How to record a drum kit

So it sounds like you are in the same room with the band!

How to record a drum kit - So it sounds like you are in the same room with the band! - by Simon Campbell

Recording drums should be really easy? Well actually it is, but it seems everyone has made it so complex that in 2017 you need a mass of microphones, a caravan of compressors and a plethora of preamps to make it all work, or so people tell me

There is no doubt that the drum sound on Donald Fagen’s ‘The Nightfly’ is magnificent: tight, balanced with everything in the right place at the right time.

‘When The Levee Breaks’ from Led Zeppelin's fourth studio album, has awesome bombast and is the antithesis to Porcaro/Gadson/Jordan/Greene's sound on ‘The Nightfly’ but again, perfect for the track.

A drum sound is the quintessential element in most popular music, underpinning the overall soundscape but needs to be miked sensitively, so slavishly adhering to one technique doesn't work: as the saying goes, it's horses for courses.

Our recording philosophy

Before we move on to drums, it's important to understand the context in which we operate...

Here at Supertone, we record and produce a range of music from jazz, through singer-songwriter, folk and Americana to electric blues and every style is quite different.

We specialise in natural instrument tones, using as few microphones as possible, especially on drums. There are plenty of articles out there on how to close mic a kit so I am not going to cover that in this article.

I kinda believe that bands sound and play best when recording all together in one room; no booths, minimum headphone useage, just screens and the judicious placement of people and microphones.

This of course gives you potential issues of bleed across the board and of course for a 'loudish' band you really do need a big, high room (and I say room, not specifically studio) due to the amount of sound energy in the enclosed space.

Before opening the Supertone Records studio, I wrote an article that really defined our approach to recording and what we wanted to achieve and looking back, we have stuck to it!!

There are a few articles on this very blog about our studio clients and philosophy, but think this one, which details the recording of Chris Cheek's album Saturday Songs, seems most appropriate to read in conjunction with this article and shows the space we currently work with.

Our journey has really just begun and we are always looking for a perfect space to house the studio!

One of the ultimate rooms of all time was the late great Olympic but there are still others kicking around such as my current favourite, Ocean Way in Nashville...

Watch this space :)


Olympic Studios in 1971 showing the recording of BB King in London with BB and a supergroup of Ringo Starr (drums), Klaus Voormann (bass), Peter Green (guitar) and Steve Marriott (harp) amongst others.

Sound design is bad

I am of the opinion that modern studio designs take away so much personality from recordings which now seem to have become boring and homogeneous.

As you will read later, I am a fan of Glyn & Andy Johns' early work and have noted a few quotes from Glyn's excellent book, Sound Man, which if you are a musician, interested in engineering and/or production or working in that field I urge you to buy.

Here he talks about the mixing of John Hiatt's 'Slow Turning' record:

"I took it to L.A. to mix at Ocean Way. Thanks to the owner Allen Sides, this was one of the few remaining studios that had stayed true to the acoustics for which they were originally designed in the late fifties, not succumbing to the commercial pressure of having SSL consoles and Hidley acoustic designs, both of which have been responsible for systematically reducing the quality of recorded sound like some invidious cancer"

I have to agree with him; if I walk into another studio or control room with clean wooden floors, designer diffusers, beige walls, that sounds neutral and dead I will fucking scream. It seems to suck your soul and makes me unable to truly relax as an artist, producer or engineer.

Anyway, I am straying from the point and will come back to SSL and automation a bit later...

Recording drums

So, we are recording everything together and need to reduce bleed so the obvious solution is to close mic everything.

No, it's not necessary! Two, three or maximum four mics in the right position is totally fine. But before we start you must have the most important ingredient...

A great drummer

Well to me a drummer is one that understands their instrument.

Providing they are great timekeepers and groovy, the level of technical expertise is totally secondary to the 'sound' they create.

Vinnie Colaiuta, Ian Paice, John Bonham, Mick Fleetwood, Jeff Porcaro and James Gadson vary massively in style and 'technical' accomplishment and apart from all being groovy as fuck, they make a GREAT sound.

This ability makes recording drums really easy with the simple techniques I generally employ, as a great drummer will use dynamics and feel to create a natural balance between all elements of the kit.

Listen

Before even opening the mic cupboard, I stand behind the drummer's seat and listen to how they sound from this position, getting a feel for how they 'hear' the kit. Then I go to the front to understand the overall sound they are creating and only then deciding (within the context of the track you are recording, plus of course the artist and/or producer) how to deal with the miking of the kit.

But as I mentioned earlier, most artists and projects at Supertone tend to require a very natural open sound as though you are standing in the same room as the kit.

Glyn Johns

When I started working in studios as a session guitarist in 1977, kits were 'multi-miked', but within the constraints of the 16/24 track tape machines that were then the 'de rigueur'. It was only later that I really started to understand the advantages of minimal setups which were all based around engineers and producers such as Tom Dowd, John Simon, Ken Scott, Daniel Lanois, Eddie Kramer, Geoff Emerick and of course Andy & Glyn Johns.

Here Glyn tells us here about how he stumbled across his famous stereo drum miking method:

"What happened on the first Led Zeppelin album, was I discovered, by pure error of my own, stereo drums.

We cut a track, and we decided we’d over-dub an acoustic on it, I think. The microphone that I was using on the top of the drums, I took that way and put it up for Jimmy Page to play acoustic guitar into. We did that in twenty minutes or however long it took. And I’d assigned that microphone to the left side of the stereo.

And then I put the microphone back on the drums to start the next track. And when I lifted the faders up when I got back in the control room, John Bonham was playing, and half the drums were coming out of the left and half were coming out the middle. And I thought, “well that sounds interesting. What would happen if I put the one that was in the middle on the right?” And there we are; we got this monster drum sound."


The more mics, the more problems

Phase issues and bleed between multiple microphones on a kit can be a nightmare.

I have seen engineers with four mics on the snare: two on the top, one on the side and one on the bottom; to me it's totally, totally crazy and just adds unnecessary stress and confusion when mixing where you run a high risk of disappearing up your own arse, reversing phase and gating stuff.

It creates an exponential nightmare as in my experience it's almost impossible to get everything sounding cohesive. This 'multi-mic' mayhem has come about due to the almost unlimited number of tracks you can record, but I will come onto that a bit later.

Andy Johns

Andy , who sadly passed away in 2013, captured the monster "When the Levee Breaks", just used a couple of Beyer M160 ribbon mics in the stairwell of Jane Seymour's Headley Grange mansion.

In a 2009 interview (first published in Rhythm Magazine and later on MusicRadar in 2103) he said:

"I'd been using very few mics on tracks like Can't Find My Way Home by Blind Faith. I had recorded the whole thing using just two mics including vocals, guitar and Ginger Baker's drums. So I was really getting into that."

And continued:

"One night Zeppelin were all going down the boozer and I said, 'You guys bugger off but Bonzo, you stay behind because I've got an idea.' So we took his kit out of the room where the other guys had been recording and stuck it in this lobby area. I got a couple of microphones and put them up the first set of the stairs."

"I used two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones and I put a couple of limiters over the two mics and used a Binson Echorec echo device that Jimmy Page had bought. They were Italian-made and instead of tape they used a very thin steel drum.

"Tape would wear out and you'd have to keep replacing it. But this wafer-thin drum worked on the same principle as a wire recorder. It was magnetised and had various heads on it and there were different settings. They were very cool things!

"And so playing at that particular tempo on 'Levee the limiters had time to breathe and that's how Bonzo got that 'Ga Gack' sound because of the Binson. He wasn't playing that. It was the Binson that made him sound like that. I remember playing it back in the Stones' mobile truck and thinking, 'Bonzo's gotta f**king like this!' I had never heard anything like it and the drum sound was quite spectacular."

And so...

After talking the track and wishes of the artists/producer into account, if it's the real natural sound we are after I start by using a Flea U47V (cardioid) overhead high above the snare and a Neumann U87ai (cardioid) just to the right of the kit, pointing in a line right across the floor tom skin, the snare and to the high hat. On the board I mark them up O/H and Glyn :)

Many people say that the two mic need to be exactly equidistant from the snare, but I don't think that's the case. Approximate is fine and the acid test is to listen to them together :)

When we get some more cash, we will invest in a couple of vintage U67's or a couple of the excellent clones out there as sometimes I need to use those mics for other applications.

The only concession I make is on the kick, where I do use two vintage mics; a Neumann U47FET on the skin and an AKG D12 in the hole. The sounds are radically different and you can achieve a wonderful tone by blending the O/H and Glyn with the big warm boom and the tight thud. Of course, phase needs to be addressed between the mics and end up being a compromise because it's not always exactly 180 degrees out.

This technique will give you a great drum sound, without the unnatural clarity and separation between drums and cymbals.

P.S. I did write a small section on drum miking in a previous article, sound recording is easy, if you want a little more background!


Testing, testing

You will see from the pictures in this featured recording I do have close mics on the kit for the sole purpose of testing, which was itself very interesting but something that you would probably only do when recording your own album.

The balance

Once set up, I obviously listen to individual mics but as 'everything is in everything' the only way to check you've got it right is by iteration and checking 'O/H', 'Glyn' and their interaction with the kick. And talking of kick, you will be amazed by the amount that comes in from just 'Glyn' and the 'O/H'.

I tend to pan 'Glyn' to 9 o'clock and the O/H to three o'clock with any additional kick straight down the middle, also adding in the monitor path (and eventually in the mix) a stereo compressor/limiter (usually our AMEK Rupert 9098) across these two mics.


The Starlite Campbell Band's Steve Gibson doing a fine job with the SAKAE Trilogy kit and Paiste Cymbals on the debut album Blueberry Pie.

Removing choice from the equation

Of course I was strictly a 16/24 track tape man but now have the luxury of an almost unlimited number of tracks. However, I am really strict with myself and restrict the recorded tracks to 24 and a maximum of 32 channels coming back. This abstemious method forces you to make hard choices when it comes to recording and I believe gets a more natural result.

Also, the restricted amount of drum tracks (usually four) helps here and really hones your microphone placement skills, making you think about the overall sound you eventually want to achieve.

Even though we use Pro Tools for recording and editing, we don't use any automation or plugins when recording or mixing, so the choices you make you have to live with, which to me is where the art is. A sculpture can't put back a piece of marble he has just chipped off :)

This is of course is what you had to do with tape, living with your earlier decisions and choices which I think makes for for a more enjoyable and relaxed session knowing that you can't infinitely fiddle with the minutiae...

I am writing a separate article on recording guitars, bass and keyboard to compliment this article.

Glyn and SSL

Although I don't particularly like the sound, I have nothing really against SSL (see the article on buying a vintage recording console) and think what Glyn was referring to in his earlier quote was the level of automation and general anal retentiveness this type of console brought when introduced, not to mention the huge hike in profits for the electricity suppliers and for sure our next console will also have almost no automation :)

The results

Talk is cheap and the pictures and detail above were from a real session recording our new album, Blueberry Pie. So take a listen, see what you think and drop me a line with your comments :)

But this isn't new?

Of course it's not! We are going back to the days when recording was quick and dirty with limited amount of tracks, but don't those old recording sound so alive and beautiful?

Good for you and good for the client!

We all know that studio budgets have dramatically reduced and there are many more self-funded projects around. This way of miking drums saves time on the setup and mix as really you dont have a lot to play with; wang up the faders, fiddle with the EQ and compression and there you go :)

Is it perfect?

Hell no, as it depends totally on the band and specifically the drummer who must understand their own sound. If they achieve a balance in their own ears on how the kit should sound, this setup will certainly do the trick…

See you next time!


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