Recording methods for rock drummers have changed drastically since the days of simply setting up the drumkit in the studio drum booth and plugging in microphones. Some drumkits don’t even fit in a drum booth—mine, for instance.
Drummers today go from enclosing the set entirely with sheets of plywood and using numerous microphones, to simply setting up the drumkit in a room and using only two mic’s to record with. The latter method has been used successfully on many recordings, and offers a very quick and simple mic’ setup for the engineer. However, there are drawbacks, such as not having any control over individual drums, and finding the correct positions for the mic’s.
I use the plywood method, enclosing the entire drumkit—including a roof—with sheets of plywood (leaving, of course, a viewing window through which the other members of the band can be seen). Then I mike each drum individually, along with setting up two room mic’s in front of the kit. The advantage with this method is that the drums have a natural, deep, big sound (because of the sound reflecting off the plywood and going back to the mic’s). I also have individual control for each drum, because each is individually miked.
Room and stereo mic’s, when added to the mix, give a bright, ambient sound that is usually referred to as a “wet sound” and is used extensively today. These mic’s diminish the need for many electronic effects.
Another method that I’m experimenting with is to mike the drumkit with individual mic’s, but with no plywood enclosure around the drums, and no room or stereo mic’s. This produces a “dead,” clean sound, which is a good foundation for adding and experimenting with different reverb effects (such as EMT 250, AMS, and Yamaha RE V7).
Another important factor is what microphone to use. There are many different mic’s to choose from, but certain ones are better for certain drums. For example, a Shure SM57 mic’ is usually better for recording instruments with high frequencies—such as a snare drum—as opposed to using it to record a bass drum. (On the other hand, a mic’ such as the SM57 may be used on a bass drum in conjunction with another mic’. That will give you two different bass drum sounds that may be mixed together to form one sound.) Most engineers have their favorite microphones to use with different drums.
In order to make a great record, you have to be comfortable with what you hear in the headphones. In fact, the headphone mix is vital in getting a great performance on record. If you have a great sound in the ‘phones, you may be inspired to play things you never thought you could play. On the other hand, if you can’t hear what the other musicians of the band are playing, you might miss a great part that someone else played that might, in turn, have inspired you to play a great fill or pattern. The ideal setup would be to have individual headphone mixes for all musicians in the band in which they, themselves, could control the volume of all the other instruments. But most studios aren’t set up for such an elaborate system. What I like to do is have my own amplifier to power my headphones, so that I at least have control of overall volume, treble, and bass.
Before getting involved with all the technicalities of recording a song in the studio, you must rehearse it thoroughly with the other members of the band. This is so you don’t waste time learning the song in the studio at recording studio hourly rates. It is a good idea to practice the song many times, listening to each part to see what would feel right to play. For example, a verse may require a half-time, simple beat, whereas the chorus may call for a double-time feel on the hi-hat. Now, there might be a space for a fill from the last verse leading into the chorus. Such a fill at this point should be thought-out. Don’t just play any old fill; listen to the song and see what would be appropriate to complement the song without getting in the way of the other instruments.
Fills could also be thought of as riffs. By that I mean, you might create a fill that is played throughout the song (maybe every last verse leading into the chorus), so that it becomes a repeated riff in the song. You may also want to “double” that riff in order to add more strength to it. To “double” means to play exactly the same riff on another track and then mix the two together. It becomes one strong track, adding a little more substance to that riff.
It’s important to listen to the parts the other musicians are playing or singing. When I’m recording with Dio, I always listen for vocal riffs that Ronnie is singing. He may sing a vocal riff that I can duplicate with a drum fill, which adds a little more punch to that part of the song.
It sometimes happens that what you played while rehearsing doesn’t sound as good in the studio, when you can listen to the playback and really hear what every instrument is playing. At rehearsal, you may not have noticed that a certain little part that someone was playing conflicted with another instrument. But on tape, you’ll hear that it sounds “cluttery.” So you may have to change that part. You have to adjust the parts you play to what sounds good in the studio. The same holds true when you perform the tune live at a concert—but in reverse. When playing live, you may want to play a bit harder and flashier.
The most important thing is to make sure you are comfortable with your sound and your setup. Those elements will contribute to bringing out the best performance in yourself—so let it rip!