And Then Began the Tracking: Drums

Tracking for the Wax Lyrical record was done over two days at my home studio. (If you want to learn a bit about the band and about the pre-production that we did leading up to the tracking phase, then take a look at my previous post “Introducing Wax Lyrical”.)

As I said in my previous post, we chose to do the tracking at my home studio rather than at my College’s studios for two main reasons. The first is that at my college I am limited to booking sessions of only three hours, and only one session a week. This would mean that we would have to break up the session into multiple parts and work under constant time pressure. At my home studio, however, we would be able to work at a pace that suited the creative flow and enjoyment of the session, and we could get all of the tracking done in one weekend, as we ended up doing. The second reason is more workflow related. The setup I have at home is fairly simple (A MacBook Pro, and a Roland Studio Capture interface with twelve mic preamps). This means that there are fewer links in the signal chain that may require checking during troubleshooting, and I know the links that there very well because I’ve used this setup extensively and I set it up myself every time. At my college on the other hand, although it has world class studios with amazing consoles, outboard gear, mic preamps and microphones, I do not know the setups very well at all. This is simply because I have not spent an enormous amount of time troubleshooting in the studios there and the setups are far more complex than mine at home. In addition, the rooms are in constant use by other students, and so you can never be sure what someone else has changed with regards to signal routeing or software settings. This can lead to spending two hours of a three-hour session trying to get a signal in and out of ProTools in order to record.

***

Now to the tracking itself.

We chose to track drums first. This was for a few reasons. The first is mostly a matter of taste for me, I like the process of recording drums, and I like to get that hurdle out of the way early on, as it is often the most difficult part of a record, in my experience. Before we could start tracking, however, we needed scratch tracks for the drummer to reference while playing. (Scratch tracks are recordings of key elements of a song, such as vocals and guitar, that are recorded in a very rough manner with the primary focus of good timing so that the musician tracking can reference them to know where they are in the song. These are generally replaced later by the final recordings that focus on sound and performance.) If you have good demos then you can use these as scratch tracks for the drummer, but in our case, we had made some changes to the arrangements since the demos, and so the scratch tracks had to be done again. We did just guitar and vocals as our scratch tracks.

Conversations that audio engineers have about recording sessions generally go something like this, in my experience: “Hey, how did that session go last week?” “It went really well thanks.” “That’s great! What interesting gear/technique did you use?” “Well …” Considering that I think of myself primarily as an engineer, even though I was also the producer on this project, I will spend much of the rest of this post discussing the setup I used, although I will touch on performance briefly near the end.

Let me start by saying this; the setup that I have at my home studio is not super advanced or especially expensive. Every mic that I own was used on this drum recording, and that is because when I started recording I simply bought the minimum gear I needed to record my drums at home. Since then that has always been enough. You do not need expensive gear to get good results!

My setup starts with a 2015 Macbook Pro 15” which has 16Gb of ram and a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7. On this, I am running OSX 10.11.6 El Capitan with ProTools 12.7.0. This connects via USB to my Roland Studio Capture audio interface, which has 12 mic preamps and 4 line inputs. The drum-kit we used for recording is my personal one, which is the pdp X7 with just the 10” and 12” rack toms and the 16” floor tom setup, with a Black Panther Snare “The Phat Bob” replacing the standard snare. With these went mostly Zildjian Cymbals including an 18” china cymbal. (If you’re a drummer and would like more details on the kit then I would be happy to expand the description in the comments.)

The mics I used are all in the “Affordable” category, but they probably won’t be surprising. On the kick drum, I used an Audix D6 positioned inside the hole in the resonant head, positioned close to the shell of the drum, pointing towards the point where the batter head meets the shell. (If you don’t know anything about drums or drum heads a quick google search would be advisable, however, in short, the batter head is the one that gets hit and the resonant head is the other one.)

This mic placement was not one that was particularly intuitive to me, as it seemed to ignore the important parts of the sound, but it just seems to work. The funny thing is that I discovered the placement quite by accident on this session. We set the mics up on the kit the night before recording. Sometime between when the mic was positioned and when we hit record, someone must have bumped the stand or the cable in such a way that it moved the mic from the fairly central position that I’d had it in, pointing at the beater, to where I described above. I only noticed when we had finished the first song and we decided that we wanted a bit more low end in the kick for the next one, and so I went to move the mic. Since then I’ve recorded drums on three more occasions and I always keep coming back to this placement for a good pop/rock kick sound on my kit.

On the Snare drum, I went with very common choices of mic, the Shure sm57 on both top and bottom. This decision was an easy one because other than the D6 I used on the kick, the only other dynamic mics that I have are sm57s and the other condensers that I have already had important roles elsewhere on the kit. The placement of the bottom mic is not particularly interesting. Perhaps I am simply not far enough down my path as an engineer, but I find that the placement is not very important, and the sound that the mic aims to record is usually very much supportive in the sound of the drums in the mix. For this reason, I simply aim to have it roughly the same distance from the bottom head as the top mic is from the top (In an attempt to get good phase, however, there are many more issues with that which I can discuss at another time).

The top mic, although not revolutionary, is to me the more interesting in terms of placement. When I place a snare top mic I generally have two goals, capture the sound of the drum in a way that suits the sound of the kit and the song, and minimise the amount of bleed in the mic from other elements of the kit, with the primary culprit being the hi-hats. Where you point the mic depends entirely on what sound you are aiming for and what drum and drummer you have. I ended up, in this case, pointing it about halfway between the centre and the rim, with the capsule about 2-3cm (1”) away from the rim.

The main thing I want to discuss is where I placed the mic in relation to the other elements. I have often seen people place the snare mic between the hi-hats and the first tom. This seems the most obvious place to have it, especially if your drummer has an aversion to spreading his kit out a bit (which it seems, unfortunately, that most drummers do). Now, this placement is fine and means that the toms won’t bleed much into the snare mic and neither will the kick. (This is a generalisation, however in my experience it is generally true.) However, it means that the hi-hat ends up right next to the mic and somewhat inside its cardioid pickup pattern, increasing bleed. I prefer to place the mic directly under the hi-hats pointing slightly down towards the snare, so as to put the hats directly behind the capsule and in the rejection part of the polar pattern. Although the mic ends up closer to the cymbal, the polar pattern does the work, and I generally end up with a very usable snare sound which doesn’t need gating or sample replacement because of bleed. (I am not a fan of gating drums at all, but we can discuss that more in the mixing portion of this series.)

For overheads, I used a pair of Røde NT5s. I like to use my overheads as “Kit Mics” as opposed to “Cymbal Mics”. For this reason, I generally have them quite high, so as to capture a better overall image of the kit. The important thing is to keep the mics the same distance from the snare drum so that the snare is in the centre of the stereo image.

On toms, I used sm57s again, mostly out of necessity. I placed them on rim mounted clips and then pointed them almost straight down, close to the rim. These were the only drums that I wasn’t 100% happy with their sound after recording. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice on recording day, and so I was stuck with the mistake.

On the hi-hat I use the Røde NT55, similar to the NT5, but with a changeable capsule so that you can change the polar pattern. I have it placed on the side of the hats that is opposite the snare, above the top hat, pointed straight down. This I find gets the impact of the top hat as well as the sound of the hats hitting each other.

The last mics to talk about are the rooms. I used my Røde NT2000, my only large diaphragm condenser, in the back of the room, in cardioid mode, pointed at the wall to capture the room sound of the drums in mono.

In addition to this mono room, I used my last two sm57s one on each side of the kit about 1.5m (5ft) facing the kit at about chest height to get a stereo room sound. This experiment worked amazingly well, and those two mics ended up being the primary room element in the mix of Stranger.

In terms of the performance, Dylan (the drummer) played very well. He knew all his parts very well, and his timing was impeccable. When I looked over the recordings later, I saw that although he wasn’t on the grid for most of the songs, he was never more than a 32nd note off.

Overall I was very happy with the sound of the drums after we were done recording them. The only let down was the tom sound, but with a bit of work, they will still fit in the track well and most likely will not need replacement.

Thank you for taking the time to read what again became a very long post. Hopefully, the next ones will be a little shorter, but drums are the most complex thing that I recorded on this project.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

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InTheStudioWithRob

I am a sound student currently in the third year of my sound degree at the SAE Institute Cape Town, South Africa. I also have a home studio called Lauda Sound. I am passionate about both Music and Audio Post-Production, and I hope to bring a good mix of them to you guys. I hope you stick around for the fun and get in touch! Have a great sounding day!

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