Why Drums Only Sound as Good as the Room They’re In

By Bryan Menegus on at

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the company of drummers, and every last one has been a little bit weird. That level of independent limb coordination must do something to your neural circuitry. Some of them hide their strangeness... unless they get to talking about “room tone.” Then they start describing sounds as boomy or dry or slappy and the secret is out.

Here’s the thing: few tasks are more complicated for a studio engineer than recording drums—and drummers know this. Each individual piece of the kit gets its own mic (and sometimes more than one) and then there are ambient and overhead mics. For a typical kit, 12 or more mics is common.

To make matters stranger, the way drums are heard in a room is rarely the way they’re mixed in a recording. Listen to just about any album from the past 50 years: The snare and kick drums are usually made to sound like they’re coming from straight ahead, even though the snare is almost always off to one side of the kit. Listen to which side the hi-hat is coming from: sometimes it’s mixed from audience perspective, sometimes from drummer’s perspective. Heavier rock music sometimes pans the high and low toms to opposite sides even though they’re only inches apart on an actual drums set.

What makes all of it sound natural when it’s mixed? Room tone*.

Room tone is the glue that holds everything together, and which room drums are recorded in makes a world of difference. Take a listen below to drummer Alex Reeves playing the same track on the same kit in a variety of rooms. Identical drums that sound like wet cardboard in one space become cannon fire in another, all because of acoustic differences in the rooms. These are the sorts of things drummer have to think about, so cut them a little slack.

*Also keeping mics in phase, a good mix engineer, and about a dozen other things but let’s keep it simple here, shall we?