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DIY Drum Recording – The Ultimate Guide

DIY Drum Recording

Recording a Killer DIY Drum Sound in a Home Studio or Band Room

…without spending thousands on high end mics and preamps…

Producing a decent DIY drum recording in your band room isn’t rocket science. If it was, we audio engineers would be working for SpaceX and NASA engineers would be recording music. But as in all endeavours, there are several aspects that must be considered, and steps taken in order to produce a killer DIY band room drum sound.

The Special Sauce – Get the DIY drum sound right at the source

Your DIY drum recording is only as good as the sound of your drum kit.

Internalise this sentence: Your DIY drum recording is only as good as the sound source.

Read it again.

You cannot produce something on tape that wasn’t there when you pushed the red button. You can always slap on some samples later, but if that’s your approach, why not just use an e-drum kit and a sample library? Because it’s a lifeless approach and end result. Period.

So, get it right at the source.

Record a good drum kit. If you don’t have one, buy one. If you can’t buy one, borrow one. If you can’t borrow one, pimp your own.

Pimp Your Drum Kit

Replace The Drum Heads

Used, battered, dull drum heads will produce a used, battered, dull sound on your band room recording. Replacing your batter heads will bring out an enormous change in the sound of your kit. Tuned properly, an average drum kit with new batter heads will sound ten times better than an untuned drum kit with old beaten up skins. And a set will only put you back around 60 bucks. Compare that to trying to fix the drum sound with a fancy microphone at $600. It doesn’t really make sense does it?

For a comparison of the myriad of drum head options, these videos on YouTube should get you headed in the right direction.

If you’re lazy or your hearing is shot, Remo Ambassador coated drumheads are a safe bet for a balanced sound.

So, you’ve splashed out and done your kit a favour. Now what?

Tune them!

The Lost Art of Tuning Drum Heads

The Make or Break of DIY Drum Recording

Even if you don’t replace your drum heads, you must take the time go retune your drums before recording. This isn’t rocket science either. There are many ways to skin a cat, but the most effective way to go about it is usually the simplest.

You could use a tuner to tune each lug in your Tom to 354,67 Hz or gauge the pressure with one is those fancy gadgets that should be used for e early detection of earthquakes in Japanese classrooms but you might find out that theory doesn’t cut it in the real world.

Tuning the Snare Drum

  1. Loosen the resonant head.
  2. Tighten each lug with your fingers.
  3. Using two drum keys, tighten two lugs on opposite sides a few turns at the same time.
  4. Keep tightening opposite lugs moving around the drum until the resonant head is tight and snappy. Use your own intuition to decide when enough is enough.
  5. Repeat for the batter head. Tune as high or as low as you like, always tuning two lugs at a time and moving around the drum.
This guy has the no-nonsense method to getting a killer DIY snare sound right at the source.

Tuning the Kick Drum

  1. Loosen the batter head.
  2. Tighten each lug with your fingers.
  3. Put your palm in the middle of the drum head and press down firmly, which will produce waves on the skin around the edges.
  4. Tighten each lug in turn just until the waves disappear.
  5. Repeat all steps for the resonant head. On step four, tighten one quarter turn more after the waves disappear.
Rob Brown has done it again. Kick drum tuning made easy!

Tuning Toms

  1. Loosen the batter head.
  2. Tighten each lug with your fingers.
  3. Put your palm in the middle of the drum head and press down firmly, which will produce waves on the skin around the edges.
  4. Tighten each lug in turn just until the waves disappear.
  5. Repeat all steps for the resonant head.
  6. If you require a slightly higher or lower tone, pick two opposite lugs and tighten or loosen them slightly.
You fix your toms, you’re on your way to a killer DIY drum sound for your band room recording.

And here it comes…

But but but the lugs aren’t tightened to the same pressure!

No one cares.

But but but the drum head is too loose!

No one cares.

But, but but you haven’t paid attention you the resonant frequency of the drum!

It doesn’t matter! By tightening the drum head to exactly the point where the looseness disappears, you are naturally producing the resonant frequency of the drum and letting it resonate with each hit to its heart’s content.

You’re not constricting the air movement between the heads and in doing so eliminating those awful overtones produced when the head is too tight.

This goes for all drums – Toms, Snare and Kick. Try it out, you’ll never tune your kit the old way ever again.

Our drums are tuned and sounding massive

So, we’ve got our drum kit, our new drum heads and they are tuned properly and creating a kind of thunder that Zeus would have used back in the day to instill fear into the ancient Greeks, moving them to sacrifice their cattle at regular intervals.

Sacrifice a little time, money and patience, and you will have created the special sauce. You’ve got the sound right at the source!

The Optimum Spot in the Room

The one step that no one talks about. Where to record drums in the room.

You don’t have to be a professor of acoustics to know that sound bounces off walls. We’ve all had a sing in the shower, not all of us have hit the right notes, true to the composer’s original intention. But that is another post for another time. No one wants to hear your drummer sing. Unless he’s Gotye or Phil Collins. And you wouldn’t necessarily want to shower with them. Wait, what?

Standing Waves

Sound travels through a space, bouncing off the walls and being mixed up with itself creating layer upon layer of sound wave. A standing wave is when a particular frequency bounces off a wall and meets itself at a particular point in the room and is amplified. Standing waves or room modes are bad for mixing, good for ported speakers and life threatening for tight-arse neighbours.

But for DIY drum recording they can be a godsend. Because you can use them to amplify the fundamental sound of a kit and produce a larger than life sound while recording.

This is why it is important to find the optimal spot for your drum kit in your band room. You might need to clear out all the amps, that stained and cigarette-butt-pockmarked sofa and rearrange things a little. But it will make all the difference on the final drum recording.

Find the Patch of Air That Resonates

We’re looking for the place in the room where the drums resonate in a natural and balanced way.
The best way to do this is with the floor tom. It has some depth, resonates a relatively low frequency but also has the high end attack that slaps back from the walls.

Move around the room hitting the floor room continuously and listen for the place where the boom meets the slap. Try to focus on the sound coming back from the room rather than the drum hit itself. It’s best to have a band member move the drum for you while you hit and listen. Hit hard, medium and softly to get an overall impression.

Move about marking the places on the floor where you feel the drum sounds thick and prominent. You should end up with three or four spots. Keep comparing until you have found that one spot where the boom meets the slap and the body meets the soul.

It’s not uncommon to find a low end resonance about a quarter to a third of the room length away from any wall. This might be a spot to start your search for the optimum drum sound!

Once you’ve found your spot for the floor tom, it’s time to set up the rest of the kit. Start with the snare and compare different positions on each side of the tom. Once you’ve determined the best spot for the snare using the same methods (listen to the room!) you’re ready to set up the kick, toms, hihats, cymbals and the rest of the kit.

At this stage, you might have been at it for an hour or two. But we’ve hardly started yet. Stick at it. You did want that killer drum sound didn’t you?

Miking the Drum Kit

Microphones for a Killer DIY Drum Recording

Finally! Microphones! The key here is to not get lost in forums, articles and blog posts (this one not included!) informing yourself thoroughly about the pros and cons of mics that you can’t afford anyway. Chances are you have musician friends who have mics and are willing to lend them to you for a weekend. Just use what you have got!

Generally you will need:

  • Two condensers for overheads.
  • One kick drum mic.
  • One dynamic mic for each tom.
  • One dynamic and one condenser for the snare top and bottom respectively.

So far so good. But where to put ’em?

Miking Techniques to Bring [Sonic] Clarity to Your DIY Drum Recording

There are several techniques used to capture the sound of a drum kit, each with it’s pros and cons. Some are very simple, others are a bit more complicated. Some give a very natural, balanced sound, some bring out different elements of a kit, focusing on particular characteristic.
I would suggest starting with the most basic if pressed for time and experimenting with the other methods when your band mates aren’t standing around waiting for you to hurry the hell up.

Overheads –  Spaced Pair, XY, AB, ORTF

Spaced Pair

This is the most commonly used technique and the one I would NOT recommend to those just getting their feet wet in drum recording.

The reason is simple: it’s so easy to screw up.

The key to a killer drum sound is balance. Remember how we set up the drums in the room? Balance. Throwing up a spaced pair of mics on each side of the kit will give you the sound of the drums at that space in the room, no more, no less. Measuring the distance to the snare and keeping of equal between both mics will give you a balanced snare sound.

But your kit has probably at least five other sound sources all resonating and throwing out their noise into the air at different intervals, speeds and directions. And as with standing waves mentioned above, we have peaks and troughs caused by the frequencies cancelling each other out. So you might have a decent snare sound, but the toms aren’t balanced because one is closer to one mic than the other. When the signals are combined with the close miked tracks you just get mush. If you’re not very careful and patient.

If you choose this method, be sure to know that the higher you place the mics, the more balanced the often sound becomes. Move lower and the cymbals become more prominent.
The best way to position a spaced pair or condensers is skewed, on axis with a line between snare and bass drum. This produces and equal distance between the two and also moves one away from the ever so prominent hihat.

Choose a height that matches the style you are after. Higher produces more balance between drums and cymbals, while a lower height brings out more cymbals but also a fuller and more direct tom and snare sound. If you want in your face drums, go lower. If you want a more atmospheric, washy or jazzy sound, go higher.

XY – eXYtingly Simple

A stereo microphone technique with zero phasing issues

The XY microphone configuration is the answer to all phasing issues. Phasing is what occurs when two or more microphones capture the same sounds arriving at slightly different intervals and cancelling each other out. Kind of like trying to have a business conversation at a soccer final in the 90th minute. On your phone. There’s just too much conflicting information and some gets buried, misunderstood, lost.

The point of XY is to record more or less exactly the same space in air with both overheads, albeit pointed in different directions. Both diaphragms (sound entry points) are very close together, one pointed to the right, the other to the left. Traditionally, (but to hell with traditions, huh?) the microphones are angled at 90°, but we can vary this depending on how stereo we want the drums to sound. A wider angle produces a wider stereo image and vice versa. As long as we keep the diaphragms together, each and every drum and cymbal arrives at exactly the same time and there is no phase cancellation, or as I like to call it – mush.

The easiest way to keep the microphone diaphragms together is to use a stereo bar. Actually, it’s even easier with this clip from Wilkinson Audio, if you’re content with a fixed 90° separation.

The only downside of the XY configuration is the less-pronounced stereo image. The fact that the microphones are picking up sounds from the same piece of air means there is no delay, i.e. time difference between the two signals. This means that the only information telling us where the sound is coming from is given to us by the relative volume of the source.

However, our ears rely on both relative volume AND the time difference between the sound travelling to each ear. Our brain processes the input at each ear slightly differently and sums it up with the message: “the sound you heard was to the right.” Or wherever it came from.

The same is the case for a stereo pair of overhead microphones. So with headphones on, or with any stereo speaker configuration for that matter, the XY method will give you a very balanced and focused, but not distinctly wide stereo image. Even when you pan the left side to hard left and the right side hard right, the cymbals on the left will only appear somewhere between the centre and 2/3 of the way to the left or right. The rest would be achieved with the time difference.

AB, ORTF, WTF?

AB is an excellent compromise between the spaced pair and XY microphone techniques. It keeps the mics together to minimise phasing and the ensuing mush, but introduces a delay between the signals and widens the stereo image. AB is traditionally made up of two parallel condensers, which are omnidirectional (pick up sounds from all angles) or cardioid (pick up sounds from the front).

The real magic happens with the strange-sounding microphone configuration ORTF. WorTF?!

The extremely sexy name comes from the name of the extremely sexy institution Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française, the radio and television agency in France. But it’s not the name we’re concerned with, but the sound of the mic technique.

The ORTF microphone configuration places two identical microphones 17 cm apart and at an angle of 110°. This mimics the way our ears hear sounds with their position on the sides of our heads. So using the ORTF mic technique gives us a natural stereo image that, when played back on headphones or speakers, make us think we are right there in front of the sound source.
In our case, placing the ORTF mics above the drum kit gives us recordings that sound natural, with a wide stereo image and negligent phasing issues. You can pan the overhead channels hard right and left, or somewhere conservative, depending on your taste.

Try the ORTF Mic Technique First – You can’t go wrong

My recommendation would be to start with this technique and place the microphones somewhere between a 1m and 1,5m above the drum kit. If you have a room, that isn’t well treated with lots of hard, flat walls, put the mics lower for more direct sound and less room ambience. If your room has thick curtains, lots of sofas and soft furniture or is acoustically treated, you can put the mics higher for a more balanced sound. But play around and listen to the results. Miking a drum kit can and should take a while. Don’t just throw them up and hope for the best. Keep listening, adjusting and re-listening to the sounds you are producing.

This is not the end…

This is not an exhaustive list of all the microphone techniques used for recording drums. But there are a few more interesting configurations you should definitely check out once you’ve tried out the basics.

Glyn Johns Mic Technique for DIY Drum Recording

For those who only have a few mics on hand, or want a raw, bluesy drum sound, the Glyn Johns technique is a very simple way to record rock drums in a natural way.

Created by Glyn Johns, the engineer responsible for recording The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Kiss (amongst many others!), the technique is a tried and true way to get good results with few mics and little time.

You only need 3 microphones: one over the snare, one above the floor tom, and one in or in front of the bass drum. Place one overhead about 1m above the snare pointing down. The other overhead is placed by the floor tom pointing across the drum kit towards the left crash cymbal. Both overheads must be the same distance from the snare, and from each other. They should form an equilateral triangle in order for the snare hits to arrive at each overhead mic at the same time. The bass drum mic brings out the attack and punch of the kick which would otherwise be less present in the overheads. You can then go and close mic the toms and the snare, but if you just want to quickly set and record demos, this is one microphone technique you should check out.

A similar approach is the Recorderman technique. This video is a great introduction:

Close Miking Drums for the Ultimate DIY Drum Sound

So we’ve got the overheads sounding grand, the drum kit sounds natural with good balance between the individual drums and the cymbals. Close or spot miking is setting up mics in front of the individual drums. You want to capture the single sound source in order to fill out the sound of the drum kit captured by the overheads.

Miking the Snare

The snare is a no brainer. Position a Shure SM57 or similar dynamic mic 3 – 5 cm away from the rim and point it towards the centre of the batter head. You can’t really go wrong with this.

To bring out some of the high end produced by the snare wires, place a condenser such as a Rode NT5 approximately 10 cm underneath the snare pointing upwards. Make sure you flip the phase later on in your DAW because with the bottom snare pointing up, it will cancel out frequencies arriving through the snare top mic, which is pointing down.

Snare Microphone

Miking the Kick Drum

For best results, the resonant head of the kick drum should have a hole in it. This way you can get right in with a small mic stand to the sweet spot. The sound of the kick drum is best captured off-centre on one side. Put an AKG D112, a Shure Beta52 or an Audix D12 inside about 10-15 cm from the shell of the bass drum and about two thirds to three quarters of the way back towards the resonant head. We’re looking for that sound that has a fully body, with attack and punch. If you move more into the middle, you’ll notice the sound is less defined. Play around with the position, moving it forwards and backwards, and to the left and right. But stay generally off centre for best results.

A second mic can be used to capture more low end in front of the resonant head. A large diaphragm condenser like a Rode NT1A or an Audio Technica AT4040 placed about 20 cm away can add extra bass if you find the spot where there is good resonance. Get your head down and also use your hands to find the spot where the air really moves when the kick is pounded. That is where the energy is.

Kick drum microphone

Miking the Toms

Close miking toms is also a no-brainer really, but there is one trick that can change a good sound into a massive sound. Like with the snare, put the microphone (SM57s are OK, but I really recommend a Sennheiser MD421 if you can get one!) a few centimetres away from the rim and point to the middle. But this time, have your drummer play the tom while you hold your hand over the mic with your index finger curling around the diaphragm (= front). Move it around, a few centimetres to the left and right, up and down until you feel the hairs on your finger sway with the energy of each hit. That is the spot! As soon as you find that spot, tighten up the mic stand and you have your mic in place!

Miking the Floor Tom

The floor tom can be miked with exactly the same method as the rest of the toms. With one added extra bonus for those with an extra mic on hand. Placing a microphone under the resonant head, flipping the phase and mixing it well with the top mic will give you a fuller body and massive sustain if you get the placement right. Start with the edge and like with the other toms, try to find that energy that gets the hair on your fingers swaying.

Floor Tom Microphone

Do we mic the hihat? Yes or No?

There is a tendency to want to mic everything. I get it. You want to cover all the bases. The cymbals have the overheads, the snare and kick have one (or two) each, every tom has one – why not the hihat?

Because it’s everywhere. It is the single most prominent and annoying part of the drum kit when mixing and the hardest to control. If we audio engineers could move it far, far away from the snare without the drummer having a problem with that, we would.

In the vast majority of cases, the overheads pick up more than enough of the hihat. By micing it separately, all you’re doing is wasting a microphone and a channel on your interface. And there is a danger that by blending the hihat cymbal in with the overheads you are causing the phasing mush we spoke of earlier. Too many signals from too many sources only cause confusion.

That said, there may be styles that need a tight, direct, focused hihat sound. Think wisely about whether your recording requires it or not.

Just to Recap for Those at the Back

So that is pretty much it for the recording stage. As I say, keep listening and refining the sounds you are capturing by going back and adjusting the mics. Repeat the process until you are happy that you have achieved the best sound possible.

Remember, these are the main steps to a killer DIY drum recording:

  • Get it right at the source.
  • Replace your drum heads.
  • Tune your drums.
  • Find the optimum space for the kit in your room.
  • Experiment with, and choose a suitable overhead mic configuration for your taste and style of music.
  • Add spot mics.
  • And hit record!

DIY drum recording does take practice and patience. But it’s a process that is really rewarding once you start to get it right.

Alas, it is only the beginning, as the mixing stage is a whole other story for a future article. Stay tuned for more!

About The Author

Nick Braren is an audio engineer and musician with over 15 years experience in the studio, on stage, back stage and front of house. He is the owner and operator of Upaya Sound, guitarist and vocalist of Vandemonian, father of 2 and husband of 1. When he’s not in the studio or in the band room he’s either travelling in his van or at the beach – or both.

Mixing Engineer

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