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Firstly, a remark- I am not expecting to make a live drum set sound just like a recorded drum set. Also, let's restrict the scope of this question to certain pop/rock/funk/metal/country types of drum sounds... Examples will be provided.


If you listen to a lot of recorded music or live music in large venues that warrant a miked up drum kit, you might notice that the drums are frequently processed to fill a certain kind of sonic space- for example, the kick needs a strong and tight low end, the snare needs to be punchy with a defined "crack" attack, the cymbals are crisp and not too harsh, and everything is balanced in a musical way.

Examples, since descriptions only get us so far:

Pop/Funk

Country

Christian Rock

Now if you were listening to same drum kit from any of these recordings live in person (or if it were recorded with a single overhead mic), with no electronic enhancements, there would probably be a number of differences, maybe even "problems"-

The snare tends to be way louder than all the other drums, with a lot of mid range harshness that can be overbearing. The cymbals can easily overpower everything else and can sound quite harsh compared to the nice crispy studio tracks. The overall sound doesn't have nearly the amount of low end as the recording- recorded toms can be quite bassy ("like cannons", even). On top of that. you get even farther from the recorded sound once you tell the drummer to "keep it down", which is often, as an unmiked drum kit (played in these styles) can be loud for even a 200-person outdoor venue.

More illustrations- here's an example of what my drum kit sounds like*

Since this is recorded, I can make it sound a bit fatter with an additional mic and some heavy-handed post processing

But the live drum kit doesn't sound like this at all, and I can't post process it in real life.

Now, obviously a live acoustic drum kit fills the same musical role as a recorded drum kit. So, in a venue that's too small for a fully miked and processed drum sound, how could we engineer the drums to fill the same space (from a sound engineer's perspective) as these recorded drum kits, short of abandoning acoustic drums completely?


*This recording was done with a single vocal mic placed overhead, and then eq'ed with the opposite eq curve of the "frequency response" shown in the microphone's user manual. I would love to have a recording done with a calibrated measurement microphone here, but I can't find one, so this is what I have.

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Let me tackle this from the other end, as it were, after clarification that this is to get a drummer to "turn down" rather than needing reinforcement to provide to 'whoomf'.

This complements the other answer & can still be miked the same way, even if only to bring the sound forward to FoH, rather than fully amplify.

Bear in mind, I'm a sound engineer/producer who just also happens to be a drummer, so when I went about this initially I had my sound engineer hat on. This setup is entirely designed to sound good when 'lightly' miked, not to the drummer - it doesn't sound bad but it sounds better in the venue than on the stage. With some tweaks it also records well.[1]

Note: this is way more expensive than my other answer as a solution ;)

Start with a smaller, thinner-walled kit with thinner skins.
There, that's your first couple of grand spent.
To that, add fast crash cymbals & light hats - that's another couple.

OK, so I went through 4 grand in two sentences, now let me explain…

Big powerful sounds come with big heavy kits & skins. that's kind of how physics works. To try 'fool' physics you can drop all your resonances. You can't do this on a big heavy kit, you need to start with lighter everything - I'm thinking more than the difference between the Yamaha 9000 studio kit vs the 8000 live kit. Bear in mind I haven't bought a new kit in 25 years so I don't know what the modern equivalents are.
Personally I took it one further & went with what I think they used to call their 'fusion' kit. Small kick, small toms, shallow snare. It also by default came with cheap, crap entry-level metalwork, which I didn't get.[2]

The kick I damped to within an inch of its life - internal foam & a damped beater plate with a super-light speedball beater. Also, tuned down to what you'd expect of a 22" not a 18". Doesn't work at all in the studio, it's too dead, the foam has to come out. Live it allows the engineer to tune it into the room using the natural resonance of the venue plus some heavy low EQ. Lots of high/mid transient on the mic, plus depth & ring you coax from the room.

Toms entirely undamped, but using really thin, clear skins top & bottom [I left the original thin bottom skins on & went with clear Ambassadors for the top… yup those;) & tuned down perhaps a third or even fifth from their natural frequency. No good putting kevlars or pinstripes on something like this.
Doing this you can gain the lower frequencies, with some lovely top-end slap & transient. Tune out one corner, top & bottom, to control your decay. Thinner skins have more slap & less decay anyway - saves them getting away from you live.

Snare slightly differently. I used a suede head because they're not too bright & you can get them to ring nicely, by how you play it, without sounding like timbales. Again, drop a corner off until the ring drops to how you like it. I also have about ½" of gaffa with paper tissue in the centre [about the size of a band-aid in all] I can move around the edge just to tame anything that tries to escape in very live venues.

Hats are Sabian studios, as you can get them between ringy & crashy depending on how tight you get them

Crashes are Paiste Fast Crash. Paper-thin you can get them to crash not ding with very little effort. They don't burn the bassist's ears & they don't ring til Tuesday. They're also just the right volume for the rest of the kit.

Technique - this is the fun bit. Rimshot every single stroke, every single time. Takes some practise, but that's how you get the front transient into it, like you would with a compressor. You need to balance up where on a skin you strike, same as playing as 'normal'. Rim & centre is neatly damped, short decay. Rim & far edge will sing out. [Rim & near edge will make it sound like you're trying to tap-dance… don't do that:)

Sticks.. 7As, maybe even nylons. You need a light touch on this kit. It's all in the wrist, not the elbow.

[1] First time I ever took this kit in the studio with another engineer, he bought a set of Ambassadors for his drummer for xmas;)
[2] Many people here know I used to work for Yamaha, so I got to drive up to the national warehouse & take my pick of anything.

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  • I'm not trying to "turn down" so much as get the reinforced type of sound without turning up... But I do like this answer.
    – Edward
    Jun 12 at 15:49
  • You really need to be precise in your question. I've now given you both halves of the equation. Anything you do will be something between these two. You adjust the sound balance physically - weight of shells, skins, cymbals; tuning, technique. After that you mic it.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 12 at 15:58
  • 1
    This is absolutely brilliant and very needed. I just quoted your answer in an email to the artistic director at my theatre. Sep 25 at 4:51
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I'm not sure you'll achieve this completely in a 200-seater, because the sound of the kit itself in the room will still be fully audible even from the cheap seats at the back, unless you are a loud band.

Also, let's be honest, you're not going to be able to punch the compressor hard enough on a small gig to really get the snap at the front of each sound.

I tackle this with a mic setup I think I invented myself.
I've used this successfully in 250 up to 1000 seaters, never tried it in anything really small.

Only issue is, the mics aren't cheap;)
First, you need a separate kick mic - use whatever your reinforcement guys have with them.
Second, you need a high SPL omni - this is where it gets a bit expensive.
I've used two different mics in this situation & I find it very hard to tell the difference in practise, so you could go for the cheaper one. Both Brüel & Kjær, though they call themselves DPA [Danish Pro Audio] these days. The really expensive one is the 4006 - https://www.dpamicrophones.com/pencil/4006-omnidirectional-microphone
Remarkably similar in sonic quality is this weeny lav mic, the 4060 - https://www.dpamicrophones.com/lavalier/4060-series-miniature-omnidirectional-microphone - which you can now get for nearly half the price I paid for mine, 25 years ago.

Once armed with one of these mics, I guarantee you'll try to use it everywhere you can - that's how I got this mic setup, I just wanted to try it on everything. Note that neither of them will really appreciate being hit by a drumstick, but neither of them are exactly delicate. You'll probably not even hear it if the 4060 gets knocked, anywhere but the capsule cap itself. The smaller 4060 you'd have to be aiming for it, so don't worry too much.

OK, set it on a short, skinny gooseneck*, run it in from the front, between the toms on a regular 5-piece kit, & drop it between your main drums, level with where all the planes of the heads would meet if extended. This keeps it nicely out of the way too.
*With the 4060 I leave a couple of inches of the lav cable out of the end of the clip, so if it does get knocked, it just bobbles around on its wire for a second.

This bit is always best when you're sitting next to the engineer as he winds this in for the first time - you don't get to see his face if you're drumming;) Tell him to flatten all the EQ, wind in some gain but leave plenty of headroom… then watch his face as he pushes the fader.
Slide in some of the kick drum mic, with whatever settings he's used to, sit back & relax.
You can try to squeeze some comp into this, but in a small room the room's going to win.
I once had one engineer throw his entire case of cheap clip-on mics down the length of the room after he turned this up for the first time ever. They bounced OK & he got it out of his system;)

The only thing to note is - don't push an omni through the drummer's monitors… it's not pretty.

In case you're wondering 'what about the hats & cymbals?'… don't worry, they're there.

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  • There's some good info here, and I don't think we can get away from miking at least the kick drum, but my initial idea was to first consider what can be done to the actual drums themselves, before involving any electronics. There's not much that can be done with reinforcement if the kit itself is already too loud. I have a couple ideas of my own (and I'm still searching for more.)
    – Edward
    Jun 12 at 3:46
  • I wish you'd emphasised that in your question, rather than down here as a comment. It would have changed my answer entirely, but it would involve buying new hardware to do it.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 12 at 7:28
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Kick

Even at lower volumes, the kick isn't that loud, and it really needs reinforcement to have the low end that people expect. It's hard to get away from just miking the kick.

Toms

A lot of recorded toms de-emphasize the midrange frequencies (growl, on some drums/tunings). This is pretty easy to do on real drums by dampening the outer edges of the batter head. Several companies make mylar rings for this purpose, or you can make your own by cutting old drumheads.

Aquarian Studio Rings

To take this one step further, you can "sheet" your toms-

"Sheeting" drums was the method of choice for controlling the volume of marching snares at my old high school. It's not super useful for a drumset snare, which just becomes over-dampened with a sheet. I was able to get usable results by sheeting my 13 inch rack tom, though. It sounded similar to dampening with mylar rings, but dampened more aggressively. The drum had lots of attack and lots of bass, and very little midrange growl.

To "sheet" a drum, you place a cloth over the bearing edge of your drum shell. It can be an old T-shirt, bedsheet, whatever- I used a dollar store bandana, which is pretty thin.

Example image

Then, you put the batter head over the cloth and start tightening the lugs. Pull the cloth tight under the head before tuning it up to pitch.

Example image

Cymbals

It's hard to modify the sound of cymbals yourself, but there are a couple products which can help here.

Sabian offers a new (and very expensive) line of cymbals which they call "FRX"- They have holes drilled in them which aim to "eq" out the harsh frequencies and place the cymbals more comfortably in the mix.

Sabian FRX cymbal

If we want to go a step further, there are cymbals like the Agean low volume cymbals, which look a lot like the more popular Zildjian L80 practice cymbals, but trade a bit of quietness to sound more like actual cymbals. There are similar cymbals made by other brands as well. These will probably be too quiet for your acoustic kit, though, unless you're ready to mic all your cymbals.

(Note that the drums in this video have silent drumheads.)

I also saw one suggestion to build a low volume hi hat by using a low volume top and normal bottom- this idea probably works for stacks too. I never found my hi-hat to be a big "noise" offender, but if yours is, this may help.

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