Kick It Up A Notch
By Richard Alan Salz
While the kick drum is rarely the defining element of a song, there are some songs that just wouldn’t be the same if they had a different kick drum sound. Could you imagine Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks with a dull and lifeless kick drum sound? How about Cameo’s Brick House with a huge ambient kick drum sound that sustained for days? Not likely!
In this article we’ll take a look at some common (and not so common) kick drums and kick recording applications. I will cover some general types of kick drums that may pass through your recording space at one time or another. When working with a drummer who is bringing his or her own kit into your space, it can sometimes be difficult to suggest radical changes to their setup, so some of these techniques can sometimes cross over.
Traditional Jazz Kick
Consider this chain of events. A foot steps on a pedal, which swings a beater, that strikes a head, that causes an air column inside the drum to expand out into the room, possibly causing a second resonant head to vibrate. Only then is there sound to record.
As much as a no-brainer as it would seem to be, stepping on the pedal can be a problem for some drummers. Some are uneven in their kick drum technique producing wide variations in level. Others play in a manner that causes the drums beater to actually damp the drumhead and prevent it from resonating. Usually this is caused by players who keep their foot too tense and rigid, preventing the natural rebound of the kick drum pedal from occurring. The result? A sound that is all attack, and no body. Unfortunately, short of heroic maneuvers (such as triggering a sample or a low-frequency oscillator in tandem – more about these techniques later) the resultant sound is likely to be only marginally usable.
Problematic as well are the kick drum pedals themselves. Though the sound of John Bonham’s squeaky pedal is a somewhat endearing feature of some Led Zeppelin songs, most songs will call for a dead silent pedal. It is often helpful to solo both the kick drum and overhead microphones to help root out this phenomenon. Beware of clicks and scrapes as well.
Moving along the chain, many drummers seem to be loath to experiment when it comes to beaters. Generally, for a pop-oriented drum track a well-defined attack is going to be an important part of the composite sound of the kick drum. A mushy felt beater is not going to make the job easier. Hard plastic, or better yet, wood beaters add the clack that is often necessary to get a kick drum to speak out. Obviously some musical styles do not require this kind of sound.
Heads are another sore spot for recording engineers, particularly so when the drummer brings his own kit to the studio complete with “vintage” (read that as dead) heads. A word of caution: A drumhead can be visually okay, but sonically dead. Thin, one-dimensional sound coming from an otherwise decent drum should send up a quick warning flag. Dead heads will almost always lack a strong fundamental tone.
It goes without saying that tuning of the drum is critical, and different musical genres will require different approaches towards tuning, as well as head selection, and damping of the batter and/or resonant heads. Some applications will call for multiple ply heads.
It is an inalienable fact of life that all drums are not created equal. And as such they will not provide the same pursuit of happiness of sound. In America, almost anything is possible with enough hard work (or so I am told), but I am unconvinced that a bottom of the line drum will ever sound great. Low quality drums with uneven bearing edges, suspect wood, over-thick finish (or wraps), and lousy hardware, are simply not capable of producing a full and balanced tone. It brings to mind that old adage: You can’t polish a turd.
My preference is for maple drums, which seem to have both snap and boom in nearly equal quantities. Good kick drums will also engender a wide range of tunings in which they are usable. With the right microphone, a slack headed kick drum can produce a low thud strangely reminiscent of a lowered Civic with tinted windows and neon underbody lights. You know, the one that cruises by your house at 3.00 in the morning when you’re trying to sleep.
On the Down-Low
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to mic’ing kick drums. Those in the first camp prefer to utilize a high quality dynamic microphone inside the drum itself (especially on a drum that has a hole in its resonant head, or for that matter no resonant head at all).
Popular choice for dynamic microphones include the (vintage) AKG d12e and (current) d112 (a not so close second to the d112), the beyer dynamic M88T, the (vintage) Electrovoice 666 and (current) RE-20/27 and ND868, and the Sennheiser 421. The main criteria for a dynamic microphone that is going to be used in a kick drum is that it provides a good low frequency response along with a nice presence region.
Those in the second camp opt instead to use a condenser microphone, most often one with a fairly large diaphragm, directly in front of the drum. Occasionally these roles can be switched, as there are some condenser microphones, which do fairly well inside the kick drum. Of course, there are many variations upon this theme, and it is preferable in some cases to use both approaches simultaneously.
The condenser microphone that seems to top most people’s kick drum microphone list is the Neumann U47 FET. This microphone is later solid-state version of the coveted (tube) Neumann U 47. The downside of course, is that a U47 FET in good shape can run somewhere around the two kilobuck mark. On a budget, the CAD E200 seems to do fairly well placed outside the kick drum.
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Remember that it is still possible to screw up with a great drum, a great mic, and a great preamp. How? Just put the microphone in the wrong place! Experimentation is key; minute changes in microphone placement can result in drastic changes to the sound.
One thing to consider is that even the worst kick drum sound imaginable can sound pretty good…if it is played back loudly enough! There is a very real tendency of people to CRANK the levels when playing back drum tracks. Part of it is the inevitable threshold shift that results from being around a drum kit and its attendant high decibel levels (so don’t forget your hearing protection). The other factor is that drummers, and band members want to hear the playback at a level at least approaching the actual event. While this is understandable, it is also a mistake.
Very few listeners will ever be playing back the tracks at levels approaching that of the original event. Exceptions include dance music that will often be played back even louder than the original event. And I guess we should not forget our friend with the lowered Civic. Still it is important to audition the kick drum at a level that is realistic considering the anticipated playback level. It is okay however to listen for unwanted artifacts once you are in the approximate ballpark.
A brief reality check. Nearfield (or more properly close-field) monitors cannot accurately reproduce a kick drum. To paraphrase Tony Robbins, the quality of your monitoring is the quality of your recording. That is why top-level studios will always have large “mains” that can accurately produce low frequencies, and well-designed rooms that can support those low frequencies. That is also why most of the time their tracks will sound better than yours. Sorry.
Lastly, let’s not forget that sometimes mistakes will be made. This is when a drum module or sampler can really save the day.
Most of the time, unless you are truly blessed, some processing will be required to make the kick drum “fit” into the track. While it is possible to process a kick drum (or any, for that matter) sound before it hits your recorder, it’s usually best to concentrate on capturing a clean representation of what is coming from the drum. On the other hand, sometimes a bizarre sound can inspire similar madness in all subsequent tracks, and if that’s where you are looking to go, by all means, print the processed track as is.
In the interests of good taste, pre-mix processing should be limited to minor eq adjustment (though one should always move the microphone, and/or check the drum’s tuning before reaching for any knobs, light compressing or limiting, and/or gating. I feel that the primary reason to compress a kick drum is to bring out the low frequency ring and thump, which happens after the initial transient. A good compressor can really bring that resonant boom out, without completely washing out the desirable clack of the transient.
Gating can be very helpful in removing any artifacts such as cymbals and snare drum that are occurring in the spaces between the time that the kick drum is actually being played. Consider using somewhat less than the maximum dynamic range that the gate offers, should you find the decay of the drum starting to sound odd.
Rather than boosting specific frequencies with an eq, consider instead cutting. Many times a low midrange cut (400-600 Hz region) can remove the tubbiness from the sound, replacing it with a tauter, more powerful sound. As always using a microphone that requires as little eq as possible, will almost always garner better results, primarily due to ringing and phase shift issues. Before you tell me that only analog eq’s introduce errors such as those, let me mention that I think most digital eq’s sound terrible, and have even worse artifacts. Though a certain ubiquitous analog console with the number 8 in its title surely can ruin most any signal. So use the eq sparingly (if at all).
Sounds that Cook
Good food starts with good ingredients and a good plan, the same goes for kick drum sounds. Here are some recipes to get you started.
Modern Rock (Kick a la Greenday) –
Ingredients: 1 medium sized kick drum (22”)
1 Evans EQ series batter head
1 Resonant drum head with 6” hole (off center if possible – oriented towards the floor)
1 Wooden beater (if in season utilize one that is square)
1 AKG D12E microphone (EV RE 20 for those on a diet)
Put all ingredients in a medium sized room, at least 350 square feet. Add heads to drum and tune (making sure that the pitch is the same in front of each lug). Insert microphone into kick drum and point at a slight angle towards the shell of the drum, in a direction that points away from the snare drum. Season to taste.
Vintage Rock (Kick con Bonham)
Ingredients: 1 (or 2) size large kick drum(s) (24” or 26”)
1 Single ply batter head
1 Resonant drum head with no ports
1 Wooden or firm felt beater
1 EV 666 microphone (or other low-frequency oriented dynamic microphone)
1 or 2 High Quality cardioid condenser microphones
Put all ingredients in a large if not humungous room, preferably with ceilings that are at least double the height of a medium sized NBA player. Add heads to drum and tune (making sure that the resonant head is tuned lower than the batter head). Point microphone at batter head of kick drum. Condenser mics should be positioned out in front of the drum set. (This step of the recipe requires meticulous attention to detail, since the room mics will be picking up all of the drum kit. Therefore the balance of kick versus the rest of the kit must be optimum.) Blend dynamic microphone with room microphones, and simmer till done.
Modern Rock (Kick avec Jamaraqui) –
Ingredients: 1 medium sized kick drum (22”)
1 Remo Pinstripe head
No Resonant drumhead
1 Paisley pillow (non paisley pillows should work just as well)
1 mushy felt beater
1 Sennheiser 421 microphone
Put all ingredients in a dead room, small is fine. Add head to drum and tune (making sure that the pitch is the same in front of each lug). Insert pillow into drum and lay it snugly against the batter head. Insert microphone into kick drum and point directly towards the point on the batter head where the beater strikes. Adjust pillow until ready.
Modern Jazz (Erskine Muffins) –
Ingredients: 1 small sized kick drum (18” or 20”)
1 Evans EQ 1 batter head
1 Evens EQ 3 resonant drumhead (non-ported)
1 AKG d12e microphone –or-
1 Large Diaphragm condenser microphone
Put all ingredients in a medium sized live sounding room, at least 350 square feet. Add heads to drum and tune (making sure that the pitch is the same in front of each lug). Drum should be tuned for maximum low frequency overhang. Loosen resonant head for overhang effect. If using condenser mic, place 12”-18” away from bass drum.
A popular 80’s technique was the kick drum tunnel. Using carpet or a large cardboard tube, or a semi-circularly rolled moving blanket, place a condenser microphone facing the kick drum at the end of the tunnel. This technique excels for picking up the “whoosh” of the kick drum, as well as the impact of the low bass wave. Most of the time, this trick is best used in conjunction with a close microphone.
Low Frequency Oscillator –
A wimpy kick drum with no bottom can be enhanced by using a low frequency tone from a synthesizer or other oscillator that is keyed by a noise gate. with the kick drum acting as a key source. Experiment with the length of time that the gate stays open, to achieve the booming Roland 808 style kick drums. Actually, as a matter of fact, some of that Roland 808 boom is really the floor tom tuned WAY down.
Most of the time this is a last resort, but a drum module with triggers can often mean the difference between resurrecting a track, and re-recording it. Most models will have a gate and sensitivity control that will allow the unit to reject other sounds that may be on the kick drum track.
Software drum replacement –
For those users that are working on computers, drums can be replaced either manually or by the use of automated drum replacement software, such as Sound Replacement (for Pro-Tools).
Remember that above all, the kick drum sound must be appropriate for the song. Monitoring is crucial, as is having good tools, a good arrangement, and a good drummer. Other than that, there’s nothing to it! Kick drum recording is one thing that definitely improves with practice. Instead of spending time on the Internet or watching TV, try out different microphones that you own on your kick drum (but you might want to keep those ribbon mics out of the direct air stream). You will likely find a sound that you will enjoy, and you will certainly get a better idea of what your microphones are really like.
Richard Alan Salz is an artist/producer/engineer residing in Southern Vermont.