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How to Record Drums - Mic Placement
Before You Begin...
This is a short piece on some common techniques used to record a drum set. Bear in mind that there are a million different ways to record an instrument and that no technique is wrong if it captures the sound you are looking for. In a song, the drums are the heartbeat and a poor drum sound can throw off your whole mix and the song all together. Getting a good drum sound from the beginning is extremely important and can be what makes or breaks a mix. A good mix starts at the source.
Before you begin, make sure that the drums are in a room that sounds good, and that all your drums are in tune. You wouldn't record an out of tune guitar, so don't record out of tune drums. Have the drummer play with you in the room and make sure that everything sounds good in the room. You can't make things sound good, if they don't sound good to begin with. This depends on the kit, the drummer, the room, and the tuning. Get all this squared away before you even touch a microphone.
Like placing a mic on anything, it is important to consider the sound you are looking for, to determine where you should place the microphone. In general, it is a good idea to use a kick drum with a port in the front (batter side) head, so that you can place a microphone inside the kick drum. The further inside the kick drum you go, the more "attack" your mic will pick up. This means that you will pick up more of the higher frequencies that help a kick drum cut through in the mix. Typically, a lot of modern metal music uses a very "clicky" kick drum sound.The further outside the kick drum you go, the more low end you will pick up, and the low end is also very important in a kick drum sound.
Generally, the set up for miking a kick drum is to have one on the inside of the drum and one on the outside. This way you can capture the "click" with one and the "boom" with the other, and then blend the two to taste. When selecting which mics to use, it is important to consider what you are looking to get out of them. You should almost always use moving coil microphones on a kick drum because the extreme SPL put out by a kick drum could damage a capacitor or ribbon mic. Often, a microphone designed with a decent mid-range response is selected for the inside of the kick drum, because it is the attack that we are after with that one. Common selections here are the Electro-Voice RE20, the Sennheiser 421, or any of the myriad of microphones specially designed for kick drums. Place the mic between 6-12 inches away from the beater head, pointing towards where the kick pedal hits it. On the outside, place a mic 2-12 inches away from the batter head. Listen to the differences between having the mic near the center, or more towards the edge. Place the mic where you think sounds the best. The outside mic is here to capture the low end of the drum. This is where our "boom" or "thump" will come from. Again, make sure that you are using a microphone that can handle the power that a kick drum can deliver. Any mic with a nice low end response is worth a try here, but commonly a mic such as the Shure Beta 52, or AKG D 112 are used as they are designed specifically for kick drums. One microphone designed for this purpose, and this purpose alone is the Yamaha Sub Kick. This is a 6" speaker turned into a microphone and only captures the lowest of lows, adding real meat to your kick drum sound.
If you can only use one microphone, consider the aspects of both the inside and outside mic, and make a decision based on what you know. Often a compromise can be made between mic choice and mic placement.
Other common techniques include completely taking the batter side kick drum head off, while other people prefer to keep the front head on and without a hole, allowing you to only mic the outside. Also, many people like to build a tunnel over/around the kick drum, often made of thick blankets, to help isolate the sound and trap some of the energy.
Once again, because there are different aspects to the sound of a snare drum, it is ideal to use two mics, one on the top and one on the bottom. On the top, you are trying to capture the attack of the stick hitting the head, so place a mic at the edge of the snare, but with it pointed towards the center of the head. This will have the microphone almost parallel with the snare's head. Mid-range is important here, and moving coil mics are common as snare drums can also be quite loud. Common options are the SM 57, Beta 57, or SM 7 from Shure, or something like the Telefunkin m80 or Beyer Dynamic m201.
On the bottom, you are trying to capture the brightness of the drum and the sizzle of the actual snares themselves. It is common to use another mic like a SM 57, but personally, I prefer to use a large diaphragm condenser mic, such as the AKG 414. This can really bring out the high end and make your snare sound full and bright.
If you can only use one mic, many people choose to just use the technique as with the top mic, and skip the bottom - this is often done in live events. However, you could place a mic on the side of the snare pointed at the shell. You can then adjust the position to taste. Moving or pointing it towards the top will give you more snap, and towards the bottom will give you more sizzle.
The rack toms and floor toms of a kit are often the easiest part to mic. Follow the same steps as for the top of the snare drum; have a mic placed at the edge of the drum, but pointed towards the center. TUNING YOUR DRUMS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF GETTING GOOD DRUMS SOUNDS. This is true for all drums, but often neglected with toms.
SM 57s or Sennheiser 421s are common as tom mics.
The main reason for having overhead microphones is to pick up the cymbals. However, they can be very important for adding life to your snare drum and your toms. For a modern and/or professional drum sound, overheads are generally done with a matched pair of microphones to provide stereo imaging for the whole drum kit. It's makes the sound seem larger and adds movement to the entire stereo spectrum of the song. Small diaphragm condensers are common as they typically have a clear high end and a fast response time. However, large diaphragm condensers and even ribbon mics are fairly common. A nice pair of ribbon microphones can be great as overheads as they can smooth out any unwanted harshness from the cymbals.
There are many popular ways to place overhead microphones, but the two most common are a "spaced pair" and any form of "XY" pattern. In a spaced pair, two microphones are hung parallel to each other, "listening" straight down at the drum kit. The height from the kit and the distance between the mics is all up to you, but make sure that they are both the same distance from the snare, to ensure a positive phase relationship. Generally they are around 3' apart and 1' to 2' above the drummer's head or his/her cymbals. There are many forms of XY patterns, including coincident, near-coincident, and ORTF. These all are variations on the idea that the two mics "listen" from a central point, but pointed in opposite directions. Often they cross over each other, forming something like a "X" or a "V." This set up will have a tighter phase relationship with a stronger center to the stereo image, but with have less of a stereo spread.
A microphone specifically for the hi hat is certainly not necessary, but having one can bring greater control over your drum sound. Your hi hat will definitely be picked up in the overheads, but having a close hi hat mic will allow you to to EQ it and pan it independently, often bringing more detail to your sound. A small diaphragm condenser is good for this and you want it pointed straight down at the top hat. Place it near the edge, but not right where the drummer will be hitting. Keep the mic pointed towards the edge of the top hat, but away from the opening. If it is pointed at the opening between the two hi hats, you will pick up the "woosh" of when the drummer opens or closes them... This is bad. Don't do this.
If the room that you are recording drums in has a nice or interesting tone, it can often be a good idea to have a room mic as well. This is a microphone placed with the intent to pick up the whole drum kit, and also some of the reflections in the room that they are in. A large diaphragm condenser is good for this, and if it has an omnidirectional polar pattern, that can be even better. Having this option to blend in to the mix can really help glue your drum sound together - it can also sometimes be used instead of artificial reverb. However, if the room you are recording in has weird reflections or tones, a room mic is not ideal... But if that is the case, you really shouldn't be recording drums in that room anyway!
As I stated before, there are many ways to record drums, and everyone has their own tricks. These are just basic ways to treat each aspect of the drum kit. Many Led Zeppelin songs had drum tracks recorded with only three microphones. Again, this was possible with a great drummer, a good kit, drums in tune, and a good room. Also, the most important thing to keep in mind when recording anything is to use your ears. Stop and listen. Use these suggestions as starting points, and then jump off from there. Experiment. Try other placements or other microphones. If you need to "break a recording rule" to get the sound you want, do it. If it sounds good, it is good.
A classic studio work horse. Use it on snares, toms, or the inside of kick drums.