Recording drums without sampling is becoming a lost art. And if your drums are poorly recorded, then the entire recording will sound cheap.
It’s not about expensive gear, or expensive drums. It’s about knowing what to do as an engineer and how to fix issues at the source. Recoding drums without sampling is all about getting details correct when you record.
Fixing the Problem at the Source
Today we are going to talk about what to do during the session with five common issues with recording drums and how to easily overcome them. You’re going to learn some of the Basics 101 of how certain sounds are achieved by the drummer in the first place, instead of using a drum sampling plug in during mixing.
This episode will help you in three main areas of recording drums:
- Coach drummers on how to produce sounds we want
- Make changes to the kit to save time in mixing
- Give us a better result with less effort
And these five hacks are about the:
- The fullness of the snare drum
- The aggressiveness of the kick drum
- The sustain of the cymbals
- The attack of the toms
- The kick-snare-hat relationship
It Started with the Snare Drum
I once had a terrible time making the snare sound right in the mix for a funk-rock band. I tried compressors, and reverb but something still seemed off.
The reason why the snare didn’t sound right in my mix, is the way the snare drum was played. I hadn’t noticed during the session that the drummer wasn’t hitting it very hard, and it was lacking the energy that I was craving for. If I would have just asked the drummer to play it differently, and coached him through what sound I was envisioning, I would have been able to get better results. I was fighting an uphill battle that mixing couldn’t fix.
As a drummer and an engineer who also produces, I’ve worn many hats. My experience has taught me a few hacks that I’ve learned save a lot of time during mixing. I’ve learned to ask drummers if they can make small changes, and often those changes are what helps ensure a great drum sound and easier mixing.
It’s terrifying to think that drum sounds make a recording sound really bad, or really good. So it’s safe to say that these hacks not only help out the drum sound, but the entire production value of the recording. A little goes a long way.
The Five Hacks for Recording Drums Without Sampling
In my story about having issues with the snare drum, I realized that the drummer wasn’t playing rimshots when he hit the snare drum. How did I miss that when I was recording drums?
Rimshots are what happens when a drummer hits both the drum head and the rim of the drum. Instead of the tip of the drum stick making contact with the drum head, the stick does a full body slam into the drum. The tip and the shoulder of the drumstick (part that is just below the tip) is hitting the drum head pushing a lot of air down into the drum. The shaft of the drum stick hits the metal rim of the drum about half way down.
The issue with rimshots is that they can separate the seasoned drummers from the green ones. Not everyone can play them consistently. If you’ve ever had to edit drums because of inconsistent snare drum, the difficulty of rimshots is why. If the drummer hits the snare a touch too flat, then all he get’s is the edge and the sound of a stick hitting metal.
Rimshots are important because the shell of the drum speaks and the entire drum takes on a new personality. This is where we hear the difference of what the shell is made of, it’s barring edges, it’s depth, and what type of hoops are on the drum.
Without rimshots, it would be like playing a guitar amp at really low volume so the cabinet doesn’t resonate, and the tubes never get hot. You could turn on a pedal to compensate for the sound, but it would never be the same as cranking your amp up so the cabinet can resonate. This reminds me of the time I played a rock gig in a coffee shop…seriously, why did they book us.
So here’s the hack you can use when recording drums without sampling if you get stuck with a drummer that can’t consistently play rimshots: Have the drummer rest his hand on his leg with the drumstick in hand and hanging over the rim of the drum. Go in front of the snare drum and position it (either change the height or angle) so that when the drummers hand is resting on his leg, the drum stick is in contact with both the drumhead and the rim of the drum. Now all the drummer needs to do is pound is hand down into the top of his thigh and the drum stick will be landing on the drum, and give a perfect rimshot.
I was studying at The Drummers Collective in New York City when I was told by one of my instructors, “When is kick drum ever too loud?” He made a good point.
The kick is the foundation for everything else. The bass follows the kick, and sets the foundation for guitar. Without kick, the bass doesn’t have an anchor. A good strong kick drum is important for not just a good mix, but making the music strong too. When recording drums without sampling, it’s important to know how to get this sound naturally instead of layering kick samples with a sampling plugin.
The technique from the drummer that gives an aggressive sound from the kick drum is to not let the beater bounce off the drum head. Drummers call it “Burying the beater”, and it’s when the foot presses so much weight on the bass drum pedal, that the beater can’t bounce off the head. Essentially, all the weight of the leg goes through the balls of his feet and into the drum, instead of into the drummer’s heal.
Some drummers, including myself, don’t always do this well. Sometimes you get a main kick hit with two or three small ones after.
The hack for this is to alter either the muffling inside the drum, the tension of the head or the drum pedal. Drummers can be a little touchy about changing their pedal, so let’s cover the muffling and tension first.
Part of why a bass drum beater bounces off the kick drum is a condition where there isn’t much in the drum in the first place, and the drum head is tuned a little high. One simple solution is to lower the head in pitch, and add some muffling in the drum. Both of these will lessen the bounce of the head, and help the drummer bury the beater.
You can go as far to fill the drum to about a third full of sheets and this will get even more of this effect. I’m not usually one to over muffle a kit, but to be honest there’s not a lot of resonance when a drummer buries the beater anyway. This is most likely why over muffling the kick drum is popular – if it doesn’t help the drummer bury the beater, it at least simulates the sound of it.
Altering the pedal takes a little more trust and communication between the engineer and the drummer, but the idea is to lessen the distance that the better swings OR lower the spring tension on the pedal. Both of these will lessen the bounce of the head and help the drummer bury the beater.
As a drummer myself, I tend to find one pedal is easier to bury the beater with, while the other is not. So you can try changing pedals and see if this helps.
So there’s four ways you can hack this problem of weak kick drum. Muffling, head tension, spring tension, and beater swing distance.
The Ride Cymbal
For me, this is where recording drums without sampling makes the most sense. The sound of the cymbals are set in stone from the time you make the recording. To try to replace a cymbal with a sample would be just plan nuts to do. There are so many harmonics involved, and this makes it very noticeable when they have been tamper with in any way. You could get away with pitching down a kick drum, but you could never get it to sound good with the overhead mics for example.
On the performance end, a good drummer understands how to make the cymbals blend with each other, and make it blend with the drums too. The secret is how the drummer uses the sustain of the cymbals to help shape and contour what he plays on the drums.
This sustain can help build a groove long before it’s time for the drum fill.
It’s similar to palm mutes on electric guitar playing that build into long sustained chords during the chorus. The chorus has the sustain, and verse is short and muted. The same language is usually used in the drums.
But what do you do when the drummers isn’t giving musical ques through tasteful playing?
One common issue is that the ride cymbal has a very aggressive attack, without much sustain. Drummers love an aggressive ride, however it doesn’t seem to go with the guitar’s sustain and it doesn’t offer much for a compressor to grip when it’s pumping on the overheads. (All of this is very subjective and on a case-by-case basis obviously)
If you find that you would like to increase the sustain of the ride cymbal, you’re not stuck. Ask the drummer to grip with his pinkie finger when he plays the ride cymbal.
This will help the weight of his arm to go into the cymbal and get more energy into that cymbal. The effect is the same amount of attack, but the sustain of that cymbal will be longer and louder than before.
The drums will sound louder than they really are, and the music will have an extra bit of energy.
Muffling doesn’t just affect the sustain of the drum, but it also affects the attack too. Not in it’s longevity, but it’s clarity to punch through a mix.
To be honest, I’ve never really had a big issue with drums ringing too long. It’s always been that the are not ringing long enough.
And while some drums do indeed benefit from some muffling, because of crazy-go-nuts overtones, most unmuffled drums are able to hold up well in a mix.
One test that I do is to listen to the kit from down the hall or in another room. When your away from the drum kit do you still hear all of the overtones that bothered you? If so, perhaps add a little bit of muffling, but remember don’t over do it.
Talk to your drummer about the effects of muffling for drums in a mix, and ask him to reduce or remove the muffling. This will take a little effort to walk him through the idea, and win his trust, but it’ll be worth having the toms (and even snare) wide open and able to sing to their full glory. Moongels are twice the size they need to be, so don’t be afraid to cut them in half or have part of them resting on the metal rim.
The Relationship Between Kick/Snare/Hi-Hat
The kick has the lower frequencies, the snare has the mid range frequencies, and the hi hat has the hi frequencies. I like to think of the snare as like the vocal is to a mix. If you change the vocalist, you change what band your listening to. If you change the snare, you have a totally new drum kit. The snare sits right in the mid range of the frequency range, and we are programed to listen to the mid range as our own voice occupies this space too.
The snare does an interesting thing though. It has both low and hi frequencies so that it bridges down to the kick drum, and up to the hi-hat. So if we can make slight modifications to the pitches of the kick, pitches of the snare, or tension of the snare wires, we can bridge these connections and create a trinity of low, mid, and hi.
Lower the snare, or bring up the pitch of the kick drum. Kick drums can be higher pitches and still sound low. Snares can also be low in pitch and with a rimshot still sound higher than they really are.
Loosen the snare wires so that the buzzing of those wires resembles of the sound of the hi-hat. If it’s a crisp hi-hat, then you can have tighter snares. If it’s a big and thin hi-hat that sounds sloshy, then you can get away with a lot of loose snares buzzing away under the snare drum.
Many don’t realize to fix the problem at the source and it makes the task of recording drums without sampling a very difficult one. They think that recording drums without sampling is too hard, and will take up too much time. So they reach for drum sampling to help patch the problem.
Sampling plugins sound decent, but it takes some practice to learn how to make it sound natural. Using these plugins is a skill that has to be learned and it takes time to get the results that are advertised to us.
If you like to work with drum sampling plugins, then I hold nothing against your methods. A happy client is all the validation you need.
But if you really love the art of recording – the joy of getting sounds and preserving the music. Doesn’t it make the hard work worth it?
Using drum sampling as a short cut for good sounds will still take time and effort and you’ll get results that are good enough for the average ear. However recording drums without sampling will get you amazing drum tracks, that even the experienced ear and fellow audio engineers will be impressed with.
My hope for you is that using these techniques for recording drums without sampling, you can get amazing results using real drums, real drums, and real drummers.