All about drum sounds

Ahead of my upcoming Production, Recording & Mixing Masterclass I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the drum sounds I endeavour to create.

Drum sounds are a really personal thing, and one of the easiest ways to distinguish one producer from another.  Some producers are drummers themselves so they instinctively have an understanding of how the drums work and how to capture them.  I certainly wouldn’t call myself a drummer, but I’ve picked up little things here and there from working with so many exceptional players.  I’ve developed lots of little techniques that either help to highlight the intricacies of a really strong drummer, or create an illusion for some that are less experienced.

One of the lessons I learned early on was that drums are one instrument, not a collection of individual ones.  It’s easy to zoom in on the snare or kick drum, but I think that’s missing the point a bit.  Drum parts are about the on AND the off-beat, and all the elements need to compliment each other to groove that feels physical.

A little anecdote

When I was a young producer I used to strive for everything to have the biggest sound possible.  It wasn’t until quite a few years into my career that I was recording a track for the late Alan Wills, for a band that he was signing to Deltasonic.  On the first morning, Alan (a drummer himself) told me that the band’s drummer had a really good feel, which was one of the things he loved about them and wanted me to capture.  I did what I usually did at the time (although I have no idea what that was now!) and Alan commented on how much he liked the sound of the drums, and how good the basic track felt.  The bottom end of the track sounded really tight and had a massive impact.  The session carried on into the second day, and as we started working that morning Alan walked in and said something was wrong; the groove had changed and he could hear a weakness between the drums and bass that wasn’t there yesterday.  I was adamant that I hadn’t changed anything and everything was as we left it, and that we should trust the good reactions we had the day before.  However, as it happened things were NOT the same as yesterday.  I hadn’t realised that the processing I was doing to the room mics hadn’t been switched back on, and what I’d created as part of the drum mix was missing.  We turned them back on, and all of a sudden the weight and heft of the low end came back, and the groove felt good again.  The bass player sounded like a boss once more, and the buss compressor began reacting properly and locked everything together.

What I learned

This was a light bulb moment for me that taught me two valuable lessons.  The first is to always double check for mistakes (!), and the second was how much you can manipulate the feel of a whole track by changing a small detail within it.  The lack of two microphones out of the ten in total caused the drum sound to be completely different, and caused the bass part to suffer too.

The interesting thing about these mics were that they were capturing a bit of everything.  They weren’t favouring any one particular drum, and on their own weren’t strong enough without the rest of the mics.  But they glued the rest of the mics together and made it sound like there was a really good drummer on the other end.  Without them there was no context to the part.

After that session I started to approach drums differently.  I’m interested in the instrument as a whole, and I want to use each channel to contribute as much energy as possible.  It’s less about seeking technica

lly clean or precise recordings, and more about creating the illusion of standing in front of the drummer and feeling like you’re in there room with them.

Things to keep up your sleeve

Below are a handful of useful tips to think about.

  • Before you do anything else, listen to the drummer in the room.  Work out what makes him sound interesting, and what parts of his playing or sound get you excited.  Then think about how you can get those into the production.
  • Think about how your mic’s are going to interact TOGETHER, and use positioning and selection to minimise the compromises when you blend them.
  • Move backwards and forwards between the drum room and the control room, and compare the different sounds.  The drums will ALWAYS sound bigger in the room, and I want to manipulate the recorded sound to be as close as possible to what’s in the room.
  • Commit to processing.  If you plug in lots of outboard and come up with something cool, be brave and record it that way.
  • How you present the cymbals against the drums can change the whole feel.  If you want the drummer to sound like he means it, mix the crashes louder and mic them nearer the stick to get more impact.
  • Mic’ing crashes across the edges rather than from the top creates a smoother, longer sound.  Good if you want them to sound more orchestral.
  • Ring and overtones disappear underneath the guitars, but make sure they are in tune with the song!
  • Think about some of your favourite drummers, and in particular what makes them sound individual.  Figure out how your techniques can compliment their strengths, and play down any weaknesses they might have.

Don’t forget to check out Al’s video’s on his drum recording techniques!