There’s a time for loops and samples and a time not to. The mind boggles at the number of ways to mic a drum kit. It’s as important to know the room sound you’re recording in as it is to know the kit and the player’s vibe playing it. It’s also helpful to know what you want the drums to sound like in the final mix (ambient, lo-fi, trashy, clean, etc.).
If you can, before you start recording (in your own free time before the sessions start) walk around the room, clap your hands, snap your finger and listen for what is the most pleasing position – dead or live, mid reflections or lots of lows. In most rooms this can be incredibly subtle stuff. Now take a selection of mics (a condenser, ribbon, dynamic) and line them up together in the room as a drummer plays a simple groove. Record the mics and compare, make some notes on the positioning and then move the mics to another position in the room. Repeat. Especially try the mics close to the kit and at different heights. At the end of this process you will have a very good general idea how your room responds to a drum kit and a very good starting point for micing.
How many mic’s depends on how many you have, what kind of mics and what sound you’re going for. If you only have a couple of mics then you’ll be looking for an overall vibe of the kit as opposed to close micing. If you have more, then you can do more and have more options later.
Of the limited mic options there are three that stand out. The first is one mic well placed in the room. This will give you a low-fi, early rock n roll sound – because that’s how they did it. If you have four mics there is the Glyn Johns method. A ton of classic rock records were recorded this way. It involves 4 condenser mics in very regimented positions. A quick search on YouTube will give you lots of people’s ideas of what the method is and also new variations on it. The general idea is forming a triangle around the kit with the kick drum mic about 2 to 3 feet in front of the kick drum with it “looking” at the top rim of the kick drum. Another mic is placed looking across the floor tom pointed at the hat, the third mic high over the snare and kick pedal , and a fourth mic close on the snare. Phasing is very important. Being “out of phase” means that mic’s are canceling each other out and leads to a small, toppy sound. When they are “in phase” you’ll have a full warm sound. Lot of engineers actually get out the tape measure and check angles of not only relationship of mic’s to the drums but the mic’s to each other. It can get very pocket protector-y but there’s also reward in it. In this method you will need the tape measure and you’ll also have to pan each mic the proper way to mix it. Another method is the Ringo sound. The original was done with 2 dynamic and one ribbon mic. A ribbon mic was set 1 to 2 feet in front of the kick looking dead center to the kick drum. A dynamic mic was placed above the snare’s front rim and looking slightly down to the snare. The other dynamic was placed shoulder height just over the rack toms and looking 45 degrees down – which captured the rack, floor and cymbals. You can also place this mic just over the head or shoulder of the drummer looking at the kit but be careful of phase.
Remember there’s a lot of lore involved in these techniques – lines get blurry about how it was actually done and also remember you probably won’t have the same gear as the classic recordings which will affect the outcome – for better or for worse becomes a matter of taste. And matter of taste is the constant over riding point of recording.
For modern recording the idea is to get every drum with a “close” mic and also to get room mics. This gives you options later to increase a certain drum or treatment of an individual drum without affecting the other mics too much. You can blend in room mics or “dry up” (i.e. very little ambience) the sound. I’m going to give you a starting point, the basic set up that you will no doubt augment or change according to your needs, your room, your mic cabinet and your own tastes.
It starts with your overheads. Two mics are placed over the kit and are there to capture the cymbals but also can get an overall close kit sound too. Lots of people use what is called X/Y micing, although it’s easier to think of it as V shaped. X/Y is placing two mics next to each other with their capsules at a 90 degree angle to each other. Imagine two mics each with their capsules at the end, like a tube with one end being the capsule. Imagine the tube placed standing up with it’s capsule on the table, like the bottom of a salt shaker. Now take the other tube and lay it on its side and move it in front or behind the standing tube and then make sure the ends of the tubes line up to each other with the end of the laying tube overlapping and going to the outer edge of the standing tube. If you held them together, picked them up and turn them from L shaped to V shaped you will have the X/Y position. Both mics looking down. This is an X/Y stereo overhead. Another way to get good overheads is a mic on either side of the kit looking straight down, one between the hi hat and rack tom (typically over a crash cymbal), and the other mic over the ride cymbals. How high above the kit depends on the kind of music – for jazz you’ll want the overheads closer to the kit because most of your mix will come from these two mics, for rock try 5 to 6 feet above the floor. If you have a stereo condenser mic or stereo ribbon mic, just place it center above the kit, either looking straight down or looking a little to the front of the kit. The overheads should not be above the front side of the cymbals – they should be off the back side (drummer side) of the cymbals. The mics should be in a straight line dissecting the kit. I generally use large diaphragm condenser mics on either side of the kit as my standard overhead set up. When you track, either use a stereo compressor or none at all on these mics.
There’s always the “hey, have you tried this” in micing – lots of gimmicks and strange techniques. Some work and some are just trying to be different or back flips for nothing usable. But there is one of these kind of things I do love and recommend. I have a worn out 6 inch speaker I wired it to a mic cable (positive to positive and negative and ground of the XLR cable are tied together at the speaker). I place the speaker almost touching the front kick drum head and almost dead center. It sounds like ass by itself but it’s really only there to capture the sub lows of the kick and when blended with the other kick mic(s) it gives a low that EQ just won’t get. Watch phasing – out of phase will make the kick tiny! I use a dynamic mic inside the kick. I cut a small hole in the front head and put the mic just inside the head, sometimes a little off center. If you have the luxury you can try placing a large diaphragm mic right at the front of the cut out or move the mic to sit about 2 to 3 feet in front of the kick, a little above dead center. Again, watch phasing! The other thing I prefer is to make a tunnel around the kick drum. I use blankets that lay over the kick drum that extends to the floor and out about 3 feet. This tunnel will give you less “bleed” from other drums getting into your kick mics which will give you more control and flexibility without taking away too much of the kicks level into the room. I don’t use blankets inside the drum – I generally use heads with their own dampening systems. If you’re not using a dampening system then definitely a blanket that touches either the front of back head or both is needed. I also like a click pad (a round rubber dot that sticks to the head where the beater makes contact), but that’s me. I generally have both heads lightly clamped down – almost on the edge of a little plastic sounding.
I use a dynamic mic on the top of the drum placed from the front side of the snare drum, the capsule about an inch past the rim, 3 inches above, and looking down to the center of the drum. Depending on how a drummer sets up you might have to tuck it under the hi hat or change the position slightly so the drummer doesn’t keep smacking it. On the bottom of the snare drum I use a condenser mic looking straight up and about 3 to 5 inches off the bottom head. This really picks up the snares and high end. These two mics will be out of phase so reverse the phase on the bottom mic.
I use a condenser mic about a foot away from the hat and 6 inches to a foot above with the mic pointed towards the edge of the hat.
Rack and Floor Toms:
I use a dynamic mic on rack toms and a large condenser (sometimes a large dynamic) on floor tom. For the rack tom I like to place the mic above the rack tom head and looking back. So, the stand is in front of the drum, the arm extends over and past the drum and the mic looks back to the head. This eliminates a lot of bleed from the hat and snare but you have to get it just right so the drummer won’t hit it. If this way isn’t possible then the mic should just be looking down at the head from over the front rim and about 3 inches above. For the floor tom I place the mic on the side of the drum looking towards the snare and then move the mic to look down and to the center of the drum, about 4 inches above the rim. Chances are this mic will be out of phase with the rest of the kit mics, so reverse it!
The X/Y micing works well for a stereo room. You can also use mics on either side of the room, looking towards the kit – I use the top of the kick drum as the bull’s-eye to aim them. I prefer condenser mic’s for rooms. You can also just go with a mono room mic. I generally only use a mono ribbon mic for room. Placement is everything. Too close and when combined with the other mic’s it’ll get messy, in the wrong place or dead position you’ll miss the point of having them at all. The tone should be ambient and even. If the cymbals jump out too much you might want to use a little tape to dampen them without crushing their soul. Placement depends on the room. I’ve placed room mics high in corners of rooms, low to the floor, even behind the kit, and also in an adjoining room. You’ll need to experiment to find what you think is right for that room, that player and the result you want.
Make sure things don’t move around – mic stands swaying, drummer pushing the kit forward, or mics hitting rims when the drummer hits the drum. Make sure the kick pedal doesn’t squeak – oil it if it’s a chain driven pedal. Get rid of all rattles. Make sure there’s nothing inside the drum and all lugs and bolts are tightened. Heads don’t have to be new but only slightly played on is best. Tuning a drum is very, very important. If a drum is making a ringing sound try retuning both heads or detuning one lug on top or bottom and as a last resort some well placed gaffers tape. If you have to use tape (and everyone does) try placing the tape towards the edge of the drum where the mic is. I prefer batter heads but I’m old school and like a more open ringing tone.
If the drummer is smashing the crap out of their hi hats, feed more into the headphones or dampen them. A lot of drummers will do this in order to keep time, especially when playing to a click. As a matter of fact, if a drummer his over hitting anything the end effect will be to choke the sound. Bonham hit hard but he never hit so hard as to choke the life out of the drum or cymbals. Another hint is to draw a silver dollar sized circle at the center of the snare – if the drummer isn’t hitting inside that circle on the heavy hits then good luck trying to get a consistent snare sound when mixing.
So you’ve recorded drums with multiple mic’s (close and ambient) and it’s time to mix them. There are too many variables to give you exactly what you should be doing or going for on what you’ve tracked so I’ll go with the big generalizations to get you in the ballpark and then you can add, subtract, pummel or lightly touch according to you own tastes. Here’s the down and dirty on what comes next:
Phasing! If you recorded the kick with more than one mic, solo all kick mics. Most recording programs have a phase button on each channel so double check the phasing between mics by hitting the phase button, one channel at a time, for each mic. The sound will get bigger and lots more low end if all mics are in phase with each other – which could mean one mic might need to have its phase reversed. If you have recorded the snare with two mics, solo only those two mics and repeat the procedure you just did with the kick. Now mute every mic other than the Kick and Snare mics. Make sure they are in phase together. Next go through the rest of the mics on the kit by unmuting one mic at a time. If the phase isn’t cool, no amount of EQ can make up the difference.
Everything is in phase. Excellent. So if you have recorded the Kick with multiple mics you want to bus (send/route) those mics to a “Bus” or “Group”. This sends those mics to one channel. You can control how much of each mic is sent to the “Bus/Group” by each mics individual fader. Now you can EQ and compress the “summed” mics by that “Bus/Group” channel. Bus/Group should be a mono channel which means you can use mono EQ/compressor rather than the stereo versions of plug ins. Saves some CPU. If your program doesn’t have mono “Bus/Group”, just make sure the individual kick mics are all panned center. So I’ve bused all kick mics to a mono bus. Slap (insert) a mono compressor on the Bus/Group channel and set the compressor to a slow attack, fast release, 4:1 ratio and only dip into compression by -3 db, which means controlling the individual kick channels fader levels so that it doesn’t hit the compressor beyond a -3 db dip – which you’ll see by the meters (needle or digital meter) on the compressor. So hits might not move the needle, others big hits might dip in -5 db but on the whole you just want to tame and give consistency to the overall track.
Before we go further, first a word about EQ. With a parametric EQ I’ll set a very mild to tight Q and decrease by 5 db and then scan the frequency range to see if a frequency range being “cut” (diminished/reduced) makes that instrument sound better. This is called “negative EQ”. If I find something I like, then I’ll widen or tighten and decrease the amount or add once I’ve found a range that needs to be fought off like a mongrel horde. Instead of adding more of a certain frequency, by doing this you take away. Spend a little time doing this! Don’t just add, try taking some away! Remember that what sounds good in solo mode may make little difference when the rest of the mics are in or actually might sound like crap in solo mode but really sounds great when the other mics are in. Think of it as sugar. A big spoon full of it isn’t gonna be that pleasant (you might have a sugar problem if it is) but add some to you batter and your cake will taste better. Each mic is an element of the whole – keep this in mind.
Now add EQ to the kick. Start by increasing the 3 to 6K range. You should have more tape than sounds good in solo mode – it should sound almost too “tappy”. Take away a little bit at 300hz and add some bellow 100hz – but not too much.
If you have multiple mic’s on the snare, do the same thing you just did to the kick mics. In the EQ range you’ll want to add some at 6 to 10K and more at 2K. Be delicate on where and how much of the lows you take away. You might also find a gate useful. A gate is just that, a door that opens or closes. At what level the gate opens and for how long is what you’ll control. Sometimes you’ll just let the attack of the snare through the gate and for it to close rapidly – can be very useful to keep other instruments out that were bleeding into your snare mic(s) and allows you to really increase the snare level without also turning up all the bleed and ring for the other drum/cymbals. You can insert the gate after EQ or before compression; it’s a matter of what gets the gate opening and closing more efficiently.
Hi Hat I add a little compression and then EQ. I take away a lot of frequency below 300Hz and add between 2 and 12K.
Toms I generally do not compress but add a little EQ at 4K and 100Hz. I pan them according to how I want the listener to experience it – either from the drummer’s perspective or from the audience’s perspective. Most are drummer perspective, I prefer the audience perspective which means with a right handed drummer the floor tom is panned Left, just as it would be looking at a kit from the front of it. Not hard left but middle left. Rack tom, panned right but more towards center than the floor tom is. You checked phase right??
Overheads. If I’m doing a jazz record then I only compress the overheads a little and try to have a really good overall sound from them – they will be 75 percent of your whole kit sound. On rock records you’ll want to be more aggressive with them. Bus the two overhead mics to a stereo Bus/Group. Pan the individual mic channels depending on the perspective you want – hard left and hard right or less sever. Compress (I mean, hit it hard) and then EQ. I like to take away almost everything below 250Hz and accentuate the 6 to 10K range. This makes the cymbals jump out, which is what you’re trying to capture by these mics. You can pan these mics, just as you did with the toms, depending on if you want to hear the drums from an audiences perspective or a drummers behind the kit.
Finally the ambient/room mic(s). I squash the living crap out of rooms. I beat them down, I put a hurtin’ on ‘em. It’s violent and ugly and so amazingly wonderful. Take a compressor, set the ratio between 10:1 and 20:1 with a very slow attack and a very fast release. I make the input needle say Uncle, peg it and then adjust the output to add more volume that I just took away with all that compression. I look for a pumping sound and to make sure the snare really pops and sounds like a cannon. You’ll have to be careful because cymbals will also boost so it’s a balancing act. I either don’t EQ or I’ll take away everything below 100Hz – depends how it’s fitting in with the other mics and not clouding things too much. Blend to taste!
Each element has now been treated. What’s next? Get the proper levels of the individual elements, Start with kick, then add snare and then toms or overheads, and then hat and room. For rock it’s all about the kick and snare – make sure they aren’t shy. Lots of people set up another stereo bus channel and send all or some of the elements to this channel in addition to sending out as it was (like a copy or mirror image). In this method you’ll really compress that Bus/Group channel and then blend it back into the overall drum mix. I don’t do this. I send all elements, except kick, to a stereo bus channel and compress a little less than the other method or use a tape saturation plug in. I might also add some overall EQ on this “Drum Bus/Group”. One final thing is reverb. I generally only add a bit of verb to the kick and snare channels. Enough depends on taste as well as what kind of verb, but start light and then go bigger depending on the kind of sound you want. You should now have a stereo mix of the drums. Tah dah!
Trick: I often will trigger the kick and snare. Which means I turn each hit into a midi note and then have that control a sampled drum sound. Lots of programs can do this conversion automatically. I don’t replace drums I just add in the sampled sounds. Warning – there will be latency (lag time) between the midi sound and the real drum sound. You will need to move the midi track ahead. Solo the midi kick sound along with the real kick and move the midi track until it doesn’t flam or sound phased out. You’ll need to do the same for the snare. This can really be helpful in getting the drums to stay big in an aggressive full track. I will often have a drummer give me a few single hits on the kick and then snare after we have a take of the track we’re recording. I’ll mix a snare hit with lots and lots of room. So essentially it’s a room mic without cymbals or other elements of the kit firing at the same time – just snare. I’ll turn that hit into a sample and then fire it off via midi. This gives me a ton of room sound and a big snare sound without cluttering up the mix or making it a cymbal fest.