We all know that drums form the skeleton of every composition. They maintain the pulse and emphasize the energy of the track. So one can argue that drums are the most important part of the composition. Well, that would be a very arguable notion, but one thing we know for sure is that drums are very noticeable. So knowing how to make drums sound better is crucial for every audio producer and engineer.
How to make drums sound better: before recording
There’re a lot of things that contribute to how to make drums sound better, but the most obvious place to start would be choosing the right drum set. But the problem is that it would be a subject for another article and, of course, buying a drum set is a very serious investment into your studio.
So, let’s just say that you already have a good drum set and leave it at that. After all, tips that you’ll find in this article are very versatile and could be applied to any given drum set. It doesn’t really matter if you have a very expensive top-end drum set or very cheap secondhand drums. Anything has room for improvement.
The secret to every great recording is thorough preparation. If you are an experienced drummer, the chances are that you already know how to take care of the instrument of your choice and how to make it sound better. But many beginner audio producers more often than not overlook the necessity of drums maintenance. So, if you’re unhappy with how your drums sound, start taking proper care of them.
The most obvious thing you can do in that matter is replacing the heads. And that is even more important if you have a new but very cheap drum set or especially if you have a used one. Moreover, you have to replace drum heads periodically. There are no strict rules on how frequently you should do it, so it’s better to rely on general common sense. The more you use the drums, the faster heads wear out.
Usually, drum equipment is pretty robust, but if something feels funny, you should look into that too. Although it is rare, it still is possible that snare springs might need replacement. But considering that drum equipment and heads are relatively inexpensive, this shouldn’t provide much of a challenge.
Tuning the drums
Proper drums’ tuning is a very significant step on the road to a great drum sound. The process itself isn’t very hard, but at first, you might struggle to do it by ear. But this shouldn’t be a problem since you have two equally viable solutions here.
On the one hand, you can invite a professional drummer into your studio to tune your drums, or if you’re on a tight budget, you may ask a friend to do it for free, considering that you have an experienced drummer amongst your peers. If you don’t know one personally, the rule of 6 handshakes still applies. After all, we all work in the same industry and should be able to help each other.
On the other hand, you can always invest in a drum tuner. There’re lots of them available on the market starting from vintage mechanical tuners to highly sophisticated digital ones. Apart from saving your time, drum tuners could also train your ears to recognize a proper drum sound. And, eventually, you should be able to tune your drums by ear.
Proper recording gear
Although questions like with what gear and how to record drums are answers that every audio producer should find themselves, there are a few suggestions you might want to consider. There are mic sets that are specifically designed for drums recordings, but that doesn’t mean you have to use those exclusively. If you already have multiple mics, which you’ve bought for different purposes, it’s very much possible that they might sound great on drums.
The number of mics you would need greatly depends on the goal you’re trying to achieve. But for a decent drum recording, four mics are plenty. Use one for kick drum, one for snare, and a stereo pair for overheads. If you’re in a tight spot, and if you have a very decent drummer, even just overheads would be enough. After all, that’s how they’ve done it in the 30’s and 40’s.
But if you’d choose a multiple mics setup, you’ll most definitely struggle if you have an audio interface with just two inputs. For greater flexibility, each drum should be recorded on a separate track. So you might invest in an audio interface with a greater number of inputs or just buy a digital mixer.
How to make drums sound better: after recording
After your drums are recorded, and you are pleased with the result, there’re a few things that you could do before you start mixing it with other instruments. Although you can easily skip a few of the steps mentioned below, you might also find them very useful and even unavoidable if you’re aiming for a very polished commercial sound. That said, we would always choose to do these steps, or rather edits, during the mixing stages, especially considering that they wouldn’t affect the sound of drums itself relative to the sound of other instruments inside the mix.
While recording the drums, you’ll have multiple microphones on different distances from any given sound source, and that will always introduce some minor phase issues. And despite the fact that those issues may not even bother you, it still wouldn’t hurt to try and fix them.
The core of the problem is that, for example, your snare is simultaneously recorded by a dedicated snare mic and the overheads. And since overheads are significantly further from the snare mic relative to the snare itself, the sound of the snare would be delayed in the overheads. There are two ways to fix this problem.
First of all, you can do it in a rather old-fashioned way by hand. All it takes is to simply drag the tracks within a couple of milliseconds. You can do that by simply magnifying the tracks and looking at the waveforms.
The second way to do this, and by far the less tedious one, is to use a dedicated plugin. This will let you do it with greater precision and in almost no time at all.
Although we usually use an equalizer to enhance or subtract frequencies in a mixing environment, we also could use it to fix the mic bleed. Generally speaking, you don’t want your kick drum on a track that features the sound of a snare. Apart from the aforementioned phase issues, this also might lead to a lot of confusion on mixing stages. You can fix those problems by simply soloing tracks individually and cutting the offending frequency bands in which mic bleed is the most obvious.
Although nothing and no one stops you from compressing drums as you would while mixing any other instrument, we suggest a slightly different approach. Try to use some vintage compressor on a drum bus. Yes, we do realize that it’s very much possible that you will do it anyway while mixing. But what we suggest is to pretend that your drums were recorded through some vintage outboard gear.
As we all know, something like LA-2A was used and is still used widely in studios around the world, especially on drum tracks. Try to set the compressor so it would just gently brush the picks and leave it there. Even if your project does not suggest a vintage sound, a little bit of nostalgic feel and character would not hurt.
Speaking of character, you don’t actually need a compressor to get it. Unless you have a lot of very expensive analog gear, the chances are that you mostly use digital equipment, which generally sounds very clean. But the thing is that listeners actually don’t like “clean”. So even if your drums are recorded perfectly, and the sound is pristine, you still might find it a bit boring which will lower the impression of your drums.
The simplest solution would be to put a saturation plugin on a drum bus. Which type of saturation to use is completely your choice, but as a general rule, a bit of tube distortion would definitely not hurt, the trick to not overdo it. And if you’re not particularly fond of a tube sound, there’s hardly any person who doesn’t like drums recorded on a tape, which also is a great way to give your sound some saturation using a tape simulation plugin.
If you’ve been wondering how to make drums sound better, you should start by changing drum heads and tuning the drums properly. Make sure that you use proper recording gear for the task or that at least you’ve set up the mics exactly how you would like them. Make sure that you have a mic set that you’re completely comfortable with. After you finish the recording, fix phase issues and mic bleeds, then use some vintage compression or saturation to give your drums some character if they sound too clean.