First, let me preface this by saying these are simply my opinions and how I do things. By no means am I saying any of this is “law” and I am in no way a pro at anything. There’s lots of ways to skin a cat. This is just my way and my ideas based on what works for me, but I think it can be helpful for those of you just getting started recording acoustic drums with mediocre equipment and rooms. For the purpose of this long-winded ramble, I’m gonna assume you can play halfway decently, your kit is in a less-than-ideal room, and you have the capability to record at least 4 tracks at once.
You don’t need to have thousands of dollars worth of mics and a pro sounding room to record acoustic drums successfully at home. Sure, that stuff is super nice, but for most of us modest home-recorders, our drums are set up where we have room for them, and we use the mics we have or can get relatively cheaply. But, there are 2 things that should be done without fail. I know I said none of this would be “law”, but these 2 things are as follows:
Have a plan!
Before you can record anything that’s gonna sound worth a damn, you need to know how to play it. Improvisation is great for jams and stuff, but for tracking a serious attempt at a song, it’s better if you know your parts. Knowing what you’re gonna play and how you’re gonna play it makes the whole process WAY easier. I’ve written drum tracks on the fly and it’s no fun. I recommend that before you hit record, know what you’re gonna do and have it practiced enough that you can play it without thinking about it. This way, you can relax and just play, which will allow you to use dynamics and shit more naturally. Spend a few days, weeks, or whatever recording rough idea tracks to some scratch guitars and bass. This will serve as practice and as your own brain-storming session before you hit record for real. Maybe it’s just me, and I love playing my drums, but I don’t want to spend 3 hours tracking drums for a 3 minutes song.
Tune your drums, dammit!
This should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Tune your damn drums. If you don’t know how to, learn. There’s a jillion sites on the net telling you how to tune drums. Properly tuned, good sounding drums almost mix themselves. You don’t have to have a 15 thousand dollar custom DW kit to get great sounds. Even cheapo drums can be very serviceable for recording with good heads and careful tuning. But be realistic. A 10 inch tom will never sound like a 16 inch tom. Tune your drums to sound the best they can. I personally like dry snares, a punchy kick, and big, open sounding toms with clear heads for rock drums. The snare thing is purely personal choice, but the open sounding toms and punchy kick have benefits. One being that you can easily, tune, muffle or moongel an open tom to sound flatter if you need it that way. Conversely, it’s difficult to damn near impossible to get a big, open sound with dull, coated heads. But use what you want. An open sounding tom will also cut through the barrage of guitars and bass a little better than a dead tom would, and they just sound more musical to me. A dry, punchy kick will also help cut through a bunch of distorted guitars and rumbling bass better and with less EQ work than a more “natural” typical kick sound. The kick and snare are the drive behind rock music, so get them loud and proud and out front. And don’t be afraid to EQ that kick if you need to. Most kicks don’t naturally sound like they do in commercial recordings. More on that later.
Now that those 2 "rules" are out of the way, here's the rest. This is all just my opinion.
Miking the kit...
This area of recording drums is probably one of the most debatable topics ever. There’s all kinds of overhead placement and close-miking techniques. Some people go super minimal with one mic in the room. This can and has worked great in certain situations. But for rock drums competing with loud instruments, I personally don’t think you’ll be happy going that route unless you have some seriously kick ass gear and an awesome room to do it in. Some people mic everything that they can. That may be overkill for what you need, and it requires a lot of inputs and tracks. I can’t tell you which one to use. I’ll just say what I do. For the overheads, I use small-diaphram cardoid condensers. My room is not great, so they help in not picking up so many wongo reflections. I use the Recorderman overhead technique. Look it up. It works for my room. But try a bunch of different techniques to find what works best for you. Spaced pair, X-Y, ORTF, Glyn Johns, etc are all just as good or better in the right situation. Just make sure that whatever method you use, you take your time and set it up properly. You can’t just hang some overheads and let er rip. Out of phase overheads generally sound sucky. There should be a method to your overhead placement madness. The overheads are not just “cymbal mics”. They pick up the whole kit and you may be surprised at how big a role they play. Properly set up overheads make a kit sound big and natural and give you an honest stereo field. Improperly set up overheads generally make everything sound like shit. When you settle on an overhead technique and get comfy with it, you may find ways to tailor it to your needs. That’s perfectly A-OK. As for close mics, I personally like em, and I like dynamic mics. Your budget and ears will be the deciding factors on what mics you can use. I will say this though, you can get by just fine without breaking the bank. For rock music, you’re gonna want to at least close mic the kick and snare for added sonic power in the mix. You’re gonna need to experiment with mic placement on these two drums. I personally like my snare mic capsule a few inches straight up from the rim pointed towards the middle of the snare. I feel I get good attack here combined with adequate shell resonance and snare buzz. I put the kick mic way inside the drum, about 4-6 inches from the batter head, a little higher than the beaters, pointed down towards the beaters’ contact spot. The toms are optional. I like to close mic my toms for that over-the-top big tom sound, but it’s not completely necessary if your toms sound good and your overheads are done right. I mic my toms similar to how I mic the snare - looking for attack and tone. I use 8 tracks total. 2 overheads, 1 kick, 1 snare, and 4 toms. That’s what works for me to get the drum sounds I like. Your results may vary. You can certainly do great with less. For big, home-recorded rock drums, I personally recommend the 2 overheads, and at least close miking the kick and snare. That’s 4 tracks. You can handle that. I never mic the hats or any cymbal specifically. The overheads get all of that.
Okay, you know what to play, your drums are tuned, and the mics are set up. Time to track. I hope you have some sound cancelling or drummers headphones or this is gonna be really tough. A relatively cheap work-around to this is to use some regular MP3 player earbuds, and wear some of those construction worker sound muffler headphone looking things over them. You can get em cheap at Home-Depot. This setup works fine for tracking drums. Just don't mix like that! Anyway, I personally recommend recording to a click (metronome) if at all possible. Most softwares that I know of will let you program time sigs and bpm changes automatically. If your song is some straight forward AC/DC style stuff (like most of mine is), simply set a bpm and go to town. I also recommend deciding your tempo before you try to record. I like to record some quick and dirty guitar or bass tracks to the click first and record the drums along to those scratch tracks. For me, it helps to hear the general idea of the music while I play the drums. This also allows me to get an idea of how the drums are gonna generally sound next to an actual bass and guitars. If something's off, it's a lot easier to move a mic a few inches at this point than it is to redo drum tracks later. It also helps to leave some space at the beginning of each project to give you time to hit record and leisurely shmooze your ass over to get comfy behind the kit before you start playing. This should be common sense, but you never know. You don't wanna have to haul ass to the kit after hitting record because you didn't leave yourself any time to get ready. That just screws your head all up. Once the drums are tracked to my satisfaction, I’ll go in and record the other instruments “for real” to the keeper drum tracks. Recording to a click also makes punch-ins and edits way cleaner if the need arises somewhere down the line. If you don’t need or want a click or can drum while playing the music in your head, rock on brother.
Mixing and processing and EQ, oh my......
This is another hotly debated issue with recorded drums. Every drum, drummer, mic, and room is different, so nothing is set in stone here. I'm gonna leave it up to you and just give you examples of what I do personally. Okay, the drums are tracked, some keeper rhythm guitars and bass are tracked, and I'm ready to play with my drum tracks. I'm a pretty firm believer that the kick and snare should be the center of your drum tracks, and really, the center of the whole song. The kick and snare drive rock music. A cool guy once told me that there's 3 parts to a great rock recording: the kick, the snare, and everything else. The kick and snare are the loudest items in my drum tracks and get the most attention. I get my snare from 2 places - the overheads and the close mic. The common school-of-thought is to get the majority of your drum sound from the overheads. I partially agree. Overheads are extremely important, but that line of thinking is kind of limiting and outdated by today's rock drum standards. I set my overheads and snare track so they each contribute about 50% of the snare sound. Half the sound comes from the close-mic, half from the overheads. The overheads give it a natural sound and the close mic gives it a superhero presence in the mix. As for the kick, I shun all conventional wisdom and go all close-mic all the time on that baby. As loud and powerful as my wonderful kick drum is on it's own, it just doesn't cut through with the overheads alone. I proudly use and abuse the close-mic'd kick track. So while the snare is the main centerpiece of the kit, the kick sets the bar by which all other tracks are mixed. The kick is the easiest drum to lose in a busy and loud mix, so get it present and mix around it. It's perfectly okay to turn things down to get the kick to shine through. You don't need commercial CD loudness to mix. If you did your gain staging properly, this isn't a big deal. Just turn your monitors up. The tom levels and panning are done to taste. I like to pan my toms supernaturally - meaning I listen to where they are in the overheads, and pan the individual tracks a little wider than where they naturally occur. I think it sounds cool and can really add some wow factor to your drum tracks. The kick and snare stay dead center. The overheads go way wide. Now for EQ. Hopefully you won't have to do much EQ work, but chances are you will, and you will probably have to break some "rules". The only "rule" I stick to is this: cut EQ to sound better, boost EQ to enhance sounds. I cut way more than I boost. I think that if you're having to boost too much, you need to re-think your mic placements, tuning, or both. Anyway, I find that with all of my drums, the mids and low-mids are generally my enemy. I find myself usually having to scoop some low mids from the toms, and a lot from the kick. Here's the basic EQ rundown:
Kick drum - Low mids are generally a problem area for many kick drums, mine included. Several kick mics come from the factory knowing this and are tailored to ignore more of the low-mids and really go crazy on the lows and highs. My kick mic is not one of these nice ones, so I usually take a nice chunk out from around 250-500 with EQ. This gets rid of the mud and also cleans out a nice spot for the bass guitar. I'll then boost around 5-6k as needed with a pretty wide Q setting to get pronounced beater attack. Here's the kicker with kicks (haha), they generally need little to no low end enhancement at all if things are done right. A kick drum is naturally a low-end instrument.You wanna muddy up a mix real fast? Boost the super lows on the kick. Leave the lows alone and you'll probably be just fine.
Snare - There's a lot of variables with this one. Snares sound way different from brand to brand, and head to head, and person to person. Your snare sound is a very personal thing. Some people like em ringy and tight, some like em dead and dark. I like em dead and tight. Like a rifle crack with no overtones. Anyway, since much of your snare sound is gonna come from the overheads, you shouldn't have to go crazy with EQ on this one. I like some gentle clean up cutting around 400-700 and some gentle snap enhancement boosting anywhere above 2-4k. If you really wanna get crazy, boost some sizzle around 8-10k.
Toms - I generally don't do much to my toms. I treat em like mini kick drums and look for mud in the low-mids and scoop it out. I use plastic tipped sticks and clear, 2-ply heads, so stick attack isn't a problem for me, but you can boost some highs to find more attack if you need to. Do a parametric sweep to find the sweet spot. A quick back-track to tuning - I like to tune my toms to get that "doppler effect" where the pitch bends when you whack the drum. A tighter bottom head does this, and I feel it helps the tom jump through the mix better.
Overheads - I do nothing to my overheads. Nothing. They are totally raw. If they get sizzly or harsh, you can roll of the very highs, but be careful. You can also high-pass the lows since you probably won't be using the overheads for any kick sound anyway, but I don't know if that's really necessary. EQ'ing the OH's will really depend on how your room reacts to your drums.
Wait, there's more!
You can compress, gate, and reverb the snot out of your drums too. I'm not gonna go into how these things work. You can research that on your own. I will say that I use very little compression. There are techniques like parallel compression that can be utilized to enhance your kick, snare, or overheads. Look it up. I use compression to tame some of my wongo drum whacks, but not as a technique to alter the sound of my drums. But it's okay if you want to. Do what your ears like. Compressed kicks usually sound pretty cool. Basically, I use compression like a limiter. A limiter is a compressor anyway. I will gate the toms and snare occasionally if I feel the bleed is distracting. Usually, a sympathetically ringing tom or cymbal bleed is inaudible in a full mix, but sometimes I just feel better knowing those tracks are quiet when they're supposed to be. You can get the same results by going in and editing the tom tracks to be quiet while they're not supposed be making any sound, but that's a lot of work. If you wanna do it, learn to use a gate and use it properly. When I use em, I set my gates to kill bleed, open quickly, let the tom ring out, and close gently. And of course, there's reverb. I sometimes get accused (constructively) of using fake drums or having my drums sound "fake" because I like em dry and punching you in the face repeatedly. I use very little reverb normally, but I'm flexible on that. I like my music and mixes to sonically attack the listeners senses, and I feel that dry-ish, punchy drums help accomplish that. We all know about the big 80's gated snare sound and huge reverby kick drums. That's too much for me. But like everything else, it's up to the individual to decide what kind and how much reverb to use. One thing I like to do is to bus the individual drum tracks to a group track, and treat the whole kit with one reverb. In the real world, when you listen to drums, the kit is played as a whole in one room. You don't have the snare in one room, and the kick in another, and the toms in another, so I don't see any reason to treat each drum individually. That's not natural and you can get some weird reverb stack up shit going on. Bus the tracks to a group track and apply a nice room reverb across the sub mix for a natural sound. But again, it's up to you. If the song has room for it, it can sound cool to treat the snare to some kind of plate reverb, and the rest of the kit to a nice room reverb. If you decide to go this route and bus the individual tracks to a group track, this would be a good time to try some compression across the kit. A little gentle compression can really make the kit jump out. Go easy and slowly, as compressed cymbals usually sound bad. In this group track, you can also fine tune the EQ of the kit as whole, if you feel it's necessary. I like to use processing and effects in a logical order. I generally go signal processing first, then sound processing. Gate first if applicable, then EQ, then compression, then reverb or whatever other sound processing I decide to do. Reverb is almost always last though. But that's just me. Play with it.
Okay, so the kit is tracked, processed, and mixed in. How do you know if it's right? Well, can you hear the kick through all the other shit? Does it sound good? Does it have enough attack? Too much? What about the snare? Does it sound like you want it to? Are the cymbals destroying your ears? Can you even hear the tom rolls? Tweak everything until you are satisfied with the answers. Build your mix around the drums. If your kick isn't cutting through and you know it sounds right, turn the other shit down. As I said before, this is the mix, not a master. You can get your precious loudness back later in mastering. To my ears, one of the telltale signs of a good drum mix in rock is a clean kick/bass guitar seperation. Both are present, both are holding down the bottom end, and both have their own space. That sounds gooooood. Strive for that. With each EQ or compression tweak, you may have to alter a lot of other things. Be patient. That's why this is called "mixing". Recording and mixing acoustic drums is one of the hardest things to do in this crazy hobby of ours. When you get good results, it's also the most rewarding thing you can do. Nothing I mentioned here requires any spectacular equipment. Take your time, do things to the best of your ability, and have fun with it.
I'm in no way a master on this subject, but I think I generally get pretty decent drum sounds, as do lots of other people in here. Please feel free to add to this and if I said something wrong, blow me.