Recording drums takes expertise, experience and experimentation

Whether it’s a tight funk beat, driving R&B groove or blistering metal assault, nothing defines the character of a song like artfully played—and beautifully recorded—drums. But melding the magic of snares and cymbals with the right tincture of mics, preamps and recording know-how can be an elusive alchemy. Elements ranging from room acoustics to microphone selection and placement can make a huge difference in the sound quality. Plus, a nearly endless array of drum and cymbal options offers musicians, engineers and producers even more choices. With so many variables, how do you lay down percussive tracks and capture that precise sound you’re after?

To find out, we turned to Mario J. McNulty and Robin DiMaggio for advice. McNulty is a New York producer, engineer and mixer who has worked in the studio with artists including David Bowie, Linkin Park, Julian Lennon and Rufus Wainwright. DiMaggio is a veteran L.A.-based drummer and producer whose credits include Paul Simon, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Tupac and Steve Vai. DiMaggio was the drummer on TV’s late-night show Lopez Tonight until its cancellation last year. He currently works regularly as the official music director for projects with the United Nations.


What’s vital when recording drums?

MCNULTY: Get a great drummer. Sounds like common sense but it’s important to remember you can spend time, energy and resources getting drums to sound right but if you don’t have a good drummer from the get-go, you’re wasting time. Next, you need a great room to record, and a great kit for the drummer. The rest is malleable.

DIMAGGIO: I’d say that the key things are the right engineer, drummer and equipment—in that order. I’ve played in situations where rooms or mics weren’t good, but a great engineer made my sound mind-blowing. I’ve also been in incredible recording facilities with amazing mics, but the engineer wasn’t the right fit to make it sound good.

How do you choose drums?

MCNULTY: You can have two of the same make and model of snare drums that will sound completely different. Same with cymbals. So it’s important to try things out. That said, a lot use DW and Tama drums, which are powerful and punchy, for rock sounds. You can go to Gretsch or Rogers thin-shelled drums for more of a jazz sound. When it comes to cymbals, I tend to favor older Zildjians, but I’ve heard beautiful Sabians, and great hand-hammered cymbals from other companies. No matter what, you need to hear the drums and cymbals beforehand to ensure they’re the sound you’re looking for.


What are your go-to mics?

DIMAGGIO: I love Earthworks mics. They capture an incredible frequency range. Unless you’re using old AKGs and Neumanns that cost $20,000 each, I believe in the new Earthworks stuff, hands down. Tons of guys use them—everybody from Steve Gadd to George Duke.

MCNULTY: Shure SM57s always work for snares, and I’ll sometimes use a heavily padded AKG 451 in conjunction with the SM57. I like to put a mic on the bottom of the snare as well, and the Shure Beta 87 is my favorite, even though not many studios have it. For kick drum, the classic AKG D12 and D 112 are standards, and the Audix D6 is great as well. For overhead mics, I love old AKG 414s, which are very even, and old Neumann KM 84s, which are warm and handle high pitches from the ride cymbal very well.

DIMAGGIO: In the ’80s, A&M studios had this Neumann CMV 3, and every drummer would place that mic 17 feet in front of the bass drum, instead of using overheads. It had a big diaphragm and was great at getting that amplified, arena power sound. I wanted to use it for the Don Felder album I just produced, but there are only three left in the world and I wasn’t able to get one. But we got a similar Blue mic and plugged it into an API console. It sounded great. If you can put a mic like that with a big capsule in front of the kick, the sound just screams into the mic.


Talk about placement.

MCNULTY: If you’re recording drums in a small booth, there isn’t really anywhere to go, but if you’re recording in a large room, drum placement matters. I usually take a snare and a drumstick and walk around the room hitting the snare, listening for where it sounds best. You’re looking for the location that offers the most full-bodied sound, one that’s not overly bright or muffled. Trust your ears and instincts. Once you’ve found a sweet spot, put your snare stand there and build the kit around that. Once I have drums set up, I’ll also walk around and listen to how the kick drum sounds at different places in the room. If there’s a spot 15 feet away that gets a beautiful low end, I’ll put a mic there, and if there are spots where certain frequencies are emphasized or cancelled out, I’ll avoid those.

DIMAGGIO: A lot of mic and drum placement depends on the artist. When I was doing a Diana Ross record, I ended up close-miked on everything. But there was another mic system set up 5 feet away with the mics aimed directionally at the kit. The engineer ended up getting a sound that was closer and another that was farther away. Instead of having to mess with EQ and compression for each song, he could just bring the faders up and down if he wanted a bigger or smaller sound.


How long does setup usually take?

MCNULTY: I recently recorded with David Bowie, and I spent hours with his drummer, Sterling Campbell, setting up mics, tweaking EQ and compression, and going back and forth between the control room and tracking room before David came in to listen. We also had Art Smith, a legendary drum doctor, help with drum tuning. On a session like that, you can take a half-day or even a full day to get it right. But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time. I remember recording a Broadway show soundtrack where I literally had five minutes to get the drums ready before we hit record.

DIMAGGIO: Some artists are meticulous about setting up drum kits to get the right sound. I did a Paul Simon album working with Steve Gadd. Steve and I were both playing drum kits in the same room and at the same time. Paul wanted the sets to sound completely different, so I did things like turn my snare upside down to get a different vibe. We had something like 90 mics on both kits—it looked like a small Arc de Triomphe of microphones around my drums—but it wound up sounding great.


What about tracking outside a studio?

DIMAGGIO: Simplify everything as far as equipment goes. Don’t use a huge drum set, and limit the amount of mics you’re using. There will be fewer phasing problems and fewer cables that get tangled and go bad. In that situation, less is more.

MCNULTY: Regardless of the setting, nothing is set in stone—ever. If something doesn’t sound good, move a mic or drum, try a different mic. Experiment until you get the sound you love.

–Michael Gallant

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