Recording aggro, bombastic drums isn’t just about fabulous source sounds captured by mics positioned very close to cymbals, toms, a kick drum, and a snare. That’s a start—a very good start, in fact—but the awesomeness also comes from how the drums interact with a specific recording environment.
Sadly, the “room sound” challenge is where many home-studio musicians start reaching for drumsample collections, because the typical personal studio is not the hippest place to set up mics, and track a glorious combination of percussive impact and environmental ambience. Or is it? If you can record drums at a time when all the banging won’t drive your house mates or neighbors insane, then any apartment or home might surprise you with the number of cool reflections, echoes, and reverbs hiding within. And while there are tons of absolutely marvelous drum samples available today, it’s also a thrill to be able to craft big-ass drum sounds to your own preferences, or to the specific needs of the song at hand. So if you’re one of those hardy explorer types who adore drums that sound as expansive as the Alaskan wilderness, here are a few suggestions for mammoth DIY drum sounds.
Steve Lillywhite’s Big Bang
In 1980, U2’s “I Will Follow” exploded from radios everywhere. But the propulsive energy wasn’t just due to the youthful angst of talented and visionary teens—a fair share was due to producer Steve Lillywhite’s massively ambient drum sound on the song’s intro. Let’s use that classic and tremendous sound as the benchmark for pulling big booms out of your personal studio space.
If you’re not recording drum tracks in a warehouse—or in a big studio with 30-foot ceilings from which to hang microphones—ambient success rests in your ability to get some sexy reflections out of your home. And that means it’s all about hard surfaces.
Remove as many soft surfaces from the room as you can. That cushy couch and all those easy chairs are oh-so-comfy for watching TV, but they’ll suck the life out of the reflections you’re trying to capture, so get ’em outta there!
Now, set up the drum kit a few feet in front of a large picture window, and atop a hardwood floor. If the room is carpeted, borrow or buy a sheet of plywood large enough for the entire kit to be placed upon it, and then toss some more sheets around to break up the reverb-killing effect of the rest of the carpet. If there’s no huge front window, then find a suitable house, or McGuyver a few plywood sheets to stand upright around the back of the drum kit. If you go crazy at Home Depot, putting an extra couple of plywood sheets at the left and right of the kit will help intensify the reflection action. If you’ve done a good job, when you clap your hands, you’ll hear some very cool echoes.
Miking for Massive
The first step is to close-mic the kit as you usually would, because these tracks will still provide the impact and punch of the overall drum sound. Then, as the drummer plays, walk around the room and listen for areas where the reflections are most intense. Don’t miss the reverberant majesty of putting mics down hallways, or inside nearby closets (with the door open, of course), facing windows, or raised up and pointing at the corners of the ceiling. Seek out any and every place where reflections are having a party, and get mics in the area. Yes, you will probably need to borrow mics from buddies in order to document all the potential ambient points in your home, so don’t be shy. Large-diaphragm condensers are preferred, as they’re typically sensitive enough to “hear” the detail of most excellent reverb tails, stutter echoes, and other such reflections. However, I’ve also captured some pretty cool ambient sounds with small-diaphragm condensers, affordable ribbon mics, dynamic mics, and even cheap Radio Shack mics. As always, experimentation is often as critical as the gear, so use those ears and your imagination.
Because you’re not in a warehouse or huge, beautiful pro-studio space, some of the miked ambience may be rather low in level. The in-the-closet mic, for example, can sound cool as hell, but it might be a bit limp on the impact factor. This is where compression can save your butt. You can compress every track to bring up the low-level ambient sounds if you have a rockin’ DAW, or, if you’re limited on compressors, you can assign all the mics to a stereo submix, and compress the crap out of the sub. I tend to go pretty aggressive with a 10:1 ratio at a –10dB threshold.
Now that you have a hopefully enormous and totally compressed stereo submix (or individually compressed mic tracks) of ambient drum sounds— so ambient, in fact, that they seem absolutely drenched in reverberation— the trick is to blend the ambient drum tracks with the close-miked drum tracks to craft a killer combo of articulate percussive attacks and vibey room sound. You can go more “dry” if you’re a sissy, or do the Lillywhite move and crank up the “wet” tracks. Real adventurous souls can bring in the wet tracks more intensely at certain parts to pump up specific energy points in the song. Go Big!