Recording drums is gargantuan task for many new engineers. There are so many different sources between all of the parts of the kit, and it’s rare to find two drummers using the same exact setup. Unless you’re working with a basic kit, you’ll often find drummers swapping out different cymbals, snare drums & drumheads – making each recording session a new challenge with its own characteristics.
As the recording engineer on the session, it’s your job to get the best possible drum sound with whatever drum kit you’re recording. For starters, this means making sure your drummer’s gear is up to snuff for a recording session. Old, worn-out heads are a no-go for the studio, and setting the expectation upfront that they should have good quality skins that have been tuned accordingly is a good way to start off on the right foot.
Once you’ve got your drum kit set up for success and you’re ready to start placing mics, it’s time to take into account the one piece of the kit that too many engineers overlook: the room itself.
Basic Room Mic Technique
In the earliest days of recording, room mics were the most common ways to record (if only from a simple capability standpoint). The earliest consoles only had a limited set of channels, the studios only had so many microphones, and even through the 90s, the analog and digital recording mediums only had so many tracks that you could print to.
There was a certain level of pride and technique in getting these massive, bombastic sounding kits with a small microphone selection and engineers were responsible for trying everything they could to get the right sound for the song. There was no “throwing the kitchen sink” at the kit and keeping only the tracks that sounded good – they all had to sound good.
As recording sessions have progressed, both engineers and mixers have found a much more useful approach to recording drums involves the use of spot mics on key elements of the kit and overheads, but neither of these really capture the sound of the room. They can get you a good, useable recording, but the color comes from the room itself.
Basic room mic technique requires you to spend some time testing different microphones in different positions in the room. It may even require moving the drum kit around to find the sweet spot where the kit and the room resonate with each other in a sonically pleasing way. If you’re recording in a small space, try grabbing some headphones and a room mic on a stand and moving around until you hear something you like. In larger studios, have someone move the mic for you as you listen from the control room. You’ll almost always find a spot where the kit sounds full and unique.
What A Room Mic Adds
Room mics in a modern session record a sense of liveliness to a drum recording that isn’t always there when working with spot mics only (or spot mics with overheads). While overheads often capture a lot of a kit’s sound, they’re usually EQ’d and processed in a way that makes the higher frequencies of the cymbals ring out with the shells being suppressed so the spot mics can do their job.
A room mic is the key to bringing it all together in real-time. No bus compression or reverb needed in the mix – the room mic is giving you your room’s natural size and shape on an individual track (or tracks, if you’re working with multiple mics). It can add dimension and depth to your sound instantly.
For those that are planning on sample replacing their spot mics or layering some samples in, room mics also add a realness to the drum sound that keeps those processed samples sounding a bit more natural. It’s common for major engineers and mixers to combine samples with live-tracked drums and use the live room mic as a way to blend things together. If their samples start becoming too noticeable as they work, they can bring up the room mic(s) instead of adjusting any individual tracks.
Room mics are also a great way to make your drums sound wider in the stereo field (yes, even when you’re only using a mono room mic). Room mics can be recorded with an omni polar pattern to capture sound from all directions, but they can also be placed in a way that makes a cardioid pattern sound full and wide. Just check out this example from Javi about how he’s adding width with a mono room mic:
Of course, if you’re still not getting a wide enough sound with this technique, something like Sidewidener can always be applied to mono sources to make them wider without losing their center image.
Prepping Drums for Mixing
Getting a great sounding drum recording is just the start of the process for many engineers. While an ambient room mic can work wonders for your overall drum sound, it won’t mean all that much if you can’t get them to sit right in your mix.
If you’re serious about achieving great drum sounds each and every time, check out our eBook, Taking Control of Your Drum Mix. Inside, you’ll find a complete walkthrough of the anatomy of a drum kit, how to start your mixes with a solid foundation, and all of the dynamic processing needed to get a perfect final mix. We’ve even included our Drum Mix Checklist with the guide for easy reference.