In the Studio: Seeing Sounds, Part 1: All-Purpose Pop/Rock


June 2013

In the Studio

Seeing Sounds
Part 1: All-Purpose Pop/Rock

by Donny Gruendler

All of us appreciate a signature and stylistically appropriate drum sound. This can range from the perfect overall kit tone on your favorite CD to a uniquely recorded snare tuning. In addition, many of us have read stories about famous studio players switching drums and tuning for each song or subsequent take. Of course it’s great to have a wide variety of instruments at your disposal to get the sound just right, but what if you have only one kit? Can you still achieve stellar results? Of course you can!

This six-part series is a comprehensive study on how to choose, tune, muffle, and mic drums for a specific musical effect. We will be analyzing some of today’s most fashionable snare, kick, and tom tones, with clear demonstrations on how to achieve them with your own gear. We’ll start with a basic all-purpose pop/rock setup.

During the past four decades, drum sounds in pop music have migrated from the dry, dark, and muffled tones of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s to the live and open sounds you hear on tracks from contemporary artists like Alabama Shakes, Bruno Mars, and Jack White. Obviously, the drum tones that get used on recordings are largely the result of the artists’ and producers’ aesthetic preferences, and they can range from low and dry to high and ringing. But the most prevalent sound you’ll hear in current pop music involves deep, open, and punchy bass drums, crisp snares, and wide-open toms. Let’s take a detailed look at how to achieve these tones. (This type of sound will also be used as the foundation to build on for creating the tones we’ll discuss in future articles.) Advertisement

Bass Drum

A low, resonant, punchy bass drum sound is best achieved by employing a standard double-headed 22″ drum that’s 16″ or 18″ in depth. (A shallower 14×22 or smaller 16×20 drum will also work for this sound, but you’ll lose some of the width, depth, and sustain associated with the larger sizes.) A 2-ply clear batter head works best, with a single-ply resonant that has a small hole cut in it for easy mic placement. Insert a medium-size pillow or small packing blanket in the shell, and make sure it’s touching both heads slightly. It’s important that only a small amount of the damping touches, and therefore muffles, each head.

Bring the resonant head to a medium tension and the batter side to a medium-tight tension. Not only will this help with pedal response, but it will also add some sustain to each bass drum stroke.

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Snare Drum

Due to its high presence in most modern mixes, the snare tone is the most vital one in this study. A crisp and cracking snare sound is achieved by employing a 14″ wood drum in a standard depth (usually 5″ or 5.5″). The depth can vary, however, depending on the style of music. For a straight pop track, many players prefer a 5.5×14 drum, while for medium-tempo rock songs a 6.5×14 snare is a staple. (Should you prefer a brighter sound, feel free to experiment with metal drums too. There are no rules, after all.)

Start by installing a single-ply coated batter head, and tighten each tension rod so that the head feels somewhat tight. The batter shouldn’t be “tabletop” tight, but it shouldn’t feel like a pillow either. Match the pitch at each lug, and then hit a few rimshots and adjust the snares until they stop rattling extraneously. If the drum begins to sound boxy and choked, you’ll need to loosen the snares a bit. If you want more articulation, increase the tension of the bottom head. Advertisement

Click here to listen (Right click and ‘Save as’ to save)

Click here to listen (Right click and ‘Save as’ to save)


An open, resonant tom sound is achieved by employing double-headed shallow or medium-depth drums. Focusing on a four-piece kit, today’s most widely used tom configurations are 8×12 and 14×14, 9×13 and 16×16, and 9×12 and 16×16. For the sake of this demonstration, we’ll set our sights on the third setup.

Double-ply batters, either coated or clear, work well alongside single-ply clear resonant heads. Coated heads add attack, while clear heads focus on tone. Start with an even-pitched tuning on top and bottom, at a medium tension.

For a more open and resonant tone, leave the heads wide open and let them sing. Just be aware that the toms might ring sympathetically and get picked up by the snare and overhead mics. For increased attack and a touch less sustain, apply a little muffling, like a Moongel or Gel Cling, .25″ to .5″ in from the rim of each tom. The amount of muffling required will vary depending on the room characteristics and the size of the drum itself. Advertisement

To capture your tom tones, place the mic’s capsule over the edge of the rim, pointed toward the impact point on the head. The greater the incline of the mic body and the off-center placement toward the rim, the more low-end frequencies and overtones will enter your mix. If the toms are ringing excessively while you play time on the bass drum and snare, raise the mics two to three finger widths above the drumhead.

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Overhead Mics

Now add two overhead condenser microphones to complete your drum sound. Since the overheads capture a snapshot of the entire kit from a very broad perspective, I tend to think of them as “camera” mics. They also help bind the individual mics into a cohesive and collective mix. I prefer to place them as a spaced pair. This helps a standard four-piece kit appear much larger in a mix. In order to achieve this placement, stand behind your snare drum and extend your arms outward to form an inverted triangle. This is where your overheads should be placed. Make sure they are equidistant from the snare in terms of both height and width. To be more exact, use a tape measure to go from the snare’s impact point to the capsule on each overhead. (Additional overhead miking techniques will be covered in future articles.)

To ensure that your overhead mics are placed correctly, record a test groove using just them and one of the top snare mics. Then look at the waveforms on your computer screen to see if they’re out of alignment. If so, move the overheads and repeat the test until the waveforms line up a bit more closely. (Because the overheads are placed farther from the snare than the direct mic is, their signal will always be slightly behind the snare track.) Advertisement

Click here to listen (Right click and ‘Save as’ to save)

Time to Experiment!

Think of the techniques and concepts we’ve discussed here as a starting point in getting a great all-purpose drum sound. You’ll likely have to adjust one thing or another in order to achieve tones that are just right for specific sessions or gigs. And as with all musical skills, this will take time and practice to fully master. Rather than trying to tackle everything at once—tuning, muffling, mic placement, and so on—concentrate on one element at a time, starting with just one drum.

Be sure to check out the complete article in the June 2013 for more insight.