Pursuit Of The Perfect Drum Sound

bass drum

The bass drum is one of the most important elements in a song. It works in partnership with the bass guitar to create a pulse for the music, drawing the listener into the listening experience. From a recording standpoint, the bass drum must be captured correctly or the mixing engineer will be at a serious disadvantage. Getting a good sound comes down to a combination of the drum and microphone. Just as the player’s technique plays a major role in how the drum is voiced, the microphone choice and placement are the recording engineer’s contribution to the sound. In this article we will cover some of the most commonly used microphones for bass drum recording, discuss placement techniques, and explain some of the strange tricks engineers use to capture the bass drum in the studio.

First Thing's First

Before anything else, you first need to determine the type of bass drum sound you want. What does the producer want? What is the drummer trying to achieve? From the clicking doom of a metal double kick to the inferred bloom of a 24" big band bass drum, the recording engineer has to know the goal for the song. We need to gauge how much beater articulation and how much low end from the shell will be needed come mixdown time.

Once the style is established, it’s time to examine the drum to determine its fundamental pitch. The best way to find out is by taking off the heads and – gulp – all the hardware. Stick one hand inside the drum and suspend it by a finger or two. Strike the outside of the shell with the meat of the bottom of your other hand (as if you were holding a hammer). You should hear a definitive “thump.” Record this sound, run it through a spectrum analyzer, or identify the note on a keyboard.

Each drum has a resonance where it will sing best. Some people determine the musical note of the drum. I find knowing the frequency much more important, as the 12 notes repeat across the audible spectrum. Most kick drums will fall in the G# range from 52—104Hz.

One revelation from this test is the discovery that drum dimensions don’t always indicate its pitch. The wood, the number of plies, and how the manufacturer fabricates the instrument are much more important factors. In fact, two drums of the same size can often have different fundamental tones. Knowing this frequency will help with tuning and choosing a good microphone for the recording.

Next, you need to consider the resonant head. Many engineers like to use two mikes to capture a bass drum – one inside for articulation and another in front to capture the low end. In order to place a microphone inside the bass drum, either the front head should have a vent port cut into it (Fig. 1) or it should be removed altogether. If it’s solid, it limits the engineer’s options to other types of placements.

Be warned: This can be a political hot button on stage and in the studio. I’ve seen shouting matches over making such changes. Usually the engineer wants to remove the front head against the drummer’s wishes. I take the view that I have a job because the drummer needs me – not the other way around.

So I will work with whatever situation I face. Some engineers love resonant heads; others hate them. Personally, I like having a port – it’s an extra option – but good sounds can be achieved both ways.

bass drum

Fig. 1 If the resonant head has a vent, that’s good news for getting a dynamic inside the shell. Of course, it has to fit in the port! Although large, this Telefunken M82 can make it if you are carfeul about the mount. Note the fraying on the port; that’s from rough removals of microphones.

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