Drums in a Small Room

Maybe it’s because I’m stubborn. I really don’t like the idea that I can’t get a decent drum sound out of a real kit, so I just keep trying. It’s like playing the same level of a video game over and over and over and refusing to move on until you feel like you’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency. Except drums are way cooler than video games.

Maybe it’s because I think music, like life, is better when people are connected. I like having a living, breathing percussionist walk into the studio with a lifetime of experiences and knowledge and then just letting them do their thing. You’re getting a little bit of what makes that musician unique grafted right into your project. Pretty cool.

Maybe it’s because using a bunch of microphones seems like it is becoming a lost art, and I hate to think future music-makers might rob themselves of the fun.  Trying to solve the aural puzzles that arise from having a bass drum, snare drum, two toms, cymbals and hi-hat all played at the same time in the same room while being recorded by 8-12 microphones is a challenge, and solving the puzzle is pretty gratifying.

For whatever reason, I really like trying to record the studio drums in our crummy little room with 7 foot drop ceilings. Here’s my latest attempt, and some ideas you might want to try on your next drum sesssion.

1) Line up a stellar drummer. This is far and away the most important thing in terms of getting a good recording. My pal Brian has good time. He has good taste. He has tons of experience. He is a true student of the drum kit. Everything else could be perfect, but if the drummer is not groovin’ then it really doesn’t matter.

2) Put your time in ahead of time. There’s no substitute for experimenting with mics, placements, and tuning. If you have a kit, then really get to know that kit. It wants to spend time with you.

3) If you have the tracks and the mics, give yourself options. I put a large diaphragm tube mic out in front of the kick drum, a dynamic mic way inside, and even a little clip-on horn condenser dangling over the pedal beater. I actually did end up using a blend of all three, although the “beater” mic ended up functioning more like an under-snare mic.

4) Even in a tiny room, try a room mic. I used the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic in a mid-side configuration about 5 feet in front of the kit. I really didn’t think I’d end up using it, but after rolling a little low end out I decided it really helped add a sense of space to the dead room. I’ve often found that combinations of mics at different distances can help add sonic dimensions to a recording.

5) Try different flavors of preamps. For the inside kick mic I ran into a Focusrite ISA 430 preamp. It’s a little juiced on the top and bottom and I thought it would be a nice compliment to that snappy attack on a bottom-heavy source. The outside kick mic and snare ran through a Millennia preamp for crispy transients. The overheads ran through a Buzz Audio preamp for a subtle touch of softening on the cymbals.

Here are the specifics:

  • Kick In: Miktek PM11 into Focusrite ISA 430
  • Kick Out: Lauten LT-386 tube (gentle, figure-8) into Millennia
  • Kick Beater: Audio Technica ATM350 horn condenser into Audient
  • Snare: Beyerdynamic M 201 TG into Millennia
  • Rack Tom: Sennheiser MD421 into Audient
  • Floor Tom: Sennheiser MD421 into Audient
  • Hi Hats: Neumann KM-184 into Audient
  • Overheads: sE RN17s cardioid caps into Buzz Audio SSA 1.1
  • Room: AEA R88 Stereo Ribbon into Millennia

I had previously used an AKG 414 as the Kick Out mic, but it seemed to catch a lot of hi-hat bleed. I knew the Lauten LT-386 would provide plenty of thump, but I also figured that if I set the character to the “gentle” mode I would minimize hi-hat and other high frequency bleed. Mission accomplished! It sounded a lot better than the 414 in this application.

There is no compression on this mix and minimal linear phase EQ for high-pass filtering on the room and overhead mics, and some low-mid reduction in the overheads and kick drum mics. I’m looking forward to overdubbing the rest of the parts so I can dive into mixing!

-Update-

Here’s a look at some things starting to come together. Still a lot to do, but rough edges are slowly getting smoothed. Looking forward to finishing it up!

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