Probably the single most troublesome instrument to record may be the drum kit. Engineers obsess over the drum sound – and well they should, since the drums are the heartbeat of virtually all modern music. It’s a fact that drums that sound small in the track will make the rest of the track sound small as well, regardless of how well everything else is recorded.
Unfortunately, most inexperienced engineers attribute their drum sound to their recording gear when in reality that’s not the case at all. When it comes right down to it, the main reason for great drum sound comes from the talent of the drummer and the drum kit itself. Get a great-sounding kit and a killer drummer and it’s difficult to make a bad-sounding drum recording.
On the other hand, a bad-sounding kit with a wimpy drummer isn’t going to record well regardless of how much high-end recording gear you throw at it. This excerpt from the 4th edition of my Recording Engineer’s Handbook looks at how the physical attributes of a drum kit contribute to its sound.
The Keys To A Great-Sounding Drum Kit
It’s true that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a great-sounding kit, but in the studio it usually means a kit that’s well-tuned and free of buzzes and sympathetic vibrations. Free of sympathetic vibrations means that when you hit the snare drum, for instance, the toms don’t ring along with it. Or if you hit the rack toms, the snare and the other toms don’t ring along as well. The way to achieve this is all in the tuning and the kit maintenance, but first let’s learn a little bit about drums themselves, since it helps to have a basic idea of why they sound the way they do.
Here are the things that affect the sound of a drum:
– Shell size has the most impact on the natural pitch of a drum. The larger the diameter, the lower the natural pitch, although you can obviously change this a bit by tuning the heads.
– Shell depth is mostly responsible for how loud the drum will be and, to some degree, the articulation of the sound. This means that a shallow shell (say, a 9″ tom) doesn’t have as much surface area as a larger one, so the sound doesn’t ring as long and has a sharper attack.
– Shell thickness is usually overlooked as a contributing factor to the sound of a drum. Thinner shells actually are more resonant since they’re easier to excite because they have a lower mass than a heavier, thicker shell.
– Shell material used to make the drum shell is the most responsible for the tone of the drums. Here are the most commonly used drum-shell materials.
- Maple is the most prized construction material by drummers, primarily because the sound is so even across the drum frequency spectrum.
- Mahogany sound warmer than maple since the low end is increased.
- Birch is very hard and dense, which results in a brighter drum with a lot less low end than maple.
- Poplar has a sound very similar to birch, with a bright top end and less bottom.
- Basswood exhibits an increased low end that’s similar to mahogany.
- Luaan has a warmer sound with less top end, similar to mahogany.
– Shell interior has a lot to do with the pitch of the drum. A rough interior produces a less resonant drum, since the roughness breaks up the interior reflections. A smooth interior results in a more resonant drum, which means it’s easier to tune and control.
– Bearing edges means the cut at the edge of a drum shell where the hoops are attached. The way the bearing edge is cut can affect not only the pitch of the drum, but also how well it tunes. The sharper the cut, the brighter the drum.
– Hoop type and the number of lugs used to seat the drum heads determines how the drum will sound as well. In general, the thicker the hoop, the easier the drum will be to tune. Fewer lugs provide more complex overtones. Stamped hoops get a warmer tone than from die-cast hoops. Aluminum gives a high pitch, while brass provides more overtones. Die-cast hoops are generally both thicker and stronger than stamped hoops, so the drum becomes easier to tune. There are fewer overtones as a byproduct. Wood hoops come in different thicknesses, so they can be made to sound like either a stamped or a cast hoop, only brighter.
Of course there are other factors like drum heads and tuning that are big factors in the sound of the drums in the room, but the basic construction of the kit is where it all starts.
You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.