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My Drum Recording Process

Capturing a drum performance is a very interesting process which includes a lot of variables that need to be under control.  What sizes and depths are the toms/bass drum/snare/cymbals?  What shell material are we working with?  What kind of heads?  How are the heads tuned?  Is there muffling?  What kind of sticks are being used?  What size room is the drum set in?  Where at in the room are the drums?  Are the walls, ceiling and floors treated with a reflective or absorptive material?  What type of microphones are we using?  What is the placement of these microphones?  What kind of signal processing are we using? 

I have to try to control all these variables to the best of my abilities and experience with the room and equipment that I have to suit whatever song I’m working on.  When I was first starting out and making my earliest multi-track recordings, I would always record the drums first in order to provide a tempo reference for the other instruments.  Now, it’s usually the drums that are last, using the “save the best for last” principle.  I usually start a song idea with a basic guitar or bass or keyboard part and a drum machine program will provide the time-keeping function.  Then I’ll hash out the arrangement of the song, determining where the length and placement of verses and choruses and the like will be.  A lot of times, vocals will be done after all the instruments are in place, leaving drums to be last.  I’ll mute the drum machine track and start laying the drums down.  I usually need an uninterrupted day to be able to accomplish this.  If I have to skip work, then that’s what I have to do.  It’s usually not a good idea to spend more than one day to do this because my toddler or my wife (I love you guys!) could accidently bump a mic stand or a knob and throw off the atmosphere. 

Another variable is how I’m going to distribute the tracks in my DAW (digital audio workstation), which is a program called Reaper.  Usually I have an EV RE20 mic in the hole of my bass drum to capture the higher frequencies and an Oktava MK319 condenser on the outside of the head to capture the lower frequencies.  So I’ll have one track for each of those mics so I can blend for the right balance.  I usually use a Shure SM57 on the snare top; it gets its own track.  For my toms, I either use SM57s or EV ND44s/ND46s on the tops, they go through a Mackie mixer/preamp for some EQing and panning, then go stereo out to a stereo track on my DAW.   I use a pair of either Oktava MC-012-01s or Audio Technica AT2020s for overheads and they get their own stereo track.  This leaves me with one available interface input (I only have 8) so I can either use it on a mono room mic or on the snare bottom.  Also I could omit the extra bass drum condenser track to be able to utilize a stereo room mic setup. Depending on the song, I make these decisions.  If it’s a louder song where I would want to play loud, I might choose to have less room sound and more close micing, so a snare bottom mic might help the snare cut through the other instruments.  If it’s a quieter song then I might decide to use more room ambience and wouldn’t need the snare bottom mic. 

One final variable that I did not mention in the first paragraph is the performance itself, the decisions to play quiet or loud, the decisions to fill here and not there, the decisions to be on ride or hi-hat or to crash or not to crash.  Most times, I’ll just set up my mics and tune my drums the way I want them to sit in the song and just hit record and play the whole song.  Also, most times it’s my first time to attempt to play the song being recorded, so I have to figure out which way I’m going to play the notes and on which drums/cymbals.  Either way, I make the recording and then promptly listen to what I did.  I can quickly decide that the toms need tuned differently or if I need to switch out my wood snare for a metal snare.  Maybe I need to use bigger cymbals or a different ride or lighter hi-hats.  Maybe I get frustrated and change the tom heads to a different type or add some dampeners.  This is also where I employ yet another variable, the plug-ins.  These are like hooking a stomp box up to your guitar, but you can make adjustments after you recorded the drums.  I’ll use EQ, compression, reverbs, gates, limiters or even distortion plug-ins to each track as needed to be able to get my drum recording to properly sit in the song.  After I feel like I’ve got both the drums and the plug-ins the way I want them, I go for the real drum performance. 

I’m no great drummer.  If I had more time to practice, sure, maybe I could be good.  Since I’m in the business of arranging sound, I employ a lot of cheats in order to get the overall drum track to be right.  More on that later.  Back to my beginnings, I would have to write out the song arrangement, practice the drum part (or not) and then record the entire drum part to tape in one go.  Fast forward to the age of computers—now we can split up the song into sections and splice them together, all within the same track space.  What I do, in order to speed up the whole process and skip the whole practicing process, I will just start with the intro of the song, maybe into the first verse and then end on a cymbal crash right at the beginning of the first chorus.  It usually involves a lot of takes and a lot of critical listening to be able to put my stamp of approval on it.  If I’m happy, I’ll decide the next section that I want to record and start the process again.  I’ll have to enter each subsequent section as I would if I were performing it live, in other words, right after that last section’s cymbal crash, I have to immediately hit the right drums with the exact same volume and style.  I’m usually able to make it sound seamless.  After the whole song is recorded, (here is a big cheat) I go through all the drum hits on the audio recording and I’m able to slice the track and move them forward if it was a little early or backward if it was a little late.  I hate that I have to do this but today’s music requires a very solid drum performance.  I know that the human element and all the imperfections are  what makes music artful and beautiful but my drums have to be fixed because my timing sucks.  Maybe in the future I can improve upon this. 

So that’s about it, after everything is recorded and edited, It’s usually just minor tweaking to the settings on my drum track plug-ins that will get the drums to sit in the song as good as my ears can get them to.  I kind of learned this method through experimentation and also I have recorded a lot of drum tracks for my music over the years.

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