Of all acoustic instruments, drums and percussion instruments seem the most elusive to capture with a compelling sound.
Pop recordings are (mostly) driven by an unique and attractive drum sound.
The definition of what makes a “good drum sound” has been greatly expanded since the advent of drum machines, samplers and the endless manipulations possible with Pro Tools.
Record producers are looking for the drummer to drive the “feel” of the song and their drum sound to “fill” a certain amount of space within the song’s recording.
Musical tastes and emotion evoke feel while genre and current trends and fashion usually dictate the exact “size” and specific nature of the drum sound.
Of course there are always exceptions to any rule.
Size refers to both the actual drum sound itself and the allowed “space” the drums occupy within the recording.
Size is equated to all of the following characteristics: realistic (or unrealistic) ambience, a good aural “picture” of the drum stage, good internal drum balance between the individual drums, good low frequencies and high frequencies, punchiness or “weight” in the low mid-range frequencies and dynamic range or how well you can hear the subtle to the loudest hits without distortion.
I find that recording drums has very much to do with your monitor mixing as well as the actual sound you are getting on both the individual drums and the total drum kit.
Sure, if I place the drum mix well above the rest of the backing tracks, I can hype the listener into thinking the drum sound is big and muscular. Tilted monitor mixes can make you think you have a great kick drum sound merely because it is very loud.
Pulling the drum mix back into a more realistic mix perspective reveals the true size of the drum recording as it blends with the rest of the instruments and vocals.
When placed in mix perspective, I can assess the relative tonality and balance of the individual drums and judge the overall kit-ambience quality. Low and high frequencies as well as dynamic range are also better judged at this level.
Like a good foundation of a house, if the drum kit sounds good while in relative balance, then any alternative mixing ideas like loud snare and kick drum mixes will work well.