Tracking an 8-Piece Drum Kit for 5.1 Surround

The Project: Drums in 5.1

I am currently working on a recording of music that I have been writing with Penny Larson, the awesome-est drummer ever. We tracked the drums at U. Mass Lowell’s wonderful Rm 114, which is by far the best room I have ever worked in. Big enough to make great drum sounds with lots of diffusion and enough low frequency absorption to prevent the room from being boomy or rumbly. It’s just totally delicious.

Penny and I first worked together recording Bryan McPherson’s “Fourteen Stories” and then subsequently on Sierra’s EP “Rocks.”

Penny Larson's 8 Piece Drum Set

Penny Larson's 8 Piece Drum Set

The record will be released in 5.1 Surround at 24bit 88.2kHz so there is a lot of opportunity to use the 360 degree soundstage to allow the kit to be heard in all of its glory. There are lot of issues that arise when recording a really large drumset and I will talk a little about these types of issues.

mkit from the Front

8 Piece Drum Kit from the Front

Problems Micing a Large Kit

More Drums = More Mics = More Problems

As you add microphones to a drum setup, the potential for phasing and bleed problem increases exponentially. More drums usually means closer together drums, so isolating the drums becomes difficult. When sounds bleed into unintended microphones the possibility of phase cancellation or other problems increases as well. Adding to the mix problems are a zillion cymbals that will cause physical problems with mic placement as well as bleeding problems. Two objects can not be in the same place at the same time.

Microphone Selection and Techniques

Surround Microphones

Although I love recording with omni’s and a Jecklin Disk, I decided to try something different for this particular drum tracking session. The Jecklin Disk technique creates a very nice realistic stereo image, but I am not going for realistic in this case. I want drums that are bigger than life and over-the-top.

Used a variation of spaced cardioids very similar to that used in the Decca-Tree style employed in the Fukada tree. In this case I chose to use 2 Neumann KM140 Cardioid Small Diaphragm Mics for the left and right speakers and an AKG 414 XLS in Cardioid for the center channel. I used a pair of Neumann TLM103 for room mics facing into an RPG Schroeder Diffusor away from the drum set.

Front 3 Microphones: Neumann KM140's with AKG 414 XLS in Cardioid in Center

Front 3 Microphones: Neumann KM140's with AKG 414 XLS in Cardioid in Center

Rear Surround Left Neumann TLM103 toward RPG Diffusor

Rear Surround Left Neumann TLM103 toward RPG Diffusor

To recap the surround microphone setup: Left, Center and Right “overheads” are actually in front of the kit to enable better balance between cymbals and drums. Rear surround large diaphragm cardioids point away from the kit into the corners of the room.

Kick Drums (plural, as in two!)

I have always been a fan of the delicious warm thump produced by micing the front hole in the kick with an AKG D112. It always provides a great tone, but can lack a little bit in fast transient response and clarity. I have been using Earthworks TC25’s and SR25’s for the kick and snare drums. The tiny diaphragms offer a tremendously accurate transient response and can handle very high SPLs. I use the Kick Pad which ships with the SR25 to pad the mics output and scoop out the middle frequencies to create a great kick sound. With most double kick players, one drum is the main drum and the other is used for accents and kick fills.

First Kick Drum: AKG D112 and Earthworks TC25

First Kick Drum: AKG D112 and Earthworks TC25

Second Kick Drum: AKG D112 and Earthworks SR25

Second Kick Drum: AKG D112 and Earthworks SR25

The Earthworks TC25 is an omni-directional microphone while the SR25 is Cardioid and provides a little bit of isolation with the pickup pattern. I used the SR25 on the second kick drum and employed the Kick Pad in the signal chain, while I used the TC25 turned off axis on the main kick drum. The TC25 has a flat response all the way down to earthquake, so I chose it for the main kick drum, while the second drum was happy with the slightly tighter sounding SR25.

Snare Drum

The first secret to a good snare sound is a good drummer and a good snare drum. For this particular recording Penny brought 5 snares to choose from and I selected the one that sounded the closest to my ideal of the Al Green and Fleetwood Mac snare sounds: excellent attack, white noise snare sound, warm woody tone (sometimes obtained from Brass and Copper drums!), good tonal variation (rim, sidestick, center, flam, rim shot, etc), and a lot of low midrange (150 Hz – 300 Hz). Again I used a two microphone technique using a traditional snare mic, Sennheiser 421, and an Earthworks TC25 omni. The 421 provides the traditional proximity effect low mid whap (technical word) while the omni fleshes out the toal tone and timbre of the snare. I place the omni pointing at the shell of the snare drum so that it picks up both the top and the bottom of the snare.

Snare Drum: Sennheiser 421 Over the Head (Warning: Never Try This Without A Great Pro Drummer

Snare Drum: Sennheiser 421 Over the Head (Warning: Never Try This Without A Great Pro Drummer

Snare Drum: Sennheiser 421 (View 2) DANGER! Amateur/Intoxicated/Drunk/Average Drummers WILL Destroy Mics in this Position!

Snare Drum: Sennheiser 421 (View 2) DANGER! Amateur/Intoxicated/Drunk/Average Drummers WILL Destroy Mics in this Position!

Snare Drum: TC25 Pointed at the Shell of the Drum

Snare Drum: TC25 Pointed at the Shell of the Drum

Toms (All Five of Them!)

There’s really no super secret tracking technique here, just 5 Sennheiser 441’s. Currently the 441 is my favorite dynamic microphone period. It has a wonderful pickup pattern rejecting sources to the sides and a very small rear lobe behind the microphone. The 441 has fantastic tone, a great bump in the lows and low mids from the proximity response and rejects the other toms, drums and cymbals in the vicinity. The hardest part of micing the toms on Penny’s ginormous kit was getting around the cymbals and other hardware. Obviously the 441 is a large microphone and this does make it hard to use in tight spaces.

Tom No. 5: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 5: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 4: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 4: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 3: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 3: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 2: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 2: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 1: Sennheiser 441

Tom No. 1: Sennheiser 441

Notice in the Tom No. 1 photo that I had to use a mic clip from a 421 and LOTS of GAFFER’S TAPE to fashion a mic clip. Sennheiser makes great sounding microphones but by far the absolute stupidest microphone clips EVER. EVER.

Flat Ride Cymbal Spot Mic

After doing a few test takes, it became evident Penny’s flat ride cymbal just wasn’t cutting through the rest of the drum kit. The tone of the flat rides is superb, but they become inaudible with a large or loud kit. I used an AKG 452 under the cymbal to get it to push through the masking. Even though the mic is pointing up, the cymbal isolates the mic from the other sounds so phasing wasn’t much of a problem.

Flat Ride Spot Mic: AKG 452

Flat Ride Spot Mic: AKG 452

Again, I cannot stress enough how important a great drummer and good drums are to getting the sound of a great kit. Thanks Penny!

Penny Larson: The Great Drummer in the Center of the Sound

Penny Larson: The Great Drummer in the Center of the Sound

3 Responses to “Tracking an 8-Piece Drum Kit for 5.1 Surround”

  1. Alex Says:

    So…how long did the set-up actually take? Looks and sounds like you were way careful about placement. Looks like a full day to get sounds to me.

    Can’t wait to hear it.

  2. Hendrik Gideonse Says:

    We did a 4 hour set up the first day. I got there an hour early to get mics and place them on stands. Penny arrived and set up the kit and tuned for about an hour and half or so. I placed mics and then did some listening. I had already used the TLM103’s for another drum recording so I knew that I would be happy with them in the corners. The front 3-mic array is a variation on techniques that I was already familiar with so that was relatively easy too. The second day we did more fine tuning and added the AKG 452 spot mic on the flat ride. We were able to track for a couple of hours and did all the rest of the tracking on the 3rd day which was a full 8 hours of tracking and 2 hours of strike. Whee!

  3. Penny Larson Says:

    Hey Hendrik,

    This is a great article, and I just figured I’d fill in some of the details drum-wise.

    The kicks and toms are Ludwig Classic Maples (9-ply 100% Maple shells) circa 1998. The kicks are 16×22, and the toms are (from left-to-right) 8×10; 9×12; 10×13; 11×14; and 14×16. I used Remo Vintage Emperor batter heads and Clear Ambassador resonant heads. Tuning with five toms (especially with less than a two-inch separation) can be an issue, but I just started with the 10″ and worked my way down, making sure that each drum sounded resonant and full while still having some articulation and punch.

    The snare we ended up using for the entire session is a Ludwig Classic Birch (7-ply Birch/Italian Poplar mix) measuring 6.5×14. I used an Evans ST Dry batter head with an Evans Hazy 200 snare-side head. The snares are Blasters by Puresound. I use a fairly tight tuning on both heads on most of my snares. The ST Dry is a two-ply head, which helps to give the drum body even with the head at a higher tension.

    I also brought a Pearl Joey Jordison Signature Snare (Steel Shell, 6.5×13), a Ludwig 5×14 Hammered Bronze, and a Ludwig 6×13 Classic Maple. We ended up using the Classic Birch for the whole session.

    As for the cymbals, I used a large set of mostly smaller cymbals to get a more splashy effect for the session. I used 13″ Zildjian Avedis Mastersound Hats in the traditional hi-hat placement along with a pair of 12″ Zildjian A Custom Mastersound Hats underneath the ride cymbal on a Tama x-hat stand that enabled me to quickly change between a tight and loose closed hat sound. I used a 21″ Zildjian K Heavy Ride as the main ride, and also used a 22″ Istanbul Agop Alchemy Vezir Flat Ride (that was a custom-order cymbal, and it’s beautiful) – that’s the one that got its own spot-mic. I also used two sets of Zildjian Prototype stacks, with a Trashformer on the bottom and a Mini China on top in 8″ and 10″ sizes. I used two China cymbals, a 14″ Zildjian China Trash and a 19″ Zildjian K Custom Hybrid China. The crashes were Istanbul Agop, and were 14″ and 18″ Sultans, along with a 15″ Vezir. Lastly, I used a few splashes, all Istanbul Agops, a 12″ Alchemy Splash, a 6″ Pasha Splash, a 9″ Traditional Splash, a 6″ Traditional Splash, and a 10″ Traditional Splash.

    I used Vater Furio Chirico International Signature Sticks, which are almost as big as a 2B, which helps to really give the drums some weight, but they also have a nice tip and a good balance so they get a really sweet sound on the cymbals as well.

    Thanks for having me on board with your project Hendrik! It’s the nicest room I’ve ever recorded in too!

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