It’s amazing to me how quickly I can jump to silly conclusions when things go wrong in the studio. Earlier this week I shared a confession about how I recorded an entire album’s worth of drums without ever listening back to the tracks to see how they sounded, and without doing any mic placement. Today I have another bogus drum recording confession. Enjoy!

But The Gain Is All The Way Down

It all started one sunny Florida day when I was setting up mics for a drum tracking session for a talented friend of mine. We had “rented out” a massive empty house with a super cool entry way. It had a nice built in reverb and was the perfect place to record some drums.

The drummer got the kit setup and tuned, I placed mics in some initial spots around the kit, and then we began to get signal levels into my DAW. The drum overheads came first and once I had set an appropriate amount of gain on the preamps I moved on to the close mics, namely kick and toms.

The moment I asked the drummer to give me some kick drum hits I noticed something strange: I was getting a ton of signal into my preamp and DAW, even though the gain knob was all the way down. In fact, at times the kick drum was even clipping.

Now It’s Time To Panic

I started to panic. “I don’t understand,” I thought to myself. “The gain is all the way down, there’s no way I can be clipping the track already! What am I supposed to do?” 

Now this wasn’t some fun little hangout time with buddies, just recording for fun, this was a paid gig for a talented guy who had raised the needed cash to produce his latest album. He had tapped me to record and mix it, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself or ruin his album.

So I panicked. Inside at least.

It had to be my preamps. They must be broken. They must be giving my microphones way more gain than it says on the gain knob. Of course I didn’t want to admit to the guys in the band that my gear (the gear they in essence were paying to use) was damaged. So what did I do?

Back That Thing Up

I backed the mics way up! Yep, I told the guys something like “Yeah, I just need to back the kick drum and tom mics up a bit so that we don’t overload the preamps. We want to get a nice clean sound that doesn’t clip.” Which is partly true. Recording too hot is a major recording no-no.

They bought the story, and I pulled the mics back off the drums a bit more. The result, the gain was just below clipping (hardly ideal, but doable) and we now had a more roomy sounding kit with a ton of drum bleed. We got an OK recording and I lived to see another day.

That’s cool if you’re into failure and disappointment. But I wasn’t. I needed to know what the real problem was.

The Actual Problem Was?

So if my preamps weren’t really broken (you could have guessed that at this point), what WAS the problem?

One thing I was doing differently than I had ever done before, changed everything: I used condenser microphones for some of my close mics, namely kick and toms. And if you’ve been recording for any length of time you’ve come to learn that condensers handle audio much differently than dynamic microphones do.

Clearly I was in the dark. (And I went to audio school for crying out loud!!)

You see, dynamic mics handle loud sound sources very well (Think of an SM57 on a screaming guitar cabinet or rocking snare drum). But put a condenser on those same sources and you’ll easily overload the mic or the preamp, or both.

The Solution? The Pad

In all my years of recording up until that point I had never thought of a practical reason for using a pad. For those of you who don’t know what a pad is, it’s simply a circuit in your mic, preamp (or inline) that turns down (or pads down) the audio signal to a more acceptable and useful level. It’s meant to protect your microphones and other equipment from signal overload.

Sure plenty of people record drums with condenser mics (kicks, toms, even snare drums), but what I didn’t seem to notice was that somewhere along the chain they had a pad that was turning down the signal, so things weren’t too hot.

At the time, none of my microphones (except one) or my preamps had pads built in. The solution? Buying a couple of $20 in line pads that connect to the mic cable before you hit the preamp. Now I use these little bad boys to pad down my signals by 20db if necessary. Simple, elegant, affordable.

Lesson Learned

Yep, that was a pretty dumb conclusion to jump to, that my preamps were broken. But I learned a valuable lesson about condensers and pads. Now I successfully use them in almost every drum recording session I do.

Want to share a confession of your own? I won’t judge ya 🙂

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