fundamental sweet spot. When both heads are tuned to the same pitch, the sound is the most open. Pitching the batter head higher than the resonant head produces a descending pitch shift on the note. Tune the resonant head higher than the batter for snare and toms for a punchy attack. For a natural low-end thump on kick drum, tune the batter side higher than resonant head.
Tighter tuning results in a snappier sound that can be further emphasized by using thinner single ply heads. Looser tuning and thicker double ply heads can result in a fatter, lower pitched sound. In your quest for optimum tuning, remember that drums will sound different out in front of the kit at a distance than it will from the drummer’s position. Think of the kit holistically in the space and pitch the drums higher than you might think as a matter of course. A higher pitch allows the drum to carry more than a lower pitch.
A more focused sound is often preferred for miking situations. If extra dampening is needed despite your choice of heads and tuning, Moon Gels or zero rings or even taping a bit of paper towel to the head can be very effective at taming unwanted overtones. Room acoustics, dead or live, become part of equation and affect the sound you get from the drum kit, so one tuning won’t necessarily work for every situation. You’ll need to tune the drums for the space and for the music. Use your ears and find a good balance.
Microphone choice and placement has a big influence on the sound that you’ll get on a recording. Placing the mike toward the edge of the drum will pick up more high pitched overtones while moving it a bit further in from the edge can diminish those overtones. A directional mike angled down toward the head will result in a boost in low end due to proximity effect. Stick attack can be emphasized by angling the mike toward the impact zone at the center of the head.
Dynamic microphones are often used for close miking because they are hardy beasts that can handle the high SPLs, offer good off axis rejection, and often feature a presence boost around 4kHz to 5kHz which helps accentuate stick attack. Standard choices range from the ubiquitous Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD421 to the Heil PR22 and Audix D2 to name a few. For kick drum, reach for a large diaphragm dynamic designed for low frequency applications, such as the AKG D112, Sennheiser e902, Audix D6, and the like.
Condenser microphones have greater sensitivity over dynamic mikes and capture a more open, detailed sound because of their extended frequency response and accurate handling of transient peaks. They may pick up more of the adjacent instruments than you might like because of that sensitivity, so if that becomes an issue, a tighter pattern dynamic may be the way to go. Condensers are often used for overhead and room miking, though they can also be used on toms, snare, and kick drum to pick up greater detail and a certain airiness that may be less apparent with a dynamic mike. Some close miking choices include the Shure Beta 98 clip on mike, the Audix Micro-D, AKG C3000B, and AKG C451.
Here are some initial suggestions for getting your drum sound in the ballpark for several recognizable musical styles. There is no “one way” to go about achieving a particular sound, and creativity is the fun part. Experiment and use your own ears and judgment to find a setup, tuning, and miking situation that works for you and the music.
The rock objective aims for loud, beefy sounding drums with lots of power and projection. A typical basic rock kit configuration could include 12" x 9", 13" x 10", and 16" x 16" toms, a 22" x 18" kick drum, and a 14" x 5.5" snare, though they come in other sizes. The bigger the drum, the louder and bigger the sound, so if you’re going for that huge old school explosive sound, you’ll want to lean toward larger dimensions. If you’re going for a more controlled, modern punchy sound to cut through heavy guitars, choosing shells made of birch could give you the edge on a more focus.
For a full-sounding snare with good high-end pop in the attack and good projection, choose a metal drum or a thicker wood shell. A deeper drum would have a beefier sound. Use single or double-ply coated head on the batter side and clear or hazy thin single ply on the snare side. For a more ambient sound, use either an XY or split pair of condenser mikes overhead (such as AKG C414s, Shure SM81s, or Neumann KM184s) and blend liberally with a bit of the close mike (such as the Audix i5 or Shure SM57) to taste.
The toms should be deep and heavier sounding with lots of body. A double ply head used on the batter side will give you a fatter sound with controlled overtones, and a thinner clear head on the resonant side, pitched slightly higher than the batter side will give some extra punch. The overhead mikes will pick up a more ambient sound and let the resonance of the toms develop. Clip-on condensers like Shure’s Beta98 or Audix’s MicroD will capture a punchy, tight sound, and dynamics like Sennheiser’s e604 or Audix’s D2 will also do the job on toms. A Sennheiser MD421 on the floor tom will capture more of that low-end oomph. Emphasis in the midrange between 1kHz and 4kHz will bring the toms forward in the mix and accentuate a dramatic attack.
The kick should have a full bottom end and a big defined attack. Moderately muffled double-ply heads will give you a more controlled tone. The standard miking approach is to position a large diaphragm dynamic mike such as AKG’s D112, Shure’s Beta52, or Sennheiser’s e902 just inside the port, aimed at the beater to capture a blend of low-end oomph and defined attack. An alternative approach is to put a large diaphragm condenser (classic Neumann FET47 or Shure KSM32 for instance) out in front to capture the lows and a dynamic such as the Sennheiser MD421 or Shure SM57 on the beater to capture the attack.
The jazz vibe features an open, natural sound with crisp definition and a good brush sound on the snare drum, and a bit of resonance in the kick drum for dropping bombs with some drama. Maple shells offer a warm open sound. Typical jazz drum kit sizes tend to be smaller with standard dimensions of 10" x 8", 12" x 9", and 14" x 14" toms, 20" or 18" x 16" or 14" kick drum, and a 14" x 5.5" snare. A combination of single ply medium weight coated heads on the batter side and clear single ply medium weight heads on the resonant side with an open tuning and no dampening provides a fairly focused attack, natural sustain, and warm tone for acoustic settings.
An aluminum or wood snare would provide a mellow, warm tone. A coated or etched single ply head on the batter allows for the signature papery attack of the stick and the good sweep for brushes. The toms should have a natural resonance but still sound fairly tight, which should be easy to achieve with the smaller sizes. For a warmer sound that is tight but still open sounding, a coated single ply head is a good choice.
Oftentimes the smaller kick drum will have no hole in the resonant head for that signature round, live sound that can vex recording engineers from time to time. Mike placement is very important to get a good balance of tone while still getting some definition from the attack so the drum doesn’t sound murky. Start by placing a kick drum mike off center, closer to the edge of the drum a couple of inches off the head and angled just a bit toward the beater area on the other side of the drum. Move the mike around until you get the sound you want.
To maintain that open, cohesive and natural sound, minimal miking is employed to record jazz drums. Oftentimes a nice pair of small or large diaphragm condenser mikes for overheads and a kick drum mike will suffice. For low-end enhancement on a double-headed jazz kick, you could try using a Yamaha Sub Kick just off the front head to capture the 100Hz to 160Hz range in addition to an EV RE20, or Shure KSM32 or KSM44 just a bit back from the Sub Kick to catch the rest of it.
For that classic funk sound, you need quick articulation on the snare drum and a full punchy sounding kick with focused toms that can be either more muted by using double ply heads with incorporated overtone control rings or more full and natural by using clear double ply heads. The best way to get that kind of snap and articulation from the snare is to use a piccolo snare between 12" and 14" in diameter and 3"—4.5" in depth with single-ply heads for a fast and bright response.
A full punchy kick without the snap of the beater and the boom can be achieved by using heavier muffling. Two-ply muffled heads on the batter and resonant sides will control resonance and focus the sound. Examples would be Remo Powerstroke4, Aquarian Superkick II, Evans EQ3. Go for a single ply muffled batter for controlled overtones and a sharp attack.
For a tight ’70s funk pop sound, use close miking with dynamic microphones in a dampened room to achieve a controlled sound and keep the ambience at a minimum. A late ’60s James Brown aesthetic calls for a more open sound with minimal miking, rather capturing much of the ambience of the kit with overheads and blending in close mikes for definition. With any of these sounds, the potential is as limitless as your options. The key is in how much you’re willing to experiment. With any luck you’ll learn to enjoy that as much as playing!
Following are some mike selection suggestions for snare, toms, and kick drum to help further enhance a particular aspect of the drum. It is by no means exhaustive and is primarily a guideline to get you started. The microphones you choose for close miking should be unidirectional — either cardioid or hypercardioid.
While each situation is different and EQ choices are subjective, here are some general guidelines for equalization frequency ranges based on each type of drum. Cut a few dB to minimize, or boost a few dB to accentuate and shape your sound as necessary. Be careful about boosting in the “murky” zone as you might muddy up a mix.