We hear drums as these huge, booming things that drive the rhythm section of a song. A thumping kick drum on 1 and 3. The crack of a snare on 2 and 4. It’s the recipe for pop music for as long as popular music has been recorded.
As music production started getting bigger and better (and louder), punchier, heavier drums became more prevalent. Listeners demanded more from drummers. More complex patterns and more consistent playing gained traction, leading to genres with drums that sound technical/robotic, and sometimes are.
Even as engineers and producers start programming drums out of ease of use and demand for consistency, we still look for more out of our drums. Ways to make them more aggressive and ways to have more control over them.
Regardless of if you’re recording a live kit or you’re drawing in 64th notes at 200 BPM, there’s one common element that makes your drum mix huge, and they could be hundreds of feet away from the kit.
Room Mic Placement
If you’re a programmed drum aficionado, you might be able to skip to the next section, unless you’ve got a Drum Sample Library that lets you tweak the placement of the microphone. Even if you don’t, you might get something out of this if there’s a chance you’ll end up in a live room with a drum kit - this section is like a candy store for creatives.
The biggest tool an engineer has when working in a major studio isn’t the console or the rack gear; it’s not even the microphones. The biggest tool you get in a studio is the room itself.
Studios come in all shapes and sizes, from bedroom closets to cathedrals. To close mic everything in a session with a good room is like slapping the studio in the face. While there’s a lot of fun in the microphone selection process, thousands of dollars of microphones will never make a bad room sound good.
How do you match room placement to the right microphone?
Ask The Staff
If you’re renting a studio to record, there’s someone that knows infinitely more about that studio space than you do. A staff engineer or assistant is going to be able to recommend their favorite spots in the room, what mics they use, and why.
Even if you’re just going to record at a friend’s place, I can almost guarantee you they’ve played around with mic placement and can generally tell you what they like and what they don’t.
When All Else Fails
Sometimes you’ve just got to wing it. If you’re going into a session blind, you’ll need to be prepared to make some quick decisions regarding mic placement and mic selection. Here are a few tips for unique room mic techniques:
- Large diaphragm condensers are some of the most common room mics.
- Ribbon mics are traditionally darker sounding, and closely match the human ear in how they capture sound. This can be huge when trying to match what your ears are hearing in the room.
- If you’re going to crush it with a compressor (more on this in just a minute), it doesn’t matter as much what you use. Go for a cheap dynamic and save the good stuff for something else.
- Room mics near the ceiling (or at least high off the floor) will give you a bigger, more open sound naturally.
- Floor mics can sound snappier and live – for even more of an effect, try out PZM mics.
- If you’ve got the inputs and the mic selection, try as many things as you want!
Processing Your Room Mics
Mixing your room mics can be a challenge – especially when everything they capture tends to also get captured by closer mics. The goal of your room microphone recordings shouldn’t be to get something incredible on their own – you want something that emphasizes you drum mics, helping them ascend to new heights altogether!
First and foremost, make sure you’re in phase. There’s nothing worse than a room mic canceling out an otherwise fine snare or kick drum. If you need to nudge the audio a few milliseconds to lock it in, do it. Your instinct will tell you what sounds right and what doesn’t.
After your phase is set, evaluate what you want from your rooms to accentuate and EQ them to match that goal. Need more body? Focus on your lows and low-mids. Adding shimmer and shine to your cymbals? Focus more of the highs by rolling off some of that unwanted low-end content.
A great room sound might not need much EQ at all, and that’s fine. Your just cleaning up what you can to make the room mics more usable and controlled.
King of Compression
Once you’ve got a malleable sound, compression will become your room mics’ best friend. A good drum bus compressor like BG-Drums can work magic on a well-captured room sound.
For starters, a stereo compressor is going to give you dynamic control. Dynamic control is key to working with room mics, as they tend to be some of the least consistent, yet most dynamic recordings a session has.
The reason why is pretty clear – sounds are bouncing every which way in the room and these mics are tasked with picking all of them up. Direct sound waves tend to be the loudest, such as cymbal crashes, but the wash created by them can bounce off a dozen different spots on the wall before hitting the microphone’s diaphragm.
Controlling your sound, and compressing it to bring out some of the subtleties of the room mic are where your rooms really start to leave their impression on your drum mix. If the effect is too strong at first, consider pulling back the fader on the room track(s), or better yet, try using parallel processing or a Mix knob to blend in the compression more subtly.
The granddaddy of them all: the slam track. The phat bus. Whatever you want to call it, crushing room mics with compression has been a staple of big sounding drums since the late 70s and early 80s.
Because of the aggressive tone that comes with a crushed room mic, many engineers tend to keep it low it the mix, adding just a bit of harmonic distortion to the overall drum sound. These soft-sounding, hard-pressed tracks can be some of the best to come out of the studio when used in the right mix.
The End Result
At the end of the day, the average listener isn’t going to know why something hits them in the gut when the drums come in, they just care that it does. Setting up a room mic is relatively quick and easy in most sessions; it just takes a bit of motivation and creativity to do it.
Have you heard a mix that’s made effective use of a room mic that you’re able to pick out of the song? Have you used the technique yourself already? Come share your room mic experiences with us in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum, where thousands of other engineers are working toward better, more creative recording and mixing techniques every day.