Adventures in drum recording.

I got the chance to record a real drum set for the first time in late 1999. I piled most of my gear into the car one afternoon and brought it over to Gord’s friend Andrew’s place. The three of us became “Papa Ghostface and Friend” for a day and recorded two songs that found a home on the HERE COMES TROUBLE EP. I stuck a Shure SM57 in front of Andrew’s kick drum, put up another SM57 as a mono overhead, and that was it.

My next experiment in drum recording came in early 2000 while working on what was supposed to be a full-length Soul Crossing album. This time I used four mics — an SM57 on the kick, another pointing at the bottom of the snare, and two more dynamic mics serving as stereo overheads (an SM58 and a cheap RadioShack mic). I couldn’t believe how much more depth the sound had with just a few more microphones added to the mix.

I bought my own drum set in the summer of 2000 and started using a similar four-microphone setup, with the snare mic’d from the top and the kick mic leaning against the shell of the resonant head. I only had three mic stands, so I had to improvise. One overhead mic came in from above the high-hat. The other was situated near the ride cymbal. I had no preamps, no compression, and no idea what I was doing, but the results sounded pretty good to me.

Things got more chaotic when I found myself in band situations. For a few years those four dynamic microphones were all I had. I was recording everything live off-the-floor, with only the occasional overdub. When I needed something to sing into, the drums had to take a hit. Sometimes I would stick a single SM57 in front of the kit and hope for the best. Sometimes I could spare another mic or two. When I recorded someone else’s band, I used anywhere from two to six microphones. It was always changing depending on the nature of the music, how many extra mics they had to lend to the cause, and whatever limitations were imposed by the space we were recording in.

After trying out a few different two-mic configurations with Tyson in the GWD days, I settled on one SM57 for an overhead (we called it the “crotch mic” for obvious reasons) and another on the beater side of the kick drum. The trick was not pointing the second mic at the kick. Instead, I placed it at a ninety-degree angle so it picked up some snap from the snare. Those two mics captured a surprisingly balanced sound with a lot of character.

That wonky setup lasted longer than most, carrying over to the three solo albums I made after the band broke up. By the time of OH YOU THIS I felt it was time to start using a few more microphones again. I picked up a Rode NT1 and an NT4 stereo mic. The ART preamps and Aphex compressor I’d been using for the two-mic approach were usurped by two DBX 576 preamps and a 1046 compressor. I recorded acoustic guitar tracks with the NT4 and sang into the NT1. Then I moved the NT1 across the room, aimed it at the kick drum, used the NT4 as an overhead mic, and stuck an SM57 on the snare.

With just a touch of EQ and compression, I felt like this was the tightest drum sound I’d ever managed to get. The best part was how easy it was to dial in, with the stereo overhead mic eliminating phase issues. The sound got even tighter when I picked up an AKG D112 before recording BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, removed the resonant head from my kick drum, stuck a blanket inside, and messed with the tuning a little. Having a dedicated kick mic made my life a little simpler, and I got more “air” in the overheads when I moved the NT4 to the other side of the drum kit so it was pointed at me, where before I had it looking down at the drums from my perspective.

I was content with all of this until I upgraded my mic preamps again after finishing THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET and started hearing what was really going on. All at once those Rode mics stopped doing it for me. I bought an AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic without knowing much about it, since I liked the convenience of being able to stick a single mic in front of the drums, filling in the rest by spot-mic’ing the kick and snare.

Before I could try out my new three-microphone setup, a trio of drug dealers moved in next door and partied nonstop for seven months, robbing me of my ability to record anything. The R88 sat in its carrying case, wrestling with troubling existential questions. I didn’t unsheathe it for the first time until after we moved into this house.

When the R88 finally did come out of its case, I learned the swivel mount attachment it came with was defective. I screwed the mic into a heavy duty boom stand, tried it in front of the drum kit, and almost fell over. I heard the sound of my drums in my room, with a three-dimensional quality that didn’t exist in any recording I’d made before. There was no need for a close mic to reinforce anything. I took the SM57 off the snare and sold my AKG D112.

It took me an album or two to get a good handle on how I needed to play if I wanted to get the most out of using just a stereo front-of-kit mic. A lot of the drumming habits I developed over the years weren’t going to work anymore. I had to lay off the cymbals and simplify my approach. I was always a quiet drummer, but now I found the softer I played the more the tone seemed to open up. I got some of my best sounds using brushes. When I did play with sticks, I started keeping a brush or a mallet in one hand so I could hit the crash with a lighter touch.

The Great River MP-2NV gave me all the gain I needed to drive the R88. I added some high frequency EQ on my mixer to compensate for the ribbon mic’s rolloff at 8k and 20k. Then I got an A-Designs Hammer tube EQ in the middle of recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, started using that in place of the digital EQ, and almost fell over a second time.

I’ve been recording my drums this way for twelve years now. Every once in a while I’ll put up a large diaphragm condenser as a distant room mic if I want to add some extra ambience or a weird effect, and I’ve recorded a few brushed snare parts with an LDC up close, but that doesn’t happen often. Most of what you hear on every album I’ve made since 2008 is just the stereo ribbon mic in front of the drums. I’ve stuck with the same approach on albums I’ve recorded for other artists. I wouldn’t have a problem putting more microphones on the kit if someone wanted me to, but no one’s ever asked.

I’m the only person who’s played drums on any of those albums, which is pretty funny to me. This way of recording forces you to “mix” your own playing, since there are no close mics to compensate for whatever might be off. A surprising amount of people seem to have trouble controlling their dynamics. But that isn’t the reason no one else has sat on the drum throne for anything I’ve recorded since 2002.

It’s because I’m the only one who shows up to play.

When I was making final adjustments to a few mixes for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I started thinking the drums sounded kind of anemic. It was a strange thing to experience after being happy with the sound I was getting for so long. It wasn’t even based on anything I was hearing. It was my brain’s way of trying to find something wrong with the album. I was having a hard time processing the idea of finishing something I’d been working on for almost a fifth of my life.

That lasted about two days. Then I came to my senses. I think I’ve heard too many soulless modern recordings where the drums are pumped-up and sound-replaced to within an inch of their lives. Sometimes you get it in your head that drums are supposed to sound that way all the time, even when you know better.

Before that weird little brain blip, I was thinking about making a change. After twelve years of recording drums this way — by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach — maybe it wouldn’t hurt me to put a few more mics in front of the kit again. The single-mic method has taught me a lot about subtlety, and I’m a big fan of the naturalistic approach, but sometimes you want a harder-hitting sound.

I did some experimenting on Wednesday. I tried out a few different things before settling on an over-the-shoulder position for the R88. I pointed an SM57 at the snare drum for the first time in fifteen years. In the absence of an AKG D112, I tried a Sennheiser 421 on the kick.

The first thing I noticed was how much sound I was getting from the R88. It was insane how vividly it captured every part of the drum kit no matter where I put it. Once I brought the snare and kick mics into the mix, it started sounding like a record.

And I hated it.

I wasn’t expecting that. The bigger, punchier sound was what I thought I wanted. As soon as the close mics came into play, I felt all the great dynamics the overheads captured starting to get choked and flattened out. More than anything, I missed all the space that lives in the sound when the R88 is out in front of the drums. This more traditional configuration sounded artificial in a way that didn’t appeal to me at all. I could have moved the mics around some more, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. I found out what I needed to know.

I moved the R88 back where it belonged.

Conclusions? I’ve got a few.

The AEA R88 is one serious microphone. Easily one of the best recording-related investments I’ve ever made. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of its potential by limiting it to drum-recording applications, but no other combination of mics I’ve used has ever done a better, more honest job of reproducing the sound of my drum set.

A conventional, “produced” drum sound doesn’t work for my music anymore. It isn’t what I want to hear. I’m not sure if it’s because of what my ears have grown accustomed to or the specific aesthetic I’ve developed, but it’s inescapable. My drum sound has become — quite literally — the sound of my drums.

I guess I’m sticking with what works.

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