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Roundtable: A Wide Range Of Tips To Optimize The Drum Kit In The Mix

Veteran engineers and technicians share their approaches and techniques for capturing live drum sounds when time and/or resources are limited.

This time out, our Roundtable team is focusing on drum sound, and more specifically, priorities when time and/or resources are limited. As you’ll see, approaches are numerous and varied, which just highlights the fact that they can be as unique as the people who create them.

Approaching The Mix

Chris Huff: If I’m cramped for time, I start with bringing in overhead microphones, then the snare, followed by the kick. This gives me time to listen to any other mics while in cue and adjust my mix accordingly.

My drums are the foundation of my mix, as everything else will ride on top. For this reason, my mix starts with mic selection and placement. These two things can make or break a mix. And tighten up those overhead mic stands! Many times I’ve seen mics swing to the outside of the kit.

Ales Stefancic: Throughout the years I changed my approach to mixing drums, from starting with kick and snare to starting with overheads. I have the drummer play a simple straight beat with a cymbal hit on every bar. Then I bring up the overheads, checking for polarity issues and shaping their sound before proceeding to snare mics, then kick mic(s).

After adding in the hi-hat, I stop the drummer and we just quickly go over the toms. This has become the fastest way for me to get the “right” sound of the kit.

Nicholas Radina: I’ll jump in from a less technical side. Simply taking a moment to actually listen to the kit without reinforcement, and understanding the sound or style of music to be performed, can do wonders for your mixing and miking approach. My choices for a traditional jazz band are quite different than for a rock band. The player is always one of a kind, and the kit’s response will always be unique. Never start with presets or preconceived notions. Trust your gut and spin the knob that makes the most sense.

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten: I generally ask the drummer to play for me and stand in front of the kit and listen to how it sounds acoustically. Then I replicate that. Every player is different. Is the snare louder than anything else? Does the drummer bash on cymbals? I want my drum sound to be an extension of what the drummer is trying to achieve acoustically. The sources come from the artists, we just make it louder.

Samantha Potter: If I had to provide one piece of advice for drums in mixes, it’s balance. Balance is the key to everything we do. Just because you like loud drums doesn’t mean that’s what the music calls for. I want to hear every part of the drum kit without having a wall of sound and low-end blow me out.

Drums, in general, play a vital role in any mix and knowing when to let them shine through and when to bring them back is the difference between a great engineer and an “OK” one. The drums comfortably take up a mammoth section of the frequency spectrum, and it’s our job as engineers not to stifle, but to balance. Balance is everything.

Ryan John: My goal is to get the drums to accent the music on a song-to-song basis. Sometimes this means punchy and crisp, other times mellow and dull. So I tend to tailor multiple mics on each source to capture only a part of that sound, so changing the overall drum tone can be achieved with snapshots that are just simple fader moves rather than EQs.

Jonah Altrove: Kick and snare are the most important parts of the kit, so if those aren’t right, spend your time there, not on Tom 3. Kick should, of course, be driving your subs, but a lot of the perceived impact actually comes from the beater attack, up in the 3 kHz range.

Andy Coules: The high-pass filter (HPF) is a fantastic tool for avoiding the mud that afflicts many a mix and is particularly useful when it comes to drums.

One trick I use on snare and toms is to engage the HPF at about 80 Hz and then increase the frequency until it sucks all the life out of the sound, then decrease it slightly until it sounds nicely rounded. This not only avoids picking up too much of the bottom end of adjacent drums but also any other sound that might be nearby (such as a bass amp or drum fill).

Microphone Choice & Placement

Jonah Altrove: I’ve got an old, beat-up IEM system that I can patch into my solo bus outputs and listen to the actual drum sound right at the source in my ears. This allows me to make placement adjustments in real time while hearing exactly what the mic hears, not the overall acoustic sound from the kit. That makes it much easier to find the exact placement I’m looking for. I wish I could take credit for this one, but I got the idea from Dave Rat.

If it’s genre-appropriate, I use underhead rather than overhead mics on the cymbals. This greatly reduces the bleed from the rest of the kit and gives a tighter, more focused sound. It does generally require more inputs, but I find this doesn’t cause a headroom issue because the closer placement means I need less gain at the console.

Dave Natale: From time to time I try new mics, but for the most part I almost always use the same ones on all kits. The lineup includes:

Kick – beyerdynamic M88
Snare Top & Bottom – Shure SM57
Toms – Sennheiser 409
Hi-Hat – Neumann KM184
Overheads – AKG C314
Ride Cymbal – Neumann KM184

Because I never use compressors, my drum sound is all about EQ to shape the sound into a particular thing that fits within the mix and does not occupy any space at all where it has no business. I EQ out all of what I refer to as unnecessary frequencies for clarity and punch. This is usually a lot of mid and low mid.

Next, I add some attack in with the high EQ. I will also patch a noise gate on kick drums and all toms, just in case. If I use it at all, it’s primarily to keep the drums from ringing between songs.

This is a pretty basic, no-frills approach, which especially pays off when there’s very little gear to work with. All consoles have EQ, so I’m good to go in that regard, and in fact, could probably survive with just EQ alone, but the gates do help out in certain instances.

Samantha Potter: My approach is wholly dependent on the genre of music I’m mixing. When it’s a jazz group, I rely heavily on an overhead mic and then sprinkle in tom and a hi-hat as needed, ignoring the kick drum almost entirely. If it’s an R&B or funk group, the drums play a much larger role in the overall amplification.

I’ve come to really love and appreciate an Audix D6 suspended inside the kick drum. It gives me a clean punch and a deep low end without feeling wobbly. I like the kick to be the lowest frequency range with bass guitar sitting just above it. A 4 or 5 dB bump at 60 Hz gives that chest-thump that gets people dancing. When necessary, I do a small bump at 1 kHz to push the pedal head through.

Next is snare, where an SM57 always does the trick. I like a slight crack to my snare so I’ll use an HPF up to about 200 Hz, and a few dB extra at 1 kHz to get that rim/crack. Then I follow-up with supplemental mics on things like overhead and toms. Those mics are there and present but aren’t first on my list to get close to perfect.

In some gigs, resources are low and you do with what you have. If I have nothing else, I will request a D6 for the kick and a large-diaphragm condenser for an overhead. Between these two mics, a high-pass filter, and some careful gain staging, I can get a beautiful full drum sound.

I think a lot of engineers (particularly the new ones) want to rely too heavily on onboard processing, fancy plugins and expensive equipment. If you can get a great drum mix out of the basics, then you know you’ve got the skills.

Some EQ and some compression/gating work will take you so much further than $500 mics on every piece of the kit. Cut the mud out of the kick, bring the sparkle to the cymbals. I compress the kick just a hair with a 6 millisecond (ms) attack, and perhaps 5 dB of reduction and a fast release. Balance between these two mics and you should be good to go.

Nicholas Radina: Extra tip – How to mic timbales! The sides of the drum are essential for Salsa music (think of this like a hi-hat). The rhythmic pattern played on the sides (cascara) can be mixed quickly with a single mic below pointing up between the two drums.

Miking under each drum is also a solid solution. Consider high ratio compression to grab timbale hits (“abanico”) in order not to overpower the cascara. A single overhead/bell mic can also be quite effective. If the sound lacks low end, play with the polarity of the underneath mics relative to the overhead.

Phase Mindfulness

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten: Mic selection and placement are the most important things to keep drum sound present in your mix. We mic things individually, but remember it’s a kit. The whole thing is the instrument. Drums are generally the only place on stage where there are many microphones in close proximity to each other.

Having 20 open mics picking up the same source from different distances is a phase nightmare. I try to make mic choices and placements so that I don’t have to use any EQ, or at least very little. There are already have multiple sources being summed together, so you don’t need to introduce more phase shift-creating EQ into an already difficult phase situation.

Choosing tight-patterned mics and close miking can prevent a lot of headaches. The first acoustic to electric conversion is key, and where it’s getting that information is most important. Get off your rear end, go to the stage, and move microphones. Often times moving a mic makes the difference between a great sound and a mediocre one.

Ryan John: Because drums are one of the few instruments we capture with many mics, phase and polarity coherence plays a large role in the sound. To optimize the coherence I tend to place overheads equidistant from the center of my snare; this way the snare sound hits both at the same time and is centered in the stereo image.

From there I individually delay (in samples, not milliseconds) the two snare mics to the overheads, and flip polarity as needed, and then delay all other close mics to the closest overhead, and flip polarity as needed. Since I typically have gates on almost all of the close mics, this just means that when a snare or tom is hit, it’s in 100 percent positive coherence with the overheads.

Doing this sounds time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be: just hit record, and get someone to hit each drum once, measure the delays in Pro Tools, type them into your channel delays, and voila. It’s also pretty awesome to be able to A-B the sound just to see if it’s actually improved, or to snapshot the delays to make the drums seem closer or farther away on a song-to-song basis.

Andy Coules: Dual-mic techniques are commonly used on both kick drum and snare to get a fuller sound, but they should be approached differently to avoid phase issues. In the case of a top and bottom snare configuration, if the mics are equidistant from the top skin, the sound will arrive at both at the same time but the waveform will be inverted on the bottom mic (because as the drum skin moves towards the top mic it moves away from the bottom mic). Therefore you can correct any issues by using the polarity invert switch on the channel (which is sometimes incorrectly called the phase button).

However, with two mics on the kick, the sound will hit them at different times (because of their differing distance from where the beater hits), causing phase issues due to the timing delay. In this instance, delaying the mic closest to the beater will enable you to align the two signals. Since the smallest channel delay many digital desks allow is 1 ms, try to ensure the two mics are 13 inches apart (as this is the distance sound travels in 1 ms).

Sometimes when you bring up the overhead mics in the mix, you may notice that the snare moves slightly off the center of the stereo image. This is because the snare typically sits off center in the drum kit, which not only messes with the stereo image commonly used in rock and pop (i.e., the kick and snare in the middle with the bass and vocals), but it can also cause subtle phase issues in the drum mix (as the loud snare signal arrives at the two mics at different times).

The way to avoid the problem is to imagine a straight line linking the kick and the snare, and then position the overheads equidistant from this line. It might look a bit odd but will ensure your snare is slap bang in the middle of the drum mix. (I often have to tell house engineers to not “correct” my overhead positioning.)

Jonah Altrove: It’s a good idea to make sure that all kick and snare signals are in polarity with each other, so they all move the loudspeaker diaphragm in the same direction if the drummer hits both kick and snare at the same time.

The Inevitable Singing Drummer

Ales Stefancic: If the drummer is a singer as well, I first take care of the vocal before touching the drum mics. If I go the other way around, bringing up the vocal mic would influence the drum sound to such an extent that I would have to go back and re-shape the drum sound around the vocal.

Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato: When a drum vocal is involved, pay attention to how it affects the sound of the snare. The position of the vocal mic in reference to the snare can sometimes create some weird phasing with the top and bottom snare mics. When I’m using a drum vocal (which I keep muted when the drummer isn’t singing), I sometimes need to kill the bottom snare mic to prevent the snare from losing some of its presence or sharpness in the mix. I also will flip the polarity on the drum vocal mic.

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