Once you’ve miked the individual drums in a way you like, it’s time to listen to the kit as a whole.
First, stand about five to ten feet (two to four meters) before the kit and listen acoustically while the drummer plays. Listen to the balance of the kit.
Next, go back in front of your speakers and listen to the drummer play. Does it have the same balance as when you were standing before the kit? Try to balance the microphones mix so that you achieve the same blend that you were hearing acoustically.
Step 1: Drum Kit Balance, Technique 1
The best way to approach getting a drum sound is to think of the drum kit as one instrument, not seven or eight separate instruments.
Listen for a unified overall sound with no one element standing out from the rest. Hearing “lead hi-hat” or “lead tom-tom” can be very distracting to the audience and take all the pleasure out of listening to your recording.
The drum mix is all about balance—balance between all the drum mics and then balance of the drum mix itself against the rest of the band.
There are several schools of thought on where to start your mix from. I usually start from the kick first, although some engineers start from the overheads and some start from the toms.
Wherever you start, the idea is the exactly the same — to blend all the different drum mics into a cohesive single drum sound.
If the kit was recorded with the overheads miking the cymbals more than miking the entire kit, I’ll bring the fader of the kick drum up first so that the meter reads about -2 on the peaks.
At this point, you might want to add a little compression (1dB or so) to even out the peaks. If you want a more aggressive sound you can add more later after the entire kit is balanced.
Try to refrain from adding any EQ at this time. This is another thing that’s best left until you have the whole kit balanced.
Then, bring up the snare until the level is about the same as the kick. Again, a little compression can be added to even things out a bit, but this is a matter of personal taste.
You can bring up the hat and toms to a level that matches what you heard in the room, being careful to make sure that the level is the same on each drum fill. You might have to automate some of the fills to even things out.
Next, bring the overheads up until you just start to hear them. Make sure that the cymbals are not overpowering the rest of the kit, and the only way to know that is to have all the mics in the mix since they all have a little cymbal in them.
Lastly, bring up the room mics to the point where you can just start to hear them. This will fill in the sound a lot and glue together the kit balance.
It’s popular in rock music to heavily compress the room mics, but you should be careful about doing this without considering the sound of the room. This only works well when the room really sounds great to begin with.
Heavy compression also changes the balance a lot as the cymbals come to the forefront and can become too loud.
Now it’s time to add the EQ. You should only add some if you want a little more definition. You might want to attenuate around the 400–500 Hz range if anything sounds a little boxy. But don’t feel inhibited by our suggestion here. If you believe a lot of EQ works well for you, by all means, use it!
Step 1 (Continued): Balance, Technique 2
If your overheads are in an XY or ORTF configuration, then you might have to approach the mix a little differently since this is where the main sound of the kit is coming from.
First, bring up the faders on the overheads so that the meters read about -6 dBFS at the peaks. This should give you a pretty even-sounding drum kit already.
Now bring up each drum track until you can just barely hear it. You might start with a kick drum and then add in a bit of snare.
The idea is to fi ll in the sound and add some punch. When you add the rest of the instruments, you’ll probably have to add a bit more of some of the drums.
Now add EQ and compression if desired as in Technique #1.
Step 1 (Continued): Balance, Technique 3
This technique is used when the tom fills and sound is very prominent in the song.
Start with the toms by bringing the faders up until the meters read about -6 dBFS at the peaks. Make sure that the sound of all of the toms are pretty much the same by adding or subtracting EQ as needed.
You should go through the song to make sure that every fill is balanced, automating the tom that’s too loud or too quiet as needed.
Now, build the mix around the toms, starting from whichever drum you’re comfortable. Add EQ and compression if desired as in the previous techniques.
This method makes sure that your toms are always in the forefront of the song.
Step 2: Drum Mix Panning
Regarding panning and positioning of the drums across the stereo spectrum, I personally set my drum mixes the way I am looking at the front of the drum kit.
About half the engineers I know mix from the drummer’s perspective, but I personally prefer that the listener have the “audience” perspective. Therefore, with a right-handed drummer, the hi-hat would be panned to the right, the snare would be just off-center to the right, and the bass drum would be centered.
As for the tom-toms, if you have three toms in your kit, you would pan the high rack tom to the right at three o’clock, the next lower tom to the center at twelve o’clock, and the lowest tom to the left at nine o’clock.
This gives you a nice stereo spread. You may want to experiment by pulling the panning positions a little more toward the center for the tom-toms because if your drummer is playing a lot of tom fills you might find that listening to the wide panning makes you dizzy!
With the overheads, I pan the right overhead hard right and the left overhead hard left. The same goes for the room mics.
Step 3: Minor Mix Adjustments
You may want to add a little reverb to the snare and toms, but I suggest keeping them natural by not using over 2.0 seconds of decay time on whatever type of reverb that you choose. You may want a longer decay time for a ballad.
Try a gated reverb on the snare if you want a cool effect or want to sound like Phil Collins (remember him?). To get this, use the preset on your reverb unit or DAW reverb plug-in called inverse room, non-linear, or gated.
On some types of music it sounds good to use a separate reverb on the snare from the one on the toms. This usually makes the snare stand out a bit more.
Final Drum Sound Checklist
Like the foundation of a house, the drums are the foundation of a recording. On a strong foundation, you can build almost anything you or your clients can imagine.
A little effort and time spent miking the drums and getting the sound just right can result in a recording that sounds great.
We strongly encourage you to take risks, experiment, take notes on what works for you and what doesn’t, be creative and most of all have fun!
Here’s a list of things to check if you think things just don’t sound as good as you think they should.
Remember that each situation is different and ultimately the sound depends upon the drums, the drummer, the song, the arrangement, and even the other players.
Sometimes things are simply out of your control. These are not hard and fast rules; they are just a starting place. If you try something that’s different from what you read below and it sounds good, it is good!
1. Do the drums sound great acoustically? Make sure that you start with a great acoustic drum sound with the drums well tuned and a minimum of sympathetic vibrations.
2. Are the mics acoustically in phase? Make sure that tom mics and room mics are parallel to each other. Make sure that any underneath mics are at a 90-degree angle to the top mics.
3. Are the mics electronically in phase? Make sure that any bottom mics have the phase reversed. Make sure that all the mic cables are wired the same by doing a phase check.
4. Are the mics at the correct distance from the drum? If they’re too far away, they’ll pick up too much of the other drums. If they’re too close, the sound will be unbalanced with too much attack or ring.
5. Are the drum mics pointing at the center of the head? Pointing at the center of the drum will give you the best balance of attack and fullness.
6. Are the cymbal mics pointed at the bell? If the mic is pointed at the edge of the cymbal, you might hear a swishing sound of the cymbal as it moves back and forth away from the mic.
7. Is the hi-hat mic pointed at the middle of the hat? Too much toward the bell will make the sound thicker and duller. Too much toward the edge will make the sound thinner and pick up more air noise.
8. Are the room mics parallel? If you’re using two room mics instead of a stereo mic to mike the room, make sure that the mics are on the same plane and are exactly parallel to each other. Also make sure that they’re on the very edge of the kit looking at the outside edge of the cymbals.
9. Does the balance of the mix sound the same as when you’re standing in front of the drums? This is your reference point and what you should be trying to match. You can embellish the sound after you’ve achieved this.
Editor Note: This article is excerpted from Bobby Owsinki’s “The Drum Recording Handbook.”