Drum Kit Equalization Primer

by Eric Scot Porter

September 2001

Editor's Note: This is number two in a series of three columns focused on miking your acoustic drum kit. In the last column, Eric provided insight into proper microphone placement. In this column, Eric will provide you with an equalization primer. In the third column he will review some cost-effective microphones that can be used to accomplish the task at hand.

In a perfect world, your drum microphones would work just like human ears. They would hear exactly what you hear when you play your drums. They would then convey this perfect sound portrait to your mixing board and no EQ would be necessary. Your mixing board would then transfer this perfect sound to your recorder, and the recording would then transfer this sound to your perfect speakers. You would then say, is it live or is it Memorex.

So what goes wrong? First, even the most expensive microphone is not equal to the human ear. From this point on, each transfer of the sound adds its imperfections, which you will either figure out a way to compensate for, or live with what you get.

In this section, I will go over a few basic guidelines that will hopefully help minimize the adjustments you will have to make to obtain the most perfect sound you possibly can.

The Simple to Complex Principle:

First I would like to start this section on EQ by a basic idea to live by when recording anything, including drums. Start at ground zero. In other words, don't start EQing anything until you know what you have to work with. You have heard the old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The same applies to drums. More than likely, something will be broke, but don't try to fix it until you know what it is.

Let me illustrate what I am saying. Often, a drummer will come into the recording session thinking, "Man, I want this killer bass drum sound so I'm going to boost the bass EQ up. I want a cannon of a snare drum with a lot of impact, so I'm going to add this cool gated reverb right off the bat and boost the highs a little. Let's do it and see how it sounds man!"

The sound you want to achieve may be legit, but since you don't know what you are starting with, you don't know how to achieve this yet. The best place to start is always with your EQs in the "off" or "flat" position. This position is usually straight up. After you have placed your microphones in the positions as described in the previous section, start by recording a dry run of the entire drum set and see what you think of the sound. It is likely to need a lot of work, but at least you know where you are starting.

It is then best to mute all but one microphone, and go through the drums one by one, working until you achieve the sound you want on that particular drum. Once you have done that for each microphone, unmute all the microphones and record another sample to listen to, playing the whole drum set. Since bleeding between microphones is inevitable to some degree, it is likely that you will need to do some more tweaking, but you won't be far off from achieving the sound that you want. This method is what I call "the simple to complex principle". Start at ground zero, and tweak one step at a time. You will end up with a complex mix setting, but you will have arrived there by the straightest and most efficient means possible.

One more note: Try not to add any effects to the drums until the mix down if at all possible. A reverb that may sound really cool when just listening to the drums may not sound good at all in the context of the whole song.

Some Tips for EQ

There are no hard and dry rules for EQing drums. Each session will be different depending on your recording environment, the recording equipment being used, and the tuning and quality of the drum set.

The following are some general rules that I have found to help most of the time. They may give you a starting point when you are not happy with a particular sound you are getting from a flat EQ. Just remember, EQ is good at enhancing a sound, but it cannot fix it. A crummy sounding drum is going to sound like a crummy sounding drum. You can EQ it all you want, but it is only going to sound like an EQd crummy sounding drum. See our section on drum tuning if you need help getting your drums to sound good.

Bass Drum Equalization:

I typically like to EQ the drums starting at the bottom and working up. It really doesn't matter where you start, but it is beneficial to get a system and stick with it for consistencies sake.

If you are EQing your own drums, it will require you to either have a recorder rolling or have someone hit the drums for you. It is impossible to EQ the drums through headphones while you are playing. Too much sound bleeds through the headphones. Furthermore, headphones are not usually a reliable reference to the sound you are actually obtaining. If you do not have a separate control room that is soundproof from the playing room, it is best to record to check your sound, even if you have someone there to help you. Again, this is because the live drum sound will not allow you to hear what you are actually getting through the microphones. I have my Mackie 1604VLZpro mixing board hooked up directly to my DAT recorder and roll a tape for EQing. This is a bit time consuming, but this way you don't have to rely on anyone else and you can take your time in doing it.

I have found that generally the kick drum needs some mids added in. Typically I find that +3 or 4db at around 3 to 4K helps to bring out the attack in the drum. Sometimes, removing some low mids at around 300Hz helps as well. However, this will depend on the size and tuning of your bass drum. Generally, if you are using a good bass drum microphone (see microphone selection section) not too many lows will need to be added. However, if you are using a microphone that is not specifically designed for bass drums, you will definitely need to add some low end. Don't overdo, but +4db at around 80Hz will help in those situations.

If you are having problems with the bass drum sound after trying these EQ settings, you are probably going to need to consider getting a good bass drum microphone. See our microphone selection section for help with this.

Snare Drum Equalization:

The snare drum is usually fairly forgiving when it comes to EQ. Usually the first change I make in the EQ for the snare drum is to add a bit of highs. Again, this will largely depend on the tuning of the snare drum. I like to add a bit around the 7Khz area. Occasionally I will add a bit of mids as well to help bring out the depth of the snare. Be frugal on the mids, however, as they can easily deliver a tubby sound instead of a crisp impactful sound if you are not careful.

If you are using two microphones on the snare drum, EQ the top microphone first. You can then mix in the bottom microphone to add the amount of crispness that you desire.

Tom Equalization:

The toms should be EQd one by one. Generally, I add a bit of highs to the toms, take out a bit of mids (around 400Hz), and add a bit of lows to the lower toms. Remember the proximity effect when EQing your toms (the closer the mike the more lows you get). If you are unhappy with the sound, experiment a bit with the mike placement. For larger toms, such as floor toms, it is important that you use a microphone that is capable of picking up the lower frequencies. I got a killer sound from my 16" floor tom by using a Nady DM80. Not bad for a $33.00 microphone!

Hihat Equalization:

The hihats are extremely transient and require an EQ without a lot of lower end. I usually roll the lower end completely off when it comes to hihats and add a bit of highs around 10Hz. I like a crisp and clean sound on the hihat. If you are into the chunky sound, you might want to hold back a bit on the highs and boost the upper mids a bit.

EQing your drums are a bit like a painter choosing the colors he is going to paint with. You can't make a bad painting good by just using good colors. Likewise, you can make a technically good painting bad making bad color choices. Try to start out with good fundamentals (good sounding drums, decent microphones, and good mike placement) and then have fun coloring your sound with your EQ!

Eric Scot Porter is an accomplished drummer out of Oregon's own Bay Area. His recent solo project, Kingdom, is available on-line from Amazon or CDNOW . You can check out several MP3 audio clips of Kingdom at The Orchard. You may forward your comments and suggestions to him via esp@acousticdrums.com ...

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