Like every sound engineer knows, the drum sound is the foundation of the whole record.
That’s why drum miking is such a controversial and challenging subject, whether you’re a studio assistant or a Grammy Award winning engineer.
Over the years there has been a natural evolution of the drum sound depending on a certain music style in a specific period of time.
Butch Vig is an iconic drummer, sound engineer and producer well-known for his Nevermind drum sound. And like he recently said in an interview: “Drums really give the listener a sense of where a song has been recorded and where it's taking place”.
The greatest producers and engineers are the ones that have been able to think outside the box and that have pioneered new recording techniques no one ever thought about.
Here are 4 crazy (and hopefully useful) recording hacks you can use to get some interesting drum sounds.
1. The “Wurst” mic
I first heard of this technique from Moses Schneider in a studio interview for S.O.S.
Moses has worked with huge international artists such as Pixies and Nick Cave, as well as producing big selling german bands.
The Strokes’ producer, Gordon Raphael, calls him “the Einstein of live recording.”
This particular miking technique is basically used as an “effect mic” blended with the rest of the kit to obtain a certain sound.
Moses uses a cardioid dynamic microphone, usually an SM57, placed right in the middle of the kit pointing at the snare, just above the kick and between the two toms. The secret is to make sure that the capsule is equally distant from every drum to get a good mono balance of the elements.
Being placed quite low from the ground and being covered by the other drums, it can turn out to be very impressive when you haven’t got too many cymbal splashes (the real big deal when you’re tracking drums).
You can really do whatever you want with it, just think of anything that fits the style of music you’re recording and try to think outside the box.
For example, Moses loves to record it with a crazy amount of preamp distortion and compression, along with an extremely fast noise gate that really creates a pumping-dance effect.
He also adds all kinds of parallel processing to it, like pitch shift and dub delays. Well, some could say that it sounds pretty crap if you listen to it on its own, but when it’s blended with the rest it really gives a unique character to the overall sound.
2. The “Kit Pig” mic
This technique can be used to record a punchy mono drum mix avoiding too much cymbal bleed.
You basically have to place a cardioid dynamic microphone (the usual SM57 will do) on the floor right under the floor tom. It has to be pointing towards the kick drum and it’s usually better if you add a steep high-pass filter around 100 Hz to get rid of the excessive amount of low end it picks up from that position.
The real magic happens when you start “squashing” the signal with a high ratio, a slow attack and a fast release on your compressor: you can really get a nice tight and punchy sound with more or less distortion depending on the style your looking for.
You could also decide to add compression later on during mixing and get a really fancy pumping effect out of it.
If you manage to sync the pumping rhythm with the song’s tempo, you’ve nailed it.
3. Albini’s floor mics
Steve Albini is “quite” a worldwide-known producer and engineer, especially when it comes to drum sounds.
His production approach is mainly focused on the artists performance and not much on his personal manipulation of the different sources.
When it comes to room mics, he can choose between a large number of small-diaphragm condensers from his Electric Audio studio's well-stocked mic locker (usually Altec 150 and Neumann 582).
He tapes these mics directly on the floor of the live room, at about 3 to 5 feet from the kit. They are set to an omnidirectional pattern and their placement makes them behave more like PZM mics, minimizing the unwanted comb-filtering effects caused by early reflections.
He’s been known to also place some mics under the drum riser.
These weird placements allow him to obtain a more defined room sound that can be eventually compressed: “I don't normally compress the room but I'll sometimes delay the ambient microphones by a few milliseconds and that has the effect of getting rid of some of the slight phasing that you hear when you have microphones at a distance and up close”.
4. Record Cymbals Separately
This technique basically consists in recording the cymbals separated from the rest of the drum kit.
I know, this sounds crazy; but it actually sounds good too!
Cymbals have always been a big issue if you’re looking for a heavily compressed room sound from the kit, especially if your drummer hits hard on the cymbals for most of the song.
It will require a few more skills from your drummer (maybe he should be warned about this before he steps into the live room and starts looking for the cymbals) because he will have to mentally and technically divide his part in half.
The basic approach is recording everything else first: lock the cymbals in a closet and replace them with some cushions or some foam panels so the drummer doesn’t have to wave the sticks around pretending to hit something.
Queens of The Stone Age engineer Eric Valentine preferred using cymbal pads for when he recorded Dave Grohl on drums. It depends on your drummer and on the tools you have.
The fun part of this (maybe not for the drummer) is that you can hypothetically record different live takes for every drum to get a total separation between the different elements, with different mic-setups too.
We’re living in a digital and portable word, so if you’re looking for that massive Led-Zeppelin-style hall reverb for your snare, why not record just the snare in a similar wide space? Just think of all the possibilities this can open up.
…Or you can always do like Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins did on one of the songs from their latest Foo Fighters record!
I’m a young musician and sound engineer based in Italy.
I’m also the Artists & Professionals Assistant at Bantamu and I’m here to get the best music out there, whether it’s playing, engineering or simply writing about it.
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