There’s nothing quite like recording drums.
When it comes to guitar, bass, or even vocals, you really only have one instrument to worry about.
But drums are this crazy concoction of one instrument made up of many instruments.
It’s a delicate balance of unity and separation. Separate, clean hits that feel together and whole.
If you’ve ever recorded a snare track, you know that’s easier said than done!
It can be tough to record drums on a budget. And as reader Jake F. recently mentioned to me, there’s a lot to consider:
- Drum heads
- Mic placement
- Room Acoustics
It’s almost enough to say the hell with all of it!
Drums don’t have to be monster though. Yes, recording drums can be time-consuming. But you can also take a lot of the guesswork out of them.
The Golden 4 of Drum Recording
Despite everything mentioned above, there’s really only 4 things you need to worry about when tracking drums.
Whether its in your basement or at the pro studio, great drums boil down to:
- Your kit
- Your room
- Your performer/performance
- Your mic placement
I started my audio career in a basement. Now I work in a pro studio. And I’ve recorded in many rooms between that basement and the studio.
And no preamp, microphone, or outboard gear has made as big a difference as those 4.
Focus on the 80% That Actually Matters
Notice how I didn’t mention expensive mics, preamps, or anything else?
What a lot of engineers get hung up on is the gear.
Us engineers are a geeky bunch. We love comparing preamps, mics, and everything else to find those *tiny* differences they can make.
And don’t get me wrong – gear is fun! But the gear doesn’t make the song. A great song is still a great song, even if it’s recorded on an iPhone.
So aside from songwriting, the only things that deserve your time are the bits that are gonna make a big impact on your recordings.
Your drum set comes waaaay before your preamps. Preamps? They might make your track sound 1 – 2% better. Maybe?
So instead let’s focus on the big wins of drum recording:
1. Your Drum Kit
I’m gonna assume you don’t have a locker full of drums to choose from. Instead, you’ve got one kit, and that’s the one you’re recording with.
And that’s all good! Alicia Keys isn’t knocking on your door, so the budget’s pretty tight.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make good with what you have.
I often record drummers and their personal kits. They’re rarely perfect, but with a little work can sound great.
Drum Heads & Cymbals
Drum heads and cymbals are pretty simple:
- Use new heads, and
- Don’t use cracked cymbals
Shoot for new drum heads about a week before you record. That way they’ve had some time to settle and stretch, but are still new.
What kind of heads should you use?
The kind that sounds best to you!
It’s really no biggie. Defer to the drummer and what they like. If it’s your song, what do you like?
Ask the local Guitar Center drum salesperson for advice. Do some research on drum sounds you like, and tell the salesperson what you’re after.
Use all the resources you have. The GC drum person spends all day thinking about drums. Their job is to know about the products they sell.
Why not cracked cymbals?
Cracked cymbals sound like trash can lids being hit over and over again. Plainly put – it sounds awful.
What cymbals should you use? Maybe you can guess it…
The cymbals you or your drummer like.
Even though that seems like a cop-out, it’s really a matter of taste. So my best advice is to research and get acquainted with drum sounds you dig on.
Once you’ve got the heads and cymbals down, it’s time to move onto…
And tuning is HUGE.
In my experience, even awesome drummers could brush up on their tuning skills.
I can sympathize though, because drums are far more complicated than any guitar.
Before you start dampening or micing up the kit, just listen as the drummer hits each drum:
- Does the snare sound crisp and awesome? Or do you hear the “boing!” of a weird resonance?
- Do the toms sound solid and booming, or flat and cardboard like?
- Does the kick have punch, or does it sound hollow?
By listening to the drums, you can make some educated guesses of how to tune them.
Then go out and get yourself a DrumDial.
A DrumDial is possibly the best 60 bucks you could ever spend on drums.
They’re amazing because they take the guesswork out of drum tuning. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s pretty damn close.
The DrumDial measures the tension of each lug on a drum, and shows you a numeric value with its nifty dial:
- Place the DrumDial next to each lug,
- Read the dial to see the tension of that lug, and then
- Use a drum key to match the numbers!
Once you’ve matched the values, hit the drum. Does it sound awesome? If not, make a guess if you need the pitch higher or lower. Then use the DrumDial to pitch it up or down.
Once you’ve got it in the ball park, have the drummer tune to taste.
A DrumDial can literally save hours of your life and session. And make sure to check both the top and bottom drum heads!
When you take the time to listen and tune, you can quickly sort out any other problems with the kit, such as:
- Rattling hardware
- Squeaking kick pedals
- Shaking furniture in the room
Which gives you a chance to fix these things before they become problems!
After tuning, you may find that your drums are close, but could still use some help.
That’s where dampening comes in.
Dampening is a method for controlling drum tones. Typically you place something inside or onto the drum to help tighten the tone.
A lot of engineers use many different methods, but I use just two:
- Moon Gels
Pillows are for tightening up kick drums. You place a pillow inside your kick. And yes, a pillow that you would rest your head on.
Place the pillow on the bottom of the kick shell, resting one edge against the beater kick head.
It’s very rare for me to run into a kick drum that isn’t helped by throwing a pillow inside.
Moon Gels are a wonderfully cheap product that you place onto your drum heads.
For 7 bucks, these sticky gels can save you from weird resonances, and tighten your toms or snare.
Always listen to the drum before using Moon Gels. And if you feel it necessary, start by placing just one along the outer edge of the drum head.
Play around with moving the one gel around the head. People often get excited to use more than one Moon Gel on a drum. But it’s a fine line between tightening a drum, and killing all its tone.
2. Your Room
A big part of your time you’ll spend on tuning and fixing your drum kit. And once you’re feeling pretty good about them, you’ll need to turn your attention to your room.
The hard reality is that your room can make or break your drum sound.
And I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you want great drums, you’re gonna have to.
Tuning the Room With Your Floor Tom
Back in 2012, I interned at a Grammy Award winning recording studio in New York City. It was at that studio that a fellow intern introduced me to an amazing book.
Mixing With Your Mind is a brilliant book by Michael Paul Stavrou. While it reads a bit “woo woo,” Stavrou taught me some amazing lifelong techniques.
One of which is to tune your kit to the room using the floor tom.
When it comes to room acoustics, low frequencies are always the toughest to work out. That’s why bass traps are the thickest panels and are more work to get right.
Drums that lack low end body and power will leave your mix sounding lame.
But you can use the floor tom as a frequency detector for the best spot for low frequencies in your room!
As Stavrou says in his timeless book, once you have the low end right, the rest just falls into place.
So have your drummer set up just the floor tom and hit it while you stand back and listen.
Then have the drummer move the floor tom to a different spot and do it again! Repeat the process until you identify the spot with the best low end response. The spot where your floor tom sounds like a earth-shattering boom!
Once you’ve found the spot, have your drummer set up the rest of the kit around the floor tom.
Baffles and acoustic panels help tighten up the sound of a room. If you’re tracking in a bedroom, most likely it sounds pretty boxy.
But for the sake of time and money, I’m gonna assume you don’t have any acoustic treatment.
That’s okay though! Unless you’re planning on building out a tracking room, you can get away with a lot of home items for treatment.
At this point, I would first mic up your kit before playing with the baffling in your room. That way you could listen back to the changes in your kit’s sound and fine-tune the baffles.
So for now I’ll touch on what materials can be great for your home studio baffles:
- Thick comforters/duvets
Thick comforters are an easy way to reduce reflections off of walls or the ceiling.
If you have extra mic stands, you can hang up comforters with those. Or you can use painter’s tape to hang comforters on the walls without ruining the walls.
I would focus comforters on any walls close by to your kit. And I would hang comforters in front of the kit to reduce the room size around it.
And if you can one of the comforters over the kit from the ceiling, awesome!
Mattresses can act as bass traps for the corners. Since bass frequencies are the most problematic, mattresses can be a huge help.
Once you mic up your kit, I would play around with your baffling and record the drums each time you move the baffles. That way you can easily learn how to tighten your room and drum tone.
3. Your Performer & Performance
There’s not a whole lot I can say about this.
The better the drummer and the more rehearsed the drummer, the better your recordings will be!
I know great drummers can be in short supply. But if your drummer at least practices and prepares for your session, it’ll be a lot better for everyone.
If you’re using a click track, get that to your drummer well before the session so they can practice.
And help your drummer understand the following:
- Hit the drums like a champ
- Hit the cymbals like a butterfly
A sure sign of an amateur drummer is when they tap the drums, but pummel the cymbals.
Cymbals sing when they’re contained. Whereas drums are felt when they’re hit hard, and consistently.
Dynamics can be great, but in the studio there is such thing as too much dynamics.
I’ll take a drummer who hits every hit exactly the same over any drum virtuoso who’s too dynamic – any day of the week.
Give me consistency, or give me a different drummer!
4. Your Mic Placement
Finally, the fun part!
But drum micing is only as good as the steps before it. When you’ve put the time into getting your kit, room, and performer the best you can, your mics stand a chance of capturing great drum sounds!
My typical drum mic set-up is:
- Overheads: stereo pair of small diaphragm mics like Oktava MC012s
- Kick: dynamic mic like Shure Beta 52 or AKG D112
- Snare: dynamic mic like a Shure SM57
- Toms: dynamic mics like Sennheiser 421s or SM57s
Please don’t get too obsessed with what mics I use. What matters is the techniques, not the gear:
There are many ways to approach overhead micing. And the amount of inputs you have on your interface will play a big part of that.
After many years of trial and error, I’ve decided to stick with easy over being creative.
So I go with the XY approach to micing overheads:
XY is when both your mic heads line up next to each other, while pointing in opposite directions.
But why? So often engineers spread their mics out, such as spaced stereo pair:
I chose the XY approach because phase can be a real pain when it comes to drums.
For years I tried to use stereo space pairs. And too often I would run into my drums being out of phase.
It was always noticeable when I listened to just the overhead tracks. Either the kick or the snare would lean to the left or right in a very obvious way.
And when I tried adjusting either overhead mic, one of those two drums would shift.
So maybe my kick sounded centered. But then my snare would lean to the left.
It was SO annoying.
Once I decided to ditch the fashionable spaced pair for XY, all my phase problems disappeared!
Since your XY mics are in the same spot, phase is gonna be perfect. Now you only need to worry about the angles of the mics and how high they should be.
The more angled your overhead XY pair, the wider the drums sound. And the less angled they are, the tighter they sound.
I then place the overhead pair over the center of the drum kit.
When I’m adjusting overhead mics, I always listen with headphones through Logic. That way I can hear the sound change as I adjust the height of the mics.
XY is beautiful because you have only one mic stand to adjust. You don’t have phase to worry over, and now you can just listen and adjust the height over the center of the kit 🙂
Kick, Snare, and Tom Micing
It might be kind of funny to see these grouped together, but I actually use the same exact method for each.
I wish I could say I came up with this amazing technique!
But I can’t seem to find the link to where I found it. What I can say is I learned this trick from Sound on Sound:
Drum Micing With Delay
Say you have your kick mic roughly set up in front of the kick port hole, and you have a healthy level for the kick. Your DAW meters are in the yellow at most, but never peaking.
Whip up a clean delay plugin, and put it on your kick drum with the following settings:
Your drummer will need a set of headphones too for this to work.
Ask your drummer to hit the kick, and then wait to hear the echo of the delay. Now have them simply alternate with the delayed kick sound as such:
Kick hit – Echo – Kick Hit – Echo
Over and over until you tell them to stop.
Now, your job is to listen to the echo as you swing your kick drum mic around to find the best spot.
It’s crazy how easy this is!
For years I tried to listen to my mic position while the drummer hit their drum. This is tough, because drums are often louder than your headphones.
The unfortunate solution was always to crank up the headphones. Which is never good for your ears in the long-term.
With the quarter note delay, it makes drum micing as easy as can be!
Listen to the kick mic with the overheads as you fine-tune the kick mic position with the delay. Then repeat the process for the snare, rack and floor toms. Just move the delay plugin from the kick drum to the next drum you’re working on.
Each mic I set up close to the edge of each drum. So that would be close to the edge of the snare, pointing almost directly down at the snare head, while angled a little towards the middle.
Play with positioning while listening to the delay. Drum micing could never be easier!
How to Record Drums on a Budget: Conclusion
A lot of people are gonna try to tell you your drum recordings will suck without expensive mics or preamps. But don’t buy it.
As an engineer, I’ve mixed a lot of drum tracks. From basements to the studio, to drums recorded in a concrete storage unit, there’s only 4 things that matter:
- Your kit
- Your room
- Your performer/performance
- Your mic placement
What techniques have worked for you when you’ve recorded drums? What hasn’t worked? I’d love to know!