What is Room Ambience?
To make it really simply here are three examples of some drums we recorded. The first one has very little room ambience, the second has a generous helping of ambience in a medium sized room and the third has a subtle amount of ambience from a very large room. You should be able to hear the difference right away.
Example 1 - Reggaeton Drum Loops - Not much room sound, this is pretty dry.
Example 2 - Reggae Breaks V1 - Lots of medium sized room sound
Example 3 - Rock Steady V1 - Subtle Big Room Sound
You'll often hear us mention 'room ambience' in some of the product descriptions of our drum loop sample packs. Drum room ambience is basically the addition of the room sound in which the drums were recorded. This often adds a sense of 'largeness' to the drum sound and also gives it a very 'live' sound. In some instances you might want very little, to zero room ambience, it really depends on the type of sound you want to create.
As a general rule you can get away with more room sound if your mix has plenty of space. For example, if you've heard the song 'High and Dry' by Radiohead you'll hear a lot of room ambience on the drums, this sounds great because there is so much space in the mix, the drums don't have to compete too hard for their own place in the mix.
The opposite of this would be the drum sound used in 'Seven Days in Sunny June' by Jamiroquai which uses a totally dry drum sound with zero room ambience, these also sound great but are completely different. Both of these styles of drum sound have their place but this article deals purely with how to achieve and use great room ambience when recording drums.
Bigger is not always better. You'd be amazed at how huge you can make a relatively small room sound. There's also the essential element of the rooms acoustic properties which will govern the characteristics of the sound. For example our Live Room No 1 (Pictured below) is not that big but the sound it produces is massive. The room shape and the type of surfaces used all have an effect on the sound. Live Room No 1 is basically a rectangle but it has many smaller, irregular angles and a 4ft hallway at one end. It only has 8ft ceilings but with a wood floor and plaster walls, it is fairly reflective for a 21 x 28 room.
In direct contrast to this you might have a much larger room that has carpeted walls, floors, soft furnishings and acoustic baffles. Take for example most cinema's, they have large rooms but they are acoustically treated to prevent sound from bouncing around too much and creating nasty reflections. Such a room might produce a similar sound to our smaller Live Room No 1.
Try to avoid small rooms with over reflective surfaces such as small empty garages with concrete floors, this might sound cool as an occasional effect but your not going to want to listen to a whole albums worth of that. If your new to this you just might not know what sounds good or bad so it's time to just experiment, you don't need to set up the entire kit, just kick, hat and snare, place the room mics and record some tracks.
Add a little bit of compression and see how it sounds. Now move on to the next room you can access and see how it compares. Take your time, have some fun, that's what life is all about.
To give you more control over both the tone and level of the room sound I would advise that you dedicate at least 1 mic purely to the sound of the room. Ideally you would have 2 or more mics placed at different locations within your room. Basically get as many as your equipment will allow for.
In the past I've tried many different mics, from High quality condenser mics to cheap dynamics and it's really a matter of personal taste. You'll know the right sound when you hear it but don't be fooled into believing that the most expensive mics give you the best results. A very famous mic that people like to use when recording drum room ambience is the Crown PZM which is relatively inexpensive for the results it produces.
Mono VS Stereo
Practice the art of restraint when it comes to recording - you might be surprised at what you can get out of the basics.
Problems with Phasing
If you like the idea of placing a mic at the other end of an air craft hanger in which you've got Travis Parker blasting away on his drums, you need to be aware that you'll experience the phenomena of 'phasing'. Phasing basically occurs when you play back multiple tracks of audio that don't perfectly synchronize in time.
What you hear is a muddy sounding representation of what you just recorded. It's caused by the delay in the speed of sound going out from your drum kit, all the way over to the room mic (in this case 100 ft away) and then coming back to your audio interface via a 100ft cable. Clearly that's going to take longer than the time it takes your close mic'd SM57 snare mic to lay down it's audio imprint.
The joy of digital recording and most DAW's means that you can easily offset that delay by shifting your room mics audio track earlier in the playback of your recording. In Ableton you do this in the track mixer by tracking the synch number into minus figures, so -44 milliseconds might do the trick. Play with this until you hear the phasing disappear.
Using Compression to Boost the Room Sound
If you have a really reflective room, or just a massive live room (such as a school gym hall) you may just find that you don't even need any room mics at all. I've recorded drums in rooms that reflected the sound so brightly that the close kit mics picked up a lot of the room slapping back into the mics which really gets boosted when you add compression to the drums - which I always do.
Compression on drums is a balancing act. Compress the hi-hat mic too much and you'll hear lots of snare creeping in via mic bleed. If you back off on the compression you'll definitely loose a lot of mic bleed but you'll also loose a lot of the PUNCH that is so essential to a good drum sound.
Use your ears and some good judgement to decide on how much compression you need to use. If your room sound is kind of weak but you've already compressed the heck out of your close mics you should consider adding a bit of compression/limiting to the room mic track and then boosting that in the mix. Finding the right balance is key.
Here's one I made earlier
In order to make your life easier I've put together a download that contains a drum loop which comes with separate files for the room ambience. Line these up in your DAW and play around at mixing the room ambience. I've also included the same groove with zero compression on either the drum mics or the room mics so that you can play around with using compression to boost your room sound. This should give you a good idea of what to aim for when you record your own drums and the room in which it lives.
Summary - Learn Good Taste
As much of production is subjective your results will ultimately come down to personal taste. That's not a good thing if your taste is terrible. Like any type of connoisseur your going to need to educate your taste buds (in this case your ears) by doing some research.
Start listening to famous recordings that are considered to be the cream of the crop. Study the quality of the drum sounds, what makes them work, how well they sit in the mix, what type of room ambience do they use? One of my favourite drum sounds of recent years was the Audioslave album 'Revelations'. That drum sound is large and punchy but you can tell that the live room wasn't huge even though the drums sound massive. Check it out and give your ears a treat.
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