Do Your Drum Shells Get Enough Attention?

Every engineer wants a massive, hard-hitting drum tone with powerful attack that cuts through the mix. What a lot of them don’t realize is that great drums come from the shells themselves just as much as the heads that are on them. While micing the bottoms of every tom still gets used by some engineers, the vast majority find their balance with a top mic alone with great placement.

There are tons of variables when it comes to recording and mixing a drum kit, and every kit has it’s own tonal qualities. As an engineer and producer, what can you do to get the perfect, pumped-up tone you’re looking for?

Tuning Precision

A great drum sound starts with a well-tuned drum kit. Regardless of if you’re recording a jazz ensemble or metal group, your kit isn’t going to do you any favors sounding out of tune. There are extremes that are instantly noticeable: drums tuned so low that they sound flabby and unfocused, and drum heads tightened so much the “ping” of each hit sounds like a cartoon effect. Both are equally as distracting to a trained ear.

Then there’s everything in between – tuned or not. Drummers don’t have it as easy as guitarists or bass players when it comes to tuning up. It’s a lot of different twists to get even a single head sounding right. But when a tuned kit is going to make the difference between a professional vs. amateur-sounding song, it’s worth every minute spent tuning up.

If you’re not someone who’s familiar with tuning drums, don’t feel left out. There are drum-tuning tools out there that can make the process a breeze for beginners, many of which measure the tympanic pressure of the drumhead to determine proper tuning. Go check out a few demos and see if any make more sense for your sessions than others. While a seasoned drummer should be able to tune his or her own drums, having one of these devices in the studio can be handy when you’re in a pinch.

Tom Mics in Session

As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of engineers that prefer to mic drums with top and bottom mics on every shell. This approach gives the same level of control as blending your top & bottom snare mic to every tom in the kit. By recording both you can control exactly how much ring your drum should have in the mix, but you’re sacrificing a lot of extra inputs to get there (and those aren’t always available).

It seems more common these days that engineers are taking the time to find the right spot and angle on the top head to get the balance they’re after right from the start. A lazy engineer might point a mic right at the center of the head, throw a second mic on the bottom, and call it a day. A good engineer knows that by backing the mic off a bit and pointing the mic a little off-center, they can bring some life back to a tom that was all attack before.

Learning your technique to tom micing takes some practice, but the end result is indistinguishable from even the most balanced top/bottom approach. One of the quickest ways to learn is by wearing some headphones while monitoring the mic in question. Have your drummer play and move the mic around until it sounds right, then move on to the next. Just watch your fingers if you’re working with a sloppy drummer!

Pumped Up in Post

You can find something to improve post-recording, even with the best-recorded drum shells. There are two main things I see engineers do to make their drum shells larger than life:

Supplement With Samples

Drum sample packs contain some of the most mix-ready options when it comes to percussion. Because of this, they’re a great way to reinforce a live-tracked drum kit and add a bit more complexity to their sound. By layering in a sample with your recorded drums, you can add harmonic support that fills out the sound for a big boomy shell. Unless your sample is of the same exact drum/tuning, you’ll actually be creating denser frequency content that sounds full in the mix.

Parallel Compression

Parallel compression is a pretty common technique to crush a drum mix and improve the attack of the drum, but did you know it works wonders on your shells too? Tools like the JW BG-Drums compressor were made with pumping-style compression in mind for when you really want your kit to shine. Check out Nick’s drum bus compression example below:

By inserting JW BG-Drums on a parallel drum bus, he’s able to add clarity and air to the drum sound just by bringing the Crush level way down on the plugin and blending to taste. One of the best parts of parallel processing is being able to take your dynamics to their extremes and bring them in subtly under the main track to round out those shells.

What Are You Doing To Enhance Your Drum Tone?

Have you found any other ways to bring your drum shells to life? Are you more focused on the attack of each hit first and the ring comes second on your priority list?

Regardless of your viewpoint, I’d love to hear what some of you guys are doing with your drum bus that the rest of us might be missing our on. Come share your drum bus chain with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum so we can compare.

See you there!