Not Using a Reference From the Start
Legendary composer Igor Stravinsky talked at length about a phenomenon known as the “Terror of the Blank Page,” which emphasizes the challenge of beginning any creative process. Similar to an empty sheet of staff paper, a recording is essentially a blank slate—a place to invent something from nothing. Without some sort of reference, the options are simply far too vast and overwhelming to get things started on the right foot. Yet time and time again, folks would rather struggle to the point of extreme frustration, insecurity and discomfort, than to call on the great recordings to serve as a roadmap to success. Don’t worry, there is almost no chance you will exactly replicate anyone’s recording and even your best attempt to duplicate a reference in terms of sound will still ensure your stuff will be truly original. Find a drum recording that inspires you, and make every attempt to make it sound similar. You’ll be surprised by the results and how helpful this can be.
Recording a Poor-Sounding Drum Set
Even the most expensive and well-crafted kit needs a lot of maintenance to sound good on a recording. Sounds are highly subjective, so it is really a matter of being honest about whether or not you like the sound of the kit when played in a room. Is the kit properly tuned? If you are having trouble tuning it, spend a few extra bucks to get a professional tuner or “drum doctor.” Are the heads so worn out that the next hit from a drumstick will puncture right through? Make sure the heads are in good condition. They do not have to be brand new, as even a new head needs to be “broken in” a bit before it is truly recording ready—you may have even seen drummers leaning into the head with all their body weight to stretch it out when first installed. Get the instrument sounding as good as possible in the room first. Take your time because it takes time to get it there.
Applying Too Much Dampening
Inevitably, during a large majority of drum recording setups, someone will point out the “ring” on the snare drum or toms. “It’s too long,” is typically the comment, followed by the question, “Can you dampen it a bit?” This typically won’t come up until the drums are actually heard for the first time with microphones in the control room as the reverberation in the live room typically will mask any unsatisfying interpretations of a ringing shell. Then when common remedies like Moongel, duct tape, tissue or blankets are installed and everyone is satisfied, you may find that when all the rest of the music is recorded, the drum set sounds lifeless and “dead” in context.
Years of engineering has taught us we need the drum shells’ resonance to achieve an impactful and believable drum sound. This is not to say the ring should not be controlled. However, it is best not to do this during the recording phases. Use of skillful gating and expanding can be applied on the monitoring side of the equation and further fine-tuned as the orchestration of your recording becomes more dense. That way you have everything to work with right from the start, instead of chopping it all off and being committed, having to apply time-based effects after the fact to breathe life back into the drum set. Engineers will even attempt to guide the drum tuning to a satisfying pitch that is a fit for their program material, but preserve all the resonance so it’s available to be sculpted later.
Placing Mics Too Close or Directly Pointing at the Drum Heads
Mic position is a Pandora’s Box. Infinite options exist, and there is no right or wrong position, only a subjective one with benefits and consequences. That said, it is very tempting to place a snare or tom mic very close to the drum pointed down toward the head. Once again, the design of a microphone (modeled after the inner workings of the human ear) provides an excellent guide to placement. If you were to stick a microphone in your mouth and sing (if that were possible), you would most likely hear a very muffled tone, devoid of many frequencies needed for a satisfying sound. This is because most of the sound is going right past the microphone’s diaphragm and out into the ether of your recording environment. Not much is actually captured by the microphone itself. This is why moving the microphone a very small amount in any direction from its source yields such vast differences in tone. The same applies to your drums. You don’t want all the sound going past the microphone. Try experimenting with a position a few inches off the drum head, and not pointed directly at the skin itself. Take your time and keep moving the mic until it sounds best to you.
Committing to a Snare Drum Sound With Too Much Hi-Hat Leakage
The two biggest challenges in recording a full drum set are phase relationships and leakage control. Specifically to leakage, it is quite normal and natural to hear all the drum elements, to varying degrees, in each of the microphones surrounding the kit. One of the primary challenges that turns up is the leakage from the snare drum to the hi-hat and vice versa. This is due to the close proximity of the hi-hat and snare drum found in many drum setups. Making matters more challenging are the dynamic and frequency content differences between a cymbal and a snare drum. Minimizing the leakage between these two components as much as humanly possible during the recording process is crucial to achieving a well-balanced drum sound at the mixing stage.
Eliminating the leakage completely is an unrealistic expectation. However, the more you are able to minimize, the better your gating, equalization and dynamic processors will serve your vision for the final mix. If you had to choose a battle, minimizing the hi-hat leakage in the snare drum mic is probably more crucial than minimizing the snare drum in the hi-hat mic, particularly if you are recording overheads (which will capture a lot of hi-hat, along with the rest of the kit). All of this is achieved with mic placement and the patience to capture the very best that is possible given your environment and program material.
Not Addressing Phasing Issues With Your Microphone Setup
Aside from managing leakage, phasing issues within multi-microphone setups present the largest recording challenge and have long plagued recording engineers. To understand phase cancellation, we need to understand the underlying cause, which can be described as sound waves with different frequencies arriving at different microphones at different times. The end result is the loss of specific frequencies and the boosting of others, yielding what can subjectively amount to a very unsatisfying sound. As you can imagine, with so many microphones placed at varying distances from the sound source, miking drum sets presents a unique challenge. The most important thing is to understand what you are hearing, form an opinion, and make adjustments to the mic placements that will solve any unwanted frequency loss.
Other than your kick drum and snare drum, your overheads (if recording a stereo pair) will have the largest influence on your overall drum sound, and therefore pose the biggest issues if not recorded in phase. The easiest way to gauge the phasing impact to the sonic content of these two mics is to listen to them isolated (soloed) in mono. Switching back and forth between mono and stereo monitoring of these two mics in isolation will alert you to what is happening from a frequency loss (or gain) perspective and will give you the information you need to compare and contrast as you experiment with the mic placements.
There are several correct positions and techniques for placing your overheads. For example, you could use a tape measure to determine an equidistant placement from the floor, the midpoint of the drum kit, and the drummer as a starting point (split pair configuration). Or, you can place the microphones right next to each other in a central location over the kit, while pointed in opposite directions (X/Y technique). Several variations exist with both of these techniques and can serve you well as a point of reference from which to begin to analyze the results. The key is to minimize the differences in the time it takes for the sound to reach the microphones.
Reaching for the EQ Before Fixing the Mic Position
Moving a microphone even just a small fraction of an inch can yield a vastly different result—synonymous with adjusting the sound with an equalizer and boosting or reducing the relative volume of the recording sound. Therefore, prior to using processing to improve the sound, it is always best to work with your mic placement first. Keep in mind, boosting and cutting frequencies with an equalizer is dependent on the existence of those frequencies in the recorded material. In other words, in an effort to boost or cut any unwanted sound, you may also boost or cut all the desirable/unwanted elements as well. Ultimately, your mic placement is your best equalizer.
Not Using Noise-Canceling Headphones
Drummers like to record with click tracks, and rightfully so as it is difficult to build a house on quicksand. They also like to hear mostly click and very little program material (since scratch tracks are often not recorded to the timing of a drummer’s standards). And finally, many drummers like the click to be loud, so it can compete with the ambient noise coming from the drum set. Good drummers can efficiently create a lot of volume, and unless their headphones are properly designed for this application, they will need them to be excessively loud, which will, in turn, boost the volume of the metronome to a point where all your microphones will pick up the sound.
Getting rid of click bleed in your drum mics is extremely difficult and in many cases impossible. Be sure you don’t hear any click bleed before you commit to a recording. Examine any breaks in the material carefully and pay particular attention to the end of your track. There is nothing more frustrating than discovering click bleed while that final crash cymbal is decaying at the end of your music. Noise-canceling headphones are the ticket to mitigating this issue.
There are certainly more, somewhat obvious blunders, such as using mic clips on the rims as opposed to mic stands. Nothing holding a microphone should come in contact with any piece of the drum set. Drums move around a lot when played. Keep in mind these vibrations will most certainly find their way into your recording if anything is unnecessarily touching the kit. Similarly, it’s best not to leave spare drums or parts in the same room or in close proximity of your kit. A snare drum or cymbal sitting against the wall behind your kit will reverberate with all that sound pressure nearby. Drum recording is challenging but very rewarding. A good drum sound can take a full day of tweaking to get right, so don’t be in a rush. Trust your ears and don’t settle for anything that doesn’t completely satisfy your intentions. Most important of all, have fun.