Home Recording on a Budget

We Got the Beat: Recording Percussion

Alright, you've got all your equipment gathered, you've got a wicked cool song with a hook that just won't quit, and it's time to record. And you can't have a kick-ass rock song without solid drumming. Unfortunately, recording drums is -- in my opinion -- the most difficult part of making a recording. One of the chief reasons for this is that a drum kit takes up a lot of sonic space. The sounds a drum kit makes fill up the entire sonic spectrum, from the deepest bass to the most piercing treble. Plus, you've got, at the least, 4 pieces to record, and usually many more. So what to do? harveysad has an excellent writeup on the mechanics of recording drums at How to produce drums. I'll duplicate some of his work here, but you might want to check that node out before continuing. If you're not recording a drum kit, you can skip to the bottom of this section, and save yourself a headache.

Recording Live Drums

First things first: get a metronome. Seriously. Consistency is vital. No one wants to listen to a recording that gets fast, then slow, then goes to warp speed during the final chorus. If you can't afford a metronome, there are plenty of free MIDI metronomes available on the web. You'll be glad you did.

If you're going to record a live drum kit, you will need no fewer than 3 microphones, and you'd really do better with 4 or more. Admittedly, there have been plenty of great recordings made with only 2 microphones on the drums, but unless you're going for a vintage Zeppelin sound, you'll probably want more. This means you'll probably need a mixer (unless your sound card will accept a half dozen microphones. Mine certainly can't). Yes, this costs money, and we're on a budget here, so I'll say it again: head to Radio Shack. They're your best bet for shitty electronics dirt cheap. Just don't expect a good signal-to-noise ratio or anything.

Let's assume you've got a bunch of mics. Maybe you stole some from your little brother's karaoke machine. Maybe you nicked a few from your church or school. Whatever. The point is, where do you put them? The most important part of the kit to mic is the snare drum. More often than not, it's what really lays down the beat, so it needs to be loud and clear. If you have only 2 mics, stick one over the snare drum, pointed at the center of the drum (although this is debatable), and the other a few feet in front of the kit, pointing straight on. If you've got more, you'll want one or two overhead -- to pick up cymbals -- and one near the kick drum. You might even want to stick one directly inside the kick, although you'll lose any "crack" the shell might make in doing this. Try it out, though. Unfortunately, this isn't an exact science, so you might have to do a lot of trial and error before you get it right.

Ideally, though, the setup should look something like this:

  • One pointed down at the center of the snare drum (alternatively, you might want to point this one at the edge of the drum; this will give you a bigger "crack" on snare hits)
  • One or two over head, picking up cymbals and ambient sounds
  • One near the kick drum, or maybe inside of it
  • One between the two rack toms
  • One pointing down toward the floor tom. This can also be used to pick up a ride cymbal if one is in the vicinity.

If you're laying these all down at once, mixed to stereo, you'll want to EQ them a bit (hopefully your mixer has EQ controls. If not, don't sweat it. This is gravy). Here are my suggestions for EQing drums, but please remember that these are only guidelines. Recording drums is really an art, and you ought to do what sounds good to you.

  • Kick drum: Roll off the deepest bass a little, and maybe give it a little boost in the upper-mid range (3-5kHz)
  • Snare: You might need to boost the upper-mids (4-6kHz) a little bit, and roll it off a little at the bottom end.
  • Toms: Similar to the snare, just watch out for muddiness.
  • Cymbals and ambient mics: You'll probably want to roll the bass off below 300Hz or so on these to keep them tight. You're going for crisp, sharp sounds from these.

Of course, there are other kinds of percussion you might want to record -- tambourines, congas, cowbells. I'll admit that I don't have much experience with these. But the concept is the same -- you're trying to capture the essence of the instrument without crowding the sonic space. For the tambourine, for example, I'd mic it like a cymbal, and roll of the low end a little to keep it crisp. Experiment, but remember to keep things clean. Panning helps here, too. As harveysad notes, drum kits are usually panned so that the listener is sitting in the throne. Pan your mics this way -- maybe even exaggerate the panning a bit -- and you'll be golden.

Which brings me to another important point, which I will repeat over and over throughout this tutorial: digital clipping sucks. Don't do it. Keep your signal from peaking your sound card's input and you'll be golden. Going too hot to analog tape can be a beautiful thing sometimes, but for god's sake, don't do it on your hard disk recorder. No one appreciates that sound.

Also, as Transitional_Man reminded me, mic quality is very important when recording drums. But since we're doing it cheap rather than "right," I've neglected it somewhat. Let's just say this: if you've got tons of cash to spend on gear, get yourself a couple of nice condensers for overhead use, and maybe a specialized mic for the kick drum. Your Shure SM-57 will do you just fine -- and, in fact, rather well -- on the snare drum. But even with cheap mics, you can achieve a passable sound if you're willing to work a bit at it.

Drum Machines

You kids today have it easy, what with your drum machines and your electronic music and your designer drugs. In my day, we had ... well, we had drum machines, but they sucked. I think we might have had designer drugs, too, but I don't know. I just know that Corey Haim probably told me not to do coke once or twice (he had probably been caught buying coke from a transvestite hooker cop and had to do a PSA). The point is that drum machines today sound good. Damn good. So good that you'll think, "Is it live, or is it a drum machine?" So if you can't afford a million mics, this is your best option. Fruity Loops is a great software sequencer, and easy to pick up. Hardcore folks like me and P_I know that real musicians use Impulse Tracker. You can get great drum samples for free all over the web (although it takes some searching, I assure you), and there are plenty available on sample CDs if that's how you want to spend your paycheck (note: please pay child support before buying sample CDs).

Anyhow, there's not much to be said about using a drum machine (or equivalent) to record drums, other than the fact that it can sound sterile. Keep it dynamic; vary the volume of your hits every so often, and make sure that where you've got hihats going in 8s, that you accent every other beat, just as you would if you were really drumming. It sounds much more natural that way. The same tips about EQ apply here, too, but there's a good chance your samples already sound stellar, so don't worry about it too much. Just make sure you've got your panning freak on to keep it from sounding muddy.

Wrap Up

Recording drums isn't easy. But I promise that if you can get some halfway-decent sounding drums down, you'll be more than set to tackle the rest of the recording. And if you can't, don't despair. There's no shame in using a drum sequencer.

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One of the biggest problems facing the budget recording artist is getting the cymbals to sound, well, like cymbals. You may need to tighten the cymbals down on the stands to limit the movement, and I suggest you buy fresh felt washers. Setting up a normal microphone is difficult, since you can get wave-effects due to the cymbals natural movement after being struck. If you set up the mike below or above the disk edge, you may need to normalize the channel to prevent noticeable volume changes as the disk changes relative distance to the mike diaphram. If you need to use a standard mike, I always set it up so that it was slightly offset from the center, over the top of the cymbal.

If you have the time, do a search for a special type of microphone called a Pressure-Zone Microphone (PZM). Radio Shack actually carried these for a couple of years. They work great (particularly for cymbals), and they can be used to augment the overall sound of the set if you have two extra channels. Keep an eye on places like eBay, you can get them cheap.

As for the rest of the microphones, if you want to record a great sound, you must get a great mike. Bass drums in particular are exceptionally difficult to get right, most of the time it sounds like someone beating on a muffled coffin. You can rent microphones relatively cheap, and if the song you're recording will be used as a demo, spend the little bit extra to make it sound as good as possible.

I used to double-mike my snare drum, one cardioid pointing towards the center of the top and one omni near the snares underneath. You can balance the snare attack and get some interesting effects, especially if you put a reverb or delay on the snare side. The top mike can pick up some of the stickwork and backbeat, which is a great way to get those "little things" into the mix.

Another oft-overlooked thing is to buy a can of oil. Nothing shows up in your demo better than a squeaky bass drum pedal or hi-hat stand.

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