As drummers, we are in charge of the band’s dynamics and sonic sensibilities. We control the low end through our bass drum, the top end through our cymbals, and the all-important midrange through our snare and toms. But to fully understand our dynamic and sonic responsibilities, we need to understand the drums from the inside out, both in studio and in concert. By recording our own drums we can take control of the sonic environment by training our ears and our brains to operate in a recording engineer’s capacity through the world of microphones, room treatment, EQ, and sound. Once you understand how to mike and record your drums, whether in a Pro Tools rig with a single microphone and an MBox, or in a professional studio with a 64-track analog console and multiple microphones, your integration into the music-making process will be complete. You’ll no longer be at the mercy of the recording engineer, and your drum sound and musicianship within the group will increase your cachet (just keep your ego in check!)
DRUM! spoke with three prominent recording engineers about recording essentials; their answers were as varied as the styles of music they record. Chris Dugan has the honor of recording Tre Cool with Green Day, beginning with 2004’s American Idiot, through to the band’s most recent live CD, Awesome As F**k. Eric Liljestrand is Lucinda Williams’ regular engineer (recording Butch Norton), but he’s also worked with Ringo Starr, Laurie Anderson, U2, and Bill Frisell. Sonic Youth’s Aaron Mullan is also a guitarist (with SY drummer Steve Shelley in the band Spectre Folk), and has worked in both concert and studio environments.
So, let’s assume you have the basics: Pro Tools LE, an audio interface (Avid MBox, Digidesign 003) to convert analog microphone signals into the digital realm, and a handful of microphones. What’s essential to a great drum sound?
“It helps to understand frequencies for EQ and how a 31-band graphic equalizer works,” Aaron Mullan explains from Sonic Youth’s studio in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Plug a microphone into a 31-band graphic EQ and talk through it, make it feedback at each point, and then you’ll realize what each tone is at that [respective] point. So when there’s too much head sound in a drum, you’ll know that’s around 630 or 800Hz. You might want to make a cut from 400 to 500Hz on the toms. Or you may want to boost depending on the fundamental note of the tom, in the 80 to 125 range. With cymbals, if you want more sizzle, maybe that’s 10, 12, or 16kHz. If it’s too trashy you need to cut about 2k. So I do some preliminary EQ, hopefully the band plays the song a few times, then I make adjustments. Then at least you know you’re in the ballpark.”
“I’m a drummer, too, so I like the sound when you’re sitting behind the kit,” says Chris Dugan, who works out of Green Day’s Jingle Town studios in Oakland. “Behind the kit, where your ears pick up everything, is usually a good mix. That would be the overhead mikes, which I place 6’ off the floor and roughly 2’ behind the drummer. That overall sound of the kit gives me an idea of where to start. ”
You may only have one or two mikes, but don’t let that stop you. Many great jazz and big band recordings were made with a single drum set microphone, and with software presets and careful room treatment you can maximize a minimal setup. Single-microphone scenarios include placement 3’ directly overhead aimed down toward the bass drum, just over the right shoulder aimed across the entire kit, 3’ in front of the drums on an even plane with the cymbals, or 3’ away and above the kit, angled toward the cymbals. More than likely you will have at least a couple of mikes to work with, giving you multiple options. The popular Glyn Johns approach consists of four mikes: one on the front bass drumhead, one angled between the ride cymbal and the toms, and two overheads, spread out equidistant from the snare drum. Then, you pan the mike positions to create a stereo image, paying attention to phase and delay concerns.
“If I had one good mike, I would use that mike as the mono overhead,” Aaron Mullan says. “Other than that, I would put the best mike on the kick drum. It’s about using your ear. Listen to your microphones without any EQ or compression — if they don’t sound good move them around.”
“If I had only one mike I’d put it either out front or above,” Eric Liljestrand adds. “That’s the sound of the whole kit. If I recorded a kit with two mikes I would put one inside the kick drum and then one at maybe head height, 6’ in front of the kit.”
Aaron Mullan, Sonic Youth
What if you own a full battery of microphones? Then close miking, overheads, and room mikes provide ultimate coverage. Each pro has a singular approach.
“Starting with the bass drum,” Mullan explains. “I place the mike [an EV RE666 with Steve Shelley] in the middle of the shell at a 45 degree angle to the head. That angle takes the tack off. I aim tom mikes outside but toward the center of the tom, maybe a 60 degree angle. They shouldn’t be aimed at the outer part of the head because that will give you less fundamental tone. For toms, Sennheiser 421s are the classic rock choice. For snare, a Shure SM57 about an inch in and pointed toward the center of the drum. If you’re miking the top and bottom snare heads, the mikes should be at a 90 degree angle to each other and one of them will require the phase to be flipped. But listen with the overheads to verify that.
“Recently, I’ve been doing one mono overhead mike [Neumann U47]. I place it opposite the drummer’s head above the bass drum, then I hit it hard with compression. The mono overhead is the Led Zeppelin effect, then the room mikes are like the Motown sound, balanced depending on the song. I place room mikes [Royer 121s] about 6’ high, 10’ away from the snare. You get a bigger stereo effect if you don’t have the mikes exactly equidistant from the snare. If you pan them hard you get a slight delay from one side of the image to the other. Steve’s drums are in the corner (in Sonic Youth’s 18’ x 40’ room), and the room mikes are placed to create a 90 degree triangle. With the mikes out like that, it gives you the actual sense of being in the room. I put the hi-hat mike [Shure SM81, Neumann KM184] about 4" away, halfway between the cymbal’s edge and the bell. The overheads usually pick up the ride cymbal.”
Chris Dugan’s approach with Tre Cool is similar, but with variations. “I might start by close-miking the snare drum [Telefunken Ela M 80], maybe 5" above the drum and in line with the rim,” he explains. “That way I can get a bigger sound, and capture what’s happening outside the shell. Same placement for the bottom snare head [Shure SM57], aimed at the center of the shell. I try to keep the mikes equal distance from the drum. I do a similar thing for tom mikes [AKG C 12As], maybe 2" over the rim, aimed in closer to the center. For the bottom head mikes [AKG C 414s], if the top mikes are 2" from the top rim, I will do the same for the bottom heads. Then I flip the phase on the bottom mike. That gives you a lot of sustain.
“For bass drum [Shure Beta 52], it’s a taste-driven thing. For beater snap, I go into the drum with the mike. Preferably there’s a hole in the front head and I’ll put the mike in just an inch. I want to hear what the drum does, rather than just the beater sound. If the inside mike is further in, I will add an outside mike. I try to stick it right in the center of the outside head, back 4". Bringing up the overheads [two Telefunken Ela M 251s] in the mix is about more than just cymbals — they open up the entire kit; you feel like you are in the seat with the drummer. I stick room mikes in the middle of the room, about 5’ wide in the middle of the room, between the drums and the back wall. I try to not to go really wide with a stereo pair of room mikes. That will give you a hard pan of kick and snare.”
Liljestrand is a conceptual thinker, but also very detail oriented, traits mirrored in his miking approach.
“When moving mikes around I will listen for sounds that reinforce each other, rather than cancel each other or fight. For the snare [Shure SM57], maybe 6" from the center of the drum, an inch or two above the rim. If I’m using a bottom snare mike I don’t want it right on the strainer, but off to the side. I favor condenser mikes [Neumann U87] on toms. I want to hear the whole picture. I place them near the tom rim, aimed at that stick-hit area. For the bass drum I place the mike [Electro Voice RE-20] inside, about 3", and just off center from the beater. The outside mike [Neumann FET 47] at about 4", slightly off center of the head, so it rings less. I view the overheads [AKG C 12As] as overall drum mikes. I put them in the middle over the drummer’s head, aimed out with the tops of the mikes almost touching each other. I aim the one on the left forward away from the hi-hat, and the other one slightly backward, to the floor tom, to get spread and de-emphasize the hat.
“I start with the overheads, get the close mikes to really sing along with the overheads, then bring in the room mikes. For room mikes, I want the drum kit to sound like one instrument. So I use a mike in omni position about 6’ in front and 5’ high. I generally use a stereo pair of room mikes, too, and a mono ribbon mike. After a point I don’t want that many choices so just those three room mikes do the trick.”
Chris Dugan, Green Day
Drum tracks are eventually blended with the other instruments, then vocals are added, then final mix and mastering. If drums are typically recorded first, with everything layered over the rhythm tracks, are expensive mikes really necessary?
“A mike like a Neumann U47 has that silky smooth top end,” says Aaron Mullan. “It’s very detailed yet very velvety. The Neumann TLM 103 is a great large-diaphragm condenser for 1/10th the price. But there are tons of cheap large-diaphragm condensers around these days. You’re better off with one pretty nice mike than a collection of okay mikes. Anyone interested in recording should figure out how to make a great recording with an SM57 and an MBox. Then worry about getting more gear.”
So, less expensive mikes are okay for our budding engineer’s ears. Would the relative placement of the mikes stay the same?
“For the most part,” Mullan responds. “Try this: If you find a drum sound you really like, such as an individual tom hit, sample that and record your own tom sound on a separate track and start experimenting with EQ until the two sounds are similar. Make a one-bar loop of that sampled tom sound, and play with your EQ until the two sound similar. I did that recently with a plate reverb sound, which I was trying to emulate with my home studio reverb. I took a vocal that I had put through the plate at the Sonic Youth studio and with my plug-in reverb at home tried to match it with a dry vocal. It really helped me to understand the parameters of the plug-in. Now I have a preset I can recall.”
Many recording engineers add a little compression during tracking, then EQ the drums later, often using the presets in Pro Tools, Logic Audio, Fruity Loops, or Cubase. The pros have access to vintage tube gear and high-end digital effects, but can software emulate those effects?
“It’s hard for software to completely emulate hardware,” says Chris Dugan, “but can you really notice it when the recording’s done? Generally you will be fine with stock plug-ins to get going, and they’re a good way to learn, actually. Compression is tricky, and if you need to experiment why not do it with free EQ? Massey plug-ins are not free, but they are cheap, and they kick ass.”
Perhaps more important than time spent on EQ is time (and money) spent on room treatment. Worst case scenario: You’re in a garage, the concrete bunker of recording situations. Raid the rest of the house to treat the garage, starting with the walls.
“Parallel walls are such a disaster for sound,” says Aaron Mullan. “So anything you can do to change that. Get some Owens Corning 703 fiberglass. Put that on the wall and cover it with any kind of fabric. That will absorb high frequencies, which are the problem there. You can even build some little 4’ x 4’ frames, and fill them with the foam. Then move them around, or space them evenly along the walls.”
“The live sound in a garage will give you some energy,” Chris Dugan says. “But if you need to dampen that, use diffusion to break up any echoes. If it’s an empty garage, lay down a carpet. You can also get pegboard, and pinch a 4’ x 4’ square piece together to create a bubble shape. If you mount that on the wall it’s a perfect way to diffuse echo. Maybe put a little insulation in it. You just want to create some surface differences on the wall. And you can hang your cables on the pegs that come with the pegboard.”
“A couch can break up standing waves,” Eric Liljestrand adds. “Blankets work great if you need damping material. I don’t do all that foam on the ceiling. You’re trying to create a sound you want to hear, and that may not be it. In that situation go for a cool sound rather than a perfect sound. Maybe put the drummer in the corner rather than against the flat wall. That gives you some spread and eliminates the parallel walls from the equation. And you’ll get more bottom end if the drummer is in the corner.”
Pro Tools is common enough these days, and alternatives include Logic Audio and GarageBand — or you can still go analog, a much cheaper route if you use something like a Tascam 8-channel mixer. But microphones, mike preamps, and outboard plug-ins remain costly. Still, there are alternatives.
“As far as preamps,” Mullan advises, “I really like the Metric Halo gear. They make the 2882 box which has eight mike preamps and it also does A to D conversion. And with Pro Tools 9 you can use whatever hardware. That is really handy and sounds great. I don’t know what they sell for, but you can probably get a good deal on an Electro Voice RE-666. [$250 on eBay.] My general rule: If it was used on a Stones record before 1977 [as was the RE-666], it’s gonna sound good. For DAW software, the Pro Tools gate is as effective as any hardware gate and it’s convenient. If you know what you’re trying to do with an EQ, that is more important than the tool itself.”
Eric Liljestrand, Lucinda Williams
So you’ve recorded your drums, created a solid stereo image with placement and panning, now you’re ready to beef up the sound with equalization. With kick drums, it’s a good idea to thin out the midrange around 425Hz, which minimizes the “cardboard box” effect. Boosting presence around 4kHz helps the beater to cut through everything else.
“Too much EQ is the usual problem,” says Liljestrand. “It’s generally in two directions, 100Hz and below, and 4 to 6kHz. They are trying to make it punchy. If you’re doing a metal record and trying to cut through a wall of guitars, you have to do that to some degree, but on a lot of those albums the drums sound like typewriters.
“As a rule of thumb,” Mullan offers, “I will bump up the top snare mike, anywhere from 10kHz, for crispness. With the kick drum it’s typical to cut 500Hz out — that gives you more thud and less honk. For general kick/tom settings, it’s usually tight boosts in the 80 to 125[Hz] range and wider cuts in the 300 to 600[Hz] range. Overheads and room mikes I tend not to EQ until later, mostly because it’s hard to know early on how they are going to be used. If you’re going for the close-mike ’70s thing and the overheads are only in charge of providing cymbals, they can be high-passed up to 1kHz or so. If you’re going more ’60s, don’t use the close mikes on the toms, and do that same 80 to 125[Hz] boost on the overheads. You might have to cut out some cymbal wash around 1kHz.”
One of Aaron Mullan’s favorite records for drum sound is Can’s classic Ege Bamyasi. Eric Liljestrand likes extremes, from Steely Dan’s Aja to Neil Young’s Harvest.
“Harvest has got really good leakage, and it sounds like everyone is in the room,” Liljestrand says. “The drums are not up front but they are menacing in the back. The opposite of Steely Dan. And King Crimson’s Red. There’s nothing extra there. It’s so aggressive, but with a lot of mikes on the drums — that extreme Bill Bruford sound. Or maybe he has tuned everything tightly so it’s all cranked.”
What gets you cranked? Rush’s 2112? Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown? The Beatles’ Abbey Road? Whatever your sound or style, you’ll understand it better from the inside out. Start recording, start learning, start killing!