The enormous range of affordable digital audio production hardware and software that’s become available over the past couple of decades has led to countless home-based project studios springing up. Countless hit records are created in bedroom studios, some of which sound pretty darned good. But it has become conventional wisdom that if you want to capture all the dynamics of a drum kit, you’re going to have to shell out some serious bucks for studio time and the services of a skilled audio engineer.
While that is undoubtedly true when it comes to tracking world-class drum sounds, there are some great techniques and affordable recording gear that can still deliver great results.
Many project studio owners resort to things like drum machines or virtual drums and percussion software that use virtual instruments and sound samples. Sometimes though, there’s no substitute for the real thing—an accomplished, creative drummer on a good, well-recorded drum set can bring creativity and feeling to a piece of music that leaves drum machines and software instruments shaking their little digital heads in wonder.
Getting a satisfying drum sound takes some preparation and extra effort, as a drum set is comprised of various components that all have to be tuned, balanced, and equalized with each other. However, quite respectable results can be achieved with fairly minimal equipment demands. In this article we’ll examine methods for recording drums in a home studio environment with just a basic selection of microphones.
Homegrown Drum Tracks
The first thing is to make sure the drums are well tuned and maintained, free of rattles and extraneous noises or squeaks. If you’re recording a skilled, experienced drummer who brings his or her own set, it’s likely that the drums will sound pretty good immediately. It’s still a good idea to check the tuning, which means that all the lugs that tighten the drumheads are of approximately equal tension, and that each drum produces a clear, distinct fundamental tone.
Bass drum sound is a hotly debated subject among musicians and studio professionals and there’s no one right answer to getting a good kick sound. Unless you are aiming for a very live, resonant "jazz" bass drum sound, you’ll want to remove the front bass drum head or use one with a hole in it. This limits the resonance that the front head prooduces and allows the insertion of a pillow or blanket into the bass drum against the rear head to give it a fat and low thud.
Drums recorded at home in a typical living room tend to sound like they were recorded in a small room with little ambience, while drums recorded in a pro studio typically have the larger atmospheric presence that a bigger room offers. The room that you’re going to record in can be treated to approximate the acoustics found in a studio drum room. Parallel surfaces tend to bring out some frequencies while suppressing others, so it’s a good ideal to disrupt these parallel surfaces. Moving furniture, recording gear, and other equipment to the corners of the room and against the walls helps to break up the space and deflect the sound for more accurate tonal reproduction. Putting a large piece of furniture such as a couch in front of the drum set works well to absorb excessive bass drum frequencies. Putting rugs or studio foam on the walls will further help to absorb excess high-frequency resonances—just don’t get too carried away or you can end up with sound that’s too dead.
Musician’s Friend offers a large assortment of acoustic treatment materials that can help you tame unwanted resonances in difficult spaces.
At a bare minimum, use at least two microphones for drum tracks so you can record in stereo. Stereo recordings have a richer, more dynamic ambience than mono recordings. Set the microphones up on boom mic stands, approximately six feet high, directly above the drums, pointing the mics down while keeping their diaphragms as close together as possible. This ensures that the sound will hit the mics at the same time and keeps fluctuations in the frequency response of the room to a minimum.
Move the pair of mics up or down or forward and backward to get the mix of drums and cymbals that you want. You’ll want to use a good pair of mics for these overheads, but you don’t have to spend a mint on them. Shure’s popular and reasonably-priced SM57 and/or SM58 dynamic mics deliver solid results, or you can choose to go with an affordable pair of small or medium diaphragm condenser microphones, such as the Sterling Audio SL230MP Matched Pair.
You may find that these overheads are all you need, but you can also close-mic some of the individual drums to add more presence. For a beefier bass drum sound, try placing a mic 6–12" in front of the head. If the bass drum sounds too thin, try using a bass drum mic designed to capture its frequencies, such as the AKD D112 (pictured above) or CAD Supercardioid Kick Drum Mic.
If your room sounds good, you may want to add some natural reverb by setting up room mics farther away from your drum set. Set up an affordable large diaphragm condenser microphone, such as the Warm Audio WA-47jr in an adjacent room out of the line of sight of the drums to pick up the room ambience. A room with hard surfaces like a kitchen or bathroom is ideal.
Obviously, if you have the cash, adding more mics to capture snare and cymbal sounds will help improve the overall sound of the drum kit. With some critical listening, experimentation with mic placement and judicious use of an equalizer, you may find you’re getting a much better drum sound than you thought possible in your minimalist studio.
This should give you some pretty good drum sounds with a bare bones selection of gear. Experiment freely with different mics and placements. Every pair of ears will hear things differently, so try out different configurations to arrive at the kind of drum sound you’re looking for.
Having a larger collection of mics on hand will give you more options when it comes to capturing the drum kit and other percussion instruments. You’ll find a large selection of drum mics including money-saving multi-mic kits at Musicians Friend.
If you're looking to learn more about the best tried-and-true drum recording techniques, check out our "How to Mic a Drum Kit" video series.