7 Pre-Production Tips for Drum Recording

To kick off Drum Month at Cakewalk we’ve decided to include some tips about the types of pre-production topics that can come up before you enter the studio with a drummer. These tips can apply to drummers, guitarists, producers, and engineers alike.

1. Can the drummer play to a click?

This is something to consider when a band or group approaches you for a recording. Depending on the budget, you will either spend a lot of time in the studio, or a lot of time editing drums. Spending time in the studio is much easier than spending hours and hours behind an editor. Don’t be afraid to sit in on rehearsals and even record them to get an understanding of timing and how proficient the drummer is. Here are some solutions for drummers who have a hard time playing to just a click:

  • Have someone else in the group play along with the drummer
  • Use song demos as guide tracks
  • Record in shorter sections, instead of longer sections
  • Try different percussion as click tones. (Cowbell, woodblock)

The reality is that if a group wants to record themselves, then they need to have their songs ready for the studio. This brings us to number two.

2. Demo songs before you record them.

Prepping for the studio is the only way to successfully take advantage of the time you have to cut the best performances of your songs. Practice recording yourself (if you’re the drummer) or your band’s songs to understand how your tracks will begin to come together on recording. The lesson to take away from it is to listen to the group intently to understand where improvements need to be made in order to lock in the tracks. If the session is only for drums then take the time to finalize drum fills, specific hits, and any p arts that require a certain type of pattern.

Techniques vary from drummer to drummer so each one of them will treat a song differently. Some drummers play behind the beat, and others will play ahead of the beat. Sometimes drummers do not realize how hard they need to be hitting the drums to get a proper sound for recording. As an engineer or producer, you want to eliminate all the possible surprises before entering the studio.

3. Find the right type of drum head for the music you are recording.

Different jobs call for different tools, and pairing the right drum head with genre is an important factor in the final sound of any record. Types of drum heads vary from company to company but there are a few types of heads that each company produces on a regular basis.

  • Single Ply These are some of the most common drum heads used across the board. Their sensitivity is perfect for light hitters. Single ply heads produce high-end frequencies when hit and their pronounced tone and sound can be useful in arena rock shows as well as quiet jazz ballads. Single ply heads are typically made from one layer of 7 mil Mylar are considered the thinnest of all types of drum heads. Unfortunately this means their durability can be sacrificed if they are hit too hard.
  • Pre-Muffled – Eliminating overtones and resonant frequencies from a kick drum is a commonly used practice for many styles of music. Rock, Metal, Pop, and Country typically keep the tone of the kick drum from ringing in order to achieve a blend of the “thud” and “thwack” of the beater against the batter head. These drum heads are categorized as Pre-Muffled  – meaning that they come pre packaged with foam or other damping features to keep any unwanted frequencies from getting out of the drum and into the sound of the rest of the kit. This is especially important within a studio setting.
  • Double Ply – Double Ply heads have two layers of Mylar and can vary in thicknesses. The most common being two 7 mil layers, but companies have produced Double Ply heads with varying thickness in order to allow drummers to attain different sounds. Double Ply heads do not expel as many overtones and frequencies as Single Ply heads and the two layers of Mylar produces more attack and an overall level of control in the sound. Double Ply heads are somewhat easier to record in studio applications and are easier to apply time stretching, replacement, and other invasive drum editing techniques in post production.
  • Coated – “Coating” a drum head means that some degree of dampening has been applied to the actual head. There are many variations of this, but the goal is to soften up the sound of the head so that it produces a warm sound. Drum heads that are coated are sprayed, covered with Mylar film, or have some sort of other substance applied to make the drum sound warmer and less like abrasive.

Once you have found the head you want to use start the session with new and seated (broken in) heads. Make sure to buy more than one to have spares on hand.

4. Tune your drum heads, continue to tune them as you record.

Drum heads always need a good tuning before any recording. They start to change in tone as they are played or left idle and should constantly be re-tuned as you record for long periods of time. The last thing you want to happen is to have your drums sound differently as your album progresses from song to song.

Drum tuning does not specifically mean that the drums are tuned to a set of pitches. They are actually tuned so that they sound “together” when played in succession. Each size drum head has a range that it’s tone operates within. Tuning your drums outside of this range can result in strange aliasing, or cause relative drums to subsequently be pushed out of their own tuning range. This process takes time and practice to perfect, but in the end it can highly benefit the sound of the your record.

5. Are there tempo changes or time signature changes in these tracks, how should you set those up in your DAW?

Recording a session that has multiple tempo changes can get complicated quickly if your metronome track is not setup in a way that makes sense to your drummers. Once you get your hands on some demos of the group make sure to tempo map the songs so that you can give the drummer a decent click track to practice with before entering the studio. Getting used to multiple tempo changes and key signature changes can be a tricky task when first heading into the studio. You do not want to break your drummer’s spirits by surprising them with an inefficient click track while they are trying to record for the first time. Do your due diligence and prepare a track before you enter the studio with cues and count-ins. Do this in the event that the drummer has not already done it, obviously.

6. Does the drummer use triggers? Should you use triggers?

A trigger is a transducer that is placed on the head of a drum. Once the drum is hit, a signal is sent to a sound generator. That sound generator expels the artificial sound of a drum or midi information.

A drum trigger can come in handy regardless of what style of music you are recording. You can record the MIDI information of the drum for easier time adjustment, enhance the existing sound of your drum with your microphones by blending the two, or simply use it to properly understand where the attacks of each transient are. In styles that are kick-drum centric the common practice is to use a trigger in order to level out the differing hits in order to achieve an almost inhuman sound. As an engineer, the use of triggers has not handicapped my session flow or drum editing at all. In fact, it has made certain situations a bit easier.

7. Items you should always have on you when engineering drums.

A few items that you as an engineer or producer should always have on hand with you when recording drums:

  • Moving Blankets – For isolating kick drums, covering hard/reflective surfaces, and changing the acoustics within a room.
  • Spring Clamps – For holding loose cables and moving blanks
  • Bungee Cords – Holding up blankets, loose cables, etc.
  • Counter Weights (or some form of one) – Counterweights are useful when working with inexpensive microphone stands that can fall and lose their placement.
  • Multiple Tuning Keys (They always get lost) – You don’t have to be a drummer to tune drums or own a tuning key. I would suggest purchasing a few of these to keep on your keychain.
  • MoonGel – This is a blue dampening pad that you can by to place on drum heads during recording. It reduces the ringing and decay of a drum.
  • Measuring Tape – When setting up overhead microphones, you need to make sure the distance from the snare to both overhead microphones are the same distance.
  • Gaffers Tape – This tape is great for the studio because it is strong and does not leave a residue when removed.
  • Acoustic Foam – It is always good to have extra foam on hand if you need to muffled drums.
  • Pillows (for muffling kick drum) – Removing the front of a kick drum and then stuffing it with pillows can reduce resonance and bring out more attack from the drum.
  • Cinder Block – placing one of these in front of the kick drum can keep the whole set from moving forward in a room with a slippery floor.
  • A Camera – Take pictures of the mic placements to save for the future in case you need to re-track.
  • DI Box (Triggers) – Most trigger outputs are quarter inch jacks, you will need this patch into a tie line box that only has XLR inputs.
  • Spare Snare Head  – 14” coated snare head. Broken snare head brings the session to a sudden halt.

Learn more production tips from The Cakewalk Blog and Knowledge Base:

9 Life Lessons That I’ve Learned as a Freelance Producer

10 Tips for Aspiring Mix Engineers

11 Easy Tips for Project Organization