Studio Guide for Drummers
Drums are arguably one of the most difficult instrument to record well. This is because, in a way, it’s not really one instrument but a group of six or more instruments being played at the same time. From an engineer’s perspective, the fact that a drum-kit is most often recorded with multiple microphones introduces the possibility of phase issues between the mics. The room also plays a big part in the sound of the recording.
Getting all these things right goes a long way towards achieving a great drum track, but the biggest factors in the difference between a mediocre drum sound and a great drum sound are the drummer and the kit itself.
With that in mind, here’s a few tips for drummers as they are about to enter the studio to record.
If you haven’t heard the term before, ‘pre-production’ is the name given to the phase that happens before recording where all the details relating to the production/recording process are worked out. It means nailing down the structure of the song, the tempo of the song, each musicians’ parts etc. If we’re talking about a band, lot of this happens organically in the rehearsal room but it’s still worth having a conversation about these things prior to recording to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
Three elements of the pre-production process that relate heavily to drummers are as follows.
A fairly obvious one, but you’d be surprised by the number of bands that have no idea even roughly what tempo they usually play their song at. Even if you’re not planning to record with a metronome (click track), it can be useful to know the rough tempo of the song.
Click Track (Or Not)
One question to discuss before entering the recording studio is whether the song (or songs) will be recorded to a click track. There are some advantages to using a click: obviously it keeps the tempo of the song steady, it makes editing easier, it makes any timing corrections easier. But there can be disadvantages too: it may kill the vibe of a song, some natural push and pull may be desirable.
It’s something that should be discussed with the engineer or producer prior to the session to assess whether using a click will serve your particular project well. If it’s decided that a click track will be used, the drummer should practice their parts to a metronome prior to the session.
This means thinking about the drum sound you are hoping to achieve on your recording. If you have no idea, a good start would be to reference other bands’ recordings in a similar genre. Pay close attention to the sound of the drums and make a list of a few of your favourites. Try not to be swayed by the abilities of the drummer or how much you love the song and listen specifically to the sound. This list is a great reference for the engineer both during the recording and mixing phases.
Once you have an idea of the sound you are going for, it’s time to prepare your kit for recording…
Preparing your kit
If you are planning on recording your kit, rather than a kit supplied by the studio, it is imperative that it is in the best possible condition before going into the studio. The recording process is a microscope and your kit may cut it in its current state on stage or in the rehearsal room but sound terrible in the studio. Just to clear something up, I’m not talking about the quality of your kit, I’m talking about how well it is maintained. I would rather record a well-maintained $500 Pearl Forum kit than a $4000 Gretsch kit in poor shape.
If you have a new kit, or you are the first owner there is unlikely to be anything mechanically wrong with the kit. But if you have an older, second-hand kit it can be worth having it checked out by a professional to make sure it’s in good nick. They can check out the bearing edges for you to make sure there are no issues there such as unevenness. They will also inspect the hoops and other hardware to make sure nothing is preventing the kit from sounding its best.
If you have any squeaky pedals, use some WD-40 to eliminate the squeaks
The number one thing you can do to make sure that your kit is sounding its best is to put on new heads. If you have been playing the same heads for a few months (or years!) they will have slowly deteriorated and the sound will suffer.
Before you head into the studio you should ideally put a new set of heads on the kick, snare and toms. If your budget will allow it, I also recommend replacing the bottom skins. Some drummers think that they don’t need to change the bottom heads because they don’t hit them, but this is not true; the bottom head dries out over the course of time and loses its bounce. It’s much easier to tune a drum when the bottom head is in a good state. The bottom heads don’t need to be replaced as often as the batter-side but they should be replaced at least every couple of years. I know drum heads aren’t cheap but you are about to record something that will (hopefully) be around forever, so don’t you want the drums to sound as good as they possibly can?
In terms of the type of head to put on, everyone has their own taste and ideas on this but one thing to keep in mind is that tone is more important than durability in the studio so you can go for a thinner head than you might in a live situation. I usually recommend coated Remo Ambassadors for the snare and tom top heads, with clear Ambassadors on the bottom but this is very much personal taste.
The sound of the kick drum is also a personal preference but I find that Evans EMAD heads record very well as they have a little bit of inbuilt dampening. If you are looking for a little more attack and a touch more resonance, another great option is a Remo EQ3. If you are recording anything in the rock or pop genres (in the broadest sense), it’s a good idea to have a hole cut in the front head of your bass drum. This allows the engineer to place a mic inside the drum and capture more of the attack of the beater on the batter head. Make the hole off-centre about two inches from the edge at about 3 o’clock on the drum. Don’t make the hole any larger than about 5 inches otherwise you lose too much tone and resonance from the front head.
Drum tuning is seen as somewhat of a dark art and it’s something that many drummers are not particularly confident in doing. It’s unfortunate because it’s so essential to getting a great recorded drum sound. Most recording engineers will know something about drum tuning and will be able to help you out but it really is something that’s worth learning to do well. There is a tonne of videos on YouTube so check a few out.
If you want to go all-out with drum tuning it is possible to tune the toms to the key of each song that you are recording but this is definitely not essential. What is essential is to tune each tom to a note within its natural tuning range that also sounds good with the other toms.
The snare is probably the second most important element of modern rock and pop music after the vocal so even if you ignore all the advice up until this point, about replacing drum heads etc. please, for the love of Bonham, put a new snare batter head on before you come in to record. At least you’ll only be hitting your toms in the fills, you’ll most likely be hitting the snare at least twice per bar!
If you’re having problems with weird-sounding snare buzzes, it’s worth checking to see if the snare wires need replacing. If it’s old, the snare bottom head could also be the culprit so swap that out too. When tuning the snare bottom, the 4 lugs to either side of the snare wires should be slightly looser than the rest to form a slight ‘channel’ for the wires as they run across the head. It’s worth clarifying that I’m not talking about the light buzz that probably happens when you play the bass drum or toms; this is normal. I’m talking about buzzes that sound unnatural when the snare drum itself is played.
If your snare is not the best, or perhaps not suitable for the style of music you’re recording, talk to the studio to see if they have one that you can borrow or think about hiring a snare better suited to the sound you want to achieve.
Sometimes it may be necessary or desirable to use dampening on the drums to achieve a particular sound or to eliminate annoying overtones from a snare or tom. Commercial dampening products are available various forms. Moongel (or similar) is a semi-sticky gel-like substance that is placed on the drum head to reduce overtones. You can also get mylar rings that are cut to the size of the drum that you are trying to dampen. Many drummers also make use of gaffer tape for this purpose.
Cymbals are obviously an important element of the overall drum sound. It’s worth keeping in mind that the best cymbals for live applications are not necessarily the best for recording. Lighter cymbals may record better as they will be slightly quieter and will give the engineer more control when it comes to the mix.
In terms of maintenance you should make sure there are no cracks in your cymbals. Cracks will cause weird overtones, which will sound bad on record.
Going into the studio to record for the first (or even the second or third time) can be pretty daunting for a new band. There’s a lot of pressure to get the best possible performance to ‘tape’. This is true for all the members of the band but can be especially acute for the drummer. Drums are most often the first element to be put under the studio spotlight during the recording process. Even if the band has chosen to record together as a group it’s really the drums that are the most important part at this stage, as all the other instruments, such as guitars, vocals, keys, etc. can always be fixed up at a later stage with an overdub. The drums, however, have to be right when basic tracking is finished. Of course minor timing issues may be able to be corrected digitally but this should definitely not be something to be relied on by drummers. Add to this the fact that the drums really are the rhythmic backbone of the song in most arrangements and the pressure adds up.
The best mental preparation you can do is to be 100% confident in the part that you are playing and your ability to play it. This means practicing it to death before you enter the studio. If you are planning to record to a click track you MUST practice the drum part with a metronome BEFORE you head into the studio to record. Many drummers seem to think that they are born with an innate ability to play to a click track, even though they have never tried it before, but I can tell you from experience that this is not the case! The studio is definitely not the place to learn this skill, so make sure you practice beforehand and come prepared with a list of the tempos of each song you’ll be recording. There are many free metronome apps available for your smartphone (I use EUM Pro Metronome). Please note, it is not by any means mandatory to use a click track when recording (see the Pre-production section).
Balance and Dynamics
Playing dynamics refers in simple terms to the difference in how hard you hit each drum or cymbal each time you play a note. Balance refers to the volume of each drum relative to the others overall.
Balancing the kit is an area where less experienced drummers can come unstuck in the studio. Given that balance and dynamics are less noticeable in a live setting they may never have thought too much about them before. For example, an issue that many drummers have is that they will bash the absolute crap out of the cymbals but play the snare relatively lightly. You might think that this wouldn’t be an issue because the engineer can just turn up the snare mic. The problem is that mics such as the overheads and rooms are picking up the entire kit and these mics are key to getting a good drum sound. However, if the overheads are full of hi-hat and nothing else, they become less useful.
Don’t be afraid to ask the engineer for a headphone mix that helps you balance your playing more effectively. If you know that you’re a bit of a ‘cymbal basher’ ask the engineer to put some of the overhead mics into your headphone send; this should cause you to play them with a softer touch.
Dynamics usually come into play in terms of the arrangement of the song. For example, as a very general rule, the choruses of the song will be louder and have more energy than the verses. Your playing should reflect this. This is an area where it is definitely useful to play together as a band, even if the drums are the focus of recording. It can be very difficult to judge these dynamics in a vacuum so if the other band members are playing along with you it will be much easier to nail these dynamic changes.
So, now that you’re fully prepared and your kit is sounding great, it’s time to record…
Setting Up and Getting a Sound
After you’ve loaded your kit into the studio, speak to the engineer about where they would like you to set up. Set your kit up as you normally would. Your comfort as a player is key here so a good engineer will always try to fit their microphones around your setup style. Occasionally they may ask you if they can move a stand, as long as the drum or cymbal stays in the same position.
The engineer will then place microphones around the kit. A good engineer will usually ask, but if they don’t, please let them know if you see any mics that you think might be in your way and that could possibly be hit while you’re playing. By the same token, always speak to the engineer rather than moving any of the microphones – even a centimetre can make a difference to the tone of the microphone. If you find that you need to move any of your drums after the initial setup phase, let the engineer know; they may want to make adjustments to the placement of the microphone also.
Once the microphones are in place and patched in, the engineer will ask you to play while they set levels, add EQ or compression and balance the kit. They may ask you to play around the kit or to play just individual drums. Personally I like the drummer just to play ‘time’ while I am pulling a sound but this is just my preference.
Once the engineer has achieved a sound that they are happy with, ask them to record you playing so that you can hear how it sounds in the control room. Play a part that is at least similar to what you will be playing on the recording. Whilst listening back, pay close attention to the sound of each drum and also to the overall balance of the kit. If you hear anything that you don’t like in the sound, mention it to the engineer; they will usually have a suggestion about how to change it. This is the time to experiment with different cymbals and snares to see if they might give you a more suitable sound. Bear in mind that this is not the final sound of the drums but it should be close to the type of sound you are going for (minus certain elements that may be added in the mix, such as reverb).
Time to Hit Record
So that’s it. You’re set up, the kit sounds great and you’re confident that you know the part. Take a deep breath and hit record.
At Everland we take pride in getting a great drum sound for our bands. We’re happy to help out with the pre-production phase also. Get in contact and make a time to come in and see the studio. We can have a chat about the best way to record your music.