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Recording and Mixing Drums

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Hello everybody, hope you’re doing marvelously well. We’re back with another Frequently Asked Questions. Apparently, when I say FAQ Friday, it causes some consternation.

Anyway, as ever, please subscribe, hit the notification bell. When we’ve been doing the live Q&As, we asked our audience a few days ago where they got notified best when we’re going live. That make sense? I don’t know, I’ll say it anyway, but most people said notification bell and email.

So please sign up for the email list, and you’ll get a bunch of free drum samples, there’s some free sessions, there’s some free videos, and all kinds of fun stuff, and you’ll be notified of videos, and of course, if you hit that little notification bell down there, you’ll also be notified when there’s a new video.

Would you recommend always using the same preamp on all drum mics?

This is a bit of a quandary, because I know the right answer, but then I also know that there are many exceptions.

Okay, so what’s the “right” answer? Well, the right answer is that if you’re in a really good room — like you can afford to go to a beautiful studio, and they happen to have a console like an API which is great for drums, a Neve, a CADAC, I was just in a studio the other day with a Trident A range. Something that has 24, 16, 24, 40 channels of beautiful mic pre. There is nothing better, apparently, and in my opinion, than hearing all of those mics hitting at the same time. It just seems to sound fantastic.

For me, the best drum sound I ever got in the Neve room at Comway where they have the old Air Montserrat Neve console. All the mic pres, the 1081s, they’re in the wall with a short mic run, like a very short mic cable run to the mics, and it was phenomenal.

It was the best drum sound. When I asked Mark Endert in that recent interview, his favorite drum sound, guess where it was? At Comway using the same console and everything.

So that’s the argument. And that’s the argument I think most people will take is that when you’re using all of the same pres, all of the drums are going to be hitting together. There’s going to be no differences sonically between one pre and another to be quite simple.

Okay, so that’s the right answer. The reason why the second part of this answer is a little contentious is because the most successful thing I’ve ever recorded was How to Save a Life. The drums on How to Save a Life. Those were done at my old studio using primarily a TAC Scorpion, which is a cheap AMEC console. You can get them anywhere from about two grand down to about 750 bucks, whether they’re like 8 channel, 16, 24, 40, whatever it is.

The point is they’re very inexpensive. For the price of one really nice Neve style BAE mic pre for instance, you could buy the whole console.

However, the only thing that went through that console was some of the room mics, we had two pairs of stereos. I think I had one mono room mic as well, which actually went through a Joe Meek compressor — a mic pre compressor, one of those Joe Meek ones. Forgot the model name. VC something or… Anyway, that. The overheads went through a pair of BAE 1272s. The kick in and out went through another pair of 1272s, and the snare top went through a BAE 1073.

Then the hats, which was two different mics on the hat summed together went through the TAC Scorpion. We didn’t have any toms, so there was no tom mics. I think probably the rooms all went through the TAC. The point is it was split up through an inexpensive console, and some external mic pres, and only compression I was using was a dbx 160a, not the VU, the one with the red lights. That was the kick in.

I had a 546, which is a Urei EQ. Parametric EQ. I EQ’d the kick in with that. Tightened the bottom end, I rolled off — high passed about 20 on the kick in, and then the EQ obviously on the 1073 snare.

The point is it was spread all over the place. Oh, and an 1176 on the snare. That was it. Two compressors, a compressor mic pre for the mono drum mic, and everything else was a hodge podge. I mean, it was just a hodge podge of stuff, and that is still my favorite drum sound. If you’d listen to — go to Spotify, maybe if there’s a link flying around here somewhere, and listen to the drum sound on How to Save a Life. There’s no reverb. All of the ambience is the room mics. The room mics were a pair of 57s against the wall, and a pair of really inexpensive Audix microphones behind the drummer.

The point is you can see a mixture of mic pres, a mixture of quality of microphones, the 57s and $400 Audix mics, a D112 inside the kick, a 609 on the outside, and a pair of 414s as overheads. 57 top and bottom on the snare, and a 57 and a pencil condenser taped together for the hi-hat, which was summed together on the TAC.

That was the drum sound. The drum kit was a Rogers with a 22 inch kick. My pitted, crappy, $75 Supraphonic. New Beat hi-hats, Paiste 2002, and some random cracked Sabian cymbal for a crash cymbal. That was it. It was a hodge podge drum kit, hodge podge collection of mic pres in a good sounding room, don’t get me wrong, with a great drummer. Ben from The Fray.

So yes, is the greatest drum sound I’ve ever gotten in Comway? Yeah. Amazing. Mark Endert’s best drum sound. Comway. What’s the most successful thing I’ve ever recorded and a really cool drum sound? It’s How to Save a Life. I mean, go listen to it, you’ll hear the drum sound. It sounds really good. All the ambience from those 57s and those cheap Audix behind. That mono mic. I believe the mono mic was — it might have been a salt shaker, it might’ve been before I got the salt shaker, because this is a long time ago. It’s like, 13 years ago. Either a cheap condenser or a cheap dynamic. It wasn’t anything good.

So there you go. That’s kind of the proof. That’s why when you hear me go, “Creativity is king,” that’s why when you hear me go, “Take a Lewitt mic, or a Roswell mic, or whatever mic it is and literally just record a song from scratch and use an Audient iD4 on the 1173,” or whatever it is, I’m doing it because I know, I have the proof because I’ve made these records, that you don’t need incredibly expensive gear to do it. I don’t even think it was an HD system, I think it was pre-HD and it was probably — yeah, it was pre-HD, so it would probably have been on 8A8s.

So all of the wrong things, all of the things people would tell you didn’t sound good, and it sounded great, and the song was a huge hit.

So right answer is yes, go in and use a beautiful console.

Second answer is whatever the heck you’ve got, whatever the quality of the equipment, it’s all about the performance, and most importantly, the song. So my answer is long, but my honest answer is use whatever you’ve got and do the best job that you can.

What’s the minimum number of mics you think you can get away with and still get a great drum sound?

I think the answer to that question is what are you recording? Are you recording a huge, massive, metal record with tons and tons of guitars, which are like, this massive wall of guitars? Just this blob of square wave, “kraw!” Or are you recording a jazz band, or a folk band, or even just like, acoustic guitar, piano, stand-up bass and drums.

Or anywhere in between, because that to me is what all of your decision making is made from.

We’ll have a lot of debates on this. Now obviously. The Glynn Johns technique is very, very famous. It’s a mic over here over the floor side, one over here, one in the front, and there’s tons of videos on it. I’ve done videos on it. There’s a Matt Stark drum course about recording drums that we have. I’m sure that’ll be flying around here as well.

It’s a great, great technique, and I love the way it sounds, especially if you’re in a really big, ambient room. It’s fantastic, because you pick up all of the ambience, and you get that bottom kind of big sound. You get the big kind of pillowy “woof” kick. It’s fan-fleeting-tastic.

But as much as I love Led Zeppelin like all of us, they weren’t just Metallica guitars. If they put those guitars into that drum mix, the energy would be sucked up and you wouldn’t hear the energy of the drums. Hence why if you download my samples, there’s the Black album kick in there, and it is like, massive. It is like, EQ, compressed, and created this, [imitates kick] and it is the biggest sounding kick you’ve ever heard in your life. You’re not going to get that with three mics. That is a very heavily processed kick, and that’s in the mix when you listen to the Black album. You hear this massive, massive kick.

You also hear in the drums this most aggressive snare, and this is all fantastic stuff. My point is though, tune the snare, get a Tama snare drum, or the Noble and Cooley, or anything. One of these massive, metal, explosive snare drums, and that’ll really, really help for that drum sound, but ultimately, the reason why you use more than three mics when you do is purely and simply because you want individual control.

If you’re in a situation where, you know, a drummer is playing a hat, and the snare, and you’ve got these three mics, whatever you turn up is going to favor maybe slightly more snare, but ultimately is going to pull up other things as well. Now, if you’ve got close mics.

It doesn’t have to be 15. It could be just one kick, one snare. As soon as you’re in that situation with a stereo pair of overheads, a stereo pair of rooms. At least if you’ve got one kick and one snare, you suddenly have more control.

And again, the same thing could be said for toms. How much definition do you want on the toms? If you listen to like, the Queen stuff from the 70’s, and a lot of Aerosmith records that Jack was making, and he specifically individually mic’d the toms, because those toms sat so far in front of the mix, it was like, [imitates toms]. People loved that in the 70’s, those huge tom sounds.

So you’re not going to get that without individually miking. Now, it’s arguable, inside of a DAW, that you could automate. If you only have three mics, of course you could automate kicks and snares and pull them out. You could also make drum fills.

There’s lots of things you can do, but you’re creating a lot of extra work. So what’s the secret? There is no one secret. It’s what’s the song for? But it could be individual kick mic, individual snare mic, a pair of overheads, and you’re done. You could do that. Then you’re worried about tom work. Maybe the hi-hat’s not favored enough.

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So then, the next thing you do is you maybe add a hi-hat and two tom mics for a rack and a floor. That’s pretty much going to get you a half decent drum sound. Kick, snare, hi-hat, two overheads, two toms. So you’re suddenly into seven mics.

Here, we’ll do eight mics, because we’ll do kick, snare top, snare bottom, hi-hat, overhead, overhead, tom, tom.

So we typically do eight mics on our drum kit, and then we’ll maybe open up a ninth by taking the vocal mic and using it as a mono room. However, my room is tiny, so it doesn’t really sound like a big room, it just sounds like a small bedroom with one mic picking up everything. Sometimes, it can be more of a phase issue. However, if you get a decent mono drum sound, what you can then do is take that mono mix and put a reverb on it, and create a summed mix of the drums in the room and put a reverb plugin on it. Nice little trick.

So for me, I can do anything with the free mics, but it’s a lot of work, but if I was to have a preference and you’re setting up your first drum room, eight mics would be nice if you wanted a mono room. Nine would be nice if you went and you do the stereo pair instead of a mono.

And then the sky is the limit if you want to get a little crazier than that. If you want to double mic your kick drum and all this kind of stuff, but I think you’re typically talking like, eight or nine, which is good, because you know, a lot of manufacturers, one of the next step up in their interfaces is eight inputs. So I think once you’re into that eight input world, you’re covering all the bases.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve done many, many drum sessions with one mic, hence the Lewitt video last week. The Roswell video two weeks before that. We’ve done many, many one mic sessions. We’ve also done three mic sessions, four and five.

All of these things are combinations, but for me to get the best — really to get the best amount of control, I’m going to go with eight as my answer. Possibly nine for the stereo room.

Any tips for recording drums in a bad room?

I think I sort of answered that in the first and second question, especially the second question. If your room is bad, IE it’s not big, it doesn’t sound good, it’s got tons of reflections, you may or may not want to do room mics. If it’s got tons of reflections, that’s not actually necessarily bad for room mics, it just depends on what it’s doing.

If it’s overly bright, there’s tons of glass, and put blankets, get rid of those, that glass, because every time you hit a cymbal, it’s going to literally take your head off, so you want to be dampening. When you mean bad room, that’s such a wide definition of things. I think if it’s a very small bedroom, then you literally stick with close mics, and then you make a blend of your close mics, and send that to a reverb, and you can add some ambience that way. Maybe favoring the snare. Thinking that kind of way.

If you wanted to use a snare or kick sample, you can use the snare sample and trigger the reverb that way so you don’t get all of the bleed of the other mics. A bad room is really kind of an interesting discussion. One person’s bad room is another person’s amazing. A small dead room, a tiny dead room is incredible for certain drum sounds. A big live room is amazing for certain drum sounds, but if it’s overly bright, you’re going to want to dampen it. Maybe you’re going to want to baffle the side.

So we used to take big mic stands, put them into a T configuration, then hang packing blankets over them, and bring them either side, and any blanket, bring them either side of the drums just to control the overheads.

Most of it is common sense, when it comes to high frequencies, you just want to be dampening it, and with drums, to be honest, that’s always the biggest problem is excessive high frequencies. It’s drummer playing the kick and snare politely. [mimics drums] You know, tapping the toms and then smashing a cymbal as though they were trying to kill it.

[imitates drums]

Then that cymbal is decaying over the kick and the snare, and the room mics are just destroyed.

Drum rooms and drum kits and drum recordings are more defined by the drummer than anything else. Drumming, in my perspective, and to be honest, in my experience, is one of the biggest differences. If I take my amp and overload it massively, most people sound pretty much the same playing an acorn on it, with a few exceptions, it’s the same sound. Yes, there are variations, don’t get me wrong, but if I sit you down on the drum kit, which has been tuned for Kenny Arnoff, for a guy that slams and can play so hard, and I sit behind it?

It doesn’t sound like a very good drummer, and it sounds totally different, not a bit different.

So drums are a big deal. You know, getting that tuning and that kit right, and that miking. Do not underestimate what a drummer brings. You best drum recordings are going to be from your best drummer.

Why do skilled recording engineers and producers send songs to other mixers to finish off?

Well that’s an interesting discussion. There’s sort of two answers to that. As a producer and engineer, quite often, my material — the label is making that choice. Maybe they want Serpent to mix the single or something like this. They’re making that choice to do it, which is fine. They want a single, they want a radio ready mix, they’ll do that. So often, it’s not the choice of the producer or the engineer.

However, it can be the choice of the producer and engineer. We just recently interviewed Andrew Wells, and he’s a young up and coming producer, he did Jason Mraz, and Five Seconds of Summer, and Meghan Trainor. So he’s done these great records, the Jason Mraz records, very organic, and he’s not mixing it, and he’s at a point where he’s young and he’s up and coming, and he’s working really, really hard, and he wants to work with an experienced mixer and learn from it, and also he wants somebody else to mix it so he can carry on producing and engineering.

I got to a point a few years ago, especially after the success of a few bands I work with where I got so busy, I was happy to give Mark Needham and Tim Palmer — those guys — a lot of my mixes, and then when I was doing some of my bigger label stuff, you know, they would pay for it as well. We could use those guys, and we started bringing obviously Mark Endert, Spike Stent. So I got to use all of these incredible mixers, these four or five. Michael Brauer, you know, these guys mix my stuff, and it was actually a blessing, because I could move from one project to another, and I could go into the room and hang out with Michael Brauer for two to three days, and finish up a Fray record, or a Manny Perkins record, or Josiah Leming record. Those are the records I did with them.

It was a great experience and I learned a lot from being in a room with him.

So it’s not — sometimes, it’s not out of choice, it’s the label’s choice, and then secondly, it is out of choice, because you want to learn something and you’re too busy, and you want to concentrate on one skill.

Now, we recently reviewed Eric Valentine who’s in the reverse situation. He’s starting now to do a lot of mixing, he always has, but now he’s starting to predominately mix, and as he said in an interview, he doesn’t see himself going back to producing albums for three, to six, to nine months anymore. He doesn’t imagine those twelve to fifteen hour days anymore. And now that he’s married with kids, or a kid, it changes his perspective on how many hours he wants to work, and how much he wants to lose from his family.

The point is like, there’s lots of reasons to either be a mixer or not mix, and a lot of the time, they’re stylistic, and a lot of the time, they’re out of necessity, because you’re really, really busy.

How do you go about processing/compressing a snare with lots of ghost notes to make it cut through the mix and keep its dynamic range?

Firstly, I’d have to examine what was going on. If it’s a four-on-the-floor, that’s always a pain in the butt, because four-on-the-floors, the kick and the snare are playing at the same time, but that’s not very often.

So on a normal kind of drum part where it’s like, [imitates drums], and I’m doing all of this kind of ghost stuff and I want to pick it up, one of the tricks I really, really like is really obvious. Duplicate the snare track, compress it really, really hard so everything is equally as loud, so every snare drum hit that goes, [imitates snare], the ghost notes are like, [imitates ghost notes].

Now, those ghost notes have come right up. It’s a good place to start from. So now we’re in a position where the ghost notes are significantly louder. However, as you’re probably starting to think, the kick drum beats, and also, maybe you don’t like the sound of those snare hits. I think those single snare hits will be okay, but the kick drum bleeding not so good.

So what do I do? Well, first of all, you can take that parallel compressed snare and bring it up underneath. Is the kick drum bothering you? Aha. Now, you could gate. I wouldn’t gate. What I would do is after that squashed compressor is I’d apply another compressor. I’d take something like a Renaissance compressor. An R-Comp. Stick that afterwards, because it’s got a fast enough attack and release, then sidechain it from the kick.

So now every time the kick plays, it compresses. So instead of going, [imitates drums], the kick will now duck every single time. So it’s sidechain compress. So first of all, compress a duplicated track of your snare drum, so you hear all of those ghost notes where you want to hear them, then run a compressor afterwards which is sidechained from the kick to compress every time the kick hits. Then you’ll get a track which is predominately ghost notes, which you can just bring up underneath your main snare track, and it will sound fantastic.

Thank you ever so much for watching. Wonderful questions, really amazing. Please leave a whole bunch of comments and questions below. Don’t forget to subscribe, hit the notifications bell, don’t forget to check out some of our other videos, and have a marvelous time recording and mixing.

Oh, download the Lewitt audio single mic one. That is a really good video, and it’ll show you and teach you about drum balance. Watch Matt start playing that video, and then just listen to that single mono mic. See you later.

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Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at producelikeapro.com.

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