Kick 1, Snare 2. Overhead neglect?

5 03 2011

Since the advent of hard disk recording the kick has found a new home with many engineers, channel one. Gone are the days that tape wear pretty much forced the hats or a tambourine down the first strip. This, for me, has had a psychological effect on how drums are recorded and mixed. The focus has shifted away from the overall sound of the instrument to the individual sounds of the drums. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in popular metal bands who have quantized and hit replaced their drummer almost entirely out of the record and the natural feel of the drummer is completely lost. In this article I wish to give my view on opposing this, I won’t talk about techniques, that’s up to you and there are hundreds of “how to record drums” articles out there if you want them, I will just discuss some ideas and principles I like to work with.

The most important microphones in your set up are not the kick and snare, but the overheads. They should not to be turned up last as cymbal channels, almost an afterthought after you’ve crafted your sound on the close mics. Doing so can have a profound effect on the sound of the close mics, the snare in particular, and you might just find yourself back at square one pretty quickly. In order to avoid ruining the close mic mix you might find yourself putting the overheads low in the mix. This leads to the disconnected instruments feel as the overheads act like audio glue to keep the drum kit together as one instrument in one place on one recording. This is how I go about dealing with my overheads to create a cohesive drum recording:

Recording

It has to start here.  Try to plan how you want the recording to sound well before you enter the studio, this will help you make the correct calls with microphones and placements, saving time and producing a better capture. We’re trying to create a complete drum sound from the overheads.  So select microphones with a decent flat response, maybe a boost in the top end to accent the cymbals as the drums will get help from the close mics later.  Don’t apply any high pass filters that might be on the mics, we want the kick to sound good too.

When placing the overheads there is one crucial thing to remember, no matter which technique you’re using.  The distance from snare to each overhead must be equal so that it appears central in the stereo field. The same is also true with regards to the kick. If you have set up your overheads correctly the centre line of the image will pass diagonally across the kit through kick and snare.  I have often seen overheads set up with the centre line straight through the drummer and kick, this will cause the snare to be left in the field. Occasionally I see the line placed through drummer and snare which will move the kick to the right.

Next up is checking levels. Start with the overheads and ensure that the kick and snare are coming across clearly and central in the field. Make any adjustments to the overheads now before setting the close mics. This also will help you make good choices when placing and levelling the close mics. For instance, you’ll be made aware that the overheads have great attack, but less body, so you can then position your close microphones to capture more of the drum resonance.

Mixing

Here’s where your overheads can really come to life! Try to get your snare cutting through the cymbals using compression, it’s all about finding the sweet spot with the attack, usually slower than faster, but it changes depending on the snare and cymbals in question. I have, in the past, completely removed my close mics as the snare sounded great and clear on the overheads. The kick is unlikely to sound complete at this point, but if you can persuade some attack and slap out of it and the toms you can achieve a decent drum mix just from two well placed, correctly compressed microphones. There shouldn’t be any need for EQ on the overheads.

Now when you add your usual gates, compressors and EQ on the close mics you can check them by rolling them up slowly into the overhead sound. You’ll hear a balance point as you bring the levels up, soon after that point the close mics will dominate the mix. We want to roll back to that balance point where they’ll add punch and depth to the mix but the drums will sit together as one instrument. A great, powerful, natural sound with a distinct location and place in the mix.

Editing

And finally, if you don’t mind, just a short word on drum editing. DAWs have made it very easy to move and replace every hit in a drummers performance. This is a fantastic tool for correcting genuine errors that weren’t spotted in recording. Or, god forbid, help rescue a drummer that really should go find another career. But try not to over edit the drums for any decent drummer, eventually you’ll just remove the feel of the track. Hits that are milliseconds early or late are part of the performance and are not perceived as errors. They genuinely aren’t detrimental to the music at all. Let them be and give yourself more time getting the recording and mixing right. I’m not saying don’t edit, just don’t do it because you can, do it because you must.

So,next time you plan out your channels for a session, put the overheads down one and two. See if it can change the way you think about the hierarchy of drum channels, and see if that can give you a new drum sound.

By Graeme Rawson.

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