Your first time recording drums in a studio can be an overwhelming experience. Here are some useful tips on what to do before you arrive, and while you’re there, to get the most out of your studio time.
Do your homework
Make sure you’re comfortable with the songs long before you get to the recording studio, and that you’ve planned everything well.
- Spend time working on difficult drum parts.
- Become comfortable playing your parts alone, with no other instruments.
- Figure out the exact tempo of each song (and note any tempo changes and exactly where they occur).
- Figure out how you’re going to record – live (with the entire band recording all together), or piece-by-piece, with the drums recorded first. Even if you plan to just track drums, it can be very helpful to have one or two other bandmates playing along with you in a different room. Check with the studio if you want to do this.
- Draw up drum charts or makes notes for each track if you need.
- Buy some extra sticks, drumheads, duct tape, and snacks for the session.
- Make a list of everything you need to bring, to be sure you don’t forget anything.
The metronome – get comfortable with a click track
Get used to drumming with a metronome, both solo and with the rest of the band. There are two huge reasons for this:
- You’ll find it impossible to record to a metronome if you’ve never played with one before. Don’t wait until you’re at the studio to learn to play to a click.
- As a band, you’ll naturally flow off tempo and sometimes rush or slow some parts if you never use a metronome… When you do record with a click, the track can feel wrong if you’ve never learned to play it in time. Importantly, you’re not going to be as comfortable playing it in the studio because of this. Add a click track to some of your rehearsal sessions and you might be very surprised with the result.
It’s not essential to record to a click. As a drummer you should absolutely be able to do it, but a lot of amazing albums are made without one. Sometimes a natural variation in tempo is considered a positive rather than a problem… Just make sure you’re avoiding the click for the right reasons, not to cover up your inability to play with one. Note that if you don’t record to a click, you usually limit yourself to using a single whole take of a song – you can’t splice in parts from different takes if you mess up. Not using a metronome can also make it more difficult to do overdubs later. Most studios will give you a click by default. It’s recommended you use one unless you have an amazing sense of time, or you end up wasting studio time because you’re struggling with it.
Drum sound – get an idea of what you want
Get an idea of the drum sound you want – show some music to your engineer or producer and tell them “I want this kind of snare/tom/kick drum”. Keep in mind a lot of the drum sound you hear on recordings is thanks to compression, EQ, reverb, and other gear (your recorded drums won’t be an exact replica), but you should be able to get something relatively close. If you’re unsure of what recorded drum sound you want, here are a few things you can consider:
- Do you want a big roomy drum sound with a lot of reverb, or a tighter sound with more silent space between each hit?
- Do you want big punchy drums that really stand out, or is there another instrument that takes the lead?
- Do you want a lot of sustain after each drum is hit, or do you want to keep each stroke short and controlled?
- Do different songs require different variations of the above points?
- See the Drum Sound FAQ for a good overview of the the different factors that influence your sound.
Contact the studio before you get there
Find out exactly what drum gear is available at the studio for you to use.
- Is there a nice kit for you to record with?
- What are the condition of the drumheads on the studio’s kit (and do they match the sound you want)?
- Do you need to bring your own pedals/cymbals/etc?
- Are there enough cymbal stands or other hardware (and does the studio have enough straight or boom stands)?
- If you’re using your own kit, can you load in and set up before the recording session to save time?
- Double check there’s nothing else you need to do or bring to the session. Don’t find out you’re missing one crucial item on the day of recording.
Give your gear a good tune-up if you’re recording with your own drum kit
Check for any loose screws, rattles, squeaks, or other strange sounds. All of these things can be picked up by studio microphones. If a drum key or screwdriver won’t fix the problem, use tape or spray-on grease. If you buy new drumheads, play them for a few days before going into the studio. Brand new drumheads can take a little time to stretch and settle – they’ll stay in tune longer after you’ve played them a little. Click here for more drum tuning tips.
Warm up before recording
Spend around 15 minutes playing once you’ve set up the drum kit. Do some rudiments and exercises around the kit. Run through any fills or beats that you’re less confident with. Do at least some of your warm-up with the click track. Also use this time to check your kit: Is everything tuned the way you want? Do you need to move anything before you start recording?
Start with an easy one
Track an easier song first – don’t jump into something you’re not comfortable with. It can take a little time to get used to the studio environment if you’re new to it, so start easy.
Don’t change your tuning once you’ve started tracking a song
Tune everything before you start recording each song (only do minor adjustments if your drums start to go out of tune). The reason is this: Changing your drum sound after 2 takes of a song means you wont be able to splice in anything from the next few takes (to fix a mistake), because you’ll have a noticeable difference in drum sound. Find the best tuning and stick with it. Similarly, don’t move your drums around once they’re in place. When you move on to the next song, you’re free to change your drum sound as much as you like.
Listen to what you’ve tracked – especially at the beginning
Don’t be afraid to go listen back after the first few takes. Think about the sound you have, and also the flow and timing of your playing. Are you rushing any parts? Do the drums have the sound you’re looking for? Discuss this with the engineer to make sure you’re on the right track with things (just remember the raw unmixed drums can sound very different to the final product).
Keep hydrated and well fed
Make sure you have breaks for food to keep your energy up. It can be a huge day when you’re tracking drums. Send someone to get food while you’re recording, or bring enough with you to keep you going.
Be nice to the engineer
This is important – they’re the one person who has full control over your sound when you’re recording. Listen to their advice, and talk to them about any problems you’re having. Chances are they’ve had experience dealing with most issues that can come up. Never move microphones or other gear – tell them if you need to. And remember to thank them if they do a good job.
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