My Massive Drum Sounds

Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 in Studio Secrets |

Besides being asked how I got the Flaming Lips drum sounds or the Hum guitars, people often want to know how I managed to get the massive drum sounds on most of the records I’ve engineered or produced.  The super short answer is simple:  I match the drums sounds in my head.

If this sounds way easier said than done, don’t fret.  I’ll walk you through a few basic techniques that have worked for me over the years:

01. LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN: First and foremost is to listen to drum sounds you adore.  And don’t just listen to them in the context of a great song, listen to the spaces between the drums, listen to the size of the room they’re in, listen to the processing that’s been applied to them, if it sounds like there are just a couple of mics, or stacks of mics.  Try to listen to see if the close mics are driving the sound of the drums, or if room mics are driving the sound instead.  In the below example from Space Team Electra called “Songs of Innocence”, the room mics drive the main sound of the drums.  But, in context, the drums still sound quite large.

[EXAMPLE HERE – Songs of Innocence]

In the next example called “Slow Nerve Action” from the Flaming Lips, the room mics are still driving the sound, but they sound much larger than the previous example.  Both were recorded in exactly the same room, but the blend of mics and the processing added to the tracks is completely different.

[EXAMPLE HERE – Slow Nerve Action]

So, it’s key to listen to drum sounds you like and it’s completely possible to listen to the spaces between the sounds as well.  It’s those spaces that can most inform you in relation to what is actually going on with the drum sound.

02. COMPARE COMPARE COMPARE: If you’ve got a drum sound you adore, then use that as your measuring stick for your own drum sounds. At minimum, learn (or have the drummer learn) something that resembles the pattern of the drum sounds you like.  Then, get to work on shaping your drums through mic placement, gobos, room sizes (if you have that luxury), mics, placements, blend of close mics and room mics, EQ and so on.  On more than one occasion, I’ve taken a trip to the local lumberyard and picked up 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood to build a moveable room around the drummer.

One example of this is with a band I recorded in the UK called “Drugstore”.  The drums were in a giant room, which made it difficult to get some of the thicker drum sounds we wanted for some of the songs.  So, with a little effort and a few hours later, we duct taped a bunch of plywood sheets together and had a nice hard-reflective room built around the drums.

For “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, a previous Flaming Lips song called “Take Meta Mars” was my very first assignment from Wayne Coyne in the studio.  He dropped that song on the mixing console, and said to call him when I got drum sounds that were as big as those.  A couple of different rooms later, a stack of AKG 414’s everywhere, and a few moveable gobos in the form of 4′ x 8′ plywood sheets later, I had not only matched the “Take Meta Mars” drum sound, I felt that we had surpassed it.

Excitedly, I called Wayne, he gave a listen, and a huge smile appeared on his face.  I knew that production on “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” could now begin, and I knew that I was going to be the guy making the record.

03. EXPERIMENT EXPERIMENT EXPERIMENT:  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in the studio, and mics are placed where engineers think they should be placed, without actually listening to what’s going on in that tiny space in which they’ve placed them.  For every mic I’ve set up, I’ve had an assistant move the mic around a bit.  It’s absolutely amazing how much sound can change with just a few millimeters of distance or change in angle.  What was a small sound a few seconds ago, can suddenly be dead center in a sweet spot, transforming an okay sound into an amazing sound.

04. PROCESS LAST, NOT FIRST: This is something that almost every engineer I’ve discussed this with tends to disagree on me with.  I have never, ever, ever used a compressor on any drum I’ve ever recorded.  This is a fact.  I am a fanatic when it comes to drums, and I’ve found that the moment I reach for a compressor, or a noise gate or some sort of shaping tool other than EQ, my drums start to shrink in size, and there’s no getting back to that massive sound that I had when I first brought all the mics into the console and had a listen.

EQ, on the other hand, is something I use in abundance almost all the time, for almost everything.  It allows me to shape sounds so that each one of them fits in its own part of the sonic spectrum, especially as more and more tracks start to layer upon themselves.  Since I view drums and bass as the foundation upon which many songs sit, it couldn’t be more important to get that foundation rocking the house and shaking the windows.  For close mics, I use some extreme EQ, and almost always use 31-band EQ instead of parametric.  I have EQ’s specifically for Kick Drum inner, Snare top, and Overhead mics, right from the start.  I typically have a 5th one for the mic I place, virtually all the time, about 2-3 feet away from the front of the kick drum, on the floor.

And it’s also with these 5 mics that I get my initial sound as well as my phasing on as perfectly as I can.  A little extra time spent here will, without question, make all the difference in the world when it comes to your final sound.  What you thought was a massive drum sound has a frustrating way of disappearing the more other tracks are added, layered, and placed in the same sonic space as the drums.

05. PHASE IS EVERYTHING: I can’t stress enough that spending time checking the phase from mic to mic, to set of mics to set of mics can be one of the single-most critical things you can do when going for massive drum sounds.  Checking, re-checking, moving mics while checking…the difference is literally night and day at times, and ensuring that mics are in phase with each other can make or break any drum sound.

06. ANALOG STILL RULES: Although digital and digital processing that mimics analog signal paths abound, I’ve still found no substitute for my MCI JH-24 2″ 24-track analog recorder, over-biased, and saturated every time I put an instrument to that sweet-smelling magnetic tape.

07. PERFORMANCE IS EVERYTHING:  All of the above advice is nice and can help get a great drum sound, but there is one critical element that cannot be overlooked; that’s having a drummer who knows how to hit hard, and who knows how to hit consistently.  If I’m trying to get massive drum sounds, but my drummer never hits the rim of the snare with his snare hits, if he can’t get the drums to sound massive in the room he’s playing them in from his performance, nothing will be able to fix that in the mix.

I wish I could take credit for many of the drums sounds I’ve captured over the years, but 100% of the time, the most amazing drum sounds I’ve captured, are because of the amazing drummers that have been playing them.  Besides being an incredibly skilled musician, Steve from the Flaming Lips is one of the hardest-hitting drummers I’ve ever worked with.  He literally made me look good with how talented he is as a drummer.  There are several songs on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart where he played the entire song before anyone else layed down a single track, including a guide guitar and vocal.

“Slow Nerve Action” was done in one take, and without anyone else playing with Steve.  It was a rare and beautiful musical moment that will be etched in my mind forever.


Q: Do you trigger drums with your real drums?

A: Rarely.  I have done this on the request of bands, or I’ve done it

Q: Do you use the bottom snare mic?

A: Rarely.  I don’t like how “trashy” it sounds, and I’ve found that if I place the top mic properly, and then use the overheads to their full potential, there’s never been a need to bring in the lower snare mic.

Q: Do you use multiple mics for individual drums?

A: Rarely.  Careful mic placement in a great sounding room with an amazing drummer is all I need to capture that sound.  Multiple mics often introduce phasing issues, and not only give you more to keep track of, but it gives you more room to make errors by improperly utilizing the sounds you’ve got.  An exception to this rule for me is guitars, where I have often been guilty of using 4 or more mics on a single cabinet, and have used 2 cabinets when recording massive guitar sounds as happened for most of the Hum record.

Q: What kind of distortion do you use for your drum sounds?

A: I run all of my drums through a Yamaha SPX90 or SPX900 on a default setting.  In other words, I use the natural distortion of that unit by over-driving the signal into it in order to get the massive drum sounds.  It’s incredible what a single channel (usually taken from the mic in front of the kick drum) can do to trick our brains into thinking the drums have suddenly turned into giant drums that will knock over babies and old ladies.