Drum Miking, Session Guys … and Ordinary Dudes

When recording drums and drummers, the cheapest, fastest and best result can only be guaranteed by hiring an experienced, well equipped and talented studio drummer. If properly pre-produced, a seasoned pro can track your CD bed tracks to your ghost (or final) tracks in one or two days. But often, you ‘re not working with a seasoned pro but a seasoned schmo and you’ve got think outside the box to coax a drum track.

In such an instance, imagination and experimentation go a long way when producing a record—provided time is not wasted. Sometimes an actual drum can be replaced with an unlikely alternative because the sound generated is better for the sentiment, arrangement, and the tone of the song being recorded. Brushes, sticks and mallets can be played on any surface. There exist highly acclaimed recordings that employ brushes on everything from cardboard boxes to suitcases to achieve a snare-like quality. Sometimes more subtle sounds better reveal the song.

One time, during a production of my own, I decided to replace a beautifully recorded and played drum part because it didn’t quite fit the groove I needed. I had given poor instructions to the session drummer I had hired and received what I asked for, rather than what was best for the song. The only drums available to redo the tracks on short notice were a particularly horrible sounding set of budget Asian drums, circa 1981, which someone had left in our studio. The skins were beaten to death and sounded disgusting.

Enter my vintage 28” marching bass drum. After experimentation, I placed it about 4 inches in front of the crappy drumkit and then miked it separately with a Lawson 47MP large diaphragm condenser. We had to tame down the decay of the big marching drum with pads of Kleenex and tape and pitched it to a complimentary tone. I also had the room covered from about 8 ft by a stereo pair of Eric Hasnick’s hand-built, custom designed and modified EAH MK 301 omni pattern, small diaphragm condenser microphones. We positioned these about two inches apart to give a true stereo view. (The Hasnick mic’s are awesome on all acoustic instruments and cost significantly less than a matched pair of B&Ks. Contact ehasnick@sympatico.ca.)

I realize that I’ve emulated a common practice in the treatment of kick drums and that Yamaha and DW market “strap-on” sub-kicks. Some even use a large speaker in reverse as a microphone contained in the sub kick drum itself. The result of this is a huge sounding kick drum. Our approach was a little different in that all of our drumset took on some of this monster bass drum’s tone. The snare, toms and the smaller kick drum gained body. We EQ’d a bit of snap into the snare and the result was usable and, in fact, is on a few tracks on my new, unreleased CD.

When miking drums customarily, I prefer a minimalist approach, dependant upon the quality of the drummer and the drums; and the overall sound of the song being recorded. Generally, the configuration I find to be extremely flexible is comprised of a pair of EAH MK 2 omni, condenser, small diaphragm microphones (the new version of the MK 301) as overheads.

I have to share something: A young man who came through my studio had the idea of using a laser pointer strapped to the microphones to facilitate accurate mic’ placement. The cool thing is that you can make a little pencil mark on the drum skin, precisely where the mic’ is pointing—in case something gets moved during the session!

The mic’s are usually placed 18 to 24 inches apart about 48 inches above the drummer, one pointing over the shoulder of the drummer at the kick drum towards the floor tom, the other towards the tenor tom(s) being sure not to direct it at the snare and high hat too much. Because of the omni pattern and the distance from the drums, the mic’s cover off the whole kit.

For a nice tight drum sound without any of the subsonic accoutrements of a rock kit, use a cautiously placed large diaphragm condenser mic’. (We use a 47MP, 3 or 4 feet off the floor about 10 or 12 feet in front of the drum kit in the room that I am presently using. The reason I mention the room is because you are not just miking the drums, you are miking the drums in the room they are being played in.)

To add some thunder to the sound, I’d throw a D12 into or in front of the kick. If I’m looking for a little more snap I stick a SM57 between the high hat and the snare pointing just off of the rim of the snare (avoiding the ring produced by miking the centre of it), just below/beside the high hat.

If the drums are miked tightly with a large number of mic’s there is an “unreal” quality to the sound. It just doesn’t quite sound like a human being playing a drum kit in a room. I look at it like this: If there are a large number of mic’s up with each drum and cymbal covered, at mix time, the producer and the engineer have to “replay” the dynamics. Why not leave all of that up to a skilled professional drummer and record him/her with minimal mic’s, remembering that reducing the number of mic’s will reduce the number of phase aberrations?

A professional drummer follows production and arrangement instructions and cues on demand, and then expounds on them, doesn’t play the drums unless asked to, doesn’t insist on the blistering pass on the toms the producer vetoed because it’s his (or her) “favorite part to play”. This doesn’t help the song. All of the pros we work with have had the “ego” beaten out of them years ago.

That being said, if you are part of a band, it might be fair to include the drummer on a recording, given that the drummer has thus far done a good job live. Even the highest level professionals had a “first time” in the studio—and recount all of the nightmares attached to it.

Things That Go Bump

Let’s assume that everything is pre-produced musically but the drum kit has a few, shall we call them, “discrepancies”. These can range from tiny, random squeaks when the drummer moves a bum cheek (a can of oil and a nut driver set can do wonders for on the spot adjustments) to a ring in the snare (pop in a few cotton balls, change its tension, use a Mylar “ring,” put your wallet on it, etc.) to a simply horrible sounding drum kit.

Before an artist / band comes to record here, I always warn them to make sure that all of their accompanying or member musicians have their instruments intonated, tuned and in top repair. Here is a list of some of the things you need to pay attention to before you go to the studio to record your drums, from a producer’s perspective:

  1. Tighten, repair or lubricate all buzzes, squeaks, or rattles in the hardware and the drum stool. Pay attention to your kick drum and hi-hat pedals and scrutinize them independently. A tiny squeak generated from one of these devices that is buried at a live performance can get pretty loud with a microphone just inches in front of it. (Don’t forget, any of these “discrepancies” not fixed at home, need to be hunted down and addressed during the session where “time is money”.)
  2. Have new or at least relatively new skins properly seated and tensioned. If you’re a hard hitter or it’s a hard hitting session, bring spare skins and sticks (of course).
  3. Bring some kind of carpet, rubber pad or whatever surface you’re accustomed to so that your kit can be firmly and reliably set in position. Sometimes what’s available in the studio will not hold your kit in place as well as what you customarily use for live performance.
  4. Bring a wide assortment of sticks, brushes, mallets, blast sticks, etc. and any shakers, tambourines, cowbells or small percussion instruments you might have.
  5. Whatever breaks, have a spare. Bring a tool kit with all the wrenches, nut drivers and drum keys to make any adjustment necessary to your kit on the fly.
  6. Bring the supplies necessary to make adjustments to your kit. For example, cotton balls, duct tape, and a Mylar ring.
  7. Almost everybody’s home town has a local “drum guru”. Seek that individual out and pay him or her to tune, tweak and, if necessary, modify, your kit. You’ll be well on your way to a tension free session.

So let’s put on our best ears, keep an open mind, and, above all, have fun.

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