Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Recording a Drum Kit at Home

Over the years, my goal has been to make recordings in my home that approach the quality of recordings made in Professional Recording Studios; and I've since discovered some techniques that can make my modest living room sound more like a big studio. For me, the sound of a "real" studio verses a home setup has more to do with the live sound than it does the cost of equipment: it's the interaction of the instruments with the room and how that interaction is captured on tape. With no other instrument is this more evident than with a drum kit.

A typical home recording of a drum kit sounds exactly like it was recorded at home—in a small room. On the other hand, a drum kit recorded in a pro studio will tend to sound bigger—with the ambience of a large tracking room giving life to the drums.
This recipe is one way that I achieve that bigger drum sound in the confines of my humble home. Let's go through the steps.
Control the Acoustics in your Room.
Most rooms in a house are boxes with parallel walls, floors, and ceilings. Parallel surfaces tend to accentuate some frequencies while attenuating others, and corners in which surfaces meet collect and release low end. To capture as smooth of a sound as possible, you want to reduce the detrimental effects of your room's square geometry. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this. I believe in using what I already have and then adding to it as needed.

Here's what I did in my living room. Equipment racks, large tape machines, and tall shelves are pushed into the corners. I found some surplus acoustic foam and placed it on one wall. I attached remnants of a shag rug on the opposite wall and covered the ugly rug with a curtain. I closed my curtains which also have a curtain liner across my front bay window. Remember Glass reflects! A heavy cotton futon pushed against the wall with the largest unbroken span makes a great bass-trap, soaking up unwanted bass resonance. Be careful not to overtreat your room. If you use too much foam or too many rugs, you'll end up with a room that sounds "dead." Higher frequencies will be absorbed while lower frequencies will run rampant, leaving you with the typical bedroom sound.
Experiment with the position of the drum kit until you find a position in your room that minimizes room resonances.
I would recommend that you start with the kick drum facing a piece of furniture that operates as a bass-trap. (I face mine across from my big couch) Doing this will reduce the nasty lower-mid resonances that small rooms typically exhibit. These resonances contribute to the muddy sound of small rooms—anything you can do to reduce these resonances will make your room sound less like a box. So I refer to my big cushion couch as my Bass-Trap.

Play around with different floor surfaces.
Now in my Living Room, I have a nice tight wound carpet which works really good for miking drums all around. For a much brighter sound, I have put my drums in the kitchen where I have Linoleum; this adds a much brighter tone to the drums.  
Start with a good pair of overhead mics.
Think of your overheads as more than just cymbal mics. While close mics tend to focus on the attack of each drum hit, carefully positioned overheads will pick up more of the "body" of each drum, affording you a fuller sound than what you could achieve with just close mics.

My preference is to use two overhead mics to pick up a nice stereo image of the whole kit. As a general rule of thumb, two mics recording the same sound source should be the exact same distance to that sound source when you're trying to achieve a phase-coherent, mono-compatible, stereo spread. Otherwise, you'll end up with phase cancellation of some frequencies. Recalling that the box shape of the typical home studio tends to accentuate some frequencies while attenuating others, any additional phase cancellation will further detriment the sound.
That's why I prefer to set up my overhead mics in a modified X-Y pattern, with the diaphragms of the two mics as close together as possible. This way, everything they pick up will be phase-coherent: all sounds will hit both mics at the same time. Therefore, the pair of mics will not contribute additional peaks and dips to the frequency response of the room. You can vary the relative amounts of drums vs cymbals by moving the pair of mics up & down or forward & backward, or by pointing the mics closer into the drums or further outward toward the cymbals. I usually start with the overheads about six feet off the ground, directly above the drums. Because the signal from the overheads will be the foundation of the drum sound, choose your best mics and mic preamps for this task. (I use 2 Behringer C-2 Condenser Microphones – they’re great little mics about $65 pair)

Add close mics as necessary.
Once you're happy with the sound of your overheads, I then add close mics to spice up some or all of the individual drums. I always use the industry standard – yes, my Shure 57’s, they are just a great all around mic.

For the Kick, I use my Audio-Technica Hypercardioid Dynamic Mic.

Be AWARE of phase-cancellation as you bring in more mics. You may need to flip the phase on some of the individual close mics or move the overheads closer to or away from the drums. If you're mixing with a digital console or using a DAW as your playback engine, you can delay the tracks recorded with the close mics so that the drum-hits picked up by the close mics line up in time with the drum-hits picked up by the overheads.

Don't Rely on EQ to define the sound of your room.

Use Room Mics to add ambience. Place these room mics in another room.

A typical mic setup in a large studio involves setting up room mics far from the drum kit to pick up the studio's natural reverb. Often times, these room mics are faced into walls to pick up less direct sound and more reflected sound. Unfortunately, using this technique at home usually results in a smaller sound, not a bigger sound. You end up accentuating all the acoustic character of a small room.

Fortunately, homes tend to have multiple rooms. So it's easy enough to open a door and place your room mics in an adjoining room. I prefer miking my kitchen, with its hard surfaces providing natual reverb and the large appliances providing ample diffusion. I place the room mics near one corner of the kitchen, making sure there isn't direct line of sight through the open doorway between the mics in the kitchen and the drum kit in the living room. If I need an even bigger sounding space, I'll delay the room mics during mixing by 10-15 ms.


Because what sounds good one day, maybe isn’t the sound you want for your drums on another song. So try different surfaces and mic placement, so everybody will be asking how did you get that incredible drum sound? Then celebrate that you didn’t have to pay a Recording studio big money.

 Here is a Typical Drum Kit Mic Setup

Tomorrow I'll talk about miking the other Istruments.

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