Studio Secrets: How To Record Toms

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I use three primary kits for recording:

1) A bebop kit, with its toms tuned up high (10" tom tom, and 14" floor tom). These toms are suitable for jazz, and not much else, as they have a very distinct sound.

2) The ubiquitous rock kit. This is the kit for loud, edgy rock music. It has five toms (8", 10", and 12" tom toms, and 14" and 16" floor toms).

3) Then there’s the versatile kit. It works well in many different styles of music, including pop, acoustic rock, contemporary jazz, latin, and funk. In addition to the tom sizes already mentioned, there is also a 13" rack tom and an 18" floor tom. These toms are almost never used all at the same time. Rather, I select the correct size combination for the particular recording scenario.

Got Heads?

Think for a moment. Do you remember the last time you replaced the heads on your toms? If you don’t, it’s been too long. Seriously. Fresh heads on the toms – or on any other drum, for that matter – will do more for your drum sound than anything else. Change heads as frequently as you can afford to do it.

As for choosing the type of head to use on your toms, it’s all about the final sound. So don’t get hung up on what might be right or wrong. Experiment with how different types of heads sound on your toms. I tend to keep single-ply coated heads on top and clear single-ply, medium-weight heads on the bottom. I’ve found this combination sounds good through a wide range of different tunings, making them suitable for many different styles of music. Plus, by not having to frequently switch out heads from something less versatile, like a heavier two-ply head or a thinner clear head, I save a lot of time. A bit of advice: Do your head changing before you get into the studio. While touch-up tuning is okay, burning up expensive studio time to change heads won’t go over so well with the person writing the checks.

A well-tuned tom is a must when recording. There are too many ways to tune tom heads in relation to one another to discuss here. Just make sure that the tom heads (both top and bottom) are in tune within themselves. I generally have the top and bottom head tuned to the same pitch, but there are many different tuning techniques. Try some alternatives. When considering a tom’s pitch, remember that each tom size has a small range of head tension where it has a big, full, resonate sound. When a tom is tuned too low, it has minimal decay and a flat tonal quality. Tune a tom too high, and it sounds like the top of a tin can. Find the optimum tuning range for each of your toms. While changes in pitch of a step or two might be possible on a single tom, use different tom sizes to achieve drastic changes in pitch.

Fig. 4. Duct tape placement.

Gaffer Tape Rules

Always carry gaffer or duct tape in your stick bag. The proper dampening of the toms is almost equal to tuning in importance. A well-placed piece of gaffer tape can eliminate unwanted overtones. These can be triggered by playing adjacent toms, hitting the tom itself, or by playing the kick drum. There is a great deal of time spent during a mix trying to get rid of tom whine. The more done to get rid of it before the start of recording the better. I strive for the sound quality of each tom to be the same. Look at the photo of my toms from a recent session (Fig. 4) – each tom required a different amount and placement of tape to get a similar sound. There are no rules here. Just get “the sound.”

Microphone Lust

Microphone choice should not be an arbitrary undertaking. My goal is almost always to capture what I hear in the room. A great-sounding drum is not going to be accurately captured by just any mike. In a perfect world, you should try different mikes until you find the one that makes the tom (or any drum) sound its best. I try to track drums without EQ (flat) whenever possible. As I said before, EQ shouldn’t be used to try to compensate for a wrong mike choice or a poor-sounding instrument – it will never be able to do so.

As a general rule, dynamic mikes are used when you want to minimize the high frequencies of the toms. This includes most styles of rock, as well as much pop music. Conversely, when the high tom frequencies are desired, such as in jazz, fusion, and some pop music, a condenser mike is the better choice. But remember, rules are made to be broken! All these mikes are directional, meaning they increasingly reject sound the further you move off axis from the front. This helps keep the other voices of the drum set from bleeding into the tom mikes.

Microphones recently used on my toms for recording:

Audix D2 (rack)
D4 (floor)
i-5 (all)
Beyer 201 (all)
Sennheiser 421 (all)
Shure SM57 (all)

AKG C 414
EB (all)
Neumann KM 84
KM 184 (all)

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