Recently a drummer was desperate to know how he can make sure sound engineers would get his drum sound right.
“Playing live we always have different sound guys. Many with limited skills. So I’m looking into having my own mixer so I can mix and taylor my own sound and just send a left and right to the main console. Have many of you tried this kind of set up ? Any thoughts on a mixer? Thanks”
Now this is a good question, and it sparked some suggestions all focussing on the technical side of mic’ing. But I think this is the wrong attempt. Instead of mixing your own sound, try something revolting: have a great acoustic sound that no sound engineer can mess up*. Drummers treat their drum set as semi acoustic instrument, and the most essential part of the signal chain is the sound engineer.
*) ok, some will say “challange accepted”. But there also is the saying “shit-in, shit-out”; let us pretend that sound engineers are not all incapable of doing sound for the sake of our sanity here, ok? 🙂
A real acoustic instrument has no signal chain. It is simple – the instrument is the original sound source. Now when mic’ing, the job is a different one: to simply capture what is there, as true as possible. Now if drums were built to sound best acoustically, our article would close now with some suggestions on getting a decend drum set and you’d be fine.
Most drum kits on our stages usually are not acoustic. Don‘t get me wrong, each individual instrument might be, but not the whole set: especially the snare and cymbals usually are way too loud, so they need to be mic’d to be adjusted in volume (meaning, kick and toms louder than snare and cymbals). Then we rely heavily on proximity effect, this means the mic’s are so close, they alter the sound. And we want the extra compression and bass boost it gives to the instrument.
To give you more hints on the fact that drums are generally not treated like an acoustic instrument, look at the choice for microphones for drums: they usually are dynamic, placed close (or even inside) the instrument. This both is a huge no-go for any instrument, as it is a flawed technic which alters the sound of the instrument dramatically. Thus built in mic’s and piezos at guitars usually are only used on stage, due to volume issues (ironically usually caused by loud stage drums) which prevents a regular mic’ing with a good condenser. This and because the guitarist might be moving around.
Also we want a good signal seperation with our drums (and less room sound), thus we use close mic’s. This is done primarely to be able to tweak the sound as much as possible without interfering with the other instruments mic’d. But also, because we want that extra punch and compression proximity effect gives us. Placing the mic’s further away would demand different microphones (dynamic mic’s are used to blend out other instruments that are further away in progressive way).
Now mixing a drum set that is not really meant to be played acoustic (and while many disagree with me and call me stupid, it still is common sense to mike drums no matter how small the venue, to get a good, well balanced sound…) is one of the hardest task for a sound engineer when miking a rock band.
But when your drums are matched and tuned in a way that they lack nothing when played just acoustic, mic’ing is simple. A single microphone can already capture the whole set (let it be a stereo mike, maybe a stereo ribbon mike, for nice recordings too), and close mikes can be seen as optional add-ons for more control.
How do we get there? Can any drum set become a real acoustic instrument?
1. Learn to listen.
First, learn to hear your instrument differently. Have someone else play it, while you listen to it from different positions in the room. Recognize how much our ears compress volume when we are close to the set, while the imbalance stretches and snare and cymbals suddenly seem unbearably loud compared to the rest of the set.
2. Tune for the room, not the mic – warm tuning
Learn to tune for the room, not the mike. Get a warm, full sound by tuning the bottom heads higher. Most drummers here try to get the sound with both heads tuned low, but this will not sound powerful acoustically. Already a few feet away the low end will get lost, and all that is left without miking is the brutal attack, the sound of your stick on plastic. Not sexy. (More details on this here)
3. Pick the right Instruments for the gig.
Next, learn that larger diameter of your drums actually makes the sound thinner, as it increases the attack. For a full and rich sound, depending on your playing style, chose smaller drums with more or less shallow sizes (deeper when you tend to play too loud, shallow when you can play less loud too). In general, the larger the drums you play, the more you will depend on being mic’d. But when you play a drum set that is well balanced and sound good, making them louder becomes optional, not to improve but amplify the sound.
Large stages yearn for large and loud drums, but a drum set is not just stage prob, it is an instrument. And if you want to sound good, you might have to reconsider what instrument you end up using, and how to play it.
Try smaller snare drums and avoid steel or brass shells. Just a smaller, less loud snare will already give you a way better stage sound. The less volume your drums have, the lower the stage sound, and the better the venue sound.
Same for cymbals, but here larger cymbals give you what smaller drums offer: lower sound, warmth, well controlled volume.
When you set up your drums, keep in mind that usually the snare is way too loud in context, while the toms have too much attack the larger they get. Part of learning to listen is to recognize the volume differences and set up the drum set accordingly. Generally spoken, cymbals are always too loud in setup, so you cannot go wrong with making your cymbals sounding as musical and dark as possible. Getting those and the snare down in volume already will have decreased the need to mic’ the set – because when the snare is too loud, all you can do is make everything else louder.
4. Avoid muffling
Only muffle as little as possible to control overtones. Muffling takes away sound and enhances attack, so using muffling to reduce volume is a bad idea. A good sound engineer knows how to bring back the tone, but it will never sound as good as when you actually know how to tune well. Surprise your sound engineer.
5. Use the right heads.
Many drummers have double ply heads on their toms. While this might be okay for your sound, please consider that thicker heads have a smaller tuning range and tune less low. Yes, they might sound deeper, but in fact that is just the extra muffling they have, which gives them less overtones. So if you want to go lower in tune, single ply heads are your tool. Overtones can also be absorbed with muffling.
6. Play less loud
Using single ply heads on a well tuned, sensible drum set will make you sound better when playing less loud. Drummers usually believe the myth that playing loud and hard improves the drum sound, but that has rather been an adjustment to bigger drums, which also take more whacking to sound good. I’d say the smaller your drum set, the less loud you have to play them to sound good, and they will sound better in general. But also, being less loud on stage improves your stage sound a lot – and this improves the sound of the venue too!
With a drum set that sound just awesome – and it will when you learn how to handle it as acoustic instrument, and not just as „loud work out tool“ – a sound engineer cannot do (much) wrong. Learn to appreciate good sounding drums.
Why is this not common sense? Why are drums built semi acoustic?
Be warned… this is nothing taught by many pro‘s. Why should they? They do have their sound tech. Drummers who master the technic of good acoustic drum sound are usually those who won‘t get mic’d, not those who play the largest venues. Which also explains why this issue is so controversial… the most clicked tuning tutorials are not those which explain how to tune drums to acoustically sound well, but to sound ok on the mic or in recordings. They treat the drum set as just a part of the signal chain, not as a real acoustic instrument. Thus most tutorials about drum sound are tutorials about how to mic, not how to tune.
The reason why drums became semi acoustic can be found here. Long story short, first (guitar and bass) amps got insanely loud, then drums followed. Then came affordable mixing consoles with plenty channels and cheaper mic’s, and we kinda got stuck with the drums which now were simply mere replica of the loud drums we had in the late 60s to battle stage volume.
The past 20 years now have seen stages getting less and less loud. The Who, a band that was ground breaking for many drummers due to Keith Moon’s energeting playing, is now using e-drums to keep the volume down on stage (Nope, we are not kidding!). While volume used to be the most integral part of being a rock band, this is shifting, especially during the past years of pandemic. We have seen numerous streamed concerts played in small locations, and many drummers have found out the advantages of having a drum set that is being optimized for a room, not a stage. Still, many drummers are stuck in the 60s and 70s, but we have to realize that we try to solve problems we do not have anymore. So what is left is the visual appearance, and when drummers pick large and loud drums today, it is usually not because they want them to sound the way they do, but because they want to reference the drummers from that time and honor them.