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  • Writer's pictureSteven Meloney

How to Record Awesome Drums at Home

You’ve finished writing a song or album and now it’s time to start recording. The drum kit is one of the most important sonic elements in a song. Unlike other instruments, the sound of a drum set covers the entire range of frequencies that humans are capable of hearing. Read that last sentence again.


...the sound of a drum set covers the entire range of frequencies that humans are capable of hearing.

They might not carry the melody, but drums provide crucial rhythmic elements that regulate a song's momentum. When it comes to recording your music, the drums are the last thing you want to take shortcuts on.


In this article, we will go over how to record awesome sounding drums at home, following these 4 steps:




There's no right or wrong way to record drums, but at the very least I hope I can offer helpful guidelines, and show you some useful techniques. Let’s get some meters bouncing.


 

Step 1: Instrument Preparation


The Golden Rule of Recording: Garbage in, garbage out. — If your drums sound like yesterday's garbage before putting mics up, how can you ever hope to get a decent sounding recording? You can’t. Preparing your drum set for recording is the first and most important thing you need to do. Heres how:


1. Identify the sound you are going for


Your vision of how the drums should sound is your strongest asset. The clearer your vision is, the easier it will be to make good decisions while crafting your drum sound. I recommend choosing one or two reference tracks and keeping them handy to compare your sounds to along the way.


2. Change The Drum Heads


Old drum heads lack their original elasticity, and may have dents or be missing coating. These things result in a dull, uneven sound, making it difficult or impossible to tune the drum properly. Which leads us to the next point…


3. Tune The Drum Kit


This is probably the most overlooked and the most important thing on this list. Properly tuning a drum kit ensures that each drum rings out with an even and focused tone. Even a relatively inexpensive kit can sound great if tuned properly.


4. Use Dampening


Tools like moon gel and drum rings can help you control resonant frequencies, and shape a drums attack and decay. They are essential for controlling the sound that will be recorded.


5. Use Fresh Sticks


New sticks simply sound better, especially when it comes to cymbals. They are better weighted than old sticks that have chunks of wood missing, and they have a snappier response.



Step 2: Room Preparation


When you record any instrument, you record not only the sounds coming directly from the instrument itself, but also the sounds that have bounced off of reflective surfaces like walls, ceilings, and floors. Drums are loud. They cause a lot of sound to bounce around in the room. If the way those sounds bounce around is not pleasing to the ear, we will have a hard time getting the drums to truly sound great.

Room reflections diagram

But how do I know if a room sounds good or bad? And what can I do if the room sounds bad?



Room Evaluation


Acoustics is a deep topic well deserving of its own article, so we can’t go into depth on it here. But at the very least, you should evaluate the room by making a single loud clap, or whack of a drum. Listen to the way the sound decays in the room. How long did it last? Was it even or did it wobble? Did you hear any frequencies in particular standing out? Try this in different rooms and compare. Generally, smaller rooms will have more issues because their reflection points (walls, ceilings, and floors) are closer together.



Room Treatment


If you notice something about the sound of the room you don’t like, you have two tools for addressing it:


1. Absorption - Materials used to absorb sounds so they don't reflect back to the mics. Think acoustic foams, blankets, thick rugs or carpeting, or a mattress or couch.


2. Diffusion - Materials used to scatter reflections more evenly around the room. Think irregularly shaped wood panels and book shelves.


If you hear a lot of uneven sounding reflections in your room, try adding absorption materials. Start in the corners of the room. These areas have two or three reflection surfaces (walls, ceiling, and floors) touching, and so cause the most problems.


If your room sounds dark, or dull, try adding diffusion materials to more evenly distribute the reflecting frequencies and better balance the room.



Drum Placement in the Room


Once you have your room chosen and treated to the best of your abilities, play around with drum set positioning. The kit will sound different in the center of the room than it will close to a wall. The best way to do this is to go around with a floor tom, listening to its response at different places in the room. Set up the drums wherever the floor tom sounds best.



Step 3: Selecting and Placing Microphones


For me, this is where the fun begins. There are many ways to mic a drum kit, none of them right or wrong and all of them different. Since many of you are recording in your homes with limited gear, I will offer one-mic, two-mic, and four-mic techniques here. Of course it is common to use many more mics than this to capture the sound of a drum kit, but we are focusing on the most impactful considerations. Everything here can be applied to setups that use more microphones.



Single Mic Setups


For home recording in less than ideal rooms, I suggest using a microphone that is uni-directional (commonly called “cardioid") - these mics pick up sound only from one direction. This will allow you to focus the mic more on the drums and less on the room. I also suggest choosing a condenser microphone over a dynamic one, as they tend to pick up a wider range of frequencies and exhibit more detail in the high end. If you have a nice sounding room however, don’t be afraid to experiment with bi-directional (picks up sounds from two sides, also called "figure-8") and omni-directional (picks up sound evenly from all directions) mics. You can try these one-mic setups right now:



The Single Overhead


Place your mic directly over the center of the drum kit, pointed straight down. Look straight on at the drum set and imagine an equilateral triangle about the width of the kit, the peak of this triangle is a good indication of where to start height-wise. As you move the mic up, the drums become more balanced but also exhibit more room sound.



In Front of the Kit


Place the mic in front of the kit about 4 ft away, at a height that’s in-between the cymbals and toms. Raise the mic to add more high end and lower it to add more low end and kick presence. Move the mic closer to the kit for less room sound, move the mic farther from the kit to add more room sound.



Two-Mic Setups


Any time we introduce a second mic to a sound source, we must be concerned with phase cancellation.



A Very Brief Explanation of Phase Cancellation:


Phase cancellation happens when the peak of one sound wave meets the trough of another. If a snare hit travels from the snare and makes contact with mic A during the waves peak, and simultaneously makes contact with mic B at it’s trough, then when we play them back through a speaker we’ll be pushing and pulling on the speaker cone at the same time - the result is either that the speaker cone does not move at all (no sound), or we’ll hear an altered version of the original sound that has lost its weight, integrity, and clarity.


In the left image below, two sound waves are shown to be completely out of phase - the peak of the top wave is perfectly aligned with the trough of the bottom wave. Add them together and we get zero - no sound. The image on the right shows the same scenario except the bottom wave has been phase-reversed - all the peaks are now troughs - and the result is that both sound waves now have their peaks and troughs aligned. No sound will be lost in this scenario.

Phase cancellation constructive and destructive

If two waves are perfectly out of phase, there will literally be no sound to hear anymore. In real life, the sound waves combined from all your mics coming out of your speakers won’t ever be perfectly out of phase. But they can be partially out of phase, and it's exactly this that can destroy your sound and make your drums weak and pathetic.



Main Mic + Kick


Use one of the single mic set ups and add a kick mic! You can mic the kick inside, outside, or batter-side. I tend to stick the mic inside the kick when possible, and point it directly at the batter for aggressive attack and focused low end. There is no worry about phase cancellation in this set-up because the kick mic is placed very far from the main mic. Kicks produce a lot of air pressure and low frequency energy, so large diaphragm dynamic mics are usually the go-to choices.



Stereo Micing Techniques


If you have two similar mics, you can also go for a stereo recording. The obvious benefit of stereo recording is the added sense of width and space in your drum sound. Here are four different stereo micing techniques that can all be used to record great sounding drums at home.



Coincident Pair

This technique uses uni-directional (cardioid) microphones placed as close together as possible. The stereo image is created by simply pointing them at different sides of the drum kit. Most people know this as the “XY” technique. A coincident pair of microphones can be positioned the same ways as the single mic setups. One advantage to coincident pairs is that they are always phase coherent - sounds will arrive at both microphones at the same time - therefore eliminating any concern of phase cancellation.



Near Coincident Pair

This technique aims to emulate human hearing by placing the mics like ears on a head. It is similar to a coincident pair, but the mics may be spaced apart by as much as a foot. This introduces a small amount of phase incoherency to the signal - sounds will arrive at the microphones at slightly different times - creating a wider sounding stereo image, but potentially introducing phase cancellation issues. Experiment with different distances between the mics, and your phase-reversal switches to achieve the best result.



Spaced Pair

This technique places the microphones far apart in order to create a very wide sounding image. You can use uni-directional, bi-directional, or omni-directional microphones depending on how much room sound you want. The trade off is that a spaced pair is highly susceptible to phase cancellation issues. Again, experiment with different distances between the mics, and your phase-reversal switches to achieve the best result. It is also important to keep the mic’s equidistant from the snare drum, to ensure the snare stays in the center of your stereo image after panning the mic’s left and right.


Stereo micing techniques

Recorderman


This is my personal go-to because it provides a very focused and balanced sound that is full of punch and body, and has a pleasing stereo image. It achieves this result by attempting to place both mics equidistant from both the snare and the kick.


To set-up the recorderman technique:


  1. Place the first mic about two drum stick lengths directly over the snare.

  2. Place the second mic near the drummers ride-side shoulder, also pointing directly at the center of the snare about two stick lengths away.

  3. Measure the mics distances from the kick and the snare. The easiest way to do this is to grab a string or cable, tape one end firmly to the center of the snare, and pinch the spot that reaches the first mic. While the drummer holds that pinch of string in place at the first mic, continue to run the line down to the center of the kick and tape it in place. You should have a big upside down V shape. Now swing your pinched point of string from the first mic to the second. If your mics are placed properly, the pinched spot should line up with the second mic. Take some time to get this measurement right, even a small mistake can compromise the integrity of the sound.

Recorderman mic technique

Four-Mic Setups


If you’ve got the inputs and the mics, a four mic set-up will give you a lot of control over the sound of the drum kit.


Glyn Johns


Probably the most famous of drum micing techniques, this approach places one mic about four feet above the center of the snare, pointed straight down. The second mic gets placed on the floor tom side of the kit at a height that’s just above the snare, also about 4 feet distance from the center of the snare, pointed directly at the snare. The two mics should be the exact same distance from the snare to ensure proper phase-coherency, and to keep the snare in the center of the stereo image when the mics are panned left and right. You can move them a little closer or farther from the kit to add or subtract the amount of room sound that gets recorded. Add a kick mic and we have the Glyn Johns setup. The fourth mic placed close on the snare is optional, but gives even more control over the sound.

Glyn Johns mic technique

Stereo Mic Technique + Kick and Snare

This one is self explanatory, take any of the stereo micing techniques described above and add a kick and snare mic. This setup is very effective at capturing a balanced and controlled sound.



Beyond Four Mic Set-ups


If you’ve got more inputs and mics, of course mic up the toms and the room! When close micing drums, we don't have to worry too much about phase cancellation - because the mics are so close to each drum. It is best to utilize uni-directional microphones for close micing because they will naturally reject sounds coming from other drums, thereby reducing bleed.


When it comes to micing the room however, we want to record a bunch of sounds coming from all directions, so any type of mic may be used. Room mics can be placed anywhere in the room as long as they are sufficiently far away from the drum set. I recommend distances of 6 to 10 feet for most rooms. Experiment with placement to find the best sounds.



Step 4: Recording


Now that our drum set is prepped, our room is prepped, and our mics are up, it’s almost time to hit the red button. But before we do, there are still some things we can do to ensure we capture the best sounding takes.



Proper Gain Staging


Every device that you pass signal through, from the mic to the preamp to every individual piece of hardware and every plug-in, has a specific range of signal levels that it is designed to work best on. Gain staging is the process of making sure that each device in your signal path receives an appropriate signal level. Use your meters!



Phase Check


We made a lot of measurements to ensure we avoid phase issues, but at the end of the day it is what we hear coming out of the speakers that matters most. Check your phase relationships one last time by using a phase reversal tool (this flips the waveform upside down, turning all the waves peaks into troughs and visa versa) on one of your two overheads. If the drums sound better with the phase reversal, leave it on!



Rehearsal


Do everything described in this article right and you still won’t be able to record awesome drum sounds if your playing is terrible. A well-rehearsed musician can make a bad drum set sound good. The better a player you are, and the more familiar you are with the songs, the better the recording will sound.



Recording Full Takes


Recording full takes helps to keep the groove and momentum of a song feeling natural, and it usually allows you to get a better result in less time. Record full takes, even if you make mistakes, until you have three solid ones. Choose the best of them as your main take and then replace any mistakes with clips from the other takes where, hopefully, you did not make a mistake at the same time in the song. Now you’ll only have to re-record parts where you made mistakes every time. This will also expose your weak spots, giving you a chance to work on them and become a better musician!



Record Samples


When you get to editing, you may find a weak snare hit, or a cymbal hit that doesn’t quite line up with the kick, or some other problem. It’s nice to have a few samples recorded that are free of bleed for each piece of the drum kit, just in case you need to fly one in to fix an issue. I usually record a light, medium, and hard hit three times each for each drum and cymbal.



Group Drum Tracks in your DAW for Editing


If you’ve followed along, we have spent a lot of time ensuring that we don't have phase cancellation issues. It would sure be a shame if you accidentally nudged the hat-side overhead forward in time by 5 milliseconds, potentially destroying all those nice phase relationships we worked so hard to maintain. Do yourself a favor and group your drum tracks for editing before you even begin recording. Nudge one, nudge em all.



Summary


Drums are one of the most important sonic and rhythmic elements in your song. They cover the full range of frequencies humans can hear. A big part of their sound is determined by the room they are in. When recording drums, the kit will sound best if we use fresh drum heads and sticks, tune the drums properly, and apply dampening when needed. The room will sound best when we have treated it with absorption and diffusion as needed, and placed the drum set in the best spot. There are several micing techniques we can use to balance the drum set’s tone, and ensure we avoid the problems of phase cancellation to achieve a truly great sound. When recording, proper gain staging will maintain signal integrity, and checking phase might reveal a problem with our micing technique. Nothing can replace a well rehearsed musician, and recording full takes will provide us with the most natural groove. Recording samples and grouping our drum tracks sets us up for success when editing later. Finally, having clear vision what you want your drums to sound like is your most valuable asset.


Now go make some awesome sounding drum recordings! Also be sure to download The Step by Step Guide to Professional Recording at Home.


Ready for the next step? Check out my article How to Mix Big Punchy Sounding Rock Drums.


 

It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to listen to your recordings and provide some feedback.


Need someone to mix those awesome drums you are about to record? Get a quick quote here to see if we are the right fit for each other!

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I help artists capture pro-sounding recordings, mix and master them to commercial release quality, and make a meaningful impact on their listeners. People work with me because I understand the musical process from writing to recording to promotion to release (I’m a musician too!). Along the way I offer my 20 years of experience, access to professional studios and equipment, and my network of music industry pros to help you record and release awesome tracks, and further your development as an artist.

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