My Approach to Tracking Drums
Recording drums is one of my favourite parts of the recording process. There are so many different variables and aspects to think about, it can be tricky, but once you understand the fundamentals and what you want to achieve it becomes a lot easier. Here's a brief overview of the approach I take when tracking drums at Orchard Recording Studio.
Decide on a Vibe
I mainly work with rock / indie / alternative bands so I'm going to keep what I'm saying relevant to these areas. When I work with a band we'll have a chat about production references which gives me an idea of what kit setup we're going to use. We have a couple of kits at the studio with various size drums. A Tama Starclassic (maple) and Pearl Masters Custom (also maple). My favourite combination which probably gets me through 80% of my drum recording sessions is using the 22" kick from the Pearl Masters and 12" and 16" toms from the Starclassic. The reason I opt for this most of the time is because I love the punch and the weight behind the Peal kick, and the toms from the Tama sound really nice and punchy with the floor tom sounding nice and big. Snare wise I like the Tama Hammered Brass Black Panther which has a lovely "Kaaaaahhh" sound to it! Another cool option we have is a Maple Black Panther which is a bit "warmer" sounding.
For drum heads I like an Evans HD Genera snare head which nicely controls the overtones, an Emad kick head which has a removable foam ring which is great for damping the batter head and for toms I prefer coated Evans G2 as they sound more balanced to my ear than clear heads that are often a bit "pokey".
How much muffling will also be a big factor in the drum sound. This again goes back to references and song vibe and we'll experiment with how things are sounding once the kit is miced up.
Making sure the drums are properly in tune is THE MOST important part of the whole process. I've spent years trying to get good at tuning drums. I've tried all sorts of techniques from tuning each drum individually by ear, having lugs finger tight then a 1/4 turn on the key, tuning by ear to a pitch etc. All of this was really useful in developing my ear but since I invested in a tunebot it's really helped step up my game and accurately refine the tuning. The proof is in the pudding in that every drummer I've had play on a kit I've tuned since getting that has complimented me on how nice it sounds and felt to play.
In terms of tunings, the kick will depend on the song but I like it sitting around an E fundamental. My favourite kit combo to record is with a single rack and floor tom which for the Tama 12" rack and 16" floor tune to an A and D respectively. The snare will be different every time depending on the band, style and song. I'll listen to the song and references, go for a tuning, listen back and refine how things sound.
Micing the Kit
99% of the time I'm working out of Orchard Recording Studios so I've gotten to know the mic collection we have at the studio. Try and get to know the mics you have available and how they sound and it will influence your decisions when it comes to mic-ing the kit.
For kick drums I'll usually got for the Share Beta 52A if I want something nice and attacky. If it's a more indie vibe I'll opt for the AKG D112. I'll start placing it right inside the kick, pretty much centrally and pointed at the beater then adjust the position if I want more/less bass or attack. Then on the kick out I like the Rode NT1A - it just works!
The Shure SM57A is my first choice on snare, it has a better rear rejection of cymbal spill. Sometimes I'll pair this with a AKG C451 if I want some more detail. For snare bottom I like a Blue Bluebird condenser, I prefer how it sounds over something like a normal 57.
Toms will either be Sennheiser 421's which is my usual preference, or the Sennheiser E604's which I find have a bit more attack/scoop to them if I want something more "modern" sounding.
Overheads I will opt for AKG C414's first. They sound incredible and give a really nice picture of how the kit is sounding. If I want something more cymbal focused if it's a metal core drummer for example, I'll use some small diaphragm condensers like the AKG C451's or Neumann KM184's. I like a spaced pair setup on overheads and I'll position them 4ft from the centre of the snare drum. I'm sure I read that Adam "Nolly" Getgood used this distance once and it always sounds good to me so I've stuck with it!
Cymbal spot mics will typically be whatever small diaphragm condensers I'm not using elsewhere, lately it's been the AKG C451's but if the drummer is heavy on the hi hat I might opt for a Shure SM57B as I find it takes a more aggressive hi hat better.
I'll always opt for a stereo room mic setup, usually the Neumann KM184's as far back in the corner of the room I can get. It's not a massive room so every little helps! I'll often place a baffle in front of the kit and place the Xaudia ribbon mics in an XY position behind this quite low to the floor. This gives a darker sounding picture of the kit and placing them low behind the baffle helps reduce cymbal wash. I've experimented with loads of different room mic positions in this room over the years. There's no right or wrong answer, just where-ever you think sounds good!
I'll check the phase of the kit before we start tracking by getting the drummer to play single kits and then checking the waveforms. This may lead me to adjusting mic positions to get things right. I'll also use a plugin called Auto Align by Sound Radix to make sure all of the mics are perfectly in phase with each other. It's magic!
Tracking and Editing
Drumming is physically hard work so when it comes to tracking I don't want to overwork the drummer as this can lead to sub par performances later in the session if they're physically and mentally tired. I'll get the drummer to play through the whole song maybe 3/4 times and give feedback where needed. i find playing full takes helps them to get in a good flow of the song rather than doing section by section. After 3/4 times we'll take a listen back and now maybe focus in on certain parts of the song that need more work and comp together the best performance. I find it's important to make them feel relaxed, and reassure them on how they're performing to keep a positive mindset and get the best performances. I go back and re-check the tuning of the kit after every couple of takes to make sure everything sounds consistent.
When it comes to editing, how tightly depends on the song and what the band want. Most of the time people what things pretty tightly edited but I like to leave the fills more natural if I can. The editing process can be time consuming. I'll go through the audio files for kick, snare and toms to identify the transient hits and remove non-transients that have been detected. Then the audio files will be cut, quantised depending on feel, bounced down and I'll then go through and manually cut the tom hits to remove any bleed. This again take a while but gives me the best results. If you're interested in seeing a short video of this in action check out this Instagram post.
If you want to come into the studio and record some killer sounding drum tracks then send me an email and let's get to work!