Studio Secrets: How To Record Toms

“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.

Snatch The Pebble From My Hand

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)
Mike Preamp
Mix (EQ, compression, blend, and so on)

Color My World

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.

A Tom Sound For Every Season

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.

{pagebreak}

Get Your Bearings

Something I almost never think about is a drum’s bearing edges. I’ve always put the head on the drum, tuned it, hit it, and it either sounded good or it didn’t. But bearing edges play a big role in the tonal quality of a drum. Look at the three different bearing edges in the photos.

Fig. 1. Slingerland bearing edge.

The round bearing edge shown in Fig. 1 is from a vintage Slingerland tom. As you might imagine, this bearing edge has a lot of surface area in contact with the head. Tonally, the drum is very warm sounding. This edge also causes the sound to decay faster than that of a drum with sharper bearing edges.

Fig. 2. PDP bearing edge.

Fig. 2 is of a maple PDP exotic finish tom. The sharp bearing edge on this drum helps make it the brightest sounding drum of the three. It also helps give the drum a longer decay, as the head vibrates more freely. This is one versatile tom. Different head types, muffling, even slight changes in tuning, will make this tom sound radically different.

Fig. 3. Yamaha Recording Custom bearing edge.

Fig. 3 is an early 1980s Yamaha Recording Custom tom. This bearing edge falls somewhere in between the previous two drums. Because of the edge – and the fact that the drum is birch – it has a contained, fundamental-pitch-focused sound that sits well in a variety of music styles.

{pagebreak}

Must Have More Drums!

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:

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

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

{pagebreak}

Mike placement, for dynamic and condenser mikes alike, falls roughly into two categories: moderately close and very close.

Simply put, the very close-mike placement takes advantage of the “proximity effect” – the inherent tendency of a directional mike to boost low frequencies as it gets closer to the sound source. Also, because the mike is not pointing where the stick is making contact with the tom head, the attack of the tom is also less prominent. More bark and less bite, you might say. Try a distance of 1"—2" from the head to start. Keep in mind that every tom is different. These mike positions are starting places – move them around until they sound best.

The moderately close miking position is, by far, the most common. Distance from the head to the mike is approximately between 3"—8" (Fig. 5). It allows for more of the sound around the tom to be picked up, not just the sound of the head. This results in a recorded sound that more closely resembles what you’re hearing in the room. Again, alter the mike position until you get the sound you want.

Fig. 5. Microphone placement.

Minor mike position adjustments can affect the sound dramatically. Experiment with the mike distance from the head, as well as the angle of the mike to the tom head. Microphones hear what’s in front of them, unless they have an “omni” pickup pattern (none of the listed mikes do). To increase stick attack begin to angle the mike more toward the center of the head a little at a time until the desired sound is attained. For more ring and less attack, point the mike more toward the edge of the head. A tom’s overtones and most of its ring originate from here.

As important as the mikes used to close-mike toms are those used as overheads and room mikes. In the mix, overheads and room mikes (if used) might end up producing the majority of the tom sound. This is, of course, dependent on the final sound desired. Small and large diaphragm condenser microphones handle this role, almost exclusively.

Fig. 6. Overhead placement.

Most often I use stereo overheads above the left and right side of the drum set, making sure that each mike is equidistant from the center of the snare drum – a technique I learned from my good friend Bob Stark (more from him later). It is important that the mike is placed along the axis of pivot where the cymbal has minimal movement (Fig. 6). If it is placed so that the cymbal moves toward and away from the mike, some very ugly swirling effects will be heard.

Microphones recently used as overheads (and room mikes) for recording (in pairs):

Audix SCX25 (A personal favorite)
Neumann KM84
BrĂ¼el & Kjaer 4011 (Now DPA Microphones)
AKG C 414 B-XL II
Earthworks QTC40 QTC (Omni pattern)

A bit of advice: Use the best overhead mikes you can afford. They will contribute the majority of the drum sound in a mix. A $200 pair of condenser mikes will never achieve the sound quality of those costing 10 or 20 times as much. This is a case where price equals quality.

{pagebreak}

Preamps Are Essential

A microphone preamp boosts the low output level of a mike up to levels that audio equipment can better use. This is where noise and unwanted mike coloration is most-often introduced to a recorded sound. Since the cleanest path possible between the mike and recorder is desirable, a high-quality mike preamp is incredibly important. Never skimp on this part of the audio chain. You could have the best-sounding toms, the coolest-sounding room, and microphones that kill, and a cheap preamp will destroy it all before it ever gets recorded.

For the most part, it is most desirable to use preamps on toms that do not color the sound. These are mostly high-quality, class-A preamps with lots of gain and little noise. Of the four preamps listed below, the Vintech 473 is the preamp that will most color the sound – in an old-school kind of a way. It’s based on the legendary Neve 1073 preamp, first introduced in the early 1970s. It is hard to quantify, but this preamp just injects a certain magic into the mix. It’s even more suited for use on kick and snare.

Some of my personal preamp favorites:
API 512C (one channel)
Earthworks 1024 (four channels)
True Audio Systems
Precision 8 (eight channels)
Vintech 473 (four channels with EQ)

Mixing Ain’t Easy

Mixing is part art, part craft, and part religion. I’ve been seated at the altar for 15 years, and still feel like a complete novice. So for a brief discussion on mixing toms I went to my resident producer/recording engineer, Bob Stark. Bob has worked with Michael Shrieve, Everclear, and many other diverse artists, as well as Grammy nominee Vayo Raimondo. He and I have worked on what has to be hundreds of recording projects over the last ten years, including records of every style imaginable, as well as Cloe Award-winning industrials, national jingles, and sample libraries. Quite simply, he’s my hero.

Me: What’s the first thing you do when approaching toms in a mix?
Bob: If it’s a contemporary style of music, I’ll manually go into the individual tom tracks and snip out the areas of the track where the toms aren’t being played, adding the fades to the individual tom hits so that they sound natural in the track.

M: Why do you do this?
B: It gets rid of the unwanted ring of the toms. In the past, one might have used gates, but this is less arbitrary and produces a better sound. He adds, If it’s jazz, I may let the tom ring remain. It all depends on how things are sounding.

M: How do you approach tom EQ? You’ve told me that overheads play an important part in the tom sound?
B: The overheads contribute the majority of the body to the tom sound, maybe most of the tom sound in a jazz recording. I try to get a good drum sound with the overheads.

M: How do you use the individual tom mikes?
B: I use them to add bigness, fullness, as well as image definition to the stereo field.

M: After getting them sounding good in the overheads, how do you approach a tom’s individual EQ?
B: I tend to find the fundamental of the drum and boost it, HPF (high-pass filter) everything below the fundamental, give a little boost around 3k for presence, a pretty broad, and deep cut around 500 to get rid of any boxiness, shelve down 2 or 3dB from about 8k to keep cymbal bleed under control and notch whatever offending overtones might be occurring in the drum. This is all to greater or lesser degrees, depending on what condition the drum starts out. Ultimately, flat EQ is best, but it’s not the usual case.

M: How do you get toms to sit better in the mix?
B: I compress toms pretty hard, maybe 4:1. It’s a preference, not a ’have to do.’ I like how playing with the attack time affects the snap of the drum, and how the release time allows the low end to appear. I might use little or no compression with the overheads, but really squish the room mikes. It takes a while to get the hang of using compression. There are no hard and fast rules with compression.

Sounds Good! There it is, one man’s view (well, two men, actually) on the process of recording great-sounding toms. Remember, every aspect of the sound chain is as important as the other. If any part of the audio chain is weak, the entire chain is compromised. Pay attention and be involved in every aspect of the process.

Mike can be reached through .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)