One of the most recognizable sonic signatures in the history of rock drumming is John Bonham’s aggressive and roomy sound on “When The Levee Breaks” from Led Zeppelin IV. While Bonham was a monster hitter with a fat drum kit, his sound was made bigger than life on the recording by the employment of a simple miking approach that successfully captured both the kit and the amazing ambience of the space in which the drums were recorded.
This huge sound was the result of just two microphones strategically positioned on the second landing of a three-story staircase above a hallway in which Bonham was playing. The two recorded tracks were then prodigiously squished through 1,176 compressors and run through a Binson EchoRec to imbue the drums with that over-the-top character. That’s extreme room sound at its best. It was a pivotal point in drum recording history that put a new spin on the way people thought about using drum ambience to enhance a composition.
You’ve no doubt noticed sonic changes when you play your kit in different rooms … Sometimes it’s good and, well, sometimes it’s not. But capturing the acoustic reflections of drums being played in a sweet space does most-excellent things for the recording. Room ambience plays one of the biggest roles in how natural, dry, or huge the recorded drums will sound. Since there are different situations and not all are ideal, you’ll need to be armed with a variety of approaches for getting and using room response to maximize your drum recording.
To get a broad spectrum of experience on the topic of recording drums and utilizing room ambience, I conferred with George Borden, the Advanced Recording instructor at Ex'pression College For Digital Arts, solicited input from the History Of Music Production instructor Scott Theakston, and obtained commentaries from world-class engineers Joe Chiccarelli and Eddie Kramer. Here’s the scoop.
In order to get a good recording, however, the fundamental elements need to be in order. “The drummer, the tuning of the kit, and the sound of the room must all be top drawer,” states Eddie Kramer, who had the pleasure of capturing Bonham’s “ridiculously aggressive” sound on a number of Zeppelin recordings. That said, make sure the kit is tuned well and hit those skins with conviction. As for the room, both Borden and Kramer favor the warm resonance of wood and the expansiveness of 12-foot to 14-foot high ceilings.
But not everyone has access to a castle with vast stairwells in which to hold a recording session. Oftentimes, getting an awesome drum sound enhanced by good ambience can be a challenge to achieve with the various limitations faced by the small project studio or low-budget recording endeavor. If you have a great-sounding space to begin with, then the world is your oyster. If you have a space that's not quite up to snuff, you'll have to pull a few tricks out of your sleeve. Here are some approaches to handle a gamut of situations.
Place any large-diaphragm condenser - one with an omni-directional pickup pattern is best to pick up more of the room - between six to eight feet out in front of the kit. The room mike(s) must be at least six feet or farther from the close-miked kit in order to prevent problems associated with comb filtering, a phase cancellation phenomenon that happens when mixing together signals from mikes receiving the same sound at slightly different times. If the ambience mikes are at least six feet from the close-mikes on the kit, the amplitude and frequency content should be different enough to minimize phase issues.
The height at which you position the mike will affect the overall sound. Usually the higher you place the mike, the higher the frequency content you’ll be capturing; and the closer to the floor, the more lows you’ll be getting. Placing the mikes higher could serve to brighten up a dark-sounding room, and placing the mikes lower, even as low as one to two feet off the ground, could result in more kick drum and a darker sound (FIG 1).
Fig. 1: Microphone Placement Tips For Capturing Ambience