What’s the problem with recording drums in a small room?
Small rooms aren’t great for recording drums in. They don’t allow the drums to “breathe” i.e. you have early reflections arriving too quickly which in turn means your cymbal and drum hits can be muddy or muffled and lack sustain. There’s a saying that goes along the lines of “You can make a big room sound small, but you can’t make a small room sound big”.
If you happen to have a low ceiling, it’s also difficult to get the overheads far enough away from the kit to get decent separation between the cymbals and the toms and snare. In reality, you need great absorption above the kit or a ceiling that’s infinitely high and lets the sound waves escape.
Let’s take a look at what can you do to get the best results when you’re recording drums in a small room.
There are several methods for recording drums with anything from 1 microphone to 7 or more but when you’re working in a small room, less can definitely be more.
3 mic setup
First of all, find that one spot in the room where the drums sound great. The best tools you’ve got for this are on the side of your head. Spend some time walking around the room, turn your head 90 degrees, 45 degrees, stand up taller, squat lower do what you have to to find the best listening place in the room and place a room mic there. I like to use a large diaphragm cardioid polar pattern condenser mic and place it around 2 – 2.5 meters away from the kick and about 2m above the floor.
Next, mic the kick and the snare using dynamic cardioid mics. Close mic the snare (about 5cm) and position the kick mic inside the kick drum. You’ll want to experiment with exact placement of these.
In this scenario, you want the room mic to do the heavy lifting, it’s going to make up the bulk of the recording of the drum kit. The snare and kick mics are really just there to enable you to give them a little more punch.
4 mic setup with “underheads”
This is a variant on the Glyn Johns Technique which normally uses two overhead microphones, a kick mic, and a snare mic.
For the kick, use a dynamic condenser mic that’s been specifically designed for bass or kick such as the Shure Beta 52A or the AKG D112. For the snare, use a dynamic cardioid mic, a Shure SM-57 will do nicely. Close mic the snare (about 5cm) and position the kick mic inside the kick drum.
For the “underheads” use a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics like the Rode NT1A, Audio-Technica AT2020 or the Samson C-1. Position the first of these about 1 metre from the snare directly out in front of the kick drum at about the height of the toms and pointing at the centre of the snare. Place the second mic to the right of the toms (assuming right-hand drummer) the same height and the same distance from the snare as the first, and again pointing down at the centre of the snare.
Adjacent room boom
If you have an adjacent room, like a hallway or bathroom etc, you can use this room to add some big room sound to your recording by placing a figure 8 mic or stereo pair in the room and leaving the door to the adjacent room open during the recording.
Face the mics towards the drum room for a closer sound, face them away for a bigger delay. Leaving the door only slightly ajar 3 – 5cm can produce a cavernous area-like sound.
One thing small rooms do tend to lend themselves to is heavy compression. By isolating and amplifying the transient on various mics and reducing any room noise you can get some really cool drum sounds. An 1176 in all-buttons-in mode for instance can make the drum room sound much larger than it actually is. The trade-off is that you may loose some of the expressiveness and “feel” of the drummer but you can counter this with parallel processing by blending back in some of the original signal.
You can learn more about compressing drum tracks on my article: How to use your compressor’s release value for transparent compression of drum tracks.
Drum heads and tuning
Tuning and the type of heads you’re using are super important, this is just as important in a small room as it is on a large room, if not more important. Coated heads are great for snare drums and give them that paper-like quality. Clear heads on toms will sound brighter and give you a little more attack, while coated heads will sound a bit warmer. In short, it’s a matter of taste, but in a small room a shorter sustain, like you find in a double-ply coated head, will produce less early reflections.
So there you go, not all is lost if your only option is to record drums is a small room. Let me know if you tried any of these tips and how it worked out.