It’s never been easier to record professional-sounding music on a budget. Just look at sites like Soundcloud (which hosts 20 million creators) and Bandcamp (which sells around 5 million digital albums a year) and you’ll find thousands of DIY artists producing surprisingly high-fidelity recordings.
However, whilst electric instruments like guitars, basses and keyboards can be perfectly polished using plugins, and protected from background noise through direct audio connections, there just isn’t a decent alternative to recording instruments like drums in an acoustically engineered studio space.
Without professional training and years of hands-on experience, trying to balance each element of a drumkit across several microphones can be a daunting task, but we’re here to prove that it’s by no means impossible. With this in mind, here’s 5 killer tips for recording drums on a budget.
1. Choose the right microphones
Whilst you don’t need the most expensive microphones to produce good quality drum recordings, you will need to think about the style of mic you’re using. All microphones have a pickup pattern, this describes the frequencies that it’s able to capture, alongside how directional the microphone will be.
If your budget is slim, a single omnidirectional microphone placed towards the center of your room is a good place to start, this is known as a room mic. Better yet would be two cardioid microphones placed above the cymbals facing down, in the recording industry these are called overheads.
These basic configurations are able to produce fairly even recordings, though you can improve things further by individually capturing elements such as the kick and snare drums using their own cardioid microphones, just watch out for audio phasing. There’s a great resource on how to choose drum mic kits here.
2. Tune your drums to the room
As drums are acoustic instruments, the space they’re played in will have an immediate effect on the resulting sound, meaning a drum tuned in one room will almost always sound noticeably different when played in another.
Tuning your kit in the room you wish to record in will help you to achieve a clearer sound and a truer tone, which can be further improved by deadening the louder elements (like the kick drum) using pads or pillows. Once you’ve treated your kit in this way, you can turn your attention to the room itself.
3. Treat your recording space
Alongside clever mic placements, creating an acoustically dead room is one of the most effective ways to achieve decent drum recordings, and this process isn’t always too costly. The ideal drum recording space will have very few reflective surfaces and little to no natural reverb.
Hard walls, ceilings and floors cause sound waves to bounce around, creating standing frequencies that will result in a muddled and messy recording. Unwanted reflections can be remedied by attaching foam panels to these surfaces. Just locate the areas in which the reflections are most noticeable whilst playing your kit, then attach foam panels to these surfaces in order to deaden the sound.
4. Use plugins and effects
Whilst it’s generally best to iron out most unwanted frequencies and interferences during the recording process, modern plugins and effects can do a great job of cleaning up recordings after the fact. Even cheaper digital audio workstations come with their own EQ, compression and limiting tools, all of which can be used to polish drum recordings and tighten up your overall project.
Use EQ to reduce the volume of unwanted frequencies, and slightly boost those that need it, and add a little compression to bring the average volume of your recordings up to a more balanced level. If you’re single-micing elements like the kick or snare, try using a noise-gate to automatically remove any bleed from the rest of the kit, this will help your mix to sound much clearer and more defined.
5. Support your recordings with samples
If you’ve followed all the steps above, and still feel something missing from your mix, don’t be afraid to bolster your drum tracks using samples. Free sample libraries can be found all over the internet, with millions of professionally recorded drum sounds that can be easily combined with (or used to replace) your own recordings.
These elements can be added to a new track, and treated with effects within your recording software to support your initial recordings. Alternatively, you could try using a sample replacement tool to replace low-quality recordings with professionally captured audio files whilst still retaining your original rhythm, style and beat.
We hope these five killer tips have given you some inspiration to start producing your own DIY music, even if you’re on a tight budget.
Take a little time to understand the physics of drum recording, and give yourself the chance to find the right mic placements and configurations to suit your particular recording space. But, most of all, remember to have fun fine tuning your own unique drum sounds.