A friend of mine and I were discussing recording the other day. He’s a great engineer and the conversation eventually moved on to the subject of drum overhead mics and cymbals. He and I were both rather big believers that the cymbals and drum overhead mic choices make a huge difference not just on the sound of the drums themselves, but on the sound of the entire record.
Over the years I’ve come to believe this so much that even if the album is piano based I’ll put my C12s on the drum overheads and find a good second choice for the piano. The reason is if the drums sound nice, clear and open, then the piano will sounds better. When I mentioned this my buddy made the comment, “Good cymbal choices are the key to great guitar tones.”
What he means of course includes the choice of great overhead drum mics, but also goes to the cymbals themselves. I’m fortunate to have worked with the finest drummers from LA to London and to a person they’d pretty much all say that if their drum kits were stolen, they’d be upset, but if their cymbals were stolen, they’d cry! It’s just much harder to find great cymbals and all good drummers cymbal collection is a product of years of searching. Bad ones can be too bright, some dark, some brassy...some just don’t sound beautiful, but nasty. But when you find good ones, everything in the kit sounds better. My friend has worked with a lot of bands over the years. Even though he’s not a drummer, he has a collection of cymbals because the drummers who showed up had bad sounding cymbals. And if those are recorded at mix time we mixers find ourselves trying to right the wrongs of of them and how they relate to the track. The frequency range of a cymbal, while mostly high frequencies, also falls into the ranges of vocals, snare, and especially electric guitars. Get the cymbals sounding good, and you’d be amazed how much better everything in the mix will sound, especially electric guitars.
Some may ask, “How can I know what the best sounding cymbal is?” It takes lots of time to find out. Drummers I know who have endorsements with cymbal makers will sometimes spend most of a day at the factory hitting different cymbals and hopefully walk away with a few they love. Like any other musical instrument, you just have to go and spend the time listening. Take it back to the studio, record and listen back. Trial and error is the only way until you get enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t.
While I’m on this, drummers I want to mention this to you. Do whatever you wish live, but in the studio you really need to get some distance between the toms and the cymbals. I’ve had some drummer come in where the cymbals literally covered half the tom and were only a few inches off the heads when struck. That just doesn’t work for recording. You need to have at least a 12” and preferably 24” gap between the top of the tom and the cymbal. That’s not just so we can get mics in place, (which does matter) but when they are too low the cymbals bleed into the everything....toms, snare, high hat...even the bass drum. And this bleed gets grabbed when we eq the snare and toms, compounding the bad cymbal sound previously discussed. Raise ‘em up...things will sound better.