Although I often play guitar and keyboards and sing when I lead Quench Arts music sessions, I consider myself first and foremost a drummer. Despite this fact, when I’m facilitating other people’s creativity, I do, like many, resort to using the large choice of amazing software tools available to give access to impactful and tight drums for Wavelength songs. It’s quick and sounds incredible and anyway, many of my sessions take place where a drum kit is not practical due to space and noise. Even at Quench’s venue, where there is an acoustic drum kit in the studio, we tend to use the electronic drums in sessions. It makes volume much more manageable in an environment where some people could be sensitive to noise. The other benefit of doing this is that you can record the electronic drums as MIDI information, which can be altered after the fact, again on a computer screen, to get that perfect performance. But sometimes, as was the case last year with one Wavelength participant, digital drums just can’t beat an acoustic drum kit.
I discovered this by accident towards the end of the year when our usual room with the electronic drums in was booked out so we had to use the studio. The young musician R was so much more energetic playing the acoustic drums at a time when he seemed to lack motivation. His creative ideas took a new direction and through improvising (me and him taking it in turns to play guitar and drums) we had a good part of a finished piece of music by the end of the session. Afterwards, R told me he preferred the acoustic drums and I realised we were going to have to use it in our recording for the project CD.
Drums are known for being complicated instruments to record. If you’ve been to a sound check for a live gig, you will have seen they seem to take the longest to get sound right and if you’ve seen drums recorded at a professional recording studio, you will have seen multiple microphones all over the drum kit. But in participatory music sessions, we don’t have time for this involved recording method so the main thing is that set up time is a minimum.
Unless the young person is particularly interested in sound engineering, using up most of their session fully miking up a drum kit is not going to be particularly participatory! So, over the years I’ve tried different microphone positions using just two microphones and the final chosen result can be heard on R’s track Orange Arts on the 2021 Wavelength CD (https://soundcloud.com/quench_arts/16-orange-arts-reece?in=quench_arts/s...). For this and the photos in this blog I used a stereo microphone but I have also used a more everyday vocal microphone in the same position and it works.
Firstly, I always use a dedicated microphone for the kick drum, positioned on the opposite side from the drummer, pointing at the centre, where the beater hits the drum. This microphone can either be inside the kick drum if there is a hole in the drum skin or on the outside, an inch or two from the skin. As for the second microphone, I’ll given below three possible positions, which can be seen in the photographs.
1. Overhead central Place the microphone over the midway point between the two toms (or over the middle tom if there are three) and pointing at the snare drum. This gives good coverage of the drum kit but sometimes the crash cymbals can overwhelm the mix and the snare and hi hats can be lost, meaning the need for an extra microphone on the snare. This method can also pick up a lot of the ambience of the room, which can work for you or against you. You might be surprised how much room sound can be absorbed in a mix, especially for Rock music. The distance of the microphone can also make for a more natural recording, with less need for treating the sounds with EQ.
2. Overhead right Place the microphone over the drummer’s left shoulder and pointing a little above the snare. This is what we ended up doing for R’s track to make sure the snare and hi hats were prominent. The crash cymbals where being hit hard enough to be heard even though they were further away from the microphone. Many common microphones pick up more of what is in front of them than is to the sides so for this position, you can adjust the angle of the microphone to help get a balanced mix. There will also be some room ambience in the recording.
3. In the kit Place the microphone under the cymbals, between the two toms and pointing at the snare drum. This does reduce the amount of room sound for a tighter drum sound and can mellow out loud and harsh crash cymbals but you can lose the hi hats and quieter cymbal crashes. Move the microphone closer and further away from the snare to adjust the mix. This position would be difficult to achieve if there was a middle tom in the way. When preparing for recording drum kit, it’s worth bearing in mind which drums are going to be played. Some drum beats are only made up of kick, snare and hi hat, in which case a close mic on the snare and kick drums could be all that’s needed. R and I were pleased with how his track came out and Orange Arts got some great comments from the audience at the online listening party, particularly how heavy it sounded. The cymbals are loud but all the other elements are there too and I think by using an overhead position we captured the energy with which they were played.
*Please note, Wavelength is a community based youth mental health creative music making project run by Quench Arts. It was originally funded by Youth Music but for the past 3 years has been funded by BBC Children In Need, Services for Education, Solihull Music Hub and the Clive and Sylvia Richards Charity