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Capturing Great-Sounding Drums Using Only Four Tracks

If you're looking for an earthy, realistic kit sound that can easily be manipulated, try this out...

Here’s a simple, common-sense method to record a great-sounding drum kit on only four tracks. I’ve always been a follower of the less-is-more philosophy, and this kit technique goes all the way back to my analog 4-/8-/12-track days when track economy was a must.

There have, of course, been volumes dedicated to recording “trap kits,” from only two microphones to two mics on each drum! I think the concept of a drum kit as a group of separate instruments is off-base. A drum kit is an ensemble and has a “group sound.”

To me, using a mic on each drum is like multi-miking piano strings. And using so many mics can become a balance, EQ, and panning headache-as well as a phasing nightmare.

Now back to square one: What exactly are you looking for in a kit sound? Most pop, rock, R&B, jazz and country music requires a good separate kick and snare sound and maybe a separate hi-hat depending on the musical arrangement.

But how about all those tom-toms? They have essentially the same fundamental sound with different harmonics depending on shell size, diameter and tuning. If struck properly, they will have approximately the same volume level, and most pro drummers will do this subconsciously. So a simple mic technique can capture them well.

If you are looking for an earthy, realistic kit sound that can easily be manipulated, try this out. You’ll need one pair of stereo mics, one good snare mic, one good kick mic and last but not least, a good location for the drum set in the studio.

Setup

Location is very important and is an oft-neglected starting point. I prefer to set up the kit across a corner. A wall will do as well.

I use baffles from the floor up to about three feet, and approximately four feet wide behind the drummer in the corner. My baffles are low tech, made of 3-foot by 4-foot jalousie window frames with 6-inch wooden slats. There are four layers of wool moving blankets behind them. Thank you U-Haul!

Other baffle materials that work well are cork faced bulletin boards with combos of styrosheet and blankets behind them. Portable office walls work well too.

The baffles reduce, but do not completely remove the resonances and reflections of the tom, snare and kick. We want some of these reflections for our kit sound.

Microphone Placement

Once the kit is set up with baffles in place, and tuned as you and the drummer want it, you can proceed with mic placement. It’s always a good idea to watch the drummer play for a while to observe where he places his hands and sticks while going around the kit. This will help you put the mics where he won’t hit them or have to move around them. We want him to be comfortable.

Walk up in front of the kit, put your head over the tom-toms, find a spot where the drums seem to focus, and listen for the toms and reflections off the corner. What you’re hearing is a larger percentage of top skins, some bottom skins and wall reflections.

I usually find this spot about two or three feet above the toms and two-thirds of the way over the toms. That’s fairly close but out of the drummer’s stick path. This will be the position for the stereo mics. I have been using a Crown SASS-P MKII stereo mic for this job for more than a decade. Any good pair of mics in a stereo configuration should work well.

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Remember, tom-tom and snare spill is actually an important part of the overall sound. If you listen to the drum solo tracks on the Beatles Anthology CDs, you’ll hear a great example of this: Ringo’s Ludwigs drone along just beautifully in “Strawberry Fields”  Another example is Levon Helm’s kit on all of The Band’s classics and-oh yeah, Atlantic R&B.

Once you’ve positioned the stereo mics, the rest is straightforward except for the optional hi-hat. For snare and hi-hat use a mic that has plenty of proximity effect. Position the mic at the snare-drum edge between the drum and the high-hat. This should keep the mic out of the drummer’s sticking path.

A Shure SM57 will work OK. I prefer a condenser, a Neumann KM84 or AKG 451 type. The Asian clone mics are recommended here.

You want the mic nice and close to exploit the cardioid proximity effect to get the snare drum “bulge” sound. I prefer positioning at a slight angle. The mic will pick up the high-hat thanks to leakage into the side of the mic.

Finally, the kick mic is whatever you’re comfortable with. Your criteria should be good low frequency response, excellent transients and-very important-ability to handle high sound pressure levels at low frequencies.

Find a sweet spot where you hear a definite increase in volume and tone. I use a Sony ECM 322 (an ancient cardioid condenser) inside the drum under a layer of blanket, about 4 inches away, parallel to the drum head. This is for a one-head kick drum. For two heads, I use a Neumann U47 FET in front. Here a large-diaphragm, Asian mic clone will also work fine, but be aware of room noise.

If you really need overheads for the cymbals, add them. If arrangement calls for a hi-hat played open and closed, use an extra mic.

Finally, record as hot as you can without clipping. This gives you the dynamic range needed for a good drum kit sound. I don’t recommend compression while recording.

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