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Start with the basics and grow your drum miking rig over time

 

By Phil O'Keefe

 

Miking up a drum kit can be one of the most challenging recording tasks; in part due to the fact that the drum kit is a complete "instrument" that is actually comprised of several individual elements. Each has its own sound, and due to their close proximity, each will tend to "bleed" into the microphones used to capture other parts of the kit. Additionally, there is a dizzying array of different drum miking techniques and approaches, from the simple to the highly complex. We're going to walk through a few of them; starting with one or two microphones and going up to ten or more. We'll be working with the basic four mic setup of kick, snare and two "overheads" and adding or subtracting from that for various configurations.

 

SOURCES MATTER

 

While drum selection, maintenance and tuning are beyond the scope of this article, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their importance. If you want great sounding drum recordings, it really does help if you start with a great sounding drum kit and a talented drummer to play it. It doesn't have to be the most expensive kit, but it should be in good repair and have good heads on it, and those heads should be properly tuned. If you don't know how to do this yourself, hire a knowledgable drummer or drum tech to teach you how to set up a kit, or to do it for you prior to your recording session. This will make a huge difference in the quality of your drum recordings, because what you record---the sound sources--matters a great deal.

 

KIT SIZE

 

Drum kit size and the setup configuration are big considerations when miking. The larger the kit, the more complex the mic setup that will be needed to be in order to "cover" it properly. While your drummer may need to have a huge rig with lots of extras for live performances, less is often more in the studio. When recording, it might be better to run a more stripped down 4 or 5 piece kit (Figure 1) for the main drum parts, and overdub the wind chimes, tambourine, wood block, roto-toms and other "kit add-on" parts on separate tracks later. This will give you more mixing options, and ease the microphone and input channel requirements while tracking.

 

Figure 1.JPG

 

Figure 1: A basic five piece drum kit in the studio; ready to be miked up (click on images to enlarge).

 

 

INPUT CHANNELS AND NUMBER OF MICROPHONES

 

The number of input channels on their audio interfaces will be the big limitation for many people. Most inexpensive computer audio interfaces only offer two mic inputs, and for tracking drums, it's always nice to have four or more. If you will be recording the kit by itself, an eight channel interface greatly expands your miking options; allowing you to track stereo overheads, snare, kick, and three tom mikes; or two toms along with either a room, ride or hi hat mic. For tracking a band or rhythm section all at once, having at least a sixteen channel interface is really the way to go--but you can record "just drums" with much less, and expand your recording rig and capabilities as your needs and budget allow.

 

Two channel interface / two microphones:

 

Your options are very limited here. While it is possible to capture a great drum sound with only one or two microphones, it is very difficult and requires extra care in their placement; not to mention a drummer who knows how to "balance" the sound of their kit as they play, and an exceptional sounding room to record in. Some microphone configuration options include:

 

One mic. Wander high and low around the room until you find the spot where it sounds the best. Put the microphone there. Try about 6' in front of the kit, at about the same height as, and aimed at the drummer's chest. An overhead placement 3-4' above the snare drum level, and aimed straight down at the kit somewhere between the snare and rack toms is another alternative. (Figure 2) Cardioid condenser microphones such as the Audio-Technica AT4041 shown in the photo are the traditional choice for overhead microphones, although ribbon mikes such as the Beyerdynamic M160 can also work well.

 

Figure 2.JPG

 

Figure 2: Basic overhead mic placement can be as simple as one mic centered over the kit and aimed down at the snare or kick pedal. Add in a second mic (right side) above the floor tom and aimed "across" the kit at the snare and hi hat for the "Glyn Johns" stereo overhead setup. 

 

 

One overhead mic, and one on the kick drum is a definite option with a two channel interface; hey, it worked on the early Beatles records, right? Put the overhead mic anywhere from 3 to 4 feet or so above, and aimed down at the snare; or aim it at a point somewhere between the snare and rack toms. Put the other mic on the kick. (Figure 3) This is generally my preferred approach for a two drum mic setup, but it is really a mono configuration; you won't have stereo tom fills unless you overdub those parts later. If your kick has no "hole" in the front head, you can mic it from a few inches in front of the head for a fuller sound, or around the other side, near the drummer's foot and the kick beater for a bit more "attack". If the drum head has a hole, I like to insert the mic about three quarters of the way into it, and aim the mic roughly midway between where the beater strikes and the side of the kick drum shell. (Figure 4)

 

Figure 3.JPG

 

Figure 3: Large diaphragm dynamic microphones are the usual choice for kick drums.

 

 

Figure 4.JPG

 

Figure 4: Aiming the kick mic midway between where the beater hits (white circle) and the side of the shell gives a good balance of shell resonance and beater attack. Rotate it towards the beater for more attack, and towards the shell for more resonance.

 

 

One mic on kick and one on snare is an option if your music relies primarily on those two elements of the kit, but you will usually have to sacrifice toms and cymbals; again, this could be an option if you're willing to overdub those parts later.

 

Various stereo miking techniques are also possible with a two channel interface. Blumlein, ORTF, XY or AB / spaced stereo mic pairs can all work well to capture the sound of the kit, but each relies heavily on the quality of the kit and the room acoustics, and none of them will give you a "big" sounding kick drum without additional help.

 

Four channel interface / four microphones:

 

Your options increase quite a bit with a four channel interface. The most obvious configuration is a stereo pair of overhead microphones, plus a kick mic and a snare mic. With careful placement, you should be able to capture a good balance of the toms and cymbals with the overheads. Move the overhead mikes out towards the cymbals or further in towards the toms until you achieve the balance you like.

 

The well-known British recording engineer Glyn Johns pioneered what is probably the most often discussed four-mic technique in history. Put one mic overhead, about 3-4 feet higher than the snare and aim it down between the rack toms and point it towards the kick pedal. Put the second "overhead" mic much lower - only about 6" above the top of the floor tom, and aimed across the top of it and towards the snare and hi hats. An alternative approach is to raise this "side" mic a bit higher and back behind the kit a bit more, but regardless of the exact height and location you decide on, here's the important part: Make sure that both "overhead" microphones are exactly equidistant from the center of the snare drum's top head. A measuring tape or a few feet of string or mic cable can be used to check. This puts the snare in the "center" of the stereo image, and avoids phase issues. Pan the center overhead to about 3 o'clock and the tom side to about 9 o'clock and adjust to taste from there.

 

Figure 5.JPG

 

Figure 5: The traditional approach to mic position on snare drum is from the top, just past the rim and angled downward.

 

 

The snare drum and kick are also miked. We've already discussed where to place the kick mic. For the snare, you have a couple of options. Over the top edge of the snare drum and angled down (Figure 5) is the traditional approach, and this will give you solid attack, although it may be a little light on the rattle of the actual snares. I actually prefer to mic the side of the snare shell (Figures 6 and 7); this tends to give a good balance of note attack, shell resonance and "body" as well as the rattle of the snares, and it does it all without resorting to tricks such as separate top and bottom snare mikes. Avoid aiming the snare mic at a vent hole on the drum, or you'll get a big blast of air hitting the mic whenever the drummer hits the snare.

 

Remember to record each of the mikes on separate tracks in your DAW software. This will allow you to adjust their relative levels when you mix, as well as to EQ and compress them differently.

 

Figure 6.JPG

 

Figure 7.JPG

 

Figures 6 and 7: Miking the side of the snare shell can offer a good balanced snare sound. The curved metal piece behind the snare mic is a SE Mini Reflection Filter, which is being used to help reduce the amount of hi hat bleed that reaches the back side of the snare mic.

 

 

You have a couple of options with a four input interface. A Blumlein stereo pair instead of the traditional overheads can give you great stereo imaging, and sound wonderful when placed just behind and above the drummer's head; aimed forward and pointing slightly down towards the center of the kit, they give a great "as the drummer hears it" sound to the recording. Adding a kick and snare mic to this setup makes for a nice optional four mic configuration when you're working in a good sounding drum room.

 

If you have a small submixer, you can pre-mix two or three tom microphones and a pair of stereo overhead mikes and send the pre-mixed blend of toms and overheads to two line input channels of your audio interface and record the premixed toms and cymbals to a stereo pair of tracks, while recording the kick and snare to their own individual tracks.

 

Six channel interface / six microphones:

 

Stereo pair plus kick and snare, add two microphones as needed from there. If you need more toms on your recording, you can use those two extra microphones as spot mikes on a four piece drum kit's two toms. When recording a larger kit, you can aim one mic between "pairs" of toms; allowing you to cover up to four toms with the two additional mikes. Again, if you have access to a small mixer such as those made by Mackie or Alesis, you can use it to submix multiple tom mikes to two channels. If your song puts a heavy emphasis on the hi hat, you may decide to use an extra mic there, and then put the sixth channel to use for a figure-8 or omnidirectional "room" microphone.

 

Eight channel interface / eight microphones:

 

An eight channel interface offers you enough inputs to fully cover a five piece drum kit, with kick, snare and stereo overheads, plus three tom mikes and your choice of a hi hat or room mic. If you're recording jazz, you may instead want to use that last mic as a spot mic for the ride cymbal. Figure 8 shows the kit with tom mikes added, and the "side" overhead pulled back and up a bit, but keeping it the same distance from the center of the snare as the other overhead mic.

 

Figure 8.JPG

 

Figure 8: Adding in three tom mikes and moving the "floor tom side" overhead up and back a bit.

 

 

Figure 9.JPG

 

Figure 9: Close up view of the rack tom mikes.

 

 

Figure 10.JPG

 

Figure 10: Close up view of the floor tom mic.

 

 

Ten (or more) channel interface and ten (or more) microphones:

 

The options are wide open. In addition to the basic five piece configuration outlined for an eight channel interface, you can have both the hi hat mic and a stereo pair of room mikes, or a mono room mic and a spot mic on the ride cymbal, or a second kick or snare mic. In the next photo (Figure 11), I have a modified Glyn Johns overhead mic setup, two mikes on the kick, one on the side of the snare shell, one on each of the toms, and a figure-8 microphone behind the drummer's head, with the two lobes of the figure-8 mic pointed to the "sides" of the room in order to pick up room reflections instead of the direct sound from the kit. Figure 12 shows a close up view of the second kick drum microphone - a Yamaha Subkick

 

Figure 11.JPG

 

Figure 11: A full ten mic setup including two overhead microphones, two mikes on kick, one on each tom and the snare, plus the hi hats and a "room" mic.

 

 

Figure 12.JPG

 

Figure 12: A second kick mic such as this Yamaha Subkick "speaker microphone" can help capture extra low frequency wallop. Always check it to make sure it's in phase with your main kick mic.

 

 

THE EXPANDING DRUM MIC COLLECTION

 

If your budget is limited and you can't afford to run out and purchase a new multi-input audio interface and a ton of drum mikes, don't despair. There is no reason why you can't start with what you have available, and augment it later. It's probably best to invest in a good multi-channel interface first, and then borrow or buy mikes to use with it as you can afford to. Ideally, you'll want to have a variety of microphone types for use on drum kits:

 

  • Kick: Large diaphragm dynamic mikes such as the AKG D112, Audio-Technica ATM250, Shure Beta 52 and Electro-Voice RE20 are the preferred choices here. A large diaphragm condenser or Yamaha Subkick "speaker microphone" as an optional second microphone is a welcome addition, and is helpful for capturing extra bottom end beef. Record each kick mic to a separate track and blend them to taste later. Check phase!

 

  • Snare: The usual choice is a small diaphragm dynamic mic such as the Shure SM57 or Audix i5. Condenser mikes with the pad switch engaged can also work well.

 

  • Rack toms: Large or small diaphragm dynamic mikes such as the   Sennheiser MD421 and Audix D2. As with snare, condensers are another option here.

 

  • Floor tom: Large diaphragm dynamic mikes such as the Audix D4, Sennheiser MD421, and Audio-Technica ATM250, or a large diaphragm condenser.

 

  • Overheads: Large or small diaphragm condenser microphones, or ribbon microphones will all work well. Audio-Technica AT4041, AKG C-414, MXL 603, Beyer M160, etc.

 

  • Hi hats: Small diaphragm condensers like the SE Electronics SE2-A and AKG C-451E are traditional, although a ribbon mic can help "mellow" the sound if it is overly bright and harsh.

 

  • Room microphones: Your large diaphragm vocal condenser mic can often serve double-duty in this application. Ribbon mikes also work great as room mikes.


Don't forget to factor in the cost of mic stands and cables. Good stands make it much easier to position your mikes as you're setting up, and make them much less likely to slip out of position as you're recording. Also, make sure to take good care of your cables. If you lay them out neatly around the kit, they're less likely to be stepped on or tripped over. (Figure 13)

 

Figure 13.JPG

 

Figure 13: Carefully and neatly routing your cables makes them less likely to be stepped on or tripped over.

 

 

GENERAL TIPS AND GUIDELINES

 

  • A quick word of advice about levels: Don't record too "hot" - leave yourself some "headroom" and avoid clipping your preamps or recordings. I like to record with my levels averaging about 15dB to 18dB below "0" on my DAW's meters. The occasional "peak" or hard hit can go higher, but the red clipping indicator should never light up on your recording tracks.

 

  • Work around the drummer as much as you can. They'll be more comfortable and probably play better if you don't mess around with their setup too much. Sometimes that means taking a slightly different approach from conventional and traditional drum mic placements in order to accommodate unorthodox drum setups.

 

  • Take it on the road. If your room isn't up to par, take the recording to a different "drum room" such as a local hall, church or warehouse. Laptop computers and mobile interfaces make this relatively easy to do, and if the room sounds great, it will make a significant difference in the sound of the final recording.

 

  • Try setting the kit up in various different spots within the room. Some locations can yield better results than others. If you find something you like, make sure you take lots of pictures and measurements, or otherwise note exactly where you had things set up so you can duplicate the setup again at a later date.

 

  • Walk around the room and listen while the drummer plays the kit. You should listen for any obvious problems that need attention (squeaky pedals, rattling hardware, out of tune drums), as well as to how well the drummer "balances" the various elements of the kit while playing. That can tell you a lot. If they hit the ride cymbal really hard, you might capture enough of it in the overheads so that you can forgo using a spot mic on the ride. The same is often true with hi hats (Figure 14); a spot mic aimed at the hi hat is always nice to have, but it is not uncommon to have "enough" hi hats from the room and overhead microphones, and from the hi hat "spill" into the snare and tom mikes. Listen for the impact and relative balance of all the different components of the kit as you move around the room. Pay attention to the ratio of direct sound verses room reflections and ambiance.  Wherever you hear the best balance of all these sounds, that's where you should put your room mikes.

 

Figure 14.JPG


Figure 14: A separate hi hat mic isn't always needed, but if you have enough channels available, it may come in handy.

 

 

  • Sometimes cymbals can be a real problem in recording situations. Some drummers clobber the brass while hitting the skins relatively softly. I suspect this is due to the fact that cymbals are often not well miked in small clubs, so the drummers get used to hitting them hard so they'll project. In the studio, the opposite is often needed--less force on the brass and more solid and consistent hits on the drum heads. You can ask for the drummer to try to hit the drums harder, but they'll often revert back to their old ways. Swapping out "quieter," faster decaying cymbals can really help if you have access to them. Another option that can often help is to raise the height of the cymbals and hi hats a few inches above where the drummer normally places them. This will do two things: It moves the cymbals further away from any tom and snare microphones; thus reducing the amount they will be picked up by those mikes, and it changes the angles that the drummer hits them at. This tends to make them hit them less forcefully.

 

  • Use your monitor controller or DAW's "mono" button regularly while positioning your microphones to make sure the mikes are in phase. Phase cancellation sounds "hollow" and lacking in bass when summed to mono. Inverting the phase on one mic preamp channel may help.

 

  • If the drummer sets the cymbals really low and just isn't comfortable moving them higher, you might not be able to fit your tom mikes "under" them. In that case, you may have to resort to miking the tom shells or the bottom heads of the toms instead.

 

  • There are no hard and fast rules for how to "mic up" anything; only what sounds good to you with that particular kit and drummer in that particular room, when it is being used on that particular track or song. Never take anything as gospel when it comes to setups-- they're all guidelines, and you should always experiment to see what works best in your particular situation.

 

  • Avoid the direct center of the room if you can; acoustic phase cancellations are more likely to occur there than at any other spot within the room. Also be careful of corners; bass frequencies tend to build up in the corners of rooms, and can give your tracks an undefined and muddy character.

 

  • Talk to the drummer. Chances are that they have some prior experience with recording and may be able to offer you insights about what has--and hasn't worked with their setup in the past.

 

  • Talk to the drummer #2: If you value your microphones and don't want them getting smacked by a stick, don't forget to check with the drummer to make sure that where you have them placed will be "out of the way" as they play.

 

  • Talk to the drummer #3: Ask them what elements of the kit they are going to play, and if there is anything they won't be using. No need to worry about how the kit mounted cowbell is going to sound on your microphones if they don't plan on playing it.

 

  • Little movements can make a big difference, so before you try a completely new mic placement configuration, try making some adjustments to what you already have. For example, rotating the kick microphone an inch or two more towards where the beater strikes, or away from it and towards the drum shell can make a big difference in the amount of "attack" on each kick hit; moving the mic a few inches further into the drum or further back from the beater can also change the sound.

 

  • Distance equals depth. The closer you are to the drum, the more direct sound you will get. Close mikes tend to capture a very up close and "in your face" type of sound, while microphones that are placed further back will capture more of the "room", and sound "further away" from the listener. "Bleed" (the sound from other drums besides the the individual one you're trying to capture) will also be greater the further back you pull the microphones, and "bass boost" due to proximity effect will be lessened.

 

  • What the back of the mic is pointed at can be just as important as what the front of it is aimed at. Obviously you want to point the mic towards the "sweet spot" of whatever it is you're trying to record, but if you can simultaneously aim the "null point" of the microphone towards whatever you're trying to reject, that's even better. For example, if you're picking up too much of the hi hats, try to get the dead spot of the snare mic aimed towards the hats. Doing so will help reduce the amount of hi hat that your snare mic will pick up.

 

  • Whenever possible, avoid having a nearby mic on the same plane as a cymbal, or so that the mic is aimed at the thin edge of it. When the cymbal is struck, you will get a very un-natural phasey sound as the cymbal pivots in and out of position relative to the mic.
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