Posted by Brian Lindsay on January 10, 2017
Recording the drums can be like juggling eight or more balls at the same time. While there is a lot of detail to pay attention to, the engineer needs to keep a healthy view of the whole sonic picture and how it coheres together to form the backbone of most modern music. The saving grace about all of these instruments that make up the drum kit is that they are quite different sonically from one another. So long as each piece of the drum kit is appreciated for its unique character, pulling this menagerie of wood and metal into a unified rhythm machine is within reach for recordists in every tax bracket.
This article is going to be fairly detailed. It would be easy to get lost while plowing through each element of each drum. Start with the basics of a well tuned drum kit and then mike it with an intentional method in mind. This will help you get a better sound straight to your DAW. When the drums already sound good as you record them, you are free to use your time and processing tools to add sparkle and shine rather than trying to salvage one audible faux pas after the other.
When preparing for a drum recording session, a little preemptive work goes a long way. Speak with the drummer ahead of time and get a feel for how confident he is in his ability to tune his kit. Ask the drummer ahead of time if his kick drum pedal is quiet or if it squeaks so much that it sounds like a field mouse quartet. If the drummer does not think that his kit sounds very good, ask him to consider renting a quality kit for the recording session.
Because drum tuning is a subject for a whole article on its own, I will attempt to drop the basic concept on you and then hightail it out of there as quickly as possible.
Each drum shell will have a fundamental tone that it resonates the best at. This is dictated by the diameter and length of each drum. When we tune each drum, we find that sweet frequency that each drum was made for. The top drum head (called the beater) is tuned to this frequency.
Once the drum is tuned to the fundamental frequency of its shell, the next order of business is to ensure that it is evenly tensioned across the head. Do this by tapping the drum head just a few inches away from the rim and in front of each lug. Adjust each lug so the head sounds the same at each of these locations.
For all drums that have both a resonator (bottom) as well as a beater (top) head, the resonator should be tuned first. When it comes to snare drums, it is best to remove the snare wires so you can focus without the additional sound interfering. Keep in mind that additional adjustments will be made to the resonator heads on the toms a bit later.
To grossly generalize the relationship between the two drum heads, keep three concepts in mind:
For tuning in noisy environments, consider using a Drum Dial. These smart little gizmos allow you to tune your drums without even having to hit the heads. You can also get a digital Drum Dial for added precision.
While you are about the business of tweaking the kick drum, take a moment to examine where the beater is striking the head. Keep in mind that a change in location will change the sound of the kick drum. With the drummer’s blessing and help, adjust the length of the beater, and hence the location it strikes the head at, to obtain a sound loaded with punch and definition.
When it comes to setting the drums up properly, don’t be afraid to hire some help. I have been in situations where a very accomplished drummer was wise enough to rent a top quality kit and hire a professional to tune it to perfection. This wound up saving a lot of money and time in the studio and did not seem to injure the drummer’s pride one bit.
When tuning a kick drum, be sure to keep in mind what role the bass guitar and kick drum each will play in the sound of the band. Ask yourself if the sub-bass region will be dominated by the bass or the kick and then tweak the kick accordingly.
Because of the fact that the overhead mics bring realism into the recorded drum sound, it’s nearly impossible for the ambience of the recording room to not become a part of the end result. In general, larger rooms work better for drum recording. As your upstairs neighbor already may know, drums are loud. All of that acoustic power not only gets the neighbor worked up, it will excite the room’s resonances as well. Keep a few things in mind to get the most out of the room you have.
In the process of building studios for different clients, I usually wind up answering all kinds of physics questions and verbally arm wrestling with the folks that want to just paint the walls pretty or hang blankets and call it good. The laws of physics still apply, even if you don’t want them to. Properly used diffusion will drastically improve the sound of a drum recording room. Keep a few things in mind when considering diffusion.
I realize that there are times when we cannot afford to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on posh diffusion. The typical “next best thing” is to use absorption to get a reflective room under control. If absorption is all that you can afford, keep a few things in mind:
If you are recording in a room with absorption on all the walls. There is one thing that I want you to be mindful of. Unless you are in a real anechoic chamber, the room is not actually deadened across all frequencies. When most people make a 100% dead room, they are actually just deadening the higher frequencies. Bass frequencies are very hard to attenuate with absorption, so the end result is attenuated high frequencies and bass tones that are still free to find their way into your overhead mics. When it comes time to EQ your kit, be ready for this.
This is where we roll up our sleeves and get to the fun stuff. I am going to start with some approaches for using very few mics and then I will dive into techniques for each common drum or piece in a kit.
Miking up a kit with very few mics should be required study for all serious studio engineers. Try these techniques on and keep them in your arsenal.
The Tchad Blake method involves placing one large diaphragm right over top of the kick drum shell but pointed at the snare drum. That’s pretty simple, huh? Adjust the angle an aim of the mic to get a good balance of the kick, snare and the rest of the kit.
As an alternative to the Blake method, use one large diaphragm mic in front of the kit. Place the mic about 5 feet off the floor and aim it between the kick and snare. Experiment with this technique a bit to get just the right balance in the kit.
The Glyn Johns method uses four mics but still can be considered minimalist. For those of you that need reminding, Glyn Johns is the well known producer who has worked with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who and other notable acts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
Place a kick drum mic just barely inside the resonator head. There will usually be a hole in this head. The mic face should be just peeking into the drum and pointed at the beater on the opposite head. Pointing the mic directly at the beater will result in the most snap and attack.
Use a boundary mic placed on a pillow inside the drum to catch the percussive sound of the beater. Use an additional mic outside the resonator head to capture the low frequency “bump”. Blend these together during mix-down.
When there is no hole cut into the resonator head, have the drummer sound the kick drum and feel for a high pressure zone within 10 inches of the resonator head. Pick up the “bump” with a mic placed in this pressure zone. Place another mic on the beater head and use it to blend in a healthy dose of attack from the beater.
The snare drum is the spinal cord of the rhythm. If your mix lacks a defined, punchy rhythm, consider what might be missing from the snare drum.
Place the mic just off the edge of the drum but at a 45° angle so it points towards the center of the drum. This will give you the most attack. Adjust the angle of the mic somewhere between the center and edge. Pointing at the center will yield more “stick on the skin” sound, while the outer edge of the drum will give you more “body”. Be sure to be listening for this during the mic placement phase rather than simply relying on EQ tweaks to get more attack later.
If the snare has a ringing harmonic that seems to hang out longer than the bulk of the snare hit, this can be accentuated or attenuated using angle changes and by keeping the snare mic “three fingers” away from the snare head.
If enough mics are available and you don’t mind having someone preach at you about how “less is more”, then mic the bottom of the snare as well to pick up the “sizzle” of the snare wires. Be sure to flip the polarity of this mic so that it does not cause phase problems when blended with the top snare mic.
Some engineers mike a high hat from the top and others will mike it from the bottom. In my experience, it is most commonly miked from the top.
Set a small diaphragm mic up about four to six inches above the high hat and check out the wide range of tones that emerge as you sweep its angle from the bell to the outer edge of the hat. Listen carefully as the drummer plays while the mic angle is changed and pick the sound that is best to your ears.
It is common knowledge that some engineers will forego using a dedicated high hat mic at all. Don’t be shy about muting the high hat mic and letting the overhead mics pick up the high hat.
The tom-toms can be miked in similar fashion to the snare drum. Place a mic just inside the rim of the drum and angle it in towards the center. Angling towards the center of the drum offers the most attack while the outer edge will accentuate more “body”.
It might be easy to let the toms become more of an afterthought when miking a drum kit. Keep in mind how nice it sounds when the toms are full and snappy during drum fills and give them ample attention.
The first thing to do when setting up overhead mics is to make a decision. Will the overhead mics be primarily for cymbals or will they be tasked with capturing a realistic blend of the whole kit? I like to use overheads for the whole kit, and I set them up accordingly. One discipline you may try is to set up the overheads FIRST before even auditioning the close mics. This will encourage you to get a great overhead mic sound before moving on to the individual drum mics.
Grab a stereo miking bar and set up an “XY stereo pair”. Be very careful to get precise capsule alignment between the two mics and then audition the pair at different heights and angles until you find a nice sound.
An ORTF pair is a miking technique that was developed in the 60s at the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française, which is where it gets its acronymical name. Place two mics at 110° off axis to each other with their capsules 17 cm apart. Pan these mics left and right for a full stereo image. A stereo miking bar comes in handy with this technique as well.
Often enough, engineers will simply place an “AB pair” of mics over the drum kit. These mics are spread out adequately to pick up all of the different cymbals and kit. Pan these two mics moderately left and right. Be sure to heed the “3:1” rule when using an AB pair. The rule states that the second mic must be three times the distance from the source as compared to the first mic’s distance from that same source.
If you would like to highlight specialty cymbals in your kit, don’t be shy about using a dedicated mic. If bystanders want to lecture you about how “less is more”, perhaps it is time for “less” spectators in the studio?
Always be sure to note how close the overheads are to the ceiling. Fast reflections from a nearby ceiling can cause slapback echo and comb filtering. This will limit how loud you can blend the overhead mics in before it gets to sounding funny. Since the overheads provide the “real” element to the kit as a whole, you don’t want to be heavily limited on how loud you can use them in the mix.
Since ambient mics fulfill a completely different role, treat them as the unique tool that they are. The job of the ambient mics is to bring some real room sound to the drum recording. While room sizes vary, real ambience is often very useful in a recording.
An XY pair can be used for a true stereo image, but you will often enough find a wide AB pair in use with the mics spread far apart in the room. Be sure to keep a reasonable distance from all walls and ceilings so you don’t run into comb filtering effects.
Some studios simply install boundary mics on the walls or ceiling of the recording room. These mics have the benefit of catching room ambiance without any early reflections from the walls.
Plenty of audio engineers will use ambient mics with them aiming at the drum kit. Don’t rule out the possibility of having the ambient mics facing the opposite direction so they cancel out the direct sound and pick up more room.
I am going to go through each common drum in a kit and list some of the more popular mics to use for each one. This list is not exhaustive by any means, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
Everyone knows what an AKG D112 looks like. It’s that egg shaped mic you see in front of nearly everyone’s kit. These mics have an even response down to 20kHz and a slight presence boost at 4kHz to help the kick punch through the mix. The D112 can handle a staggering 168 dB, so there is no need to worry about heavy footed drummers.
The Audix D6 is another familiar sight when it comes to kick drum mics. Its frequency response goes from 30Hz to 15kHz. The D6 has a VLM (very low mass) diaphragm, allowing it to respond to transients from the beater very well despite the fact that it is a dynamic mic.
A nice addition to a normal kick drum mic is a sub-kick microphone such as the Yamaha SKRM100. This bass grabbing specialty mic looks like a little drum that you put in front of your kick drum. It picks up the deepest lows in a way that most mics can’t. Blend this with a normal kick mic and bring the “bump” into your tracks.
It would be a crime not to mention the Shure SM57 when it comes to snare drum mics. Although these mics are inexpensive, they sound great on the snare and can stand up to high SPLs and even an occasional errant beating by a drum stick. If you don’t already have a few of these in your mic locker, you should.
The Electrovoice N/D468 is another strong contender in the world of dynamic mics for snare. It has a large dynamic diaphragm and is designed with a supercardioid polar pattern so as to reject sounds from nearby drums. It has a pivoting head that makes precise aiming easier.
When you record styles that involve a bit more finesse, consider using condenser mics on your snare drum. The AKG C414 XL2 is a nine pattern mic that you will certainly use on more than just the snare drum. Place this large diaphragm condenser mic under the snare to pick up the snare wires. Be sure to flip the phase of the underside mic so that it combines well with the top side mic.
A very popular mic for the high hat is the Shure SM81 small diaphragm condenser. Its 20Hz to 20kHz range will pick up the swish of a half open high hat in great detail. The low-frequency rolloff switch allows you to cut unneeded lows right from the source.
As the successor to the KM84, the Neumann KM184 makes a great high hat mic from a company that is known the world over. Though it may be pricier than the SM81, it is found on high hats quite frequently. The KM184 features reduced off-axis coloration. This means that sounds coming from the sides will not become frequency-hacked problem areas in the mix.
The side-stick design of the Audio Technica ATM450 makes it easy to position on the high hat without the back end of a mic protruding up and possibly in the way of cymbals. If you mic the high hat from underneath, you will definitely appreciate this side-address feature. The ATM450 is a cardioid condenser mic. It will pick up the nuances of the high hat and reject the sounds of drums from behind it. A low frequency rolloff feature is always welcome on a high hat mic, and the ATM450 has one. This is a reasonably priced mic with some nice features for high hat recording.
Just as with the snare drum, let’s not let the Shure SM57 go unmentioned. The SM57 is a true workhorse mic that has recorded many of the toms we hear in popular recordings. Give them a try on toms and you may find that you do not need to sell your mom’s BMW just to be able to record a whole drum set properly.
As an alternative to the SM57, consider the Audix i5 dynamic mic. It can handle SPLs up to 140 dB and sports a low mass diaphragm, enabling it to pick up more detail than a heavier diaphragm is capable of. This is another mic that will not empty your wallet but will still shine in particular applications.
Taking a small step up in price (and hence, trust in the drummer to not bash your mics) is the well-known Sennheiser MD421. These mics are found just as frequently on vocalists as they are on tom-toms. High SPL handling makes them good for drum recording. Although the MD421 is a bit bulkier than a SM57, the sound quality is worth the extra work to tuck them out of the way while miking the toms.
All the tom mics mentioned thus far have been dynamic mics. Let’s look at the AKG C519 condenser mic for recording toms. This micro-sized condenser mic clips unobtrusively to the side of the drum and picks up the kind of detail that you would expect from a condenser mic. Angle the cardioid pattern towards the center of the drum to pick up a healthy dose of attack. These mics are convenient to use and nearly invisible if you choose to use them on stage.
I tend to place a lot of importance on the role that overhead mics play in a drum recording. For that reason, I am going to mention that spending the extra cash for a pair of AKG C414 XL2 microphones is well worth it. I can guarantee that you will use these versatile large diaphragm condenser mics on a lot more than just drum recordings. The nine selectable polar patterns will allow you to use these as an AB spaced pair, MS stereo pair and a host of other applications that will get you your money’s worth.
A pair of Audix ADX51 mics for overhead work will not set you back as far as the C414s will, and they will do a quality job as overhead mics. They are fixed on cardioid pattern and have a useful bass rolloff switch centered on 150Hz.
Somewhere between the hefty price tag of the C414 and the moderate cost of the ADX51 lies the Neumann TLM102. I am not one to go for a product just for the brand name, but I do pay attention when Neumann has an offering for a particular application. These large diaphragm condensers work well as overheads or as ambient mics.
If you would like to mount some ambient boundary mics on your studio walls, consider the Sennheiser E901. Since it can be hard to affix a pair of mics to just one application, the moderate price tag on the E901s will ease your mind a bit when you mount these on the ceiling or walls. Although many boundary mics are made to not pick up deep bass sounds, these feature a frequency response that extends from 20hz to 20kHz. This means you get to grab as much of the room ambience you want and shave off whatever low frequencies you don’t want in the mix.
A pair of ribbon mics works quite well for ambient miking. Grab a pair of Beyerdynamic M130s. Use the figure eight patterns to make a Blumlein pair. For an explanation of a Blumlein pair, check out this article and scroll down to “Use multiple mics”. You will find everything you need to know to set up a Blumlein pair.
It is a really good idea to start your drum mic collection with a pre-packaged mic kit. This is an economical way to get started on a modest budget or with a bit extra to spend on added quality. Let’s take a look at a few such kits.
The Audix DP7 drum mic kit gives you seven mics to capture a drum kit with. Some of these mics were already mentioned individually above. Mic clips and an aluminum storage case round out this kit.
Another worthy seven piece kit is the Sennheiser E600 mic kit. The kit features a kick drum mic, four tom/snare mics with rim mount clips, a pair of super-cardioid condensers for overheads and a protective aluminum case for safe storage.
On the more unique but very worthy end of the spectrum, check out the Earthworks DK25/L drum mic kit. It may surprise you to find that there are just three mics and an inline pad in this kit. This is a different approach to miking drums. The DK25/L kit has garnered much deserved attention from top notch professionals in the audio industry. This simple method uses one mic for the kick and the other two as overheads. Detail, clarity and a cohesive sound is what you get from this kit.
Now that we have meticulously recorded all of these drum sounds, what kind of post-tracking treatment are they likely to need? Just like the miking techniques and choices, let’s handle this one drum at a time.
Gating a kick drum to eliminate bleed from the rest of the kit is usually pretty easy since the mic will be getting such a powerful signal from the kick itself as compared to bleed from the rest of the kit. Just find that threshold setting where every kick drum hit is triggered.
If you would like to further help the gate in distinguishing the kick from other drums, use the side-chain input and run a duplicate (or bussed signal) of the kick drum to the side-chain. This side-chain signal must first be run through a low pass filter set to 1kHz. Excluding the high frequencies from the side-chain input will reduce false triggers from other drums.
EQing a kick drum is often necessary to trim and tighten it up sonically. Here are some guidelines to help:
Compression on a kick drum will thicken it up and smooth each hit out a bit. Be careful to not overdo compression. Over-compressed tracks are the mark of an amateur. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Gate: Hopefully, you got some good isolation from the high hat when you placed your drum mic. If you didn’t, first have your assistant slap you across the face so you will learn your lesson. Getting a clean snare sound before reverb is used will add up to cleaner reverb sounds. When you are setting a gate for the snare, keep a couple of things in mind:
Compression: Find some “alone time” with just you, a snare drum and a compressor and manipulate, over-manipulate and then manipulate some more. The sound of a snare can be drastically changed with the use of a compressor. Part of the reason for this is the added elements it possesses over other drums. The attack, body and snare wire sounds can all be changed with just a compressor. Consider these admonitions:
EQ: The EQ settings you will use on the snare drum are also quite critical. Part of the reason for this is the massive amount of mid-range sound in the snare. Any manipulations you do on this mid-heavy instrument will be easily apparent to human ears.
First off, I would like to say one thing about gating and compression on the high hat: NO. Unless you are going for a specialty sound with the high hat, don’t compress or gate it. Simple enough? I am sure there are exceptions to this rule that will send an EDM (electronic dance music) artist into convulsions after reading this. I think I can live with that.
EQ for the high hat can be a very useful tool. You can trim, shape and sculpt it quite a bit with an EQ. Check out these key frequency ranges:
De-esser: If you find yourself sweeping the frequencies with an EQ to get a harsh sound under control, try employing a de-esser on that harsh frequency once you have found it. This method will allow you to keep the important high frequency content through the bulk of the track but only attenuate it when it gets out of control.
Gating on the toms is frequently required to get the tail end of their sound under control. A finely tuned set of toms will be a blessing at this stage of the game.
Compression: Toms may not need much compression at all. If you do need to compress, consider setting up this effect “New York” style (also called parallel). This works particularly well on toms. To use an effect in “parallel” mode, duplicate the track and compress one while leaving the other alone. Blend these together to taste. Most classic compressors do not have a mix% knob. If you do happen to have one on the particular plugin you are using, adjust that percentage rather than duplicating tracks.
EQ: Quite often, when toms are miked reasonably well, minimal EQing may be all that is needed.
Compression: You are only likely to need compression on the overheads if you are relying on them for a “whole kit” sound. Still, you need to be VERY careful here. It is really easy to ruin the sound of the overheads with compression. Always treat these two mics together in a stereo compressor as if you were applying master buss compression. A failure to follow this rule will result in your overhead image “swimming” back and forth, pseudo-panning itself left and right. Be very gentle here and use your ears to catch any over-compression.
EQ: When setting out to EQ your overhead mics, you will need to decide what role they will play. Do you intend to pick up mostly cymbals or will these mics provide realism for the whole kit? This is going to dictate the kinds of EQ moves you will make.
Just in case I was making the purists a bit too happy with all the talk about getting good sounds from the source, I am going to make a quick mention of adding or replacing drum sounds to get the end result you want. Before you take the route of reinforcing drum sounds, be careful to ask yourself if the real drums need to be violated beyond recognition. If the extra help is needed, then feel free to replace or reinforce drums with additional drums or sounds that have nothing to do with drums at all. We won’t dive into the specifics of drum augmentation in this article. Just be aware that it is a viable option that is in common usage today.
After you invest the time in solid recording technique, a healthy bag of tricks to use in the studio is always a fun thing to have. Here is a good handful of some tasty tricks to spice up your drum recording sessions.
I once knew a speed metal drummer who liked to remove the normal head off his kick drum beater and glue a golf ball in its place. He would drill a hole in the ball and glob some epoxy in there before mounting it as his new beater. It gave a very defined attack that is needed for the fast footwork in metal.
The same drummer that I mentioned in the previous tip could also be found removing the resonator head from his kick drum and attaching a second headless kick drum in front of the first. This made for a very long kick drum that shot powerful waves of bass at you if you were standing in front of it.
Tape a silver dollar (if you can find a musician who has a dollar) to the kick drum. This should be placed exactly where the beater strikes the head. Depending on the style of beater you are using, this can result in all of the attack you could possibly want.
The only way you will not know about this move is if you are an audio engineer who does not play drums. Place a pillow or blankets inside your kick drum to deaden the sound. As an alternative, some drummers use sandbags or studio foam.
When dealing with resonances and ringing drums, employ the use of a product called “moon gel”. A small piece will dampen those sympathetically resonating drums quite well. If you would like to make your own Moongel, check out this tutorial right here.
As an alternative to Moongel, use gaffers tape placed on the drum head to deaden it. A piece in the center or several pieces distributed a few inches from the edge of the head will deaden a lot of ringing.
If rattling drum hardware is plaguing your attempts to record clean drum sounds, use a bit of sticky tack to silence the errant hardware. It is easy to use and leaves no residue afterwards.
Good drummers know that they should hit cymbals softer in the studio than they would live. This manic cymbal bashing is often required when playing live to help the cymbals cut through the mix, while more finesse is called for in the studio. Tactfully remind a drummer of this when needed and the result will be better sounds from the overheads.
After the drum tracks are recorded, ask the drummer if he could play the song again, only using his cymbals and high hat. Blend this cymbal-overdub in subtly in key places such as choruses. This results in a sound that is more intense and subtle at the same time.
When tuning up the snare drum, annoying resonances can be dampened by slightly loosening a single lug on the top drum head.
For mellower kinds of music, a long, drawn out cymbal decay can really sound sexy. Accomplish this by using a long section of ball bearing mini-chain (the kind that they use for military dog tags and bathtub stoppers). Hook a keychain to both ends and hang it from the center of your cymbal. The chain should extend from the center of the cymbal and hang off the edge. Strike the cymbal and listen as it seems to go on and on. If this specialty sound is recorded individually, you can slowly pan this sizzling cymbal across the soundscape. This makes for a beautiful effect.
When you are about the business of ensuring that each drum hit has nice attack, keep in mind that a compressor or EQ are not the only tools for the job. As an alternative, check out a transient shaper such as the Sonnox Transient Modulator. A transient shaper is often a better tool for the job if all you are trying to do is manipulate the transients.
If you are looking for some creative sounds to blend in with a regular kit, don’t be afraid to mike up a bucket or a cardboard box. Some great drum sounds have been recorded without the help of drums at all.
Remove the guts (the harp) from an old piano and mount it on the wall of your drum room. Mike the piano strings as they are blasted by the drum set. Use the resonating effect from the strings just like a plugin. It sounds HUGE!
Kudos to you for making it through such a detailed article on recording drums. The next challenge is to take each of these techniques and make them yours by trying them for yourself and maybe even modifying them a bit. If you do this, you will be rewarded with may great sounding drum tracks to come.
All prices are in USD.