Dealing with Drum Ambience
by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
There are a lot of misconceptions about recording great drum sounds. I find that most engineers place too much emphasis on the type of microphones and their choice of outboard gear, over what I consider to be the top four faclors that contribute the most to quality drum sounds: the drummer, the drum kil, the drum room, and the miking technique in that room . They should all take priority over your onslaught of overpriced vintage gear.
Assuming that you hove a great drummer behind a good sounding, well-tuned drum set, I want to tackle the often misunderstood and potentially frustrating topic known as drum ambience. The room where you choose 10 record your drums may be more important than you think. An amazing drummer and kit can sound lifeless and uninspiring in the wrong setting. Often times, it just forces you to be a little more creative to get the desired sound. I've found these acoustically challenged spaces in both home and professional studios alike. Ironically, I've had same of the best results recording drums in more unconventional environments, like in the stairwell of jingle writer/producer Clifford lane's loft in Brooklyn or in the arcade room at the Lake Ranch Studio in lake Elsinore, California. Recording drums in a non-studio
setting offers some unique challenges: determining if a particular space is sonically appropriate, running extremely long mic lines, isolating from your makeshift control room and of course, the irate neighbor factor. But whether you've got Tommy Lee
killing the kit in your grandma's dining room or at Ocean Way in L.A., acquiring the ear for what makes for your ideal drum sound should be your priority. Did I just use the words "Tommy Lee" and "your grandma" in the same sentence? Sorry about that!
When accessing the acoustic properties of a space, you ' ll be looking for a room that not only has the right ambience (natural reverb) but the right kind of ambience. You may be after that huge Bonham drum sound or a tighter, drier tone, but whatever your sonic goals are, listen for a clean decay without flutter or pings. In a residential environment, matte painted dry wall, low ceilings, carpeted floors, and parallel walls are the quickest way to a lackluster drum sound (not to mention just a dull place to live). A high sloped ceiling with hardwood floors, or an exposed brick wall in an oddly shaped room, usually yields more promising results. Use your ears - clapping your hands or snapping your fingers to listen to the ambience can give you clues if a room is even worth considering.
A lot of people are discovering the merit of good natural ambience when tracking drums. It can often be the 'glue' that bonds all the elements in your mix together. It can also make any supplemental drum samples you may want to layer in later sound more 'believeable'. The characteristic of the drum room can become a real sonic signature that cannot be replicated by adding artificial reverb after-the-fact.
But having said that, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. A room with an excessive amount of decay can create several issues that may not be apparent until you go to mix your track. An overly ambient room is louder than a dry room. This can cause cymbal hits and hi-hat wash to overpower the other drums and bleed obtrusively into the direct mics that are aimed at the kick, snare and toms. When you compress and eq any of these elements to gain some 'length', it's only going to bring these high frequencies up even more.
Instead of controlling the room with some wall treatments or even choosing a different room altogether, many engineers may try to place those direct mics closer to the actual drum than where is ideal, and ultimately compromise the tone. Baffling off the
drums a bit can work wonders. Sometimes it doesn 't take much for a lot of that ambience to get absorbed. The addition of a rug placed in the right spat on the floor is usually a good place to start. Don't worry, interior decorating for purposes of getting kick-ass drum sounds is very masculine...really.
When you're ready to haul in the drum set, try moving the kick drum around the room to hear where it sounds the most punchy, thick and powerful. A little trial and error with one drum like this will save you the hassle of needlessly setting up the entire kit only to end up moving it a dozen times to find this sweet spot.
When you're doing this, keep in mind that part of capturing a great drum tone comes from the drummer feeling great about his or her surroundings. Psychological considerations should be balanced with acoustic ones. The drum room at producer Scott Humphrey's Chop Shop in Hollywood has a large circular riser surrounded by a retractable crushed velvet curtain. If a drummer's ego doesn't already have hi believing he's the king of the drum world, this live room will. And if his best isn't good enough there, well, let's just say that it's not called the Chop Shop for nothing.
(Insert obligatory comment about digital editing as a contributing factor to the
decline of musicianship here)
At any rate, the moral of the story: where you position the drum kit in your
room can be mare critical than it may look on the surface.
There's definitely a challenge in faithfully capturing the ambience that surrounds your drums the way that you actually hear it. A lot of times it seems I'm doing the opposite-trying to get more apparent 'space' out of a smaller room . Such is the case at engineer/producer J.J. Blair's studio at Fox Force Five Recorders in Hollywood. It's small but great-sounding recording room that, with proper mic placement and compression, can sound much larger than what you'd expect from a room with
You'll find that the more ambient the room, the closer the room mics can be positioned to the drum kit, whereas in a more tight-sounding space you may need to point them away from the drums to get the desired sense of space.
Ultimately, in the mix, I'll end up sliding these roam tracks more in phase and
crushing them with an ungodly amount of compression. Knowing this, I will position these mics to pick up the least amount of that cymbal wash I was mentioning earlier. I like using microphones that naturally roll off a little of that high
frequency range-like an older tube or ribbon mic.
As a mixer, I've been in the position to hear a lot of engineers' room-mic tracks
and without fail, the talkback track (the SM57 mic that's set up to communicate
wi th the band off the floor) usually ends up being more usable than the expensive
tube mics that they've ever·so-carefully positioned in that room. So I guess there's
something to be said far not trying too hard here.
And Listening Again, Last
In this age of software-simulated everything, I think that there is an opportunity for independent bands and musicians to get away from the clone-like drum sounds that emanate from today's recordings and embrace the character and the imperfections of natural acoustical environments.
This will counteract the tendency for DAW recordings to become sterile and safe. I mean, there's nothing 'safe' about a grown man beating the crap out of a drum set in your garage-turned-studio, so it shouldn 't sound that way. .. should it?