Recording Great Drum Sounds in Small Spaces

As a musician and band member with a project studio in your home or practice space, you’re bound to have had the following conversation on at least one occasion:

Bandmate: Dude, we have, like, no budget for this album! Maybe we could just record these songs ourselves!

You: Sweet! I think it’ll turn out better if we’re able to make all of our own decisions and work on our own schedule, anyway. And I’ve got plenty of solid gear at this point...

Bandmate: Absolutely! We all have total confidence in you! Only thing is, we’ll obviously have to book a proper studio to track all the drums. I’m sure you can handle the rest, but we can’t do drums at home!

You: Oh. I mean, yeah. I guess you’re right.

Unfortunately, lots of spirit and creativity get deflated by defeatist assumptions that “rock drums” (or great drum sounds in general) are too hard to record in a small space. True, having a cavernous live room or giant warehouse is the easiest and most effective way to capture a pounding-loud and endlessly reverberant drum sound, but there are ways to create the illusion of size in a smaller room -- and “huge drums” isn’t always the right sound for a song or record. Of course, not every method or trick is going to suit every situation, but hopefully by my sharing a few of my go-to methods here, you’ll become confident enough to tackle the drums at home.

Prep the Kit

It all starts at the source, and this is why the tuning of your kit is paramount. High-pitched or tuned way down low, don’t be afraid to exaggerate in either direction. Things that sound a little extreme or odd to you at this stage will often end up sitting into a composite mix very differently. Try tracking some samples, listen back, and adjust until the tones are as boomy or controlled as you desire.

If you’re going for less sustain, try using moongels or tape and Kleenex (Ringo used a pack of cigarettes) to muffle the heads. Pillow cases and bedsheets draped over toms will give you that super-dead ‘70s sound, to which you can then tastefully add reverb or delay at mixdown if it really comes to it.

Experiment using thinner cymbals with a quicker decay, or even tape on the cymbals so that their overall level decreases relative to the drums themselves. Again, this might sound a little “unnatural” in the room, but on the recording, it’ll allow you to crank the kit more without washing out all the midrange instruments in the process.

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Less is More

I’ve achieved simple, hefty, and fat sounds by using somewhere between one and four mics on a full kit far more often than I’ve done using twelve. After a certain point, all the phasing issues and sounds competing for the same space in the stereo field and frequency range just end up defeating one another. For increased focus and clarity, don’t see it as “how many tiny details can I capture?” See it as “How few mics can I get away with using?”

Odd Mic Placements

Just because the room itself is small doesn’t mean you can’t still place a mic “far away” from the kit. I always crank a ribbon mic and put it halfway up the stairwell down the hall from my bedroom when recording drums in the coach house where I live, and it gives me incredible natural slap-back. Even just mixing this track fairly low in the drum mix, I often surprise drummers with how much “air” and “room sound” their snare has. Placing mics near reflective surfaces -- walls, or even taped to the floor -- can also lend a great deal of size to your overall drum sounds even if the mics are not that far from the kit.

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Don’t Forget The Effects

EQ: Throw out your rulebooks about EQ and just start searching around for frequencies you want to accentuate or downplay. For example, I usually put a pretty absurd amount of low end on snare tracks and my overhead (and/or stairwell mic), not because they sound good like that when soloed, but because that “sounds better” to me in context than adding a bunch to my kick mic. The inverse, however, can also be true. Rolling out a good deal of the lowest frequencies from every track but the kick drum can often give the kick sound the real estate that it needs.

Reverb: A lot of times, snares and/or toms just need some reverb with a good pre-delay on it. To avoid washing out everything, I will often try gating these instruments on their way to the reverb. Then I’ll use my ears and gain the reverb and/or delay tracks up and down at different parts of the song to exaggerate the sense of hugeness where I want it and make it disappear where I don’t. (Reverb and delay sound quite “impressive” when they appear from nowhere. It’s all in the contrast.)

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Compression: Nothing makes little drums sound giant like screwing around with their sound envelope via compression. Compressors with slower attack times will let more of the transients through (adding perceived definition, even if you’re still shaving off some of the “bap”), while quicker attacks and medium-to-slower releases can exaggerate the decay. As an added bonus, you can usually overdrive a lot of compressors (plug-in or hardware) in a desirable way by hitting them too hotly intentionally.

Tape: People talk about “tracking drums to tape” for a reason. The low frequency “head bump” of classic tape machines and sweet, subtle compression from hitting the tape with hot levels can be the greatest of gifts for your drum sounds. But if you don’t have the space or know-how for operating a big tape machine, there’s a lot of “tape machine” plugins out there. Try using one on your overheads, room mic, or the whole kit. I almost always “mult” the drums two different busses simultaneously when I mix. I keep one buss pretty “clean” and slap a tape machine plug-in intentionally pushed way too hard on the other (usually followed by a compressor also pushed way too hard). Then I mix the two busses together, gaining the heavily affected buss up and down to accentuate choruses and bridges when the drums really need to stand out.

Just Get Weird

These are just the “usual suspects.” There are almost endless ways to enhance, trick-out, thicken, and just plain mangle drum sounds in your home studio. Just a few ideas I’ve tried from time to time that might work for you include the following:

  • using hard mallets instead of sticks
  • reamping (sending previously-recorded drums through distortion pedals or mic’d guitar amplifiers to thicken and distort the sound)
  • adding electronic sub-kick and snare sounds (tastefully) underneath the originals
  • recording the drum parts for a song twice and layering them (or spreading them opposite one another in the stereo field)

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And those are just the first few that come to mind. There are tons of methods waiting to be discovered. So hopefully, after reading this, you’re convinced that there’s no need to fret about not having a “traditional room” at your disposal when it comes to getting great drum sounds for your record. All you really need is a little ingenuity and fearlessness. But that’s why you’re DIY in the first place, right?

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