Getting ready to record drums on your first album? Drums can be one of the most complicated and time-consuming aspects of recording – but when done well, percussion will elevate your songs.
To get that dynamite recording you’re looking for, there’s a process that goes into setting up the kit and making the perfect sound. Whether you’re creating a home studio or getting something ready at a commercial space, you’ll still need to follow the same steps. Everyone from hobby musicians to the biggest names in the business all rely on the same structured approach to get the recording gone right every time.
So, are you ready to record drums like an expert? Hear the difference for yourself by following our complete guide below.
1. Choose the Space
The space that you’re in makes a big impact on the quality of your sound recording. However, you may not have the option to choose your space. If you’ve only got one spare room at home, that’s what you’ve got to work with.
If you can choose the space, though, there are some things to keep in mind:
- Consider the acoustics of the rooms. Remember that while a large, open room might seem inviting, it’s not ideal for recording drums. What you want to find is a place that is small with carpeting and soft furniture. This limits the amount of echo and reverb in your space.
- If you want a lively, loud sound, you could still consider a larger space like a garage.
- If you want a clean recording so you can add your own reverb in later, you’ll want to opt for a quiet, cozy space.
Do you have a room in mind, but you’re not sure how your drums will sound on recording day? Get a better idea of the room’s sound before deciding on your recording space with these tactics:
- First, walk around the room while clapping your hands. You’ll likely notice that the sound quality changes depending on where you’re standing.
- Find a spot in the room with a sound quality you like to set up your drum set.
- Make note of any areas in the room that you may need to alter to improve the sound quality.
2. Improve the Acoustics
Even if you find a space with already great acoustics, there’s room to make it even better. You can improve the sound quality of your recording space by hanging blankets on the walls, adding soundproof panels, or furnishing it with soft rugs, pillow, or blankets.
One hack is using packing blankets on the walls. These blankets are designed to insulate boxes, but they can also improve sound insulation. Take it a step further by stapling these blankets to pieces of paneling or plywood so you can install them in the room easily.
3. Setting Up the Drum Kit
Before you can record drums, you’ll need the drum kit set up and ready to go. We’re bringing it back to the basics so you can make sure you have everything you need on recording day.
Most drum kits include a kick drum, a snare drum, a few tom toms, a hi hat, and a couple of cymbals. Some drummers use much more complex sets, but this is a good starting point.
Percussion is a sound that is transient-rich and loud, meaning it carries well. This sounds great live, but can make it a bit more difficult to record. Nevertheless, choosing the right kind of equipment and sound processing will strengthen your studio recording.
Here are some things to consider:
- Decide what you need to use in the songs you’re performing and what you could do without. The less you have to set up, the faster this process will be. It also reduces the risk of extra sounds or rattling during recording.
- Are you recording drums at home? You may want to consider sound dampening panels to keep external noises from making their way into your recording.
- Are you setting up at a studio? You’re in luck. Studios usually have a dedicated drum booth that helps to control the drum sound, keep the drum kit safe, and isolate the sound.
Are you setting up in the same room as the rest of the band? Then you may want to consider using acoustic screens to separate the sounds a bit and isolate the way your drum sounds from the rest of the band as much as possible.
4. Tune Your Drums
Now that your kit has been successfully set up in its entirety, you can start tuning it. Make sure it sounds good before you even think about setting up recording equipment. If it doesn't sound good live in the studio, it’s not going to sound good on the recording. Take your time setting up, tuning, and sorting out.
Any drum recording engineer worth their stuff will tell you that a great-sounding instrument is always the most critical element to a great-sounding recording. Just as you can’t take someone who can’t carry a tune and turn them into Whitney Houston on the track, you can’t take an un-tuned drum kit and make it sound crisp on the recording.
That being said, tune your drumheads. The snare drum is going to be the most important to get right, since it’s usually the most prominent instrument on a record. You also want to double check that your tom toms sound good, with a low-end girth that won’t muddy up your final track.
5. Set Up Overhead Mics
If you have a bunch of recording microphones hanging around your house, you can use them to microphone several different aspects of your drum kit. This way, you will have more tracks to choose from when you mix. But if you don’t have the capacity to mic every drum in your kit, that’s fine too.
Most home recorders are going to be pretty limited in resources when it comes to recording equipment. You can still get a really great sounding drum recording with the help of just 4 microphones. Many drummers whose name you’d recognize (think Keith Moon and John Bonham) relied on this type of four-microphone setup.
Here’s how it works:
- One mic is set up with the kick drum.
- One mic is set up with the snare drum.
- The final two can get suspended above the drunk kit to track the rest. This includes the rack toms, floor tom, cowbell, bongo, hi hat, cymbals, and whatever else you may have.
It’s a good idea to start out by setting up these overhead microphones first. Many people like to use a large diaphragm condenser for this.That way, you can make a trial recording to see the quality of drum sound you’re dealing with. From there, you can always go back and add more microphones to improve the sound.
There are four main types of mics that you can use:
- Condenser mic - A condenser is one mic that will pick up the sound of your entire kit. A good choice to use as your overhead mics. You can either use a small diaphragm condenser or a large diaphragm condenser.
- Dynamic mic - This is one mic that does not have the best sound clarity, but they’re great at picking up volume. Because of this, they’re good to use with individual drums.
- Pressure zone mic (PZM) - PZMs are cheaper than most other options and designed for use around the drum recording room because they pick up sound as it travels.
- Ribbon mics - Ribbon mics are a bit more expensive than other mics, but that’s because they record much smoother sounds. Use ribbon mics to record drums individually as needed—they can be a bit finicky to set up.
6. Mic the Kick Drum
Once you feel confident that your instruments are sounding exactly the way you want them to, you can get started micing your drums.
Now, you can mic your kick drum using a couple different techniques. This will depend on how many microphones you have on hand and what the design of your drum is.
Most musicians who record drums at home use a single-boundary bottom mic a few inches from the outer head of the drum. You can get a great sound with just this one mic.
If the outer head has a circular cut-out, you could always set up another mic inside that cut out. If you do this, the microphone will be better able to block out audio bleed from your other drums.
If you have the equipment to do this, it’s a great idea. Once you finish recording, you can take the tracks from both microphones and decide which one you like better.
7. Mic the Snare Drum
With the kick drum set up and ready to go, it’s time to move on to the snare drum. The snare drum plays a big role in defining what your drum kit sounds like. Some musicians might even go as far as to argue that the snare defines what your band sounds like.
If you want to explore that theory more, you can simply compare the sound of Metallica’s Master of Puppets (1986) to their 2003 St. Anger. There’s a pretty big difference between the two. Wonder why? Lars Ulrich shortly decided to switch his snare drum shortly after recording the first.
Your snare should get one mic from above, with a dynamic mic hanging about 1.5 inch away from the top of the head. The snare mic should be suspended over the drum’s plastic hoop on top and be angled facing the center of the drum.
Do you have extra room mics available? If you do, you could also place another mic underneath the drum to capture an exciting combination of tones.
8. Add More Room Mics as Needed
If you need them – and if your budget allows it – you can add even more microphones to your recording setup. After the four mic system mentioned above, you can then go on to add mics to the hi hat cymbal, individual toms.
The main benefit to adding more mics to your system is that you have more options when it gets down to mixing time. You’ll be able to pick and choose what layers to add and what’s best left off. When you’re only working with four mics, there’s not as much wiggle room.
9. Set a Preamp and Compression Sound
With your drum kit ready to rock and your mics set up to go, it’s time to set your preamp and compression sound.
While most drum recordings do have compression effects added, these don’t come about until the drum recording is finished. This is because any compressed audio that happens during drum recording cannot be brought back to its original state after the fact. It’s good practice to keep your tone as pure as you can while recording so you can save any needed compression for later.
That being said, most recorders will add preamps ahead of time. Your preamp will add subtle layers of distortion, so be careful not to overdo it. You can always make a sound that’s “too clean” dirtier, but you can never make a dirty sound cleaner.
10. Plug It All In
Now it’s time to plug all of the mics into your computer and mizer. Collect all of the mic cords and plug them into their respective slots on the mixer. This can get a bit confusing, but most owner’s manuals will provide illustrations to figure out which plug goes where.
Then, plug your mixer into your computer using a USB-interface.
Note: If you’re using an electronic drum kit, you’ll be able to plug directly into the computer. However, you should know that these are typically beginner kits that are not ideal for recording.
With everything plugged in, give it a test run and record it. Then, play back what you recorded to hear what your microphones are picking up and any adjustments that you should make.
Sure, there are a lot of steps that go into getting that perfect drum recording. However, if you follow the steps above, and allow for a bit of trial and error to get the sound just right, you’ll walk away from your session with beautiful drum recordings.
Just remember to give yourself plenty of time for setup. As you practice, you’ll hone your craft and get better at setting up microphones and preamp levels. After a while, you may even develop your very own “signature sound” you’ll be remembered for!