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The Wonderful World Of Microphone Techniques For Drums In The Studio

Insights on miking and recording drums, with a wide range of successful methods and options

Separate Tracks

Separate tracks for each of the kit’s components is a good luxury to have for highlighting, in the final mix, certain accents, fills and improvisations the drummer may play.

If the overhead sound is not good, chances are the individual components are not any better and you will have to work with the drummer to fix that buzzing floor tom or flat sounding snare drum. You can use as many separate tracks as you want and they still can add up to a poor drum sound!

Trying to isolate any problem components by way of extra mics, wacky equalization, blankets or gating is pointless. You might as well overdub each part of the kit separately if you want drum machine-like separation because you’ll never get that from a real drummer playing a good drum set.

Figure 1 shows a closely spaced pair of overhead mics. (I have removed the cymbals in all these photos for clarity). These two mics can be setup as an X-Y or M/S pair of stereo mics. If you go with a close pair of overheads, you’ll get a strong center image with good phase coherency. Sounds coming from the far left and right of the kit might sound a little quiet in the balance.

Figure 1. Close spaced overheads

Resist using more than two overhead microphones – don’t put up another mic just to pick up that little splash cymbal on the far left. Far better to move the cymbal closer to the mics or just overdub it later.

I’ve tried using three overheads and had a very hard time getting a non-phasey sound — sometimes it sounds like the cymbals “swish” in and out of phase.

The most popular overhead method is to space them further apart to get good coverage of the kit. Spacing distance is from two to five feet. Listening in mono will tell you if any drums or cymbals are missing or overly loud.

Figure 2 shows a wider overhead mic spacing. Some engineers put the overheads not overhead but behind the drummer’s back or in front of the kit facing the drummer. The mics are placed much lower, at a level between the cymbals and the toms.

Figure 2. Wider spaced overheads

This technique usually results in more of the toms and kick, and less cymbal splash and works well for that flailing drummer who hits everything with full force. Be aware that cymbals sound different when miked from underneath.

I always use cardioid mics for overheads but have tried omnidirectional and figure-of-eight microphones. I find less phase anomalies and less of the room comes into the overhead sound with cardioids.

I also find that I get a “closer” sound on the kit because the sound of the cardioid overhead mics adds better into the sound of the close microphones.

Omnis will produce a more “airy” sound with less directional information – you may not be able to hear a good left and right of the drummer’s kit, i.e., floor tom on the left side and hi-hat on the right side (that is what you’d hear if recording a right-handed drummer and monitoring the overheads panned left and right to match the audience’s listening perspective).

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Omnis are going to be “phasey” sounding, and maybe you’ll like that sound, although check it in mono to see if anything disappears. Omnis in stereo produce a more spacious drum sound but are a little lighter sounding in mono.

Figure-of-8 microphones seem to pull in more of the room tone, especially if the drum room has a low ceiling. You’ll hear better directionality (than omnis) on the kit, but more of the ceiling adding or subtracting to the overhead sound.

Overhead Microphone Choices: I like AKG C 414TLII, C 451 or C 452, C 12A or C 12 (if I can get two of them), Neumann KM84 or KM184, or the bright Milab DC-96B for overheads. For omni, try the KM183, and for figure-of-8, try the Royer ribbon R-121 or SF-12 stereo.

The Royer mics will require more mic pre-amp gain, and you may want to add top end EQ as compared to the condensers I mentioned.

Use any good quality condenser microphones for overheads if you’re interested in starting with a full-range overhead drum sound.

Kick Drum

The kick or bass drum is easy to record since it is usually played (in pop music) at the same volume throughout the song. Producers and engineers look for a “marriage” of the bass drum with the bass instrument because they both occupy and make up the important bottom end of the record.

Figure 3 shows my usual starting place for the bass drum mic. The Shure Beta52 in the picture is placed half in and half out of the hole in the front head. This distance is variable and I try to keep the mic pointed exactly at the spot on the rear head where the beater hits.

Figure 3. Typical bass drum microphone placement

Figure 4 shows an old 1970s trick where the microphone goes right inside the drum. This produces a very present and dry sound that was great for disco music before the Linn drum machine. I recommend putting a weight (sand bags are good) to hold the mic in place inside the drum.

Figure 4. Alternative kick drum microphone placement

Some engineers like to place a second mic further out in front the kick drum to get a more ambient bass drum sound. I’ve used a PZM (pressure zone microphone) for this and just loved the sound.

Mixing the two mics is touchy business, and I recommend using a separate track for this mic. You’ll also get a lot of spill from the rest of the kit that could wash out the total drum sound if this mic is monitored loudly.

Another mic position I have used is a second mic aimed at where the beater hits the rear head. This mic is place next to the kick drum pedal. You’ll get completely different bass drum sound that might work great for your song but don’t expect too much low end from this mic.

Kick Microphone Choices: I like the Shure Beta52, AKG D 12 or D 112, and Sennheiser MD421U.

I’m a little reluctant to use a condenser or ribbon mic on the kick drum since a lot of air pumps straight out into the mic. This air blast can dislodge a ribbon or damage the capsule of a condenser.

There is also a high sound pressure level (SPL) present that can overload and distort; besides I have other better uses for condensers during a drum session. If you want to try a condenser on the kick, try the Sennheiser e865 hand-held that will take 150 dB SPL.

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One good trick is to use a compressor when recording the bass drum. I don’t want a “compressed” sound here so gain reduction is almost zero… 1 to 2 dB max. I’m looking for the added low end the compressor will bring up because it’s different from just equalizing in low frequencies.

Added low frequencies never sound very good to me –  more like the equalizer than true bottom. A drummer with an uneven bass drum level can be helped with a compressor, but this requires a super heavy squash to fix a problem.

Starting out compressor settings would be a medium attack time and a 3:1 ratio.

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