I'm taking the leap into recording drums. I already have a basic drum mic kit, but I want to get some professional mics to make my recordings sound better. I also need more mic preamps, and I'd like some advice on how to process the recorded tracks to get the best sound. I currently use a PC with Cubase, and I have a handful of plug-ins already, but could afford to buy some more.
Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: You've raised a few different issues here, and it's a big enough subject to write a book about (and there have been many!) so I'll try to pull out the salient points.
Let's start with the mics. You mention you have a drum-mic kit; you don't state the make or model but it should be broadly capable of doing the job. However, as you implied, it might be worth thinking about augmenting your collection as you progress, with mics such as the AKG D112 or Audix D6 for the kick, an SM57 or Beyer M201 for the snare, and a decent set of overheads such as, for example, AKG 451s or maybe the recently released Rode NT55s (cheaper than the AKGs but still pretty nice for the money, and handy as they've got a pad and a high-pass filter). I'm not urging you to spend on these mics now, but you should bear it in mind if you start to reach the limitations of your present setup.
On to mic technique. Take the number of recording engineers in the world, multiply it by the number of mic models, and you have an indication of the many different ways to mike up a drum kit. Few people agree on the best way to do it, but many agree that experimentations with mic placement, types and angles is the key.
If you are after a classic jazz drum sound, you can easily get away with three or four mics: one on the kick, one on the snare and a pair of overheads. In the 'old days', where solid low-end wasn't as essential as it is today, engineers would use a single room mic for a drum kit, and that's if it had a designated mic at all.
On the other hand, a classic rock drum setup can use many mics, possibly well into double figures: at least one on each piece of the kit (probably two on the kick and on the snare), a pair of overheads, perhaps a handful of room mics, and maybe something pointing down over the drummer's head too, for example. With this approach you create lots of options, and you can choose to leave tracks out if you have the capacity to do so.
It is perfectly possible to mic things up and EQ and compress the signal via the desk or insert plug-ins before things go into the computer. This approach will save you a lot of time during the mix, as you already know the different sounds will gel together, and you can play back the recording to the drummer to check (s)he is happy with it. You need to try different positions for the mics to get the right sound, but be sure to check for phase issues when using multiple mics (for example, on the top and bottom of the snare you'll probably need to flip the polarity of one of them).
Even with a good sound, it is worth ensuring you achieve good separation between the different elements of the kit: capture as much of the direct sound as you can from each piece, and try to reject as much of the other kit sounds as possible. Think about the polar patterns of the mics you're using: the lobe at the back of cardioid and hypercardioid mic patterns, for example, means that you need to be as careful about where you point the back of the mic as you do the front (the same reason why you see shotgun mics pointing down at the subject on a film set rather than horizontally at them, where they would pick up other sounds from the set).
Now let's consider the mic preamps. There are plenty of alternatives, including some cheaper options. It's worth asking yourself if you need great mic preamps on every channel. If you have a good signal on the pair of overheads, the snare, hi-hat and kick, you might get away with cheaper preamps elsewhere and free up money to invest in your four or five 'good' pres or in your plug-ins. My own preferred setup is an RME Fireface 800 with a Focusrite Octopre connected via ADAT. This works well but may be over your budget (though it also gives you eight outboard compressor/limiters!) and I've had decent enough results using a Behringer ADA8000 ADAT interface in place of the Octopre, or using a small Mackie VLZ Pro mixer as a rack of mic pres for the line inputs of my Fireface. For more information on ADAT expansion, check out SOS July 2006's Q&A section, where we explored the possibilities in depth.
So what do you do when you've recorded everything? Again, opinions are many and varied, but you'll need basic tools: a good EQ, a good compressor and a nice reverb or two. I don't have the space to go into detail, but as a rule, when processing it's important to check the sound in the context of the whole kit and the wider mix: boosting, cutting and otherwise mangling the kick might give you a great sound for the kick alone, but it needs to work well with the other sounds, and with the cross-bleeding original kick sound on the other channels.
You'll also need to think about panning the tracks. Traditionally, the kick, hi-hat and snare are pretty much central, with the rest spread out either as the drummer or the audience sees the kit. Bear in mind that very wide panning often sounds unrealistic.
I tend not to compress things too much, athough setting up a drum buss compressor and feeding bits of the whole kit to it can help glue things together. The reverb is important, and unless you have a nice sounding room to record in, you'll want to try to record things quite dry, with little of the room sound in, and add ambience back in later with a reverb. Convolution reverb is great for the whole kit, but you might also want to consider sending the snare signal to a different reverb (perhaps a plate), with a decay setting timed so that the tail of the reverb dies off just before the next snare hit. Don't be scared to apply an unnatural amount of reverb on the snare: as long as it sounds good in the mix it's fine.
Next, what plug-ins should you buy? My favourites for this are those for the UAD1 platform, particularly the Pultec and Neve EQs and the Plate 140 reverb, but they may be a little expensive for you if you don't already have the UAD1 card. Personally, in your position, I'd be happy to make a start in Cubase using the built-in plug-ins and freeware such as Digital Fishphones' excellent Fish Fillets bundle and SIR's quite frankly amazing SIR convolution reverb. If you're on Cubase SX3 it may be worth paying for the upgrade — Cubase 4 's plug-ins are a significant step up from previous versions of Cubase. The new Channel EQ, Gate and Vintage Compressor are nice enough to give you decent results and I'd certainly recommend practising with these until you have a good feel for EQ'ing, gating and compression. An excellent addition to Cubase 4 is the Envelope Follower, which allows you to shape the envelope of different sounds — increasing the snap from the attack portion of the kick drum, while lengthening its 'boom', for example. But if you're still keen on splashing out, you should have a look at the plug-in feature in our February issue!
Published March 2007