A Short Guide To Drum Recording Set-up

Setting up for a drum recording session can be difficult, especially if you’re not overly familiar with the room, the kit, or perhaps even the player.

It can become a daunting task to figure out all these variables in a short space of time, so with that in mind, I hope to pass on some valuable insight into my own sessions that will help you either achieve the sound you set out to achieve - or perhaps give you some new insights into ways you hadn’t thought of to make your sessions sound better, or improve your workflow.

Let’s dive in.

Preparation

As in cooking, preparation is key to make the workflow of a session work fluidly, with as little questions needing to be asked, or second guessing decisions you make under pressure of knowing there’s only a finite amount of time you’ll have to achieve the sound in your head, and ultimately theirs.

In this particular session, it proved very important due to not being within a room I’ve ever recorded. Had we not had 3 or 4 hours to set up and learn the room the day prior to the main recording session, I may have found myself second guessing my initial choices, particularly room mic positions, choice of mics, and number of mics. But because we took that extra time, I was able to walk around the room listening to the drummer play in short segments to use my first reaction to guide me; and after going home, I was able to listen back to the first recordings of random segment the drummer had played, and reflect upon any changes I wanted to make to enhance the sound further.

Taking the time to set up prior allowed me time to assess and reflect, leading to a great overall working relationship, consistent takes, and minimal second guessing which in turn, made me confident in my ability to bring the tracks to life in a quality they expected from me.

Make sure you try and prepare as much as you can, from writing a list of the mic choices you initially think of, to scouting the location beforehand if it’s foreign to you and you’re not familiar with the room, and even down to second choices for cymbals or snares, even toms.

Placements

Let's start with the close mic’ing placements. The key thing to remember is aiming to isolate each part of the kit as best you can to build the bigger picture. If you catch too much of say the hi-hat in the snare, you’ll be fighting against it in the mix the entire time - the same applies to the floor time catching too much of the snare; so take your time and be logical about your mic choices, and if you're adamant on a certain mic because you’re sure it’ll compliment the shell it’s placed on, make sure you take as much time as you need to get the best placement.

The Kick mic i a blend of 3 mics, 2 dynamic mics well known for kick drum, and the beloved V11 on the outside of the kick. The V11 was placed about 2 and a half feet from the beater, or 3 inches from the outside skin. This gave a very pleasing and blossomed low end that was almost reminiscent of a sub kick but with the detail and midrange you'd usually expect from say a FET mic.

On the snare, I’m using a beloved and timeless mic, coupled with a small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC) mic. The Dynamic is building the image of the body of the snare, coupled with the detail of the SDC. I utilized the HH1 on the bottom mic, making sure I removed the cover of the capsule to allow as much detail into the mic - this is a good trick if you own this lovely microphone and it’s not being used on a source expelling too much direct air (like vocals for example, or a kick drum).

For the Rack Tom, I’ve done the same thing aiming for the body with a second of the snare mic type, and the floor I’ve used the amethyst due to the pleasing low end it bodes due to its exceptional capsule.

It’s the identical capsule to the V67, so when using these as a pair for the Overhead mics, the sound to me was incredibly pleasing. Note the position of these mics, the snare mic’s are pointed away from the hi-hat with it directly behind so I can exploit the polar patterns of both mics, while aiming down and behind the floor tom to limit capturing much of the rack or floor toms.

The Floor Tom however, is aimed directly down and as it’s a very detailed mic I gathered enough stick attack while having a focused low end and little to none of the cymbals beside or above due to once again using the built in polar pattern.

Lastly, I’ve aimed this high SPL condenser well known for use on Hi-Hats especially away from the snare and underneath the bottom cymbal to limit the sound of any other part of the kit as much as possible.

These are typical positions but taking the time to adjust by even 1cm had boundless advantages compared to throwing them on and saying ‘that’ll do’. Make sure you don’t rush this crucial step and hone your skills here as it’ll become a faster process the more you do it if you’re starting off or have little experience recording live drums.

The room mics as you can see in this photo (below) are plentiful! I experimented with positions before, but found the best way to find the ideal position is by walking around the room while the drum plays and placing them close to where it sounded best to my ear, changing only slightly in angle either towards or away from the kit once i’d found the optimal place to gather either more or less low end from the kit.

Here I have a wide spaced AB pair of the beautiful Black Hole BH1S in cardioid polar pattern, 10ft away from the snare on each mic, and 10ft away from each other. This is key to having a perfect phase right off the bat! This technique will sound familiar if you’ve been reading this blow for a while as it ties in directly with the 4ft rule for the Overheads.


BH1S Doing a fine job in the pair of mics for the spaced AB Pair.

The photo above shows the distances of all the mics and placements clearly for you to recreate this in your next session.

The 4ft rule should be a familiar technique if you've been reading the blog for a while now, or if you've recently grabbed the new stereo mic'ing eBook now available.

I then added a mono room mic in the form of the new BB29, 13ft away from the kit aimed at the back wall and downward to try and gather more of the low end reflections.

This mic is my secret weapon to extend the tail of the kick and snare should I need to gate heavily and since using the BB29, has only improved this technique 100x more to my ears!

Lastly, after sleeping on it and thinking how I could build the picture of the drums even further, I added an XY pair of the incredible, but now discontinued BT301’s JZ once offered, at a distance of 9ft and roughly at ear high while i was sat down to mimic what my ears where hearing (or attempt to replicate this at least).



I’ve always felt privileged to own this pair, but never as much as hearing them alongside the Spaced Pair of BH1S and BB29.. I don’t think I could explain it and do it justice, so I’ve included a video below taking through the above and showing the techniques should you wish to refer to these notes quickly in a video format!


Recording Takes

Now, the part that many overlook given the effort and lengths that placement and setup challenges you with - the actual recording. Getting this right and making sure to follow a few generalities will greatly help with marrying your efforts with the drummer's vision to build a (hopefully) brilliant set of tracks.

Let’s talk about drummers for a second. There are so many varying types of drummers, many extremely good at what they do, but the best are often those that not only play in time, but are well practiced and each hit is meant.

By that, I mean if they’re a dynamic player like jazz, Latin or RnB, then the dynamics are meant to be there and they’ve put a lot of thought into how the vibe and feel of the song needs to be portrayed. With rock and metal drummers, often the dynamics are far and few between, maybe the occasional ghost note, but for the most part making sure the drummer hits hard will achieve a great sound - the key is making sure this is consistent and fit’s your job to remind them to do so and get the best takes.

Hitting hard is often the best way to get the best out of the kit, but having those loud hits helps you in the mix especially to not only compress and EQ accurately without too much variation, but gate to the extent you’d like to, in order to help create separation in the close mics and process them the way you’d like to without too much of say the cymbals or hi-hats for example bleeding through.

Now, with hitting hard, there are the upsides that we’ve spoken about, but there is also the downside that the tuning fades over time. There’s many ways dto tune drums but my favourite is the method Adam Getgood instilled in me from his CreativeLive course (link is Here should you want to learn this).

Regardless of how you tune, the most important thing is making sure you have an audible or text reference of the tone and tuning and maintain it throughout the sessions to make sure you don't slowly hear the toms start flubbing all over the place the longer the song goes on. Changing tunings between entire songs can be a great way however, to add definition between the tracks especially if the songs are all within a similar sound remit, but again, make sure to note the tuning of each part to keep it the same throughout the entire song or refer back to if you decide to return to the original tuning you settled on.

Another thing that can help define the tracks is the choice of cymbals chosen to compliment the vibe of the track. For example, in this session, we used a Sabian 20 inch ride that was pretty neutral in terms of bright vs dark, however was washy and has a long sustain so worked perfectly for the first couple of tracks. However, for the last track, we went something slightly more detailed in timbre, in the shape of a Meinl Classic Custom ride, the same size, but much less aged and far more crisp and bright which complimented the vibe of the last track perfectly.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on spot mic’ing which we didn't need in this session, but sometimes it can be useful to mic cymbals that you wish to process differently to blend in with the overheads. This could be done in a similar manner that the Hi-hat is mic’d, underneath trying to make sure there’s as much separation as possible, aiming for the mic to be ‘listening’ to only that part of the kit, limiting the amount of bleed from shells or other close-by cymbals.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this post and video will help you going forward in your recordings, and make sure to refer back to this should you need to if you want to achieve a similar sound. The most important thing is to remember this - if it sounds good, then its good. Try not to second guess your choices and practice these or your own techniques enough to enable yourself to be as confident in your choices as possible.