TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 20 Recording Drums – Simple Mic Techniques

Over the last two weeks we’ve covered tuning and some useful tips on setting up the drum kit before placing mics. Thanks to everyone who is taking time to check out this series. We really appreciate your interest.

This week we’ll look at some basic set ups and next week we’ll cover more detailed mic techniques for recording drums.

Dave Brubeck’s Drummer – Joe Morello With A Single Mic At The Front Of His Kit (Placed Left In Picture Just Below Cymbal).

Memorable drum tracks have been recorded by the Beatles, Motown and Sun Records as well as Jazz greats Joe Morello (check out this You Tube video – amazing drum solo!) and Buddy Rich to name a few…..all at a time when technology was quite primitive in comparison to the facilities that are available today.

Before placing any mics, make sure you find the best spot in your room to position the drums. Depending on whether your room is ‘live’ (reflective) or dead, will partly influence where to put the kit.

If the room is square, try setting up the kit in a corner facing into the room…..face the kit away from any windows and try to point it towards soft furniture that will absorb rather than reflect sound. If it’s a particularly dead room to start with, you may want to use a few reflective panels to bring some life into your recordings. But remember, it’s much easier to add some reverb in the mix than it is to remove it. 

Until you’ve gone through this process a few times, you won’t know which is the best spot. Eventually, you will get to know your room’s positives and negatives and be able to position instruments for the best results.

So let’s consider the most popular basic techniques for mic placement.

If you are limited by the number of mics, preamps or input channels, a basic stripped down approach will be required. Remember, drums used to be recorded with just one mic (before the days of multi-tracking).

A Single Well Placed Condenser (eg. Neumann U47) At The Front Of The Kit, Can Produce Great Results.

With a single well placed mic – if you have a great drummer playing a well tuned, decent kit in a good sounding room – most of your problems are solved. The challenges in recording a drum kit come from any of those factors not being quite good enough. In the pictures above, a single condenser mic is positioned at about 5-6 feet high at a distance of 2-5 feet from the kit.

Remember, when we mention distances they are only a guide. There is always a little trial and error in miking any instrument. What will work for one situation…..a room, drummer, kit…..will be different for another.

A Single Quality Mic Placed In Front Of The Kick Drum, Pointing Towards The Snare, At Hi-Hat Height Can Produce Great Results.

Try a condenser or ribbon mic either above and behind the drummer aimed at the snare (though you won’t pick up much kick) or in front of the kick drum at a height of 3-6 feet pointing towards the snare (see the picture above).

To find the best mic position, ask your drummer to play. Listen carefully with your ears as you move around the kit while it’s being played, then place the mic, monitor it and move it until you find the sweet spot.

And always evaluate a drum kit with the drummer you will use for your recording session. Two drummers can make the same kit sound quite different.

Most engineers seem to prefer large diaphragm mics, but you can try small too. Everything from a Neumann U47/87, TLM 103/170, KM84/184 to the AKG C414B/C451/C3000, Audio Technica AT 4033/4044 or a Coles 4033 ribbon can produce surprisingly good results.

X-Y Stereo Pair On Drum Kit.

If you want to keep it simple but record in stereo eg. a jazz kit, you can place an X-Y pair (AKG C451s or C460Bs work well) about 6 feet high aligned over the snare drum or the player’s head. This technique works well for mono compatibility. Sounds from different directions arrive at both mics at the same time – because the two mic heads are almost touching – resulting in no phase problems. Use either large or small diaphragm condensers. Ribbons yield a sweet sound.

A small change in mic position can give you a very different sound – favouring cymbals or drums. So take your time to try out various positions.

If you add individual mics for the kick and snare to the above set up, you should have ample coverage for the kit. Place the bass drum and snare mics a few inches away from the drum heads (see next week’s blog for more detailed placement). Use EQ sparingly. A little compression on the kick and snare usually help to keep a tight sound…..we’ll cover signal processing in more depth in a later blog.

A Stereo Spaced Pair Set Up Works Best Using The 3 To 1 Ratio Rule.

An alternative stereo set up is the Spaced Pair. Use two matched/identical mics. And remember to use the 3 to 1 ratio rule. For example, if the mics are placed 2 feet above the cymbals make sure the two mics are 6 feet apart. This helps to eliminate any phase problems.

With all techniques that employ more than one mic – check for mono compatibility…..the sound should still be full with a good bottom end. If there are out of phase issues, the two tracks being monitored together in mono will sound hollow. If you feel this is the case, move one of the mics until the sound improves or use a phase reversal switch on one of the mics. If you’re recording into a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), they often have the facility of flipping phase to solve this problem.

Good Bass Drum Mic Choices – AKG D112, Sennheiser E602 and Beyer Dynamic Opus 65.

There are plenty of mics on the market specifically designed to record the kick drum eg. AKG D112 or the classic D12 (if you can get your hands on one), Sennheiser E602 and Beyer Dynamic Opus 65 – all rugged, excellent for transients and capable of handling high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels).

For the snare, the ever popular Shure SM57 (dynamic) or the AKG C451 (condenser) are commonly used. Angle the mic towards the snare, close to the drum’s edge but far enough away from the drummer to prevent the mic being struck.

The Glyn Johns’ 3 Mic Technique – Uses A Mic On The Kick And 2 Matched Mics Equidistant From The Snare…One To The Drummer’s Right, The Other Above The Snare. 

The last method I want to include in this week’s blog, uses 3 mics. Some variations on it use 4, but you can get away with 3 and achieve a great, live, open sound. Obviously, with only 3 mics there will be some compromises in the mixing of the drum kit. The ‘secret’ to success with this method seems to be in getting the drummer to play the cymbals quieter than normal.

Glyn Johns created this 3 mic method which he famously used on sessions for Led Zeppelin when recording drummer John Bonham.

Led Zeppelin Drummer – John Bonham.

A good mic (usually dynamic) is positioned 6 inches to a foot from the resonating head of the kick drum. Popular choices for decades have been the AKG D12/D112, Sennheiser MD421, Shure SM57/58 or Beta 52. The Audix D6, a large diaphragm, cardioid dynamic is also well liked. Condensers can work too, but you have to be very careful as the SPLs produced by a bass drum are high.

If you hear too much resonance or rattle you can place a blanket or pillow inside the kick drum. Refrain from using any EQ until you’re absolutely sure you are capturing the best possible sound.

The other 2 mics are matching ‘overheads’ eg. AT 2020s, placed the same distance from the centre of the snare. Use a measure, for accuracy. This eliminates any phasing problems…..see the diagram – Glyn Johns’ Technique – below.

Johns placed one mic out to the drummer’s right, 4 or 5 inches above and just beyond the floor tom pointing towards the snare drum. The other was placed directly over the snare pointing down. There have since been many minor variations on these positions. The key, however, is that the 2 ‘overhead’ mics are always equidistant from the snare drum.

Get the drummer to play the cymbals quieter than normal. Using smaller cymbals often helps too.

When it comes to mixing, pan the ‘overheads’ as far apart as you can before you lose stereo focus (try 3-9 o’clock). Bring the kick drum up in the centre.

If you like, you can add a fourth mic for the snare (panning it to the centre), to give more presence to the kit. And there you have it. A tried and tested mic technique for recording drums which should yield a great sounding kit.

In next week’s blog we will cover miking individual drums in more detail and get into more complicated set ups and mic techniques.

At the moment TCM are offering a RED HOT SUMMER DEAL – Ted Carfrae owner and founder of TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group will mix and master a track for £175.00 inclusive. For more information please contact TCM by clicking here.

And remember, TCM Music Group have access to many great session musicians, including Troy Luccketta (drummer with Tesla). If you’re interested in finding out more about our recording packages, or simply have a question about recording, mixing or mastering – please click here.

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  1. […] week we covered some basic mic techniques for recording the drum kit…..from using just one mic to the 3 mic method pioneered by […]

  2. […] More isn’t always better. Glyn Johns famously used 3 or 4 mics to record drums on many major releases from the 60s to the late 80s. His technique is described in this blog. […]

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