Monday, November 7, 2011

Engineering Drums Part One: An Introduction

Opinions abound about how to mic and mix a drum kit in pop music. Pro audio forums are filled all manner of sage to dang near useless council, from the ever present, and often repeated “whatever sounds good is good," which is true, but offers no direction, to the more eccentric, yet strangely common, “anything more than 3 mics is overkill,” all the way to the entirely un-relatable, “my overheads are C12's, my room mics U47's and everything goes through 1073's.” Yeah, okay. Thanks for that.

While I tend to agree that in art there are no rules, in the world of the recording arts there are most definitely time-honored and well-proven techniques for consistently capturing well the sound of all kinds of instruments, drums included. And while I won't be breaking any new ground with this series of discussions on engineering drums, I will share concepts that, when followed methodically, will produce repeatable, professional results. So let's get rolling.

First things first – how do the drums that you're miking sound? Before you put a mic anywhere near the kit it is critical that the drums sound good. So the set should be of professional quality, well-maintained and well tuned with heads that are appropriate for the type of music you're recording. Let's talk about head selection.

There are a TON of drumhead models out there, from several quality manufacturers, but don't freak out. From a very practical perspective all those models really boil down to essentially two types; single-ply and double-ply. Yes, there are different film thicknesses and texture coatings (or lack of coating), clear, white and colored heads, etc., but pretty much all models you're likely to come into contact with will be mylar and will be either single or double-ply. The choice you make should be based on 1) what kind of sound you want, and 2) how durable do they need to be?

With regard to sonics there are primarily two camps: 1) strong attack with relatively dark and short sustain, and 2) less pronounced attack with a brighter, more complex tone and greater sustain. Heavier styles tend to benefit from the the greater articulation and short punchiness of the former, while lighter, more pop-ish styles often provide more sonic real estate for the latter's longer sustain including greater interaction with room mics. The difference between these tonal profiles lies primarily in the choice of batter head used.

Single ply batter heads have more harmonic content / overtones, producing the brighter tone with greater sustain. The darker tone can be produced by either applying tape or moon gel to single ply heads for by selecting a double ply head instead.

All 'resonant' heads (the bottom of toms and front of kick drums) should be single ply (so they can... well... resonate!).

The bottom of a snare drum requires a special, very lightweight head to allow the interaction of the snares to speak clearly. An Ambassador snare side head or Evan or Aquarian equivalents will do very nicely.

Regarding durability, double ply heads last longer, so if you're working with a heavy hitter you should opt for double ply, or you'll be tuning and even changing heads more often between takes.

This is all, of course, a practical oversimplification of the rather extensive selection of drumhead types available today – I am well aware of this. But from the perspective of an engineer (and/or studio owner who has to replace heads often on a house kit), these tend to be the critical variables in head selection. A good engineer can compensate for most all other performance characteristics through tuning/muffling, microphone selection and placement, and signal processing.

And make sure your heads are of a quality brand. All the major drumhead manufacturers make excellent products, so if you stick with a name brand, you'll be fine.

In the next installment I'll discuss tuning, and then we'll get the mics out!

Happy Tones!

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