Recording Drums? How many mics do you use?


Drum Kit Basics
A quick guide to drums, what's what, and how they're set up...
By Joe Albano

The bits and pieces of a typical drumkit (trap kit) are pretty familiar to most people, but for those who may not have had a lot of experience working with the real thing, let’s do a brief rundown of the basics nonetheless.

A standard 5-piece rock kit usually has a kick (bass) drum, a snare, two mounted rack toms (suspended from mounting brackets anchored on the kick), one floor tom, plus a hi-hat (two facing cymbals mounted horizontally on a springloaded pedal-and-rod mechanism—the player’s foot activates alternating separation and clashing together of the cymbals), a ride, and one or two crash cymbals (see the picture below). Sometimes rock kits have more toms, while some traditional jazz kits may forego the middle tom. Additional crash cymbals are common, as are double bass drums in some musical styles. In fact, kits nowadays come in a dizzying variety of layouts, but the traditional 5-piece is probably still the most common arrangement.

Each drum has a top head (the “batter” head, the one which is played), and a bottom head (for resonance), although sometimes the bottom heads are left off. The snare drum, of course, has snares (a band of metal springs) tensioned against the bottom head, to provide its characteristic sound. The tension of those snares can be varied from a tight buzz to a loose rattle (or lifted off completely), depending on the drummer and the song.

The shells of the kick and toms are usually made of wood, although other materials (such as fiberglass) have sometimes been used. Snares are normally either wood or metal, usually brass or steel. As you’d expect, a wooden drum will have a slightly warmer tone, a metal one a more cutting tone.

Sizing things up

The sizes of the drums in different kits vary—the closest thing to a traditional ”standard”-sized kit might have a 22" x 14" kick (diameter of head x depth of shell), rack toms of 12" x 8" and 13" x 9", a floor tom of 16" x 16", and a snare of 14" by 5–6.5" depth.

For some drummers or musical styles, larger or deeper drums may be preferred, such as kicks up to 24" x 16" (or deeper), rack toms with equal diameter & depth (i.e. 12" x 12"), or snares up to 8" deep (very popular in the 70’s and 80’s). Lately, there’s even been a trend to smaller and shallower sizes (which can sound big nonetheless when miked up), and piccolo snares (shallow drums of 13–14" diameter x 3–4" depth) remain popular for some applications, when a high-pitched “crack” is a desirable snare sound.

As far as cymbals go, hi-hats are usually 13–14", rides around 20–22", more or less, and crashes range about 16–18", with smaller (splashes) and larger sizes also being common. And besides these standard sizes, there are many other specialized drums & cymbals found around trap kits these days.

Putting it together

The kit is often set up on a rug or mat, to prevent the kick drum from “creeping” away from the drummer as it’s struck repeatedly with the pedal. Assuming a right-handed drummer, the hi-hat stand/pedal (which is played cross-handed) is set up to the left (from the drummer’s perspective behind the kit), with the snare just to the right of it, and slightly in front (closer to the drummer).

The rack toms are traditionally mounted (high to low, left to right) on arms attached to the kick, but nowadays there is a trend toward mounting them on floor stands, suspended on semi-circular holders, instead of arms screwed into holes in the sides of the toms/top of the kick—the idea is to eliminate those mounting holes, which is said to allow the drums to vibrate more freely with increased resonance and improved tone.

The floor tom usually sits on its own legs on the floor, to the right. The snare sits in a cradle on its own stand, and the cymbals are all mounted on their own floor stands, with the ride usually on the far right, just above the floor tom, and the crashes above, and to the left and right of, the rack toms. Obviously, a left-handed drummer will set up everything as a mirror image of this, and some drummers have their own unique arrangements, but the above should serve well as a standard layout.

When assembling the kit, be sure everything is tightened down well, and when you need to make (even small) adjustments, loosen the fittings (!) instead of forcing a stand’s arm into a new position. Listen for squeaks or rattles in the hardware that could show up later in the recording—this is especially important with the kick drum (and sometimes hi-hat) pedal.

Joe Albano is co-owner of Rooftop Productions, and a freelance engineer/producer in NYC. Learn more about his studio


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