Part 1: All-Purpose Pop/Rock
by Donny Gruendler
This six-part series is a comprehensive study on how to choose, tune, muffle, and mike 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 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.)
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 (Remo Emperor) or a single-ply head with a built-in muffling ring (Powerstroke 3) 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.
Next, place a dynamic microphone inside the drum, with the capsule pointing at the beater impact point on the batter head. This technique puts emphasis on the attack of the drum. If you want more sustain, place the mic closer to the resonant head, just past the middle of the shell.
Many engineers like to place a subwoofer-style mic outside the resonant head as well. This device is actually a speaker that’s rewired so that the polarity is reversed, which turns the speaker into a subsonic microphone that picks up only the lower frequencies of the bass drum.
You should try a medium-size felt beater. This will provide some punch while retaining the low fundamental tone. You can add more attack by swapping in a wooden beater for the felt one or by using a smaller two-sided felt/plastic combo.
When recording (or mixing), blend a small amount of the sub mic into the internal mic. This will fuse the low fundamental oomph of the shell’s airflow with the pointed impact of the beater.
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 5½”). The depth can vary, however, depending on the style of music. For a straight pop track, many players prefer a 5½x14 drum, while for medium-tempo rock songs a 6½x14 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.
You should also experiment with stick size. A larger stick will produce a lower tone and will increase the amount of overtones, while a smaller stick will have a thinner, more focused, and articulate sound.
If there’s excessive ring coming from your snare, add some muffling, like a couple of Moongel dampening pads. (I’ve found that children’s window decorations called Gel Clings also work well. I purchase the ones shaped like footballs and soccer balls and then cut them to size.)
For miking the snare, try using both a dynamic and a condenser microphone, with the capsules side by side and pointed directly at the stick impact point. The dynamic mic will pick up the fundamental tone of the drum, while the condenser will grab the high frequencies of the attack. In order to keep the mics in phase with one another, tape them together at the body. Feel free to experiment with their angle too. The greater the incline and off-center placement of the mic toward the rim, the more the overtones will be captured.
If your snare is lacking sizzle, or if your ghost notes aren’t articulate enough, place a third mic on the bottom of the snare. Most engineers prefer to point the capsule toward the snare wires at a 70-degree angle. The greater the incline and off-center placement of the mic toward the rim, the more sizzle will enter the track. When recording, mix in a small amount of the bottom mic with the top two. It’s important to invert the phase of the bottom mic. This can be done in your recording software with a plug-in, or your mixing console or mic preamp might have a phase inversion button. You can also rewire a mic so that the polarity is reversed.
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, ¼” to ½” 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.
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.
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 upward and 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.)
Some engineers prefer to rely on the overheads to capture the hi-hat. But when ultimate articulation or dynamic control is needed, a small diaphragm condenser or dynamic mic can be placed at the outermost edge of the top cymbal. You’ll notice that the capsule is positioned away from the snare, which helps minimize bleed from the snare drum into the hi-hat mic.
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.
Donny Gruendler is vice president of curricular development at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rick Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit donnygruendler.com.