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Q: How can I record pro-sounding drums in a small room?

A post by David Mellor
Saturday December 18, 2010
Is it possible to record a high-quality sounding drum track in a small space? Or am I just wasting my time recording in a room with a low ceiling? I am using high quality microphones (worth a few thousand collectively), a good drum-set with very high end Zildjian cymbals and I know how to properly mix a kit. Nor am I ignorant of phase problems and how to deal with them. Nonetheless I have never been able to achieve a drum sound in a small room that sounded any better than just 'good'. Is it possible? What
Q: How can I record pro-sounding drums in a small room?

From time to time we receive a question that is really difficult to answer, and this is one of them.

It would be nice if we could give a magical solution that would allow drums to be recorded to a professional standard in a small room, but the best we can do is offer ideas that will help you progress in a professional direction, if not get all the way there.

The first thing to realize is that the sound of professionally-recorded drums is the sound of professionally-recorded drums in a large room, not a small room. At least five or six meters in the smaller horizontal direction.

And by 'large room' we also mean 'large room with a high ceiling', preferably four meters or more.

Such a room is way beyond what you would normally find in anyone's house or apartment.

It also helps for the large room to have good acoustics. And of course pro studios are professionally acoustically designed, so this is what you would expect.

'Good acoustics' means having a controlled reverberation. The reverb field should be diffused with many weak reflections rather than few strong ones. There should not be too much reverb, and its frequency response should be smooth. I say 'smooth' rather than 'flat' because it is normal to have a longer reverberation time at low frequencies rather than high, because low frequencies are less easily absorbed. This is what we find in rooms all the time, and the human ear tends to like what it expects.

Small rooms tend to show the effects of standing waves too, where certain frequencies are highly emphasized compared to others.

What we consider to be good acoustics for recording also implies that the direct sound and reverberation are separated somewhat in time. So imagine a single drum strike. In a large room the direct sound will travel several meters to the nearest surface, other than the floor, then reflect. In a small room, it will travel over a much shorter distance and the reverb will build up much more quickly.

So the problems with normal domestic rooms are these...

  • A few strong reflections rather than many weak ones
  • Uncontrolled frequency response of the reverberation
  • Standing waves
  • Inadequate separation in time between the direct and reverberant sound

Although it will be impossible to turn a small room acoustically into a large one, you might consider at least making some improvements.

So you could use acoustic treatment to fix any standing wave problems. Normally this is done with tuned panel absorbers or Helmholtz resonators.

You could control and diffuse the reverb at the same time with suitable acoustic treatment. Oddly enough, the installation of bookshelves (with books!) can work well since they are partially absorbent and have irregular surfaces that break up what reflections that remain.

Controlling the frequency response of the reverberation normally implies giving special attention to low frequencies, since these are the most difficult to absorb. If only porous absorption is used, then only high-mid and high frequencies will be absorbed leading to an unpleasant imbalance. Panel absorbers are used for the lows because they take up less space than porous absorbers and can be tuned to the required range of frequencies.

Having done all that, what remains is that your room is small, and the reflections occur within a short time of the direct sound. You can never prevent that, but what you can consider is to make the room less reverberant altogether, which means having more absorption. Since the problem is not in the drums or cymbals but in the reverberation, then it makes sense to eliminate what is causing the problem. Perhaps not completely, but enough to make a difference. Since the quality of plug-in reverbs is excellent these days, you can always add any ambience you consider to be missing.

If you consider all of the above carefully, then you will see that making improvements is going to take an awful lot of hard work.

There is an old English proverb... "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

A more useful version adds at the end, "And if you have tried and tried again, it's really time to give up and find something more practical!"

It may indeed be more practical to find somewhere else to record your drums, or hire a professional studio to record drum tracks.

A post by David Mellor
Saturday December 18, 2010 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)