3 Key Elements of a Professional Drum Tone

Do you struggle to keep your drums sounding like a single, cohesive instrument? You’re not alone – one of the biggest complaints we hear from engineers just getting started with recording live drums is that they struggle to get them to sound as good as their favorite sample pack.

Getting good drum tone out of drums that you’re personally recording, or have been recorded live by another engineer, is no small task. You’ve got a lot of different elements to worry about. There are the basic clean-up tricks you can do like rolling off unwanted low-end rumble in your toms and overheads. You can pan everything out and make sure everything is in phase.

But once you’ve got your basic mix set up, do you know where to focus your attention to get the most from your drums?

Mixing Your Shells

The shells of your drums, specifically your snare and toms, hold so much of the actual tone that makes up your drum kit’s sound. They’re a big contributing factor when comparing a cheap drum kit to a higher quality kit. The nicer kits tend to have a fuller, rounder sound – much like you find when comparing a solid-state guitar amp to a tube amplifier.

If you’re involved in the recording of drums, a little tuning and mic placement goes a long way. Tuning your heads to a song makes the kit mesh well with other instruments, but tuning the heads to the shells gives them a full, defined sound. Any time those two elements match up, you’ve got a recipe for a killer drum sound.

The same attention to detail should go into your mic placement as well. Your mic placement doesn’t just dictate the dynamics of your drums; it is the defining factor when it comes to capturing the ring of them too. The ring that we’re talking about (you guessed it), ties back to the tuning of the heads and the quality of the kit.

A good kit on the way in can be a great kit on the way out.

Simple Cymbals

Another huge piece of any drum sound comes for the cymbals and the overheads/spot mics you record them with. Getting a good cymbal sound is as much about what you exclude as it is about what you include.

What I mean by this is that cymbal bleed can ruin a good sounding snare, tom, or even kick drum. Even worse, engineers often think they can gate their way out of the problem which can result in an even worse problem as the decay and sustain get cut short.

There are filter-based solutions like Tominator out there to combat the problem, or you can always do it yourself with a bit of automation.

Once you get your cymbals out of your other mics, you’ll find the isolation to make your overheads much easier to treat. Making your drum mix a bit brighter or darker starts with the cymbals. Get them to sound good, and they’ll help guide your drum bus to a professional, polished sound.

The Ghost Notes 

We talk about dynamics and transients a lot, but most of the time it’s in the context of big, booming sounds. We want a loud crack for our snare and a punchy or clicky kick. It’s important that you don’t lose the nuances of a good performance because of your focus on the peaks.

A well-performed live drum recording has emotion and variation in it that’s nearly impossible to replicate when programming drums. Some musicians can get close with a sampler, but a live kit just reacts differently each time it’s played.

The get the most out of your ghost notes, you should be using a bus compressor that brings those out of your mix and makes them a feature of the track. Check out Nick using BG-Drums to achieve this below:

Ready For Big Drum Tone?

It’s not rocket science – even beginners can get a great drum tone if they focus on these three key elements. Get tools that help make your mix decisions easier. Start asking yourself questions as you mix:

· What do I want this to sound like?
· How will this adjustment affect my overall drum tone?
· How does this fit in with the rest of the mix?

You’ll find that the answers come quicker and easier the more that you do it.

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