Tracking drums is an important part of any recording process and there are plenty of tips you want to keep in mind while doing so.
They are the heartbeat that keeps a song moving forward and set the foundation for all other elements. If done improperly, the rest of the musicians will have trouble recording their parts and it can really hurt your song.
Unfortunately, I’ve had far to many tracking sessions where things went wrong with the drums. I often didn’t realize these mistakes until it was too late and the rest of the song fell apart because of it.
To help those who are recording drums for the first time from making the same mistakes, I’ve assembled this guide of tips and tricks to keep in mind if you want to get quality drum tracks at home or anywhere else.
1. Start With A Great Sounding Kit
This may seem like a logical tip but you’d be surprised at how many people forget it when recording drums or anything else for that matter!
If the drum kit doesn’t sound good at the source, there’s no tip or trick out there that can improve the sound of what’s been recorded. Similarly, if you’re trying to get a “big drum sound” but working with a small sounding kit (or vice versa) you’ll have a hard time doing so.
— Efthimis Tsakonitis (@efth_tsakonitis) June 24, 2019
As a general rule, listen to how the kit sounds in the room it’s being recorded in. If you don’t like how it sounds, change something about the drums first.
Once you’re happy with the sound, record little bit and play things back. If they sound the same as they do on the floor, you’ve done your job right. If not, you need to change something about your recording approach.
2. Have An Even Better Sounding Drummer
More important than the drums being used is the musician you’re recording. You’d be amazed at how professional drummers are able to make even the lowest quality kits sparkle.
Matching the right drummer to the right song is key to a good recording. Everybody plays with their own style and what works for one song doesn’t always work for another.
Unfortunately, when starting out your resources and drumming talent to choose from may be limited. If you’ve tried everything you can and things still aren’t working, consider reaching out to a professional for help.
3. Pre-Production Is The Key To Recording Great Beds
Don’t make the mistake that many beginners do and wait till you’re in a tracking session to figure out the arrangement. It’s too late at this point to make changes and you won’t get nearly as good of a recording than if you had worked with the drummer beforehand.
Instead, meet with the talent early on and figure all the details out ahead of time. This includes things like mapping out exactly how long each section will be and deciding on a proper tempo. Also, solidifying how the drum beat is going to develop and change throughout the song is very important.
Keeping this tip in mind ensures that your drum recording session goes as smooth as possible with no wasted time.
4. Have Your Drummer Practice With A Metronome
Even after you’ve gone through the whole song’s pre-production, there’s still more that the drummer needs to do. They have to practice the song, either with a band or scratch track, until they’re confident in it.
Above all else they should practice playing to a metronome at the decided tempo as much as possible. This is something that a lot of amateur drummers don’t have experience in and it makes a big difference.
— Project213 (@Project_213) June 26, 2019
When recording drums a click track (aka metronome) is used to ensure that the drummer is consistent throughout the song. This tip makes a noticeable improvement unless the drummer isn’t able to lock into the tempo of the click.
If that’s the case your track will end up sounding messy. So make the time to practice with the click before getting into the studio.
5. Change Your Drum Heads
This is a tip that can really separate amateur and professional drum recordings. However, it’s often because amateur budgets are low and drum heads are expensive.
You don’t necessarily need to change heads every recording, just make sure they aren’t too old. It’s typical to change drum heads at least every 6 – 12 months. So, if it’s been longer than this for your drums or they are looking pretty beat, swapping out the heads is a good choice.
Drum heads typically need to be broken in so change them a week before the recording. Then have your drummer play them a fair bit ahead of time.
You shouldn’t expect your drummer to do this at no charge however, as drum heads are not cheap! See if you can find room in your budget to cover even a portion of the cost of doing so.
6. Tune Your Drums
Whether you have fresh drum heads on your kit or not, tuning is an important step in the recording process. It makes a big difference on the vibe of the drums and the quality of the recording that you capture.
— Woodland Realm (@RealmWoodland) June 26, 2019
Unfortunately, tuning drums well is a skill that takes a long time to develop. Your best bet is to find someone with experience in this area to do it for you. Find a drum tech or a drummer with lots of experience tuning and get them to help out.
If you’re interested in learning how to tune drums yourself, the video below is a great starting point.
7. You Don’t Need A Lot Of Mics
Contrary to popular belief you don’t need a dozen microphones to accurately capture a drum set. If you’ve followed all of the steps mentioned above then you’ve already got a great sounding drum arrangement.
In this case, there are plenty of microphone placement methods out their that use only a few mics. My personal favourite is the Glyn Johns miking technique. However, there are plenty of other options out there as well.
The video below is an awesome resource, with plenty of tips and techniques for recording drums with minimal microphones.
8. Check For Phase Issues
A lot of engineers, myself included, love recording drums because of how involved in can be. There are many more elements that need to be captured which means fair number of microphones come into play.
However, be wary that the more mics you use the more problems you’ll run into. This is due to an aspect of recording known as phase cancellation. It occurs when the same sound reaches two different microphones at different times.
You can fix this simply by flipping the phase switch in a couple of microphones and listening for an improvement on the low end content. There are also some preemptive steps you can take to prevent phase cancellation.
For a more in depth look at this process check out some of the tips on checking phase in this article on recording drums.
9. Protect Your Mics From Flailing Drummers
Be very careful of drummers that don’t strike in the same place every time. A drum stick can be a lethal weapon to your precious microphones. If you place them too close to the drums your musician may accidentally hit and damage them.
Watch your drummer play for a bit and find out if they’re on the messy side with their stick control. If so, you should probably place the microphones farther away from the drum to give more room for error. This may mean sacrificing the perfect sound but it’s better than sacrificing an expensive microphone.
Unfortunately, many engineers learn this tip the hard way when recording drums. So, take all the necessary precautions to avoid this happening to you.
10. Be Wary Of Click Bleed
Click bleed is every recording engineer’s nightmare. This happens when the click track is so loud in the musicians headphones that the rest of the microphones pick it up. It’s especially prevalent in drum recordings as drummers usually like click loud in their headphones.
Thankfully, the drums are a loud instrument and often drown out the sound of the click. However, in quieter sections or where the drummer isn’t playing, the click may bleed through. This can also happen at the end of the song when the drummer’s done and the cymbals are decaying.
The solution is to be ready for sections like this and pull back the level of the click when they come. Remember to turn it back up was when things get loud again or your drummer will have a hard time.
11. Know When To Quit
Don’t worry, this tip isn’t telling you to give up recording drums and go home. What I mean to say is that it’s important to know when you’ve gotten a great drum take and can move on to the next stage.
One of the most difficult aspects of recording drums is that it’s done before anything else has been recorded. Because of this, it can be hard to picture how this will sound once all the other elements are added in.
This can make the process a little unnerving if you’re the producer. It leaves one tempted to get as many drum takes as possible “just in case.” If you do this however, you’ll reach a point where your actually working against yourself and exhausting the musician.
If you’ve done you’re pre-production and know what you want, 4 – 6 well performed takes is all you need. This also cuts down on the amount of time editing things later and lets you move on to the next stage quickly.
12. Edit Your Drums Before Recording Anything Else
A lot of engineers hate editing drums, so they fail to follow this tip and end up hurting the rest of the recording process.
The drums are supposed to be the foundation that all the other instrumentals sit on. So, if the rest of your musicians are playing to the wrong drum take or something that isn’t in time, anything they record will also be out of time.
Once you’ve sorted through and comped the drums, it’s a good idea to use some technique to correct timing issues. The video below is a great look at using Pro Tools’ Beat Detective feature to fixing timing issues in a drum performance.
13. Hire A Professional
If all of these tips have you thinking that recording drums yourself isn’t for you, don’t worry! There are plenty of professional options out their that allow you to get quality drum tracks on your music for a low cost.
Check out the rest of the Sundown Sessions site to find out about the recording services we offer. With our help you can have world class musicians record your music in high end studios without you having to leave your house!
Conclusion: Drum Recording Tips
To wrap thins up, drums are a complicated instrument to record but you shouldn’t let that intimidate you. With the right mindset and some practice, tracking drums is as easy as working on any other instrument.
Always keep the following tips in mind and you’ll be well on your way to quality drum recordings:
- Start With A Great Sounding Kit
- Have An Even Better Sounding Drummer
- Pre-Production Is The Key To Recording Great Beds
- Have Your Drummer Practice With A Metronome
- Change Your Drum Heads
- Tune Your Drums
- You Don’t Need A Lot Of Mics
- Check For Phase Issues
- Protect Your Mics From Flailing Drummers
- Be Wary Of Click Bleed
- Know When To Quit
- Edit Your Drums Before Recording Anything Else
- Hire A Professional