The recording space can be the most important factor in developing professional quality drum recordings. Learn what to look for when choosing a recording room and how you can acoustically treat it for the best results.
By Hunter West
Recording at home has become commonplace in the music we hear every day. In this 3-part series, we will explore the various stages of recording drums at home for a killer sound, addressing room-choice, acoustics and treatment, instrument setup and microphone placement, and signal chain processing and mixing.
To begin, let’s discuss how the space you record in can be the most important factor in developing professional quality drum recordings. In this piece, you will learn how to determine the most appropriate space to record in, how to identify room acoustic characteristics, and some ways you can negate the non-desirable aspects of a space in your recordings.
1. What kind of space should you record in?
Firstly, it’s important to note that there are no rules in creation. If something sounds good to you, it is good. Understanding that there are no shortcuts, and the results you wish to see will come from experience, trial & error, and patience…and fun! It should be fun.
Now, the difficulty (but also fun) in recording acoustic instruments is often due to the intrusion that the space can have on the capture. Aside from building out a professionally treated space, recordings at home take place in bedrooms, living rooms, bonus rooms, closets, garages, and even kitchens and bathrooms. Every space will have a unique sonic character and feel. Knowing how a space impacts the capture can help you identify whether you want to lean into that uniqueness or find ways to mask the identity of the space.
Regardless, you will find that the beauty in recording real drums is in nuance.
2. What nuance takes place and does the space affect that?
When you record a real instrument, there’s a uniqueness in the result that purposely and non-purposely happens. The purposeful aspect is that it requires someone to play the instrument in the way they want to hear it translated. There are more ways to manipulate audio than ever before, but it all starts with the source. The most-to-least important elements of any recording chain work in chronological order from the player to the instrument, the space, the microphone, and on down the line.
For example, the emotion & energy of a performance could translate very differently if recorded in a carpeted bedroom, versus a reflective bathroom. Similarly, the perceived energy and loudness of a drum kit recorded in a garage would feel different than in a dense closet. This means that even the physical feeling a musician has playing in a certain space can dictate the result.
The non-purposeful aspect occurs because even if the musician is performing with an enormous level of consistency, there will naturally be slight changes in each snare hit, different bars of the groove, each crash of a cymbal… and our brains love those small inconsistencies whether we realize it or not. Even in the most manipulated and synthetic styles of music, finding small ways to impart humanness, uniqueness and identity into the recording can elevate the level of connection we feel.
3. How do different types of spaces/surfaces affect the way drums sound in the recording?
Let’s explore the characteristics of spaces that most living environments contain. For these examples we’ll keep it simple and break it down into two main categories: reflective spaces and non-reflective spaces.
What are some examples of spaces that are typically reflective?
What are some examples of spaces that are typically non-reflective?
Kitchens and bathrooms are often reflective, and although they are usually “smaller” spaces, they have more hard surfaces than soft ones. They’re difficult to control sonically because they contain a lot of “early reflections” due to surface type and size.
What are early reflections?
Early Reflections are the sounds that hit our ears/perception very shortly after the direct sound of a given source. The tiny delay that occurs between the direct source and the reflected sound can range from 5 to 100 milliseconds, usually bouncing off hard surfaces. These types of reflections give us information on the general size of the space.
Garages and larger living spaces are often reflective because of the distance that sound is able to travel and reflect. Garages have hard floors and often little-to-no soft surfaces present. Larger living spaces may be reflective simply from the amount of diffusion, especially if there is a hard surface floor such as wood. These types of spaces will often have noticeable “late reflections.”
What is diffusion of sound?
Diffusion is the scattering/spreading of sound that happens after hitting a surface and dispersing in a non-directional way. The sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere rather than being directional like an early reflection.
What are late reflections?
Late reflections are the sounds that typically occur after 80 milliseconds and hit our ears after early reflections. The combination of both types of reflections can result in what we refer to as reverberation or echo. These types of reflections are much more noticeable and the characteristics/surface types in a room are more easily identifiable.
What other variables should you consider when choosing a space to record in?
As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to make a large room sound like a small room than doing the opposite. Also, larger spaces will naturally capture more balanced frequencies, whereas smaller spaces will often impart boldness or excite the balances due to frequency buildup and an abundance of early reflections.
Bigger spaces typically sound larger in terms of openness and length due to the added combinations of late reflections with early reflections. Alternatively, a large space with a majority of the floor covered in a soft material like carpet, or dense with large, soft items like couches, beds, or chairs, can sound surprisingly non-reflective.
If you need to record in a small space, typically the less reflective, the better. Recording a drier source that you can then process to sound like a larger space will often yield more desirable results than trying to make a small space sound like a bigger space with natural room reflections.
Let’s listen to a few examples of a simple kick, snare and hi-hat groove recorded with one mic in several different home spaces without any treatment, to demonstrate how different rooms affect the capture. These recordings were done with a single condenser mic 46” over the snare to represent the rawest version of the room sound. No processing was added.
4. How you can acoustically treat a room (DIY vs. Pro)
Room treatment is one of the most overlooked aspects of the recording process. Ask anyone who has put money into treating their space and they will tell you it’s one of the best investments you can make. Everything that you record organically into a microphone is at some level affected by the space it's in. How heavily you choose to treat your space will depend on how much room identity you want to maintain post treatment. The more heavily you treat a space, the less room identity will be present in your recordings.
How do I know where to begin treating my space?
Let’s start by separating treatment into two basic functions: absorption & diffusion.
For most of us recording in home studios, absorption is going to be the most important and easiest way of taming issues in a room. Have you ever seen someone walk into a room and clap to test the acoustics? A hand clap is a very transient-heavy sound with no inherent decay that allows the listener to hear the reflective decay in a room more clearly than legato type sounds like talking.
Often in home environments, you will hear what we refer to as “flutter.” It’s that bouncey/pingy sort of sound of the early reflections of a wall or ceiling surface like drywall. This is caused by an energy that’s trapped between two surfaces based on the angle that the sound enters the space at. These issues can be treated with high frequency absorption very easily. We will get into some ways to do this below.
Another phenomenon you may have experienced is noticing a room being more bass-heavy in the corners. This is due to low frequency build up. Low frequencies have to travel a longer distance to complete a full cycle than higher frequencies. When those long cycles don’t have the space to complete, they build up on top of each other and get trapped in certain areas of a room. These issues are harder to fix but can be done with professional bass-trapping materials.
By the time you’ve soaked up some non-desirable frequency info with absorption, you may find the sound of your room feeling a bit lifeless or “boxy.” Diffusers help spread high & midrange frequencies in a way that results in a smoother decay as they act slower than the quick, dry-ness of an absorption material. Diffusers won’t help quite as much with low frequencies be-cause those really need to be soaked up rather than dispersed for more control. Therefore, diffusion is usually better suited after absorption.
What are my options for either style of treatment?
While there are many ways you can treat a space, we’ll keep it simple and break it down based on budget.
Lower Cost / DIY Options
There are several common household items that can do a pretty decent job of acting as absorption in a room. Items like rugs, blankets, soft furniture (couches, mattresses, etc.) around the room and covering hard surfaces can help immensely with early reflections. The potential downside of these options is that it may not look the best aesthetically, and, for some options like hanging blankets, it's a temporary fix. The aesthetic, feel and energy of a space can be as important as the sound, so try to choose options that support the vibe of the space you wish to create in.
For diffusion, if you have bookcases or shelving with books or random items that cover wall space, those can sometimes act as diffusers.
The most important thing with lower cost options is simply to experiment and see what feels best.
For a temporary DIY example, let’s listen to some recordings of the same groove recorded with no other changes than the addition of some blankets hung around the kit on some mic stands. Notice how draping these around the kit lets the mic hear more of the drums and less of the room qualities. There are also two additional examples: one in the kitchen/living area with the addition of two professionally built gobos behind the kit to demonstrate the impact of a professional heavy-absorption option, and one in my studio space to demonstrate the value of recording in a treated room.
These captures were done with a single condenser mic 46” over the snare to represent the most raw version of the room sound. No processing was added.
If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on treatment, “buy once, cry once.” There’s a lot of misinformation out there that we won’t get into, but I would recommend finding an acoustician in your area who can come look at your space and offer advice and some options.
Another possibility is to use a measurement mic and software to see where your problem areas are. The important part, whether buying treatment or building it yourself, is to do your research on the required material/depth for each piece to make sure you're investing in a product that is built to spec and will do its job.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new about the way room acoustics can impact your recordings. Wherever you are in your journey, having fun experimenting! Learning new ways to practice recording is where it all starts.
This is the first installment of a 3-part series on recording drums at home. Check out part 2 on mic choice and placement here.
Hunter West is a producer, mix engineer, musician, and artist currently based in Nashville, TN. Check out Hunter’s work, samples, and more here: huntertwest.com.
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