Tip: Choose your assistants wisely. Poly Esther the Shiba Inu is absolutely no help at all. Sigh. I found the best room for drum recording in my house was the office with its hardware floor and picture window adding just enough ambience to "enliven" the kit—a small (designed for pre-teens) Ludwig Pocket Kit by Questlove that isn't loud enough to anger the neighbors.
quarantine home recording
Why Worry? Just Do It!
By Michael Molenda
Yes. The pandemic sucks. Duh. No gigs. Zero or very limited rehearsals (depending on the comfort zones of your band mates). Tons of professional recording studios temporarily shut down.
But none of this means you have to surrender to becoming a "Lockdown Loser."
COVID-19 is forcing everyone to re-prioritize and evolve, and the mantra of the debacle should be "Don't Waste a Single Day."
You should have ample time now to focus on your creativity, to compose musical works of whatever type you dig, and get those little jewels recorded and distributed to a world aching to hear new music every day. All it takes is the desire to share your music. The rest is easy. Really. Here's how.
Easier said than done, right? Even superstar songwriters can suffer from distractions and writer's block. But the starting point is simply having something you want to say. Maybe it's raging against the pandemic, or a beautiful melody, or a song about your dog. It doesn't matter. Simply collect your thoughts, and start sketching out the work on paper (lyrics, chords, whatever) or record snippets of ideas into your cell phone.
Of course, if drums is your only instrument, you might think, "Well, I need someone to collaborate with in order to help with the chords and melodies, and no one is available."
Okay. Don't cling to excuses here. For one thing, there are scores of musicians out there looking to collaborate, so stop tripping yourself up, and instead use the social tools at hand to seek out like-minded creators. Secondly, there are lots of drummers out there who are very happy recording themselves playing cool grooves, or fills, or percussive bits. You can do whatever you want, and with whatever tools you have. The only thing you can't do is nothing.
Get Your "Studio" Set Up
When you create a piece you dig, you have to record it in order to share it. This isn't as big a deal as it was in my early years, when expensive professional recording studios were the only game around for documenting music. Today, your studio is your laptop, tablet, or phone, and anywhere you are comfortable—a rehearsal studio, your bedroom, the bathroom, the backyard, and so on.
That said, you do need some tools to make your personal studio happen. But thanks to software such as Apple GarageBand (Mac) and Audacity (Mac/PC), you can acquire a very cool DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for free. The only cost moving forward should be for a preamp to get microphones and line-level signals (guitar, bass, keyboards, etc.) into your laptop. I use a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface. It's delivers clean and transparent signals, it's easy to use, and it costs around $160. If you only need a microphone—say, if you're only interested in laying down drum grooves and have no desire to invite a guitarist, bassist, or keyboardist to your recording party—then things can get cheaper. Decent USB mics that plug right into your laptop start at around $49 for a Blue Snowball and go up to around $150 before quality and cost factors get into the "significant investment" range. There are plenty of online tutorials to help you make your mic and audio-interface decisions.
Just to be clear, let's review everything you need to get started: A recording space, some free recording software, and either a mic-and-audio-interface combo or a USB mic. That's three or four free or affordable things tops, so no excuses!
Musicians tend to freak out about recording stuff, and that has always mystified me. Certainly, there are audio-engineering and production geniuses out there. Absolutely, there are fantastic recording studios and fabulously expensive microphones, mixers, preamps, EQs, and other vintage and boutique outboard gear. But you're not going to care about any of that.
All you need to focus on is getting a signal recorded into your DAW as cleanly as possible with no audible hiss, distortion, or other gremlins. You are dealing with a pretty simple signal chain—at most, it's a mic into a preamp into a laptop and your recording software—so any audible villains will likely be introduced by poor input-level management. You just have to use your ears and eyes when adjusting your input levels to ensure you aren't distorting stuff.
I mean, this part always seemed like a breeze to me, but I've watched home-studio peeps slam the living sausage out of the recording meters until they are screaming in the red—which is typically "not good," BTW. Or perhaps their initial signal will be clean, but then they try to get fancy by activating a compression plug-in and forget that the compressor has level controls, as well. Oops.
While your creativity should not be hampered by so-called rules—add all the plug-ins you want if your music is veering into a world of psychedelia and madness—but you at least have to record signals that are not compromised by noise or other less-than-awesome audio artifacts. The takeaway here is: Just be careful. Okay? We're good, then.
The One-Mic Drum Method
At this point, you may be asking, "How do I record a drum kit with just one microphone?" If you watch YouTube videos, AXS TV, or any show that goes behind the scenes of the modern recording studio, it looks like it can't be possible. But way back in the olden times—the early years of rock-and-roll recording in the 1950s, entire bands were often recorded with a single mic. Everything went down live-to-tape, and mixing usually meant moving players around in the studio. Vocals too soft? Move the singer closer to the mic. Drums too loud? Move them back. Too much guitar? Turn the guitar amp down, or put the player back by the drums.
Happily, you're not moving a bunch of musicians around as if they were human chess pieces. You have one drum kit and one mic. What could go wrong?
I should say this again: No one is expecting you to be a master engineer. In fact, repeat this mantra over and over if you start driving yourself nutso: “I do not have to be the best engineer ever. I simply need to capture one drum as cleanly as possible.”
Just trust your ears. You know what you like to hear when you listen to recordings by your favorite artists, and you’ll know what's a good sound when you listen to your own, homegrown recordings.
Do a couple of quick, no-pressure cell-phone recordings of your drums set up in various rooms in your house. Although the cell mic is not going to be kick-ass quality, you should be able to determine where your drums sound best to you. (Try to evaluate the basic tone of your kit, and whether the space produces too much natural reverb or annoying echoes.) When you have selected your "drum room," it's time to refine the placement of that one microphone.
In the photo below, you can see I started with a very basic mic position approximately three feet from the front of the kick drum at a height of about five feet. This perspective produced a nice smack and pop on the snare, a boomy kick with enough attack to cut through a mix, and some good cymbal brightness. Your results will likely be different, as we don't live in the same house (lucky you) or share the same gear. But let's use my initial placement as a starting point for your recording.
The next step is recording the drums, assessing the sounds, and amending the things you don't like. For example, if you feel the kick drum is too boomy, move the mic around until the low-end calms down a bit. Don't hesitate to do "crazy" stuff, either. Sometimes, I'll throw a blanket or towel over the kick drum to deaden things a tad, or I gaffer's tape washcloths to the toms and snare if they are too loud and live. No one is watching to criticize your actions, so you are free to do whatever insane stuff it takes to get the sounds you want. Be bold.
Tip: It’s important to let your ears do the work here, and NOT your eyes. For example, the coolest drum sound for your track might be achieved with the mic lowered right to the middle of the kick drum at a distance of a foot. Your eyes might tell your brain, “Yeah. Good luck getting a nice snap from the snare and some nice air and dimension from the hi-hat and cymbals with THAT crazy position.”
Your eyes might also seduce you into thinking the most balanced drum sound would come from raising the mic high above the kit and pointing at the snare or rack toms. Maybe you’ve seen that setup in a recording magazine or tutorial. Copying that exact position might even do exactly what you expect. Or it could be absolutely inappropriate for the track you are working on. Perhaps the cymbals are too far front and everything else sounds kind of overly bright and thin.
Here’s the thing about “visual mic positioning.” Whomever wrote about (or diagrammed) a specific mic position did not set it up in your room at your house with your mic. An expert engineer can assume certain things about sound production—that’s why they are pros—but without working in your exact environment with your exact recording tools and dealing with the specific track you’re working on, he or she can’t predict the sonic outcome with any degree of precision.
The wonderful situation here is no matter how little recording knowledge you may have, your own ears need to determine how a source sound is being captured by your single mic, and whether that sound is the right sound for your track. The infamous ’60s recording engineer and producer Joe Meek used to say, “If it sounds right, it is right.” Put everything else out of your mind. Trust your ears, pay attention to your creative muse, and you’ll do a fantastic job.
When YOU and you alone are happy with the sound, you can release your solo-drum, groove track all by yourself (Bravo!), or trade audio files with other musicians to build complete epics filled with guitars, keyboards, and even entire symphonies (if you've been lucky enough to partner up with a fabulously wealthy co-writer).
Oh, I should mention some very basic environmental elements to look out for in your pad. A room with a lot of windows without drapes and a hardwood floor with no area rugs is probably going to produce a lot of ambience, reverb, and/or echoes. It's also going to sound bright—as if you cranked the treble control on your car radio. You'll get elements of that groovy John-Bonham-approved room sound, but your cymbals, snare, and toms might get a bit washy.
On the other hand, if you're working in a carpeted bedroom with a cushy couch and a bed—along with thick, beautiful curtains on the room's one window—you may hear a relatively dead (no reverb) room tone that's a tad muted or warm-ish sounding. For home-recording, a dead sound might be more of a benefit than a live room, because you can always add reverb in the mix, but you can't delete the natural reverb that was recorded along with the source sound if it bugs you later.
Put It Out
When you have your track recorded to your liking, don't keep it a secret. Be brave and get it out there for all to hear. Everyone is releasing all kinds of tracks during the pandemic, so don't even worry about how you'll stack up to the competition. You'll end up the same as it ever was and always will be—even if you were to take a time machine back to 1964. Your music will sound better than some, and worse than others, and you can't control whether people will embrace your track or not. (Unless you have some scary mind-control powers that the CIA should never find out about.) Just relax, screw the critics, and let it go.
Obviously, if you recorded a solo-drum groove, you're ready to distribute your work almost immediately. It's one track, so there's no mixing necessary. Well, you can muck about with adding the effects that come with your recording software—compression, reverb, modulation, EQ, and the like—and I'd recommend experimenting here, because going out on a limb is how you learn. But you still don't have to deal with multiple tracks of different instruments. (If you did go for an opus, and worked with other musicians, there are some very nice tutorials on multitrack mixing techniques online, and I recommend you eat 'em up.)
Once you have a completed audio track, you can do a ton of very cool things. I often like to load my audio tracks into iMovie (another free Mac program) and make fun videos using found footage that I release on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and/or YouTube. This costs nothing—all you have to do is sign up, if you haven't already—and offers you the possibility of exposing your tracks to a vast audience.
If you want to stick with audio, options such as SoundCloud and Spotify let you self-release your music and share it across socials. Starting from point zero is very easy, because sites such as CD Baby can take you through every phase of the self-release process. Some sites charge fees for distribution, so you'll have to decide for yourself how far you want to go, and how much you want to invest. Many creators are happy enough seeing people enjoy their music on Facebook and other free sites, but if you're looking for revenue from your efforts, things get a tad more complicated. Again, do some research, and you'll be just fine.
The main thing is to get your music out there in the world. Don't let anything stop you.
This is just me here, but making music in a crappy time is a blessing. Having music distract me from COVID-19 worries—and all the financial and social woes the virus unleashed—is an almost incalculable relief. I feel energized. I'm having fun. I'm doing my part to create beauty in a season often saturated with fear and ugliness. I'm using my skills and my brain and my fingers and soul to conjure music out of thin air.
What I'm NOT doing is wasting the days worrying and not being productive.
I ask you to do YOUR part. Release a song that makes me think and feel, or a groove that makes me smile and dance. I'll be watching out for your music, so please let us know where to find you when you do release your stuff.