Ask 10 recording engineers about recording drums and you’re likely to get more than 20 opinions.
Few instruments combine subtle nuance and brute force the way a good drummer can, and capturing that sound has been the subject of hundreds of articles and thousands of conversations.
So many different aspects affect the sound of a drum mix, starting with the player. Different skins, different shells, the type of sticks, the kick-drum beater all influence the sound.
And of course, no two drummers sound the same, even on the same kit. Then there’s the room itself; the number, type, and placement of the mics; and so much more. Where even to begin?
Start With the Source
Let’s start with a basic premise: to get a good recording of any acoustic instrument, it has to sound good at the source. As obvious as that sounds, it’s amazing how many bands load in and set up in the studio as if they’re setting up for a live gig, blissfully overlooking the fact that there will be no crowd noise or excitement to mask a squeaky kick-drum pedal or poorly tuned toms.
Start by standing in the room and listening. If the drums don’t sound good to begin with, there’s no fixing it in the mix. Tune each drum in pitch with the song. Tighten rattling hardware, lube squeaky pedals and replace dead-sounding heads.
Listen to the room as well. If you’re recording in a home or other non-studio environment, you’ll probably need to work with the space a bit. Most rooms in a house have parallel walls, floors, and ceilings, which tend to attenuate some frequencies and accentuate others. Experiment with placement of the drums in the room until you find a position that generates minimal resonance. Use rugs, bookshelves, and furniture to deaden the space and break up reflections.
How Many Mics, And Where?
Once the kit sounds good in the room, you can start to put some mics on it. How many you use depends on what you want. Many of rock’s classic tracks have been cut with just a stereo pair on the drums, but individual mics on different drums will give you far more control over the mix.
I’ll typically use two mics on the kick and two on the snare, one on each tom and one on the hat, a pair of overheads, and two or three ambient mics. That’s upwards of 12 or 13 tracks, but it’s worth it. The flexibility to bring in just a little of the ambient mics, or play with two different sounds on the kick, opens a world of options later on.
Location, Location, Location
Don’t be afraid to experiment with placement or with different mics. Moving or tilting the mic even slightly can dramatically influence the sound you’re hearing. Start with the mic pointed at the center of the drum head, aimed at where the drummer should be hitting the skin. If you find you’re getting too much of the impact and not enough tonality, try aiming the mic down slightly to just in front of where the stick hits.
One of the hazards of using a whole bunch of mics so close to each other is the risk of phase cancellation between two of them. The most common issues tend to be between top and bottom snare mics, snare and hi-hat mics, or two kick-drum mics. Look for phase issues by soloing both mics and changing the phase of one. If the sound gets noticeably thinner, the mics are out of phase. Repeat this with other pairs.