Drums are something you want to get right the first time. You never want to say the phrase, “We can fix it in the mix,” at any point during the tracking process. Everything from the size of drums, tone and amount of sustain should be well thought out before you start recording.
One of the most important elements to discuss when it comes to drums is the kick drum. Even if you're limited to a smaller selection of kick drums in the studio, there are a handful of techniques that can be used to give each their own unique feel for every song on the record.
Some songs are going to deserve more attitude, punch and sustain on the kick and snare, while others will need to be smooth and tight. Some players are content to throw a bunch of blankets inside the kick until it sounds alright. Doing this will end up killing the tone completely.
Others players put nothing at all inside the kick drum and tune it really high, resulting in a cavernous, endless decaying drum that has no attack and a tone that clashes with the melodic instruments in the song.
You don’t want to be the engineer that tells the musician how their gear should be set-up, but you are responsible for getting the best recording possible. If you approach it in the right way, you'll have a happy musician. After all, sometimes a little positive coaching shows that you care about the project and helps builds a better bond with the artist.
In this blog, I’m going to focus on a few different ways to shape the kick drum during the tracking process. Watch our new video below to see each technique in use and to hear how they sound in a studio setting. For tips on shaping the snare drum, check out the first part of this series here.
Wide Open Kick Drum
The first example has no dampening in the kick whatsoever. A great example of a wide-open kick drum tone is “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. If you’re recording a wide open kick drum and notice it’s clashing with the melodic instruments, you’ll first want to check it’s pitch before adding any dampening. It’s commonly overlooked in most recording sessions, but try to keep in mind that each drum, including the kick drum, is generating a musical note every time it gets hit.
For example, if your song is in the key of C major, and the kick drum is resonating a low C#, there’s going to be some serious problems with the bass and other low-frequency elements in the track. Being slightly out of pitch can also make it phase out to the other instruments, which will make it sound mushy or even make it completely disappear in some parts of the track. In most modern rock, pop, indie or country songs, it’s usually a safe bet to tune the kick drum to the tonic or root note of the song.
I won’t go into detail on how to properly tune a drum, but you’ll want to make sure that the resonant and batter head are generating the same pitch. Hold a tuner with a built-in microphone close to the drum and tap gently next to a lug, the tuner will display the pitch of the drum.
Once you have all the lugs dialed into the note you’re looking for, place the tuner close to the kick drum microphone capsule and check the pitch one final time. If you get the drum tuned right, you should notice a huge improvement on how the kick fits into the track.
So now what if the note is correct, but it’s still not punchy enough? If the resonant head has a port hole, you can try placing the inside microphone as close to the beater as possible. You can also try placing a microphone on the beater head side outside the drum pointing directly at the beater.
If the drum is completely sealed and you’re only using outside microphones, find something soft and heavy to rest gently on the resonant head. The reason the mic isn’t picking up enough attack is because the diaphragm is already moving too fast from the air being pushed by the resonant head.
By applying some weight to the bottom rim of the resonant head, you’ll reduce how many times the head moves back and forth with each hit. It will slightly change the feel and tone of the drum but will produce less air from the resonant head to the microphone, resulting in a punchier tone.
Dampener in The Middle of The Drum
Most people think when it comes to dampening the kick drum it’s all or nothing, but over the years I’ve learned that a little goes a long way. There are a couple different companies that make tiny little pillows that are specifically designed to rest inside a kick drum.
When I was younger and first saw them, I remember thinking it’s a total gimmick, what could this little pillow do that my house pillow or blanket couldn’t? Once I got heavily into recording drums and being a session drummer myself, I found out there’s a good reason those things are on the market.
The little drum pillows are designed to have minimal impact on the tone and feel of the drum and come in a variety of sizes to fit just about any size kick drum. When the pillow is resting through the center of the drum, it’s not focusing on dampening a specific head, but to soak up some of the airflow within the drum.
I’ve always tried to explain this using the example of playing drums in a room with wood floors or a room that's carpeted. The room with solid wood floors is going to provide much more ambience and early reflections. The sustain of the kick drum will appear to be slightly longer and the sound will be bigger overall. If you were to throw carpet in that exact same room, it would have a slightly darker tone, shorter reflections, and tighter sustain.
If the results are that way with only one inch of carpet throughout a large room, think of what one or more inches of foam will do inside a kick drum. It does much more than you’d think. Notice in the video how the sustain is quite a bit shorter than the wide open example, the drum also has more punch and slightly less note to it.
When the drum is tuned properly, this method can work in just about any genre of music. If you’re still getting too much note from the drum, try out the next example.
Dampening The Resonant Head
On most of the small drum pillows, one side will have more mass and a fold that allows it to gently rest up against one of the heads. In this example, I placed the heavy side against the resonant head inside the drum.
Dampening the resonant head will reduce some of the note the drum is generating and provide more attack without greatly reducing the sustain. This method is used when you want the punch of the kick drum to cut through the mix and not clash with any tonal instruments, used on most modern rock, pop and country production.
It leaves the batter head and center of the drum wide open, so you’re still going to have some boom and sustain similar to having the pad in the center, but some added attack due to the resonant head not vibrating as much.
In the video example, notice how the tail of the sustain is slightly shorter than when the pad was in the center. You can still hear the note the drum is resonating, but now it’s much tighter. The kick still sounds huge but isn’t constantly sustaining between hits, there’s much more focus on the attack.
Dampening The Batter Head
Using the same pillow, lay the heavy side gently against the batter head, leaving the resonant head and center of the drum wide open. This method is used when you want more attack, but still looking to preserve the pitch and sustain of the drum.
This technique is used a lot in modern indie and folk music. This is the sound of those tunes you hear with a four on the floor kick drum pattern, acoustic guitars and large crowds yelling “Hey!"
Using this method combined with some compressed room mics will make the drum sound massive. The pitch and sustain are very present, which can help fill up a lot of space in a stripped down acoustic style band.
I wanted to play something a little faster for the video example, so I choose a Motown sounding groove. I thought this would be a good way to demonstrate how the pitch and sustain are present on the single notes while the attack on the 16th notes is super tight.
When I play the first kick drum hit, you can clearly hear the pitch of the drum. Notice how it sustains until I play the 16th notes. Then when I hit the 16th notes, it has a tight attack on the first hit, the decay from the first hit stops when I play the second note which then turns into a pillowy sustain. When I switch to the upbeat kick drum pattern a few bars later, you can hear the note and sustain carry between every kick hit.
If you try and use this method on an upcoming session, try and remember to properly tune the drum to the key of the song you’re working on, or else it will cause some problems down the road.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for taming a kick drum. I know these methods don’t seem like much and you might be thinking you just wasted a bunch of time reading about me gently resting a small pillow against a drum head.
I felt the same way until I finally broke down and bought one, and I can honestly say that every song I’ve played on as a session drummer or tracked as an engineer since has greatly improved. If you’re an engineer or studio drummer, I highly suggest you give these a shot and see if they work for you. Thanks for reading.