Recording Drums

There are two ways to record drums: the conventional way, and the other my current method.

I started recording In Between the Spaces about a year and a half ago. I'd recorded many of my own records before, but never so consistently. When you do things consistently and repeatedly in a short timeframe—and try different things along the way—you learn almost exponentially. Since recording several new singles from the ground up for IBTS, averaging a new recording every month or two, I was bound to pick up several new tricks from the time my book Indie Rock 101 was published, which was about seven years ago—well before the home recording tutorial industry exploded online.

Even though Indie Rock 101 dedicates a few pages to how to properly record drums, it's not something I'd done a whole lot of myself until recently. Rather, I tended to rely on a studio engineer to mic and tune the drums, and actually do the recording, while I focused on the performance.

There were a few good reasons for this:

  1. Setting up at least six mics for a drum kit takes a lot of time and preparation, if you don't have a dedicated space in which to keep things set up. If you just want to focus on your performance, and not getting all the technical details right, it makes sense to leave it to someone else.
  2. Mics, cables, an audio input units can be expensive, especially when it's six to eight mics on a drum kit. If you don't record often, it doesn't make sense to buy all that gear to DIY.
  3. Getting a good drum sound takes preparation and practice. I've never been super-picky about tuning drums, choosing the right mics, and getting the room acoustics just right before recording, so I typically left it to others.
  4. It's hard enough to focus on your performance without worrying about trying to stop and start the recording for each screw-up, patch, or new take. It's easier to have an engineer doing this stuff while you're sweating at your drum stool.

I'm sure you've heard the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention." Which is why, after starting to record more of my own drums for IBTS, I've shifted my approach. These days, I record more often in my own rented recording space, which has its own set of advantages:

  1. It's faster and generally cheaper. I don't have to pack my entire kit and pay three, four times as much to rent studio/engineer time. Now I drive to my hourly rental space, which already has a decent kit waiting there for me, along with all mic stands, cords, and multi-channel mixer. 
  2. I can book the room time much more spontaneously than I can studio time, which means I can record drums when I'm thinking about a new song, not weeks or even months after the initial inspiration and excitement has faded.
  3. Keeping my setup to two overheads and faking the kick drum on the computer keeps things light and fast for me (I don't own a kick mic yet and the room's mixer only records a stereo channel, not individual channels. I found that recording a kick in addition to the overheads without being able to isolate the channel often throws the three-mic mix out of whack). Additionally, I don't even have or use nice condenser mics for the kick and overheads, so I just use a couple of Shure SM57s from the rehearsal room (gear convenience and saving money).
  4. I can stop after and punch in mistakes much faster than waiting on someone else to know when I've screwed up. I set my laptop right near my right side at my drum stool, so stopping digital "tape" and punching in the mistake goes much more quickly than if I were waiting on someone else.
  5. Recording my own drums has forced me to try new things, see what works, and find out what I like. For example, I've found I actually really like the sound of the Shures as overheads. It seems much more beefy, warm, and "analog" sounding than condensers in certain situations, making the snare sound especially tasty.
  6. Recording my own drums has also taught me the importance of tuning the drums to my liking, which is something I never paid much attention to before my work on this record. I saw it as one of those boring technical details, but I realize it falls under that category of making sure you get a good recording, as opposed to trying to fix it in the mix (such as an overly ring-y snare or toms that are tuned too high.) Yesterday I spent about 45 minutes setting up and tuning my kit before recording, which resulted not only in a more comfortable performance for me, but also a better sounding recording.

In a nutshell, my old system: Pay for studio time and have an engineer set up six mics on the kit, tune the drums, and record my performances. (That's not to say I'll never use that method again, it's just that I can bang out more and faster with the...)

New system: Set up two overheads, run them through a mixer to record to a single stereo track, and create a digital kick drum pattern on Logic (I won't get into why I artificially create a kick drum pattern here, but perhaps the subject of a future blog tutorial here). Here's a video of what my setup looks like just before I started recording:


Now of course there are certain drawbacks to my quick and dirty method:

  1. I have to spend time creating an artificial kick drum pattern with my finger on Logic Pro X. (Although for this session, I just recorded the song again with ONE mic on the kick drum, which I can then use to trigger a bigger-sounding sample in Logic).
  2. I can't turn the snare drum in the two-channel mix up or down, I can only double it and control that new track's sound in the mix.
  3. The minimal mic setup sounds cool but isn't the gold standard. Ideally, I'd close-mic the toms, mic the kick, and have nice condensers as my overheads, recording all six channels individually, but... I'm working with the resources I currently have and getting the best sound possible out of that.

And on that note, here's a video of me recording drums for my upcoming song, "Creeper":

You can hear what this exact same setup sounds like on my most recent song, "Sunny Day." 

Watch the video on YouTube.

Free-Download the song on Bandcamp.

For more recording tips on drums, vocals, bass, and guitar—a ton of clear, concise info on audio production techniques—I encourage you to get a copy of Indie Rock 101And if you like it, please leave a five-star review on Amazon. 

Happy recording, and thanks for reading and listening.