We all know that the drums are the heartbeat of a song, and a wimpy drum sound will make the engineer work so much harder during the mix. That’s why it’s so important to get the drums to sound great acoustically before the mics are even placed. That said, it’s surprising how little many engineers actually know about making a drum kit sound great acoustically.
Following is an excerpt from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook, Third Edition that features an interview with the famous “Drum Doctor,” Ross Garfield, who’s been responsible for the actual drum sound on a multitude of huge records by some giant artists. Ross gives some hints on how to take almost any kit and make it ready to record.
Anyone recording in Los Angeles certainly knows about The Drum Doctors, the place in town to either rent a great sounding kit or have your kit fine-tuned. Ross Garfield is the “Drum Doctor” and his knowledge of what it takes to make drums sound great under the microphones may be unlike any other on the planet. Having made the drums sound great on platinum selling recordings for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Mettalica, Marilyn Manson, Dwight Yokum, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitiz, Michael Jackson, Sheryl Crow, and many more than what can comfortably fit on this page, Ross agreed to share his insights on drum tuning.
What’s the one thing that you find wrong with most drum kits that you run into?
I think most guys don’t know how to tune their drums, to be blunt. I can usually take even a cheap starter set and get it sounding good under the microphones if I have the time. It’s really a matter of people getting in there and changing their heads a lot. Not for the fact of putting fresh heads on as much as the fact that they’re taking their drums apart and putting them back together and tuning them each time. The repetition is a big part of it. Most people are afraid to take the heads off their drums.
When I get called into a session that can’t afford to use my drums and they just want me to tune theirs, the first thing I’ll do is put a fresh set of heads on.
How long does it take you to tune a set that needs some help?
Usually well under an hour. If I have to change all the heads and tune them up it’ll take about an hour before we can start listening through the mics. I try to tune them to what I think they should be, then when we open up the mics and hear all the little things magnified, I’ll modify it. Once the drummer starts playing, I like to go into the control room and listen to how they sound when he plays, then once the band starts I’ll see how the drum sound fits with the other instruments.
What makes a drum kit sound great?
I always look for a richness in tone. Even when a snare drum is tuned high, I look for that richness. For example, on a snare drum I like the ring of the drum to last and decay with the snares. I don’t like the ring to go past the snares. And I like the toms to have a nice even decay. Usually I’ll tune the drums so that the smallest drums have a shorter decay and the decay gets longer as the drums get bigger. I think that’s pleasing.