“How’d they get that sound?” At 15 years of age, after my very first recording session, this phrase entered my lexicon and stuck. I’ve uttered it countless times since. It slipped past my lips as recently as last night. While the road to great recorded sounds is one that is continuous and ever evolving, there are skills acquired along the way that make it easier. Although by no means complete, here is some of what I’ve learned, borrowed, stolen, and otherwise acquired over the past 33 years of trying to get a great tom sound.
Upon analysis you’ll find there are relatively few tom hits in most songs, especially when compared to, let’s say, hi-hat or ride cymbal hits. Yet much of the recording and mixing process is consumed by trying to get the toms to sound good. Why is this so? Perhaps it’s the fact that toms can outnumber all the other voices of a drum set. Or that they always want to ring, hum, and rattle when silence is preferable. Maybe it’s just old drumheads, and bad tuning. Whatever the contributing factors, great tom sounds are achievable without too much angst.
Getting great sounds is an intimate, collaborative dance between drummer, engineer, and producer. When recording, be it for a client or a project of your own, check your ego at the door. There’s always another valid opinion or suggestion that might make things sound better or work better musically. Personally I look forward to learning from others. Ultimately it only increases the quality of the music.
The elements that make up the recording process for toms – and drums in general – are numerous and complex. There seems to be an infinite number of options available, including instrument, mike, and preamp choices. A bad decision on any one of these can sabotage the quality of the end result. That being said, lets look at the elements in the order I generally consider them:
Desired Sonic Color (live room sound or close-miked sound)
Instrument (drum choice, head choice, and tuning)
Microphone (type and placement)
Mix (EQ, compression, blend, and so on)
Decisions regarding the above elements can only be made after the sonic model for the recording is presented to you. This can be either a verbal description or a recording that captures the desired “vibe.” This will point everyone in the same general direction, as well as open up discussion as to drum choice and overall miking techniques.
The available recording room is also a determining factor in the choice of miking technique. A big, fat, organic, roomy drum sound can be achieved with as little as three microphones – if the room itself sounds good.
Let’s face it: the room sound of your spare bedroom is probably not going to have the qualities to enhance even the best-sounding drums. If the room sound is questionable, it’s best to minimize its presence in the recording by using more mikes, and close-mike everything. Personally I prefer to use more mikes than I feel are necessary to “get the sound.” It simply gives you more options during the mix. Just because you’ve recorded the sound from a mike, there’s no law that says you’re required to use it. If you can get the sound you want without it, don’t use it!
Ultimately, the goal is to capture what is being heard in the room. Try to get as close as possible to the desired sound with instrument choice, miking style, and mike choice before ever applying EQ, compression, or other effects.
Choosing the right drums is the next step in the process. Instrument choice is most often left up to the player. However, it’s still important to remain open to suggestions from engineer, artist, and producer: They’re the ones you need to please. They have the power to hire you again, and recommend you to others – or not. This is where restraining your ego really becomes crucial.
How many toms do you really need for the recording? More than any other voice of the drum set, the constant whine coming from the toms – caused by sympathetic vibration – muddies up a drum mix. So to help minimize the whine, leave the mondo-rock, multiple-tom, I’m-gonna’-need-a-bigger-car setup at home. Unless, of course, you’re recording a mondo-rock tune. More on lessening the whine later.
Next, chose the right size toms for the music. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to choose among multiple drum sets. So be creative. If you have to borrow or rent the appropriate drums for the recording, do so. The engineer, producer, and artist will thank you. The music will thank you. You will also appear to be very professional – always a good thing.