RECORDING DRUMS: How to Get That Killer Slammin' Sound!
Recording the drums? You CAN record awesome, slammin' drum sounds in your home studio: Here's how!

by Paul Diamond Blow

When listening to music, nothing gets me going like a slammin' drum sound. Many engineers and producers actually believe that the snare drum sound is more important than even the lead vocal on a record! Let's face it, nothing ruins the sound of a great band like weak sounding drums. If you play rock, metal, punk, etc., you want a slammin' snare that hits you right in the gut with each hit and a kick drum that packs a whallop! Now, how can you record slammin' drum tracks in your home studio? Here's how it's done...

Recording the Snare drum
The snare is the most important part of the drumset. If I can only hear one piece of the drums, it's gotta be the snare. The pros all agree that the best way to capture a great snare sound is by close-miking it with a dynamic, cardiod-pattern mic. The legendary SM-57 is an excellent mic for the snare, it is the choice of many professional engineers, and it's what I use myself.

The classic approach for miking the snare is to place the mic 1-2 inches over the snare rim opposite the drummer and one inch above the top drum head. The mic should be at about a 35 degree angle downward. I usually try to also angle the mic inward (away from the hi-hats) to avoid leakage from the hi-hats. If you are recording to magnetic tape, hit the tape hard and you'll get some nice analog compression from the tape saturation. If you're recording to a digital medium, you should compress the snare to avoid any digital clipping.

Some engineers also mic the bottom snare head for some added snap, but I've never been a fan of this technique. Every time I've recorded the bottom snare, I usually haven't used it in the mix.

Recording the Kick drum
For the kick drum, you should use a dynamic mic - the bigger the diaphram, the better. I've used RE-20's (the famous radio mic) with great success, but when I'm recording drums at home I've used an Audio-technics dynamic mic (actually a vocal/all purpose mic), and also an SM-57, which delivers a nice punchy kick sound.

The way I usually mic a kick drum is to stick the mic inside the kick drum (I always remove the front head) about 3-4 inches in front of the beater. That's a good place to start - you can move the mic around and find the best sounding spot. I usually stick a pillow or blankets against the rear drum head to minimize rings and to improve the thud factor. You'll get more thud the closer the mic is to the beater - you'll get more overtones farther away.

Recording Toms
If you've got enough mics, it's best to mic each tom separately and run the tom tracks to a submix (panning them accordingly). Again, dynamic mics work the best, and SM-57's once again are a top choice. Sennheiser 421's also are a great tom mic, but they are expensive.

The best approach to miking toms is to place the mic 4-6 inches above the drum head at about a 45-degree angle over the head. If you pick up a lot of overtones, a little duct tape in the right spots will kill the overtones, or if you have a noise gate you can gate out the overtones. I always move the mics around a little at a time until I find the right spot/angle that picks up the tom sound the best.

Overhead mics
The drum overhead mics are really supposed to capture the overall sound of the drums, not just the cymbals. Condenser mics are the first choice for overheads, and one popular miking technique is with a spaced pair of mics (on boom stands) mounted 3 feet above the drums -the right mic pointed at the right cymbals, the left mic pointed at the left cymbals. Another technique is called X-Y miking, and the two mics are placed above the drums with their capsules one inch from each other - with the right mic angled down toward the left side of the set, and the left mic pointed down to the right of the set. The mics should actually form a 90 degree angle together (I wish I could draw a picture here.)

If you've got enough mics and tracks, you can always mic the high-hat. I've always used a small condenser mic placed about a foot above the high-hats, pointed straight down at the center of the top hat. Of course, when recording drums you will have plenty of leakage, and miking the hats are not really necessary.

Recording drums with 4-mics
I've often recorded drum tracks at home using just four mics, with very nice results. I always mic the kick and the snare, and I use two overhead mics to capture the toms and cymbals (as well as the overall drum sound.) The trick is to set the two overheads in the right spots so that the cymbals and toms will be recorded with a decent mix. I prefer my cymbals to be in the background in my mixes, so I try to make sure that the overheads pick up the toms loud and clear with the cymbals behind them (crisp, not muffled).

Recording drums with a stereo pair
If you've only got a couple mics, or very few tracks to play with, try this: Place a pair of SM-57's 10 feet in front of the drumset, 3 feet high, 3-4 feet from each other pointed straight at the drum set. You can actually get a pretty good sounding recording with this method, especially if you've got a nice live room to record in. Adding some compression really gives it some balls, too.

Mixing down the drums
Now that you've got your drums recorded, let's talk a little bit about mixing them down. The key to getting the awesome slammin' snare sound is compression... you really gotta compress the kick and snare enough so that each hit is pretty much even without the amplitude of the hits jumping all over the place, and without bringing up the background sounds (mainly hi-hat and cymbal wash) too much. The compression also adds the "whumpf" factor to the kick and snare, adding power and the gut-pound to the sound. When I record drums I always compress them some in the recording stage, then again in the mixdown. Also, adding some reverb to the snare and a bit to the kick can really liven up dead sounding drums in the mix, especially since with close-micing you don't get much natural room sound at all. The way I personally like to mix the drums is with the kick compressed with a bit of reverb, panned dead center. I mix the snare dead center, also with some good compression and reverb. I like to place the toms, cymbals and hi-hat about where the drummer would be hearing them and I always pan from the drummer's perspective: that is, a drum roll starts on the left and goes to the right. I like to pan the cymbals about 40% left and right for a nice stereo sound, and also place the hi-hat (if it's been miced) about 60% left.

That's all I have for now... so rock out! One of my best sources for audio recording has always been the book Sound Advice: The Musicians Guide to the Recording Studio by Wayne Wadhams, which was one of my text books in my Audio Engineering classes. This book is written so even musicians can understand, and has a wealth of tips on recording (I mentioned a couple of them here)- in fact it's the best book on the subject I've found! I highly recommend it.