A great drummer isn’t necessarily someone who is a speed demon and can whip out crazy, complicated fills. A great drummer is someone who understands why the microphones are placed in a certain position. It’s someone who gets inside the engineer’s head and comprehends how each and every drum hit will translate in the mix.
Not so Hot
Back in the analog days, setting recording levels to the absolute hottest that you can without clipping was the way to go. With digital recording, however, this is the exact opposite mindset you should have. There are tons of resources out there explaining the specific technical reasons behind this. I’m not going to talk about what exact db your snare hit should be at.
However, a good rule of thumb is allowing the meter to bounce between half and three-quarters of the way up. Personally, I think too much of the complex details with the exact levels can lead us to miss the point. Simply put, don’t record too hot! Turn those monitors up if you need to.
Be the Engineer
If you're wearing the musician and engineer hat simultaneously, it can be somewhat tricky setting your own recording levels. Doing so, however, has taught me a great deal about how my playing directly relates to the volume level settings. If you’re not setting your own levels, think about what the engineer is doing while you’re sound checking.
Especially in a recording environment, if you’re sound checking in the drum booth or live room and the engineer is setting levels, they’re adjusting to your loudest hits. This will not only affect your drum sounds, it will weigh heavily on how your drum tracks are mixed later on.
There is a lot more complexity to setting recording levels than just keeping your meters from being too hot. While this is extremely important, the way you’re playing is arguably what defines your mixed-down drum tracks. For example, let’s say you’re smashing the cymbals at full force for the entire song. The overheads are picking up the cymbal hits and the engineer is pulling the levels down to compensate.
What happens? The sound of your entire kit just changed. Additionally, if you’re hoping for those light ghost notes to pick up in the mix while you’re cracking on the snare drum at different consistencies, those nice little fills here and there are going to be lost.
Hypothetically, let’s say I asked my kids to smack on the snare drum a little bit so Daddy can get some levels. As I’m adjusting, they're all over the place: hitting the snare rim, sometimes being loud, sometimes being soft. I’m adjusting the levels based on inconsistencies. Then when I’m ready to record myself playing, the levels are hitting red every time! I wonder why?
It might seem silly, but the same thing applies to you. Whether you’re the engineer, the drummer, or both—be consistent and use dynamics. When sound checking, hit the drums the same way you would if the record light was on.
To me, the raw drum tracks straight from the pre-amps should already sound awesome. If they don’t, fixing them in the mix can make them sound even worse. The loudest drum hits are affecting your overall drum sound.
Just because you can hear it when you’re playing doesn’t mean it’s getting translated to the listener.