The One Button That Can Save Your Drums

2012 Nov 16, 2012

If your recordings aren’t sounding great, there could be a million reasons why. But sometimes the simplest of tweaks can be all you need to see dramatic improvement. This is especially true with drum recordings.

Just last weekend I was recording drums for my band and with one simple click of a mouse I took lack luster drums that sounded somewhat thin and hollow to sounding punchy and full. How was this possible with one button?


Via Marc Wathieu Flickr

Tweaking All The Wrong Things

So we were setting up mics on the drum kit and things were sounding pretty good. The overheads were balanced and full and I was starting to implement close mics on the kick and snare. But no matter what I did, the snare sounded thin and harsh. I was using the same mics I always use and started with a placement I usually start with, but no luck.
I began by adjusting the two most critical things in mic placement: angle and distance. But to no avail. Nothing sounded better, only the same crappy tone. I then grabbed my compressor and EQ on the channel strip and started dialing in the bottom end that the snare needed. Even that didn’t help. I felt lost. What was going on here?!

Flip The Polarity

Then it dawned on me. I wonder if my snare mic is out of phase with my overheads. I took off any EQ and compression on the snare, put the mic back in it’s original placement, and then grabbed a simple plugin in Pro Tools that has that phase flip (or polarity flip) button. You’ve probably seen it. It looks like a zero with a diagonal line running through it.

With one click of that button the sound of my snare drum completely changed. It went from thin and harsh to fat, warm, and clear. It sounded like the darn snare drum sounded in the room. What a concept! What did this tell me? It told me that based on where my overheads were placed, my top snare mic (and as it turns out my inside kick drum mic) was out of phase with the overheads and needed to be flipped.

Not Perfectly In Phase, Just Better

Now, in case you don’t know much about phase cancellation, just be aware that when recording a source with multiple microphones (like a drum kit, or a stereo miked guitar) you need to consider the fact that audio could be hitting each mic inverted from each other. Do they need to be perfectly lined up in your audio editor? No.

Instead, just listen back to your track (in context with your overheads or other tracks) and if something sounds thin or hollow, throw a plugin on the recorded track (like an EQ or something) that has that polarity invert button and hit it. If it makes your track sound better, then leave it! You’ve found your culprit. If it sounds worse (or no different) then flip it back because phase cancellation isn’t your problem.

It’s So Simple, But So Easy To Forget

It always blows me away to think how simple this one step is. Simply clicking one button can instantly improve my drum sound. No effects or samples needed. But it equally blows me away that I forget to do this often. In that recording session last week I was SO frustrated with myself. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get the snare to sound good.

Learn from my mistakes and check the phase on your drums. You’ll give your drums the chance they deserve.

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