If you aren’t a drummer but want to make full tracks on your own in your home studio, how do you start writing and recording drums?!
Many songwriters, myself included, start their journey writing on an acoustic guitar or piano. But when you start wanting to record tracks you realize that knowledge will only get you so far. We can adapt to most instruments, a bass guitar, for example, is not too much of a leap, and a synth even looks like a piano. But there is one primary instrument present in most songs which seems alien to many musicians and that is the drums. Drums don’t really bear any resemblance to our guitars or pianos and require a completely different skill set.
If we want to get drums on our track do we have to hire a session drummer or go to a studio? That would be a pain and expensive for a musician who just wants to create music at home.
Luckily with the help of modern technologies, we can now get great sounding drum tracks at home, and the best part is you don’t even need to learn how to play the drums!
In this article, I will put forward the argument that in the vast majority of cases when recording at home you should just use programmed drums and loops (phew!). Trying to record a full drum kit will not only take up lots of space and create huge amounts of noise. It will probably not sound great unless you spend a long time working on it. So here is my guide on how to write drum parts and how to record drum parts for non-drummers.
What is the importance of drums in music?
Drums are one of the oldest instruments appearing as far back as 6000BC. Where they would be used in rituals and ceremonies by ancient tribes.
Each drum does technically have a ‘pitch’ at which it plays. However, unlike a guitar or piano (or most other instruments) playing at different pitches is not the main function of drums. The main function is rhythm and timekeeping.
In order for all music to come together and sound like a complete piece, some element of timekeeping is required. Otherwise, you will end up with a musical mess that sounds awful. The drums, therefore, provide this timekeeping, acting in place of a conductor or metronome.
The importance of the role of the drums varies between different types and genres of music. This ranges from a very simple beat used to keep other musicians in time, all the way to complex patterns where the drums are the centre of attention.
In modern rock and pop music, the drums often team up with bass instruments such as a bass guitar to for the rhythm section of a band. The rhythm section is not only keeping time but is creating the foundation and groove of the track.
Drums are capable of changing the entire feel of a track. Just a simple beat behind a guitar chord progression changes the listener experience entirely. They also have a wide dynamic range and can play softly, perhaps a deep rolling sound, or loudly and energetically such as a marching snare drum. Drums allow you to change how the listener feels perhaps more than any other instrument available.
What are the different types of drums?
As I said before, drums have been around for 1000’s of years. In their earliest form, they were simply small wooden carvings hit to make a sound. Over time this gradually became more advanced with animal skins being stretched over an open-ended cylinder to produce a louder and deeper sound.
At this early stage, and until fairly recently, drums were an individual instrument. Each member of a tribe (or band) would have a drum and could play them together to create different beats. It wasn’t until the marching bands of the early 20th century that one person could play multiple drums at the same time, with the invention of the Ludwig & Ludwig Co. A foot-operated bass drum allowing other drums to be played at the same time with the hands.
This was the start of the path towards what we now all know as a ‘drum kit’. Drums appearing of all shapes and sizes giving them all sorts of different tones. Now present in some shape or form in every rock band allowing a single person or ‘drummer’ to play a wide variety of different drums from the comfort of a seat. The range of drums and other percussive elements is now vast but there are a few key members of the family that appear regularly:
Bass Drum/ Kick Drum
Usually the largest drum in a drum kit, the bass drum produces a low pitched sound. It is also known as the ‘kick drum’ because in a drum kit it is played using the feet with a beater effectively kicking the drum to make a sound. They are probably the most visible part of the drum kit, serving the handy function of supporting smaller drums.
The size and material of construction will affect the sound produced by the kick drum. The larger the diameter of the drum the deeper the sound produced will be. The drum is played by pressing down on a pedal which activates a beater or striker. The beater (the thing that kits the drum) can be made of different materials to create different sound but it is usually made of a felt like material.
The main purpose of the kick drum is to keep time. Due to its low frequency, it tends to be best for keeping the beat. The low-frequency soundwaves are less likely to be absorbed or stopped by other surfaces. This means the bass drum sound will travel farther and through surfaces and therefore making them very reliable for getting to the other band members allowing them to keep in time.
A snare drum is another drum present on almost every modern drum kit. At the complete other end of the sound spectrum to the kick drum, the snare drum produces a much sharper and higher pitched sound when struck. You may know the snare drum sound best from drum rolls or a marching band.
Possibly the most useful characteristic of a snare drum, and why it is used so frequently, is its large dynamic range. You can create completely different sounds ranging from gently tapping or even stroking of the drum skin, to hitting hard for a loud resonating crack. For this reason, you will see snares played with various implements, the most common being a stick but it could also be a brush.
The word ‘snare’ comes from a band of metal wires attached across the base of the drum called ‘snares’.
As with the kick drum, a snare drum can be constructed from a variety of materials. Nowadays they can be made of wood to metal to modern materials such as fibreglass and acrylic.
Tom-tom drums make up the rest of the drums found in a standard drum kit. They are played with sticks similar to the snare drum but do not have any snares attached to them. They tend to produce a booming sound more similar in tone to that of the kick drum than the crack of a snare drum.
On a standard kit, tom-tom drums can be divided into two categories. The rack toms, so named because they are attached above the tom on a sort of ‘rack’ and the floor tom which is….usually stood on the floor as the name suggests. The rack toms come in a variety of sizes with diameters ranging from 15 to 50cm (although more likely at the lower end of this range), whereas the floor tom is much larger between 40 and 60cm in diameter.
Due to the larger diameter, the floor tom produces a much deeper sound than the rack toms but all can vary in sound massively depending on size and how tightly the skins are attached to the casing.
Other types of drum:
On top of the drums associated with a drum kit mentioned above, there are hundreds of different types of drums, as they have been present in all sorts of musical genres all across the world. All of these drums bring different sounds and character which may or may not be appropriate for the music you are creating.
One of the great things about modern music production is that you can download a sample of virtually any type of drum that was ever made. You can then enter it into a song without having to spend all your money and fill your studio with them.
What are the different types of cymbals?
Technically not drums but lumped often lumped together in the same category as they are a form of percussion and are included in most drum kits. So for the purposes of this article, I will include cymbals too and therefore it is also going to be useful to quickly highlight the main types you are likely to use.
Cymbals are usually circular shaped brass-plates that can be struck to produce a resonating ringing sound. On a drum kit, cymbals are mounted on stands to allow them to resonate for a long duration.
The general rule is that a large thick cymbal will be louder with longer sustain, whilst a smaller thinner cymbal will be quieter with less sustain.
On a drum kit, the hi-hat is probably one of the most commonly used cymbals. The cymbal comes as a pair sitting together on top of a stand.
The hi-hat also comes with a foot pedal attached. This foot pedal is used to bring the two cymbals together, with the bottom cymbal remaining fixed and the top cymbal moving up and down. A sound is then created when the two cymbals are brought together. It can also be held down permanently by the player and played with a stick to create a less resonant sound. You will therefore hear the hi-hat referred to as open or closed, depending on the position of the foot pedal.
Hi-hats are useful in creating a rhythmic pattern alongside the kick drum and snare.
The crash cymbal is quite self-explanatory. It is used to produce a usually loud, crashing sound, reminding you of thunder. The crash makes this sound due to being quite large in size which gives it the loud volume but also quite thin which gives it the ‘crashing’ resonance.
A crash cymbal can range in size but are usually somewhere between 36 and 46cm in diameter.
The function of the crash cymbal varies with the size. Smaller crash cymbals can be used as accents, the shorter sharper sound used along with the rest of the band to highlight certain sections. A large crash cymbal, on the other hand, is used more like an explosion or exclamation mark.
The next ‘standard’ cymbal to mention is the ride cymbal. Usually slightly larger than a crash cymbal at 46 to 56cm and as with the crash the sound produced will vary dependent on the size and thickness but is often described as ‘shimmering’.
The name again is quite fitting as you tend to ‘ride’ on in creating a more constant pattern rather than the big less frequent explosions of the crash. The ride is used for more rhythmic parts in a similar way to the hi-hat.
Used in a similar way to the crash but usually smaller and very thin producing a splashy sound.
How to write a drum part for beginners
Now you know the main parts of a drum kit how do we actually write them into a musical composition?
For a non-drummer, this can be daunting, to say the least. Most of us can keep a beat, but anything more complicated is going to require a bit more thought.
One way would be to get an experienced drummer to play along to your ideas until you get something that sounds good, but we don’t always have this luxury. So if you can’t play the drums yourself the best place to go to write your part is in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Even if you end up recording with a live kit in the end (I’ll come on to those options shortly), writing in a DAW will allow you to try out different ideas easily and visualize what is happening.
Listen to other tracks for inspiration
As a non-drummer, the most important thing you can do is study lots of songs that you like or that inspire you. As non-drummers, we probably have a tendency to focus on the guitars or vocals and just let the drum part wash over us. But now is your chance to listen carefully to the drums. What do they do in the verse? How do they build towards the chorus? Is there a lot more energy coming through in the chorus? What is the reason for this?
Make sure you are listening through good headphones or speakers, and perhaps turn the bass up so you can really hear the kick drum. Pay attention to what each individual drum is doing.
You will notice in most songs there is a very close relationship between the bass and the drums. They work together to form the foundation of the music and give the rhythm and the groove. So if you have already written a bass part for the song it is important that you write your drum part to work well with that.
You will also notice that in verses the drums tend to be steadier and more subdued. This is because, most of the time, the purpose of a verse is to tell the story through the lyrical content. So you probably don’t want loud crashing cymbals and constant complex fills at this point.
Take some time to write some ideas down and see what patterns you notice between songs. You may also get some inspiration of bits for your own songs. People might realize if you steal other peoples guitar riffs or even basslines, but they are never going to know if you steal their drum beat……not that I advocate stealing.
Start thinking in terms of bars/ measures
Depending on how experienced you are, you may or may not be familiar with bars in music. Before you start writing any parts it is key to get the concept clear in your head.
Most rock and pop music is written in 4/4 timing which means that each ‘bar’ is composed of 4 quarter notes. As you can see the top number (4) is the number of counts per bar and the bottom number is which type of note receives a single count. Or to put it another way one ‘whole note’ lasts for 4 beats. So if you were to tap out a steady beat of 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4 etc. You are counting each quarter note. Check out the video below if that is still unclear.
Because some drum parts, such as the hi-hat, are often played quite quickly you will often hear them referred to as 8th notes or 16th notes. I.e if they were playing constantly they would be played 8 or 16 times per bar. For 8th notes, you may recognize the counting:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.
The ‘and’ here is used in place of a number so you are actually counting up to 8. And for 16th notes, you count
1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a
I know that looks ridiculous written down.
What is the difference between downbeats and upbeats?
Now you have a basic idea of what bars and measures are and how they apply to drumming, it’s time for some slightly more advanced terminology.
The beats within the measure can be divided into 3 different categories. These are downbeats, upbeats and backbeats.
These terms are often defined differently depending on context and between different genres of music so apologies if you see them described differently elsewhere.
The word downbeat is typically used to refer to the ‘strongest’ beat within a particular measure. In rock music in 4/4 timing played with 8th notes the downbeats are usually the numbers with the ‘ands’ being the upbeats:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Listen to most rock songs and see how you tap your foot or want to clap along. Also, notice how when the first beat of the measure is a downbeat the last beat is an upbeat which leads back to the start in a loop.
In some genres such as jazz, for example, this is flipped so the downbeats are the ‘ands’ and upbeats are the numbers
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
In rock music, the bass drum and snare are often hit on the downbeat with the beater or stick being pulled away on the upbeat. This makes sense as the stick is ‘down’ for the downbeat and ‘up’ for the upbeat, making it easy to remember.
Remember that is for eighth notes. If you are using quarter notes then the downbeats would be 1 and 3 with 2 and 4 being the upbeats.
What are backbeats?
In most rock and pop music the standard backbeat usually appears on notes 2 and 4 as follows and is usually played on the snare drum in a classic rock beat:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Changing the backbeat position will completely change the ‘groove’ and feel of the beat.
What does this look like in a DAW?
If you are up to speed on music theory then you are probably ok picturing drum beats as they would appear in sheet music, with crotchets, minims and semi-breves etc. But for anyone who doesn’t read sheet music, it is probably easier to start visualizing the beat in your DAW.
I also thoroughly recommend when starting out making your own music that you record your drums this way too as getting a decent sound on a real drum kit at home is really difficult. But more on that later in the article.
A quick introduction into the MIDI piano roll
Thanks to modern day technology we can now programme drum beats within most pieces of DAW software. This saves us non-drummers in many ways:
- We don’t have to learn to play drums
- We don’t have to buy a drum kit
- We don’t have to mic up and get that drum kit sounding good
- We don’t anger the neighbors!
Within the DAW we have what is known as a ‘piano roll’. It is a graphical representation of musical notes in MIDI format (if you want to learn more about MIDI check out this article). It looks a bit like an excel spreadsheet and is used to ‘map’ either MIDI instrument tracks or in our case here programmed drum sounds.
In Ableton Live it looks like this:
It is a bit like a graph with the piano on the left acting as the y-axis and in this case telling us the note played and the x-axis being time. On the above example, I have programmed a piano to play G, C, E and D (the number 3 means 3 octaves higher than a middle C).
The small sticks and circles at the bottom represent the velocity (volume) of each note and can be set between 0 and 127, with 127 being the maximum velocity each note can have. It is referred to as velocity as it would be the speed in which a key is pressed down on a piano or keyboard.
The track shown in this image is in 4/4 timing and each whole number is a bar. If we were to count this as eighth notes it would look like this which each of the lines on the chart representing one eighth note:
When programming a drum track the layout is the same but instead of piano notes on the Y-Axis you get different elements of a drum kit, which can be altered and added to with any drum or sound effect you wish:
Currently, this track has no drums and so you would hear silence. The drums can then be added in a number of ways.
In Ableton Live, you can switch between a drawing cursor (that looks like a pencil) to add new notes, or to click on existing ones to remove them. Or you can switch to an edit cursor which will allow you to lengthen, shorten or change notes.
If you want to get a little bit more musical than drawing, then you can input these notes using a MIDI instrument. This could be a MIDI drum machine or a MIDI keyboard. The MIDI signal sent in will record the drum type, timing, and velocity that you press so you will probably get a more realistic sound.
For example, because we are human and not perfect you will end up with beats being ‘off-grid’. But this is fine (unless you are way off) and will make it sound less robotic. Having everything perfectly in time and ‘on-grid’ is known as quantization and should usually be avoided in most musical genres.
Start with some classic beats
Now I’ve introduced you to the piano roll format present within most DAW software the best place to start when writing is to learn some classic beats that are common in certain genres. You can then build and experiment around these.
The drums really do affect the entire feel of the track so it is good to have a strong idea before you start writing. Do you want the song to have a driving feel? Do you want it to be slower and more groovy? Or do you want it to be dancy?
The main thing to remember when you start writing drum parts is that they are just one part of the ‘rhythm section’. So they have to fit alongside the bassline to really make a groove. This is often easier in a rock track where the bass may be playing long single notes. But when you start getting into other genres like funk and hip-hop where the basslines can be much more complex, the drum parts are going to require a lot more thought.
So bear that in mind when you see the basic beats below, these are just some ideas to get you started and won’t work on every song you write.
Classic rock beat
A classic rock beat which you will probably be more than familiar with is 4/4 with eighth notes as described in the above section with the hi-hat playing on all the downbeats, and the kick and snare playing on alternate beats. In Ableton this looks like this:
Although in reality most hi-hat parts will add a softer note on the ‘and’ also sometimes known as ghost notes to get more of a groove to the beat.
Here is what it looks like in the Ableton piano roll, you can see at the bottom of the piano roll the levels of the hi-hats with the softer notes on the ‘and’ beats:
Basic funk beat
By simply playing with the position of the hi-hat and snare in our track we can move the feel of the drums to a funkier sound.
In the basic beat below the kick drum stays on the beat but the hi-hat starts playing on the ‘and’ notes. So if you start with this as the foundation:
That beat already starts to sound funky on its own but when we bring in the snare it gets even funkier. The snare basically can’t make it’s mind up whether to be friends with the kick or the hi-hat and ends up all over the place like this:
It’s the slightly off-beat snare that really adds to the groove. Appearing occasionally on the ‘e’ or ‘a’ when counting ‘1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a’. Funk doesn’t have to be played as fast as rock so slow the tempo down for even more groove.
Basic Hip-Hop Beat
In this basic hip-hop groove, the hi-hat plays constant eighth notes with the snare on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ but the kick moves around slightly and in particular, appears on the ‘a’ at the end. So when played in a loop it gives a double beat leading back into the next bar.
With hip-hop grooves being typically slower in tempo than rock. Moving notes very subtly off the grid can make a huge difference. If you listen to some great hip-hop drummers they can manipulate the position of the kick ever so slightly and really change the feel of the track.
Expand from 1 bar to phrasing
Once you start getting comfortable writing a single bar of drums try thinking in terms of multiple bars. You probably want your drums to be more exciting than simply the same bar looping over and over again. Each one of these sections that repeats is called a ‘phrase’. The majority of the time of which are in groups of 4 bars or groups of 8 bars.
Building between sections with fills
In rock and pop music in particular ‘drum fills’ are used to add extra interest to parts that may start to sound quite repetitive. A moment of more complexity which might build towards a chorus for example. It can be all too easy just to write a simple programmed drum pattern and leave it looping throughout the entire track.
For a non-drummer, the idea of writing a fill can be daunting to say the least. Do you just play all the drums really fast in succession?
As I’ve suggested already in this article a great place to start is by listening to some of your favourite songs to see what the drums are doing.
A fill must fit with the rest of the song but has to contrast to it in terms of complexity, volume or rhythm. They can be very short or quite long, it really depends on what you are trying to achieve at that point in your song. Most typically a fill marks the end of an 8 or 16 bar phrase. But subtle fills may occur at the end of shorter phrases
Recording Drum Parts in the Home Studio
Hopefully, that has given you a better idea of how to start writing drum parts even if you don’t consider yourself a drummer. If you have any other musical skill or sense of rhythm with persistence and practice you’ll be writing great drum parts before you know it. But which is the best way to record those parts?
Avoid recording live drums as a beginner
In this article, you’ll notice how I’ve been talking a lot about programming drums within your DAW software rather than recording live drums. This is with good reason.
Firstly I’m not a drummer and don’t have a drum kit in my home studio. This was intentional, not only are they loud and take up a lot of space but they are also really hard to get sounding good.
You have to think about the room acoustics, make sure the drums sound good and are tuned. Make sure you have enough of the required microphones and then sort out the microphone positions and levels.
Using programmed drums
Programmed drums take either synthetically created sounds or can use samples of real live drums. The type you choose varies depending on the style of music you want to create.
In dance music, for example, a Roland 808 electronic drum sound is often used. This isn’t designed to sound like a real drummer playing and instead has a booming kick and very electronic sounding snare.
If you are trying to create a rock track you are more likely to want the sound as close to a real drummer as possible. So, in this case, sampled live drums are a better option. If you have Ableton like me it comes with several sampled entire kits for you to experiment with.
Other DAW software come with some drum sounds as standard. Or you can download millions of samples from the internet. We really are in an amazing position now as modern musicians with such an array of sounds to use.
There are some plug-ins available which even look like a drum kit so you can play the drums on your laptop. Such as EZ Drummer shown below:
Programmed drums can end up sounding, well….. programmed but there are many tricks you can use to try and get them sounding more like the real thing. Check out this article I did with 15 tips for making your programmed drums sound more realistic.
What to look for in programmed drum samples
The importance of choosing a great drum sample should not be underestimated. Yes, you can manipulate the sample with compression and EQ, but you can only do so much. Try and get as close to the sound you want out of the box and then just do minor tweaks after.
What to look for in a particular drum sound will vary between people and songs but here are a few tips on where to start.
Use dry sounds
Although I said using live drum samples will get you more realistic sounding drum tracks be cautious that you don’t use any samples that are not that ‘dry’. By this I mean avoid samples that have a lot of reverb or echo. These may sound good to the ear but the reverb will likely not sound right in the overall mix and you can’t remove it. You are much better off adding your own reverb effects which you can tweak and customise.
For all the different elements of the kit, the sound you require will vary between the type of song you are writing.
Although they may just sound like a low ‘thud’, a kick drum sample should have a few separate elements to it which change how they will sound in the final mix.
- fundamental (45-75 Hz)
- the pressure point (an octave higher, 90-150Hz)
The fundamental elements are the lower frequencies that are most important for the kick drum. For a kick in electronic dance music, virtually all the frequencies in the sample will lie in this range as the desire is to have a low thumping sound like a heartbeat running through the track.
Snare drums samples can vary a lot more than kick drums. They can range from a very sharp cracking almost reminiscent of a clap, which is popular in dance music. To a looser sound with less snap to it. This mirrors the tension of the snare skin if you were using a real drum. A tighter skin would give more a cracking sound.
Tom-tom drums have quite distinctive sounds. They can actually provide some melodic elements that the other drum parts can not.
A good tom sound has a nice melodic quality. But tom drum sample will come in a variety of tunings in the low, mid and higher range frequencies. So try them out in the mix with the other tracks and see if they sound good.
Your hi-hat samples will be the most frequently used cymbal samples so it is important to choose wisely.
It is important for hi-hats to sound bright and to contain plenty of high-end frequencies so they stand out in the mix. If you pick a hi-hat sample with not enough hi-end and more mid-range frequencies it is unlikely to cut through to the listener.
The hi-hat can be played closed or open and the sound differs depending on which one you go for. The closed hi-hat should be a sharper sound and should not have a long sustain/ decay time. Opposingly the open hi-hat should ring out more and have a distinct almost rattling sound.
Ensure that you think how the drummer would actually play the hi-hat. It is impossible to have an open hi-hat note still ringing when a closed hi-hat is struck so make sure your programmed drums reflect this.
Other cymbals such as the crash are played less frequently but when they are played they have a big impact. When choosing a crash cymbal, in particular, make sure it rings out clearly and has a long decay time like a real-life crash cymbal would.
Some samples out there cut the crash off prematurely (to make the sample size smaller) but this makes them sound less realistic.
Recording live drums
As I’ve mentioned already, I don’t recommend recording live drums in the home music studio for a number of reasons. I’ve spent many hours myself when recording my band, trying to get our drummers kit to sound as good as programmed drum samples! Which seems crazy when you think how much extra effort it is.
But for some people who are lucky enough to own a drum kit (or have a friend that does), the temptation to record the real thing is always going to be there. I’ve even had friends tell me that they think using programmed drums is cheating! So for the dedicated purists, I have put together a few tips on how to get started recording your live drums.
How to mic a drum kit
Unfortunately, unlike a bass guitar or a synth, drums can’t simply be plugged into an audio interface and then recorded. Unless you have electronic / MIDI drums, but they are just methods of inputting programmed samples. So to get the sound of a real-life acoustic drum kit we have to use microphones.
There are many ways you can do this and it depends how much you are prepared to spend and how great you want the sound to be.
If you just use a couple of room microphones stuck up around the kit then you will get a recording but it will probably sound pretty terrible. You are likely to get loud crash cymbal sounds drowning out the bass and lots of echo as sounds bounce around all over the place. And because you’ve recorded everything onto just one or two tracks, you will be unable to mix the drums separately afterwards. You will be stuck with what you recorded.
The key to good recordings of live drums is to get a punchy sound. If you use room microphones you won’t get that feel and it will be echoey and messy.
But I know most of us are on a budget so having said that is there a way we can mic a drum kit without having to buy lots of microphones?
Using just one mic?
If you want to attempt a recording of the drum kit with just a single microphone you want to get that microphone as close to the centre of the kit as possible in order to capture all the individual sounds as best as possible. This means using a mic stand to place the microphone over the top of the kick drum as close to the middle of the overall kit as you can.
Above the beater of the kick drum, between the rack tom, floor tom and snare. If you have two rack toms I would advise taking one off for this technique so you can position the microphone more easily.
To capture the details required from just one microphone you will need a condenser microphone. Set this microphone to ‘Omni’ mode so you are getting sound entering it from all angles rather than just one direction.
I have actually managed to get some ok sounding tracks like this. The more complex the drum part the harder it is, but give it a go.
Using 2 mics
So you’ve got a decent sound with one microphone and you want to get more serious. Let’s try adding a second microphone in and see if we can get it sounding even better.
Move that same condenser microphone up so it is above the kit now but set it into directional mode. So you will need a microphone that has the ability to do this such as the AKGC414.
Having the microphone above the kit but only recording what is coming from below it will mean you capture less of the room sound and more of the sound of the drums themselves.
By having this microphone above the kit it is now quite far away from the kick drum (arguably the most important drum) and so the second microphone should be used to capture the kick.
For this, use a dynamic microphone, which is capable of capturing those high-intensity sounds. You can either get a specialist kick drum mic like the Shure BETA 52A. Or if you already own a dynamic microphone like a Shure SM57 then you could use that too.
In terms of the position, have a play around with what you think sounds good. The natural inclination is to stick it either inside the drum or next to the hole but this can result in a bit of a dead sound which isn’t for everyone. So I usually start with it around 2 to 3 inches back and in line with the centre of the drum.
Using 3 mics
Keeping the first two microphones in the same place you have a few different options for the third microphone. Either placing it above the kit in a similar way to microphone 1 but with one over each half of the kit. The quality of the sound from this method really depends on the acoustics of your room.
The other option is to place the microphone over the floor tom as that tends to get lost a bit in the two microphone method. It will also capture a bit more of the sound coming from the snare.
Using 4 mics
If I had the luxury of a fourth microphone I would probably use it on the snare. This microphone will be placed above the snare quite close to the skin (around 2 inches above) and at the edge. Mainly so you don’t hit it.
You also want to keep it as far away from the hi-hat as you can without impeding your playing. The hi-hat will already be getting picked up by the overhead microphones and you don’t want it coming through the snare microphone if possible. This just makes the mixing process easier later when you come to working on EQ etc.
As with the kick you are going to want to use a dynamic microphone due to the high volume levels you are likely to get. Something like the Sennheiser E604 which is designed with snares in mind.
Using 5 mics
At this point, I am beginning to wonder if you should start running your home studio as a professional studio as you are getting quite advanced.
A fifth microphone is probably best used as a room microphone. This is placed further away from the kit than the other microphones. Bear in mind this is only worth attempting if your studio has decent acoustics. If it is too echoey, such as your garage, then that will probably sound rubbish. Or at the other end of the scale if the room is small with carpets and curtains then the kit will sound dead and lifeless. Ideally, for recording drums, you want to edge towards the larger more-echoey end of the spectrum. With higher ceilings and harder floors to get a bright live sound.
You are going to have to move around a lot and monitor the sound as you move to find the best position. This could be anywhere, even right in a far corner. Have fun and experiment with it. That is one of the great things about recording at home and not in a recording studio is that you can mess around and capture interesting and unique sounds.
Fine tuning the live drum sound
For all these methods you are going to find life much easier if you aren’t doing it alone. If you a non-drummer then you can get a drummer friend to play the drums whilst you concentrate on positioning the microphones and getting the best sound possible. Having to place microphones, record, move things and record again is not good for workflow.
Record the drums straight in without trying to do any EQ work on your mixer (if you have one), save the EQ work for in your DAW.
Test the levels with a drummer playing a full piece rather than hitting each drum one by one to get the levels correct.
Make sure that non of the microphones are being pushed into the ‘red’ where they will begin to distort. A good rule of thumb is to try and keep the average level around -18dB with peaks no higher than – 6dB. Get the drummer to play hard and adjust the levels so the meters are into the yellow for those hard notes (definitely not the red!) and you should be good.
Why do the drums sound crappy?
Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you! Getting a good live drum sound to translate into a recording is hard work. There are many reasons why the drums may still sound crappy even if you have tried different microphone positions and types.
Firstly, the drums may be cheap, old or out of tune. They may need skins replacing, for example, to bring some life back into them.
Secondly, it could be the room. Sometimes the acoustics of the room just don’t lend themselves well to recording drums, whether that is being too large and echoey or small and not echoey enough.
You shouldn’t try and force a good sound out of a crappy kit but we can help ourselves out a bit by using EQ and mixing.
How to mix your drums
Mixing drums, just like mixing any instrument can be a very complicated process. I’m not going to try and teach you all there is to know about mixing drums in this article because entire books have been written on that subject. But I want to just give you a rundown of the key points.
One of the key things I’ve learnt is to treat the drums together as one instrument to get a better sounding mix at the end. The temptation will be to mix the kick then move on to get the snare sounding good etc. But the chances are that you will have to get lucky for all the elements to sound good together at the end. So an important first step is to create a ‘drum bus’.
Creating a drum bus
All the drum children are recorded and it is time to get them all together and put them on the drum bus.
A ‘bus’ is a fader where all the drum tracks come together. Allowing you to change the overall level of the drums as a whole but also allowing you to apply effects to them all at the same time.
Sort the levels before you do anything else
Before you start adding compression, effects, EQ and god knows what else to your drum tracks. Simply listen to them through a good pair of monitor speakers and get the levels sounding as good as you can.
Make sure everything can be heard and that certain elements like cymbals aren’t overpowering. I like to start all the track faders at zero and bring them in one by one, tweaking as I go until everything sounds as good as it can without any other effects being added.
How to pan drums
Panning is the process of distributing your recorded sounds across the stereo field. So if you were to listen through stereo headphones or speakers and the entire track was panned as far as possible to the left, then you would only hear sound coming from the left speaker or headphone.
You will often find the pan control (sometimes referred to as pan-pot) described as a clock face. So if the dial is all the way to the left as in the image below this is 7 o’clock.
With drums you want the listener to feel as if they are standing in front of a real drum kit, surrounded by the sound.
I find it much easier to think about when I visualize it like this:
If you recorded the kit using 2 overhead microphones. You can figure out the correct panning position for your drums by panning the overhead left microphone all the way to the left and the overhead right microphone all the way right. Leave the kick and snare in the middle, this should always be the case. Then listen back and tweak the panning to position the drums as you hear them on the overhead microphones. It should look fairly similar to the diagram above for a right-handed drummer and standard kit setup.
How to EQ drums
You may find that even if your drums sounded great on their own. When added to the mix in amongst other instruments they don’t sound as good. Maybe certain drums become lost and aren’t as prominent as you wanted.
The temptation can be to turn that drum up and force it to be heard in the mix, but that won’t always work. The thing is, as humans we only have a certain range of frequencies that we can hear and many instruments share a lot of those frequencies. So a kick drum might sound punchy on its own but alongside a bass guitar, it may disappear slightly. For this, we turn to EQ which is the process of manipulating frequencies of each track so to shape the final sound we want the listener to hear.
The EQ Window
You may be familiar with it already but above is a picture of the EQ window in the DAW software. This particular image is from Ableton Live but every DAW has a similar looking window.
Along the bottom (x-axis) you have the sound frequency in Hz, and on the left-hand side (y-xis) you have the levels in dB. Currently, the orange line is flat so all the frequencies on that track will come through ‘as recorded’. But by moving that orange line in certain ways we can cut out or boost certain frequencies to change the sound.
Below is an example of cutting a particular frequency.
To cut or boost?
Different people will tell you different things when it comes to using EQ. Shaping sound using it is a bit of an art form that takes time to perfect.
I rarely tend to boost EQ when mixing and tend to use cutting much more. If I want the kick drum to be more pronounced, instead of simply heading to the kick track and boosting it, I instead try and determine which other instruments may be fighting with it for space in the frequency spectrum (a bass guitar for example) and then cut that slightly at the frequencies that I want the bass to be more pronounced.
Using a high-pass filter
A high pass filter EQ will only let frequencies above a certain number ‘pass’ hence the name. Or you can think of it as cutting all frequencies below a certain value. This is a good trick to use on all drums, even the kick. It gets rid of the low sub-bass frequencies.
Sweeping EQ to find unwanted sounds
For the majority of your tracks, particularly where you recorded live drums you will find some sound creeping in that doesn’t sound very pleasant. This might be a bit of extra ringing on a snare for example.
To get rid of this, find the offending track and solo it. Then using the EQ to boost the frequency a large amount at one point and sweep back and forth up and down the spectrum until you start to hear a sound you really don’t like. At that point where the sound is worst, cut the frequency to eliminate the unwanted sound from the mix.
You can change the Q value which affects the range the frequency cut or boost acts across. A higher Q number acts across a smaller frequency. See in the images below the difference between a Q value of 5 and a Q value of 1.
EQ on the drum bus
Once you have done a bit of EQ work on you individual drums you will probably want to apply some EQ to the drum bus as a whole.
I tend to find once all the drum tracks are added together it gets quite muddy in the mid-range frequencies and so a common technique is to ‘scoop’ out some of those frequencies using EQ on the drum bus.
Using compression on drums
Compression is a daunting subject and one that scared me for a long time. I wrote an entire article on compression recently to try and explain what it does so check it out if you still aren’t sure.
I won’t go into lots of detail here but compression is a good way to add a bit of extra ‘punch’ to the snare and kick.
You can do clever things like adding a parallel compression so that certain elements are compressed when others play. These are all quite advanced techniques and as a beginner, I wouldn’t get stuck on this yet.
With every aspect of music production in the home studio, it is important to get the basics right before getting carried away. Yes, there are lots of techniques you can get into when you get more advanced such as layering tracks or adding different types of compression and really shaping your sound but without the basics learnt first it will be hard work.
Listen to lots of tracks and pay attention to exactly what the drums are doing. For a lot of rock music, I think you will be pleasantly surprised how simple they can be.
Once you have done a lot of listening, try and write some programmed drum patterns in your DAW software. Perhaps a very basic rock pattern I described in this article. Understand the importance of the link between the bass guitar and the drum forming the rhythm section.
But most of all as a non-drummer, don’t be scared to experiment. We are in the lucky position now of having millions of sampled drum kits to use so we no longer have to learn to play the drums or have a session musician!