Written by: Michael Heeley
Tracking drums in a home studio can present quite the challenge, especially if you are a novice home recording engineer. It is difficult, albeit not impossible, to get a studio quality recording of a live drummer given the limited resources most home studios have. Many home studios use a 2 or at most 4 channel interface, which definitely limit an engineer’s ability to capture the full sound of a drum set. However, one can still get solid live drum sounds with the right equipment, a good ear, and patience to get a desired drum sound. There are several ways to record live drums in a home studio, and we will explore 3 of the more common methods: Small kit mic set up, mix-down a close-mic set, room mic recording.
The first method I like to call a small kit set up. This works generally well with a 4 or maybe 5 piece kit with a standard crash, ride, hi-hat scenario. If your drummer fancies himself as an 80s prog-rock drum virtuoso, you will probably miss the dynamic range of his chromatically tuned, 8 octave, 104 piece drum set.
“I think I can squeeze a few dozen more drums in here somewhere…”
In a small kit set up, you would need an interface that can track 4 mic-level inputs at a time. Place a kick drum mic in the hole in the front head of the kick, and an instrument mic close to the top head of the snare. Be sure to place the mic close enough to the head without it touching, and not too close so the drummer doesn’t strike the mic with the drumsticks. For the other 2 channels, use a pair of small diaphragm condenser microphones in an x-y axis pattern overhead (above the drummer’s head pointing at the snare). You should pan these hard right and hard left, but the stereo field will be narrow since the microphone capsules are so close together. Another tip, you will capture more of the sound of the room the higher you place your overhead microphones, so play with it, depending on the sound you are going for
X-Y Microphone set up
With the kick and the snare each having it’s own isolated track, you can really play with them in the mix. You can adjust not only the individual drum’s volume level, but also the EQ, so neither instrument is interfering with other instruments that share the same frequency pallet. The overheads will capture your toms and cymbals, (as well as snare and kick), and you can mix the overhead tracks in to smooth out your overall drum mix.
The second way to record drums in a home studio is to close-mic the set, and premix the drums into a stereo 2 track mix for recording. With this set up, you need a mixer with enough channels for each of your drums, and a slew of microphones. You will close mic your entire kit, and will still want a pair of overhead microphones to capture the cymbals. It goes without saying that this is a more costly option, as you will need a microphone for each drum, all of the cabling, and a mixer. However, there are some relatively inexpensive microphone kits available that include almost everything you need for your drums. And never forget that there is an industry standard instrument microphone out there that makes a great snare and tom mic, I’m shure of it.
“Raise your hands, raise your hands…if you’re Shure.”
After close miking your drums and setting up your overheads in an X-Y pattern, you will send your stereo mix from the mixer into channels one and 2 of your interface. You will need to listen to the mix as intently as possible prior to recording your track. Best way is to record a practice take, listen back to the recording recording, and take notes for eq, panning, and volume adjustments. Make the adjustments and repeat until you are happy with your track. Since you are pre-mixing your drums prior to recording, you will have limited ability to adjust your drum mix as it will print as an already mixed stereo track. You can raise and lower some key frequencies in your EQ to help bring your kick up, for example, but you will be affecting any other drum that shares the frequency you are adjusting. You will not, however, be able to isolate the snare to add effects, adjust it’s eq, or volume. Your drum sound will depend heavily on any of the adjustments you make prior to recording your track.
The third, easiest way to record drums is to use just one room mic. Place the mic in a part of the room that is acoustically pleasing (you may have to record some practice tracks and play with the location a bit). A large diaphragm condenser microphone works well in this situation. As with the previous example, you really only get one shot at your sound when you are recording your track. You can play with the eq, but for the most part what you pick up in your room mic will be your final track; save for some overall volume tweaks. However, the room mic is also an excellent secondary drum track for the first two examples as it allows you to mix in the natural reverb and delay of the room you are recording. Play with it in your mix and see if the room mic gives you some added depth to your drum sound.
Drums can be tricky to record, especially if you are looking for control of each individual drum during your mix down. Since it can require a lot of equipment to do that, the above examples, when done with patience, can help propel your drum sound into a more professional mix. The key to remember is to have fun and listen for the sound that you like best. Your genre of music may work well with just a room mic, or, if you are a hair band devotee, you may need to premix your full kit, so you can capture the essence in your 6 piece roto-tom solo. Either way, your ear will help you tell the story you creating with your song. If your drums sit in a pleasingly in your mix, then you, my friend, have recorded a successful drum track.