I was editing drums with Jani Vilhunen to next Apples of Idun album. I thought that writing article about recording and editing drums could be interesting.
Recording drums, several things are important to get the sound you are looking for from acoustic drums to final master of the album.
First of all, player and instrument are of course very important to the final result. If the player doesn’t have a proper sounding drum kit for production I try to rent one. Drum heads are an important choice to make, many brands, for example, Evans makes many different types of heads for different kinds of playing styles and genres.
Tuning the heads are important to get sound and balance out of drum kit, so that all pieces fit soundwise together. If the drummer doesn’t have a lot of experience about changing heads and tuning it is advised to get professional drum technician to tune drums. It is much easier to get a good sounding recording if you have new heads and drums are tuned. Some type of head suits to different drummers better than other, good drum store salesman or drum technician can help you to choose right kind of heads but it can take few experimentations. New heads have more harmonics to fundamental tone so they don’t get buried under the other instruments in the mix. When drum set is in good tune, you can hear everything bright and loud enough and sounds fit together without any unwanted resonance. Even if I use pro drum tech to tune drums it is always very important to listen how kit sounds with the player that you are going to record. Drum set that is in the poor tune will resonate too much when other drums are hit and could be easily drowning in the mix. Players own dynamic control and balance of playing is a key element to good sounding takes. If a player is hitting, for example, cymbals too loud then you have easily problem with leakage in the close mics and your room and ambiance microphones are not as useful because cymbals are just too loud in the room. The only thing that really helps is that player practices to play set with better balance. Very good quality cymbals are essential in the studio, many brands have different models that have big volume and tone differences in their cymbals and some models that are designed to sound a bit softer and so more suited to the studio. Many players like older cymbals because they have patina and sound more mellower, smoother and softer usually.
Here is an example of Jani Vilhunen from Apples of Idun plays, Yamaha recording custom drumset at Noise for Fiction recording studio. Drums had 25 microphones: 4 in the bass drum, 5 in the snare, 6 in the tom-toms, 3 overheads, hi-hat, ride, and 5 ambiance and room microphones. That’s quite a basic set for Jani Vilhunen who I have recorded before with bands: Whip me nicely, E135 and Apples of Idun. I used a lot of Golden Age ribbon microphones to give air, presence and smoothness to cymbals. Overheads and room microphones were used as a blumlein Stereo pair, consisting of a pair of coincident figure 8 microphones, to make sounds localize better in the stereo field. Far room mics were about 10 meters from the drum set and were used as spaced omni figure pair to give as much room and ambiance as possible. The drum set was Yamaha recording custom with Evans drumheads. An example is without artificial reverb and there is no dynamic mixing processing, gates etc used. Just as drums sounds in the room.
Few things I have been experimenting with those kinds of situations are, putting room mics near the floor so the distance to cymbals is bit greater and you get more snare and bass drum to room mics. Use of some sort of screens in the front of the cymbals so they block a bit of high frequency of the cymbals, so room mics get more snare, toms, and bass drum. Old hard rock recording technique from the 1980s was to run some snare and bass drum sound to PA speakers and boost some high end and gate them hard, you get some brighter transient hits to snare and bass drum that way. One thing to watch out is that timing phase of snare and bass drums are same in the PA and acoustic set so you get all the low-end punch in the room. To my experience, it is best to keep the volume of the PA so low that it only gives you extra definition and brightness but still sound natural. For the drummers that play rock or metal and don’t hit snare rim shots, this kind of PA trick is very usable because you get more volume and stick sound to room mics.
Room sound and acoustics are a really important factor to drum recording. The drum set is usually played quite loud and sound better if you have air around them. I mostly nowadays record drums in my own Noise for Fiction recording studio in Turku. I have been recording drums in many different studios, rehearsal room, basements, live stages etc. I think that most important factor in the room is the size and controlled reverberation. I have some 6 meters high recording room and its about 150 m2 so I can put room microphones to 10 meters away. There are some acoustic treatments done in the room so reverb time is not too long to make everything to reverb porridge and still bright enough that drum transients are clear and articulated. When I have been visiting in the smaller room, that has ceiling very low and near of the cymbals there have been many sessions that have had some problems with resonant frequencies in the cymbals that are bouncing back from the ceiling and comb filtering that happens makes them sound shrill, piercing and cheap. Natural ambiance of the big room is very good for the drum recording and gives you weight and depth that is very hard to get with a small room and plugins.
Sometimes there is need to isolate bass drum and record with isolation tunnel. Idea is to build tunnel from the bass drum so you can put microphones further away from the bass drum to get more and lower bass frequencies.
The tunnel is not very good thing to room sound because it is masking bass drum and you get less bass drum beater sound to ambiance mics.
Miking the drum kit
I have miked drumset anything between one and 40 microphones. It is all about what kind of sound you are looking for and what kind of music style,arrangement and song you have. You have to record drums so that they have enough power, size,weight and control that drum kit is believable in the mix. Miking with 1-3 microphones is cool if you have a small arrangement or looking for a vintage vibe. I use always some sort of drum room miking. If I am looking for a smaller sound I usually use maybe ribbon pair in blumlein pattern or some vintage dynamic microphone to give natural compression, distortion and tighter, more mid frequency response. This kind of old dynamic microphones have a lot of character and give drum sound more street credibility. when blended in with more hi-fi mics they are fulfilling some mids so drums bite better from small speakers.
Here is example of just one mono dynamic mic in front of the drumkit:
I use a lot of ribbon microphones when recording. I think they fit well with modern productions. They have a smooth top end that rolls down a bit. Its good because usually in the mix everything gets a lot of distortion and compression that can make cymbals too bright if they were quite a bright begin with. I usually put several close mics to all important pieces, to snare and bass drum, at least, get usually 3-5 mics.
Overheads and close overall mics are varied depending on the production but a usual mix of ribbon and condenser microphones. When there is a need to mike hi-hat,ride or other cymbals separately I choose mostly ribbon or dynamic microphones because I try to avoid too much high end on those.
Room mics that I use are usually ribbons or condenser microphones , blumlein pattern or for big but not so localized stereo image I sometimes use 2-4 omni pattern condenser microphones as spaced pair or two. Omnis are good to pick up more room sound and sound more further away than they are. The frequency spectrum is more balanced compared to cardioid because omni don’t have low end building up. For bigger room sound I usually put an omni pair to some 10-15 meters away from drumset and pointing away from the kit so there is as little as possible direct sound and all the reflections I can get . When you add lots of compression in the mix, room is going to sound great.
Here is an example how omni pair sounds in Noise for Fiction recording studio room.
Close mics are very important in aggressive music styles. Usually, snare and bass drum are miked with several (1-5) dynamic and condenser microphones. Toms are miked at least in the hitting head and sometimes both hitting and resonance heads. Important cymbals or cymbals that are hard to hear in the overhead and room mics are close miked. Usual suspects are hi-hat, ride, china and splash cymbals.
Editing drums are very common in music productions. Editing is part of the whole production sound. It depends on a lot if the producer is after organic grooving sound, a vibe that is very common in the old records or is click track necessary because of many overdub takes, or is very tight almost machine kind of precision needed or wanted in the genre. It can mean anything from just compiling different takes, taking best bits of all recordings and getting best possible fills and grooves for the song. If the song is recorded with a click track its easy to find the best groove for different sections of the song and maybe even copy paste some measures that are better than others. Fills are usually changing places too, sometimes drummer has played a fill that is better in some other part and in the editing you can move them around until the whole picture is looking bright.
If there are sequenced synth parts or drum loops in the arrangement its sometimes necessary to quantize drums, even if they are played well with a click track. You lose some of the natural groove but after quantizing acoustic drums will fit tightly to any sequenced material in the song. Its not that time consuming as you might think. Even if you quantise every single 16th note hit in the recording it takes just takes 1-3 hours depending on a complexity of grooves and song length.
Most common techniques for drum editing are just cutting all the drum tracks same time and moving them around a bit. This is old school way and can give natural sounding end results. Its usually only done to hits and sections that are really needing some editing. “beat detective” is kind of automated version of this old technique. Another way to do editing is using some sort of time stretching algorithm. Almost all DAWs has some sort of “variaudio” or “elastic pitch” functions. These processes used to be quite a bad sounding if you had to move hits too much but nowadays algorithms are getting much better sounding. To my ears, new Cubase 8.5 has best sounding time stretching algorithm of those DAWs that I have used but they all get the job done all the same. The most important thing to me is, what kind of sound you are looking for. Because editing is done for the big picture of the production and that big picture or concept of the production should always determine what is needed.
After editing, you can add some samples to enhance drum sound. It was too common sound in some 10 years ago but I think many producers are getting back to more acoustic sound and sample use is less prominent. I rarely use samples and if I do its most of the time for the snare drum. Sometimes if drummers technique is lacking it is hard to get snare sound staying even enough through the whole song. It can be some hard played cymbals that are masking snare when a player hits snare drum just slightly less force. In that case, it’s usually best to add a small amount of sample to get snare bright enough to cut through.
I don’t usually use samples in bass drum or toms. Maybe in those scenarios where sound you are looking for is more industrial or synthetic drum sound that is a blend of synth, samples, and acoustic drums.
In that kind of productions, it is customary to use drum and synth loops, samples and synths to make new and larger than life sounds, sounds that are not possible with acoustic drum set alone.