Drums are the most time-consuming instrument to set up in a studio. Often, just setting up the kit, microphones and checking levels and sound, takes around 2 hours. Quite often it takes this long simply because the drummer hasn’t prepared the kit for the session.
Many bands who are setting out to record for the first time don’t realise that drum kits are often built primarily for either live use or studio use. Those huge drums your drummer plays, sound amazing on stage, but in the studio their sound is likely to be too boomy and indistinct. For this reason, many established drummers have at least two kits. One which they use primarily for live work, and another they use in the studio. As a general rule, smaller drums sound better in the studio, and larger drums sound better on stage. The best kick drum sounds I’ve heard recorded have come from 16″ to 18″ kick drums.
Of course, I’m not insisting that before you record, you should splash out another grand on a new studio kit! But there are several ways that you can prepare your kit before the session in order to reduce your setting up time and therefore your band’s budget!
If it is possible, set your kit up in a small “dead” room. This will enable you to more clearly hear some of the less prominent sounds that your kit is making. These are the kind of sounds that should be eliminated before they turn up on your backing tracks…
A> Squeaks from stools and pedals – These can usually be cured or greatly diminished with a few drops of machine oil or by spraying with some WD-40.
B> Rattles and Buzzes – Check for loose tuning nuts, washers, and the mechanisms inside the drums that hold the dampers in place. Either tighten the nuts or remove them. Buzzing can also be made by cymbals with worn damping pads, or wing nuts that are touching the cymbal, but not securing it. Worn or dented skins will also buzz. As will pieces of tape or dampening material that is flapping against the skins. Don’t forget to check all the stands and fittings for rattling too.
C> Booming & Ringing – Check the tuning of your drums, particularly if you have top and bottom skins in use. Although they will need to be tweaked again during the session, taking time beforehand to give them a thorough tuning will save a lot of time. Listen particularly for drums that seem much deader or have a longer ring than the others. Slacking off the bottom skin will reduce the length of the ring. Tightening the bottom skin will increase the ring or change the tone. For ease, you may wish to remove the bottom skins entirely. Likewise, a much better kick drum sound can be achieved without the front skin on the kick drum. Even a front skin with a hole cut in it can sometimes ring with an uncomplimentary tone that can be picked up on a recording.
D> Skins – Old skins can be very dull-sounding. Make sure the sound is consistent throughout the kit. Having one new tom-tom skin could make this drum stand out above the others in the session. If you can’t afford to replace all the skins, then perhaps change it for an older one that will be more in keeping with the sound from the rest of the drums. The snare drum needs to sound as bright as possible in order to cut through the mix, so if you can only afford to replace one old skin, make sure it is the snare skin.
E> Snare Drum – Pay careful attention to the snare drum. Together with the kick drum and lead vocal, this will be the most prominent sound in the mix. Many metal shells have their own particular tone or metallic ring. If the ring is a complimentary harmonic to the key of the song you are recording, this can become a selling-point in the overall sound of the song. However, the chances are that this will not be the case, particularly if you are recording a few songs in different keys. You will therefore want to reduce this ring to a more manageable level. If various tunings don’t do the trick, you may have to resort to opening up the snare drum and fitting some dampening around the inside of the shell. The amount you use will depend on how big the problem is. But don’t overdo it. You need to keep the character of the drum intact. The next thing to focus on are the snares. Make sure that the release mechanism does fully release the snares from the skin so that it doesn’t buzz when other instruments are overdubbing in the same room. Also make sure that when the snares are in place they are at the right tension to give the preferred snap when you hit the drum at various velocities and at different positions on the top skin. Bottom skins and snares that are broken or damaged will buzz or not give the required sound.
Finally, I don’t want spikes to be embedded in my wooden studio floor! I do have a special Gretch drum mat and other anchors, but please bring your own if your kit tends to wander, and make sure you retract all the spikes!