Acoustic Drums

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Recording a Real Kit

Approaching the instrument

When recording a drum kit, it is important to approach the task with a holistic mindset. With more and more recording tracks available as technology advances, a common rookie mistake is to treat the drum kit as a collection of instruments working in isolation. With enough microphones and channels, each drum and cymbal can have its own fader, leading one to think of say, the snare drum, as a mix component on its own in the same way a guitar would be.

This is a mistake because extreme separation of drums, isolated from each other, will more likely than not result in a very unnatural sound in the final mix. This is less apparent in "loud" music, but it can really kill a softer mix.

Instead, one should approach the drum kit as a single instrument, not a conglomeration. Think of it this way: a drummer is a single performer, playing a single part. To separate the elements here is as ridiculous as separating a guitar into six pieces (one for each string).

History of drum recording

When drum kits were introduced in the early 20th century, recording was in its earliest stages. Entire bands were recorded live onto a mono track using a single microphone. When multi-track recording developed decades later, bands were divided into different channels, with the drum kit recorded on its own mic.

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When stereo recording came about, the kit enjoyed two microphones, leading engineers to experiment (the '60s culture is also relevant here). Snare drums were mic'd separately at times, but the most popular trend was a stereo pair suspended above and in front of the kit.

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In the last few decades, the number of tracks available has increased rapidly, and so has the number of microphones attached to the kit. With an unlimited budget, you may even find cases where each drum has two or more microphones (e.g, on top and bottom, since the two heads sound different)

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Unfortunately we don't have endless amounts of money to spend on microphones, so we have to use what is available as effectively as possible. This history is important to keep in mind because it shows clearly the best way to prioritize your microphones. Note that the number of mics in the list below also corresponds to the order of priority for recording and the history outlined above:

  1. Ambient (sometimes called "room") mic. If you only have one mic available, you need to capture the entire instrument. If you place the mic too close, the nearest pieces will overpower those farther away. This is usually placed above the level of the cymbals and several feet in front of the kit.
  2. Ambient Stereo. This is the same as above, but with two microphones, each capturing roughly half the kit (left/right).
  3. Snare or Kick Drum. These two sounds are the main accents to most music, so it's often desirable to mic them individually to reinforce and enhance them.
  4. Snare or Kick drum. Same as above - at this point you would mic both.
  5. Overhead (OH). This is a mic placed directly above the drum kit. It serves to capture the cymbals directly, but also picks up the other drums.
  6. Overhead Stereo Pair (OHs). This is the same as #5, but with two microphones. Often, these are directional mics placed in an "X" shape. This keeps the recording diaphragms in roughly the same place, but each recording a different side (just like the ears on your head).
    Note Note: At this point you're starting to get fancy. The core of the kit is filled out (especially when bleed is considered - bleed will be discussed later). These are a lot less important than 1-6, so you can consider them optional.
  7. Toms. One mic positioned to try and get all of the toms. This is aimed at the tops of the tom drums.
  8. High (rack) toms and floor tom(s). Floor toms are a lot deeper than rack toms, so you may want to eq them separately in the mix.
  9. Two rack toms and floor tom.
  10. Hi hat. The OHs and Ambient pair will get a lot of hat, but if you have enough mics you might as well put one here to get a little more control.
  11. (and higher) Snare bottom, Tom bottoms, Kick drum pedal (for that authentic "squeak"), dedicated mics for cymbals, etc. These are really unnecessary except in special circumstances, and rather excessive. From here out, you're almost searching for a space to put a mic.

As you can see from the list, the trend is to start with the whole kit and add individual mics as they are available. Many beginners (and apparently most soft-synth designers) think that they can leave out the ambient pair and OHs if they have a channel for each individual piece. The mistake in this approach will be clear after "bleed" is explained below.


Differences in pieces (why one snare over another)

I have limited knowledge here, but Abe might be able to contribute and I can do research.

"Performing" a drum part in Sonar

I will do my best to cover SI-Drum Kit, Session Drummer, and Superior. Note to self: cover drum maps


(will have subsections for panning, eq, compression, reverb, and levels)

Bonus tips and tricks

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