Recording Drum Covers – Seeing Is Believing

by Omar on February 10, 2011

in Article, Education


It used to be that, if you wanted people to see you play, they had to come over.  If you were good, or you liked the attention, you’d make sure you’d have your kit in a place easily accessible to your ‘audience’ (if you had the room, else everyone would just go to the bedroom :) ).  It could get ugly if you lived in an apartment or a small house!

Nowadays, that’s just not the case.  Enter YouTube, and now you can put your kit wherever you want.  Just set up the camcorder, transfer your performance to your computer, upload the video to YouTube, and presto!  Now anyone all over the world (potentially) can watch you play (your friends can still come over if they want :) ).  YouTube makes it incredibly easy to publish, well, anything you want.

Being that the case, amateur drummers (the main focus of this series, although anyone can benefit) have jumped into the fray recording their playing, and there are just a slew of videos on YouTube of drummers playing in bands, doing drum solos, and playing to songs.

Recording drum solos is the easiest of the aforementioned because you’re not playing to something you have to be in sync with.  ‘It is what it is’, as they say.  In this instance the quality of the recording depends on the recording device.  Well, as far as the sound goes, anyway.  If the solo’s crappy, at least it can sound good!

If you’re playing in a band, you the drummer are the main timekeeper (although it’s really everyone’s responsibility).  If the performance is to be recorded, there’s no separate audio track that the drummer needs to be in sync with – he (or she) is the audio track, or for simpler setups, the whole band becomes the track.

However, recording drum covers has its own idiosyncrasies.  If you’re playing to a song, you’re not only hearing the song, but the drums.  If you’re using headphones that do not reduce the noise level of the drums, the drums may drown out the song.  This can cause you to play out-of-sync with the drums in the song, and it will be noticed in the final video.  If you play out-of-sync, it can sometimes sound like two drummers, and that’s most likely not the effect you want.

Regarding the sound, it may also be that the microphones installed on the camcorder are not capable of recording drum sounds without an incredible amount of distortion.  I used to own a JVC camcorder that used tape, and after I set up my drum kit I tested it to see how it would fare.  Well for one, the video was very grainy (I didn’t remember it being that bad!).  For the other, the drums sounded awful. Every time I hit any drum in the kit there was an incredible amount of distortion, and there was no way of regulating it.  I determined right then and there that if I wanted my recordings to sound any good at all, I needed a new camcorder.

That may be the realization that many may need to come to.  You’ve recorded your drum cover (or just playing your drums by themselves), and they sound, well, not good.  In that case, you have a decision to make.  Here’s where you need to determine how good you want your drums to sound.  Here’s where you need to determine the quality of the final video, what image you want to present.  Depending on what your goals are, you may not care too much how your drums sound.  Maybe you just want to post your video however it comes out.  In that case, you’re pretty much all set!  Set your web cam and off you go!  Not much else to do.

But it’s very likely that you want to look and sound good.  If you’d like to get a respectable amount of views on YouTube, and if you want to showcase your skills and have viewers recommend your video, then you may need to review your video equipment and make a decision.  You may need to bite the bullet and buy a new camcorder.  (Note: Although there are some pretty good web cams out there, for recording quality drum covers I do not recommend them.  They do have their place, and they may be significantly cheaper than an actual camcorder.  But you will get what you pay for.  To get close to the quality you’ll get with a camcorder, you’ll need a top of the line web cam.  Might as well just get the camcorder!)

Although it’s a little beyond the scope of this article, there are some things you may want to look for if you determine that you need to buy a camcorder.  Let’s start with how I ended up with my current camcorder (the Canon FS100).  After I determined that the aforementioned JVC camcorder simply was not going to ‘cut the mustard’, I started to determine what features I required, and what features I would sacrifice for my purchase.  I did not have a lot of money set aside for this, so while I saved a little I went on a little information spree.

At that time, I had just discovered DrumChannel.com, and I saw a video posted of a drummer playing a little solo, and the drums actually sounded very good.  I asked the poster of the video what equipment he used, and to my surprise he said it was the Flip camera!  I could not believe it, but he insisted that that’s all it was.  The fact is that newer digital camcorders have better microphone technology than previous generations.  The microphones on these cameras use some sort of sound compression when recording, so distortion is minimized.  In any case, I had to try it.

I wasn’t quite ready to make a purchase just yet.  So, for testing purposes, I obtained a Flip camera, and recorded Tool’s “Crawl Away”.  I also recorded Rush’s “Malignant Narcissism”.  The playing wasn’t very good, but really what I wanted to see is if the Flip could handle the drum sound.  For what it was, it wasn’t too bad!  It was a good thing that I got the camera in my hands, because in using it I determined in the end that this was not the camera for me.

I foresaw the need to have the camcorder feature a built-in mic input jack.  Whatever camera I chose, I wanted to be able to attach an external microphone, of higher quality than the built-in microphones of the camera.  If I were to start off with an inexpensive camcorder, I thought that this option would allow for an easier upgrade path as far as microphones and sound recording goes.  Yes, you could record the drums separately from the video, and then sync the drumming audio with the video whilst muting the video, but that just adds extra steps.  The mic jack on the camcorder would allow the recording of great sounding drums right with the video.  Then it would be a matter of synchronizing your video with the song you played to.

Hence my decision, when I was ready, to obtain the Canon FS100.  I wasn’t in a position to purchase a high definition camcorder at the time, but this camera had enough features to get me by (the model is now discontinued).  Of course, the built-in mic jack still allowed recording flexibility for when I purchased an external microphone or digital recorder.*

The advantage of using an external microphone or digital recorder is that you can place the camcorder anywhere you want, while keeping the recorder in a fixed location.  There are at least three benefits of using the digital recorder in lieu of the built-in microphone on the camcorder:

  1. Allows for optimum placement of the recording device for best drum sound recording
  2. You can record multiple angles (multiple takes) with the camcorder, but the drums will still sound the same because the recorder’s location is fixed
  3. The quality of the drum sound is enhanced by the recorder’s superior sound quality recording

But that’s in the future!  You can always start with an inexpensive camcorder (preferably a relatively recent model), and it will do the trick – for now.  Just make sure it has left and right (stereo) microphones built-in, which pretty much is the norm these days anyway.

Then there’s the issue regarding lighting.  Here’s the bottom line regarding lighting:  have lots of it.  The more, the merrier.  One reason for this is, if you have too little light, your camcorder will have to work very hard to render an image, and the result will most likely be a grainy mess.  Unless, that’s the effect you’re looking for.  But most likely you’re not, so make sure you have plenty of light.

Sunlight is the best source of light, so if you have windows where your drums are located, by all means, open the shades!  Of course, that won’t help you at night.  :)  You also have a few options here as well.  You could get one or more studio lights that photographers use for when they take pictures.  These are good because the light is diffused and not glaring, and are easy on the eyes.  But they can be a little expensive.  If you can’t go that route, then your other option could be working lights, such as the ones used at work sites.  Those can be had at places like The Home Depot or Lowe’s, some for less than fifty dollars or so.  These can be aimed away from your face, towards the ceiling for example, so the light getting to your eyes is reflected, and you won’t feel like the sun is in your face.

If you want to get a little fancy, you could get more than one of these lights, aiming them away from your face.  If you experiment enough, you could get an image with no shadows (or at least not too noticeable or distracting), while having plenty of light.  Again, an abundance of light will ensure the best possible image for your camcorder to record, and thus a better visual result.

So we’ve mostly discussed the visual part of our drum cover:  making sure we get the best shot, with what equipment we have.  Of course, that’s only part of the story.  In many cases, if a video looks good but sounds bad, it ends up being a turn-off.  But if the video’s only so-so, but the sound is good, then the viewer more often than not will bear it (funny how that works)!  We touched on it a little, but there are several other things to consider to ensure your videos not only look good, but sound good as well.  The next installment in this series will focus on this very critical aspect of recording a drum cover.

Record Yourself Playing Drums | Sound Guidelines

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*“External microphone” and “digital recorder” are interchangeable terms in this article.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason June 16, 2012 at 12:33 am

I was just wondering, Do you ever get problems where the camera’s audio doesn’t match up with the camera’s video. Because I use recording equipment and then match the video with the audio muting the video’s audio (if that made any sense). What am i looking for in a camera to stop it from (what i Think is happening) slowing down while recording. I’ll be doing a drum cover and 1 minute in its totally in sync but 5 minutes in and the videos seems to slow down or whatever. Thanks

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Omar June 16, 2012 at 6:13 am

Hi Jason.

Go to the ‘Videos’ section of this site and click on the “Jacob’s Ladder” drum cover article. Have a read; your answer may be there. We’ll take it from there!
:)

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Mike Burnett December 15, 2011 at 10:17 am

Check out this guy who seems to have the art of the “Drum Cover Video” down to a tee. http://www.youtube.com/user/Eyebar2010

It seems that his latest videos have the sound mix tuned to perfection.

Mike

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Luke Snyder February 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm

This is a great series to be doing Omar, I think a lot of people will benefit. It’s becoming vitally important to be able to record videos of yourself playing and getting them out there via YouTube if you expect to be successful as a musician. Getting started with all of that can be a rather daunting task!

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