Get the best out of your Drum Kit!
In this article, we are going to explore how to record a drum kit with techniques proved by experts in the field, using professional recording microphones.
Because of the number of components that make up a drum kit we have to approach the mic placement and selection going through each component, from the bass drum (or kick drum) to the snare, hi-hat, toms, overhead and room.
Rule N°1: There are no Rules.
Before moving forward, always remember that while there are established and working techniques for recording a drum kit, the final judge is always your ear. Never stop experimenting different approaches. Don’t be scared to try unusual setups, you might find out that the sound you are looking for is easily obtained with other microphones and placements.
Kick drums are available in different sizes, large ones can arrive up to 26”, while smaller ones to 14”, and obviously, the size influences the sound emitted by this instrument, which the main job is to provide the beat with a low frequency bump, stronger or softer depending on the music genre of the composition. Usually, the best microphone recording technique for the kick drum is to adopt two microphones, one positioned inside of the kick drum and one outside. The two tracks generated allows the engineer, during the mixing phase, to fix the levels according to the desired sound. The mic positioned inside the kick will give low frequencies, it keeps the bleed from other parts of the kit at minimum and it has great impact. The microphone outside will give you a sound that varies consistently depending on the position of the same. A good calibration is putting the mic in the lower half of the head about one third of the kick drum diameter away from the rim. Of course, consider that the farther from the kick drum the more bleed from other parts of the kit will influence the track.
The best-recording microphones for the inside part of the kick are Audix D6, some sound engineers also use Shure SM57 or the Sennheiser MD421. Another good option is to adopt a boundary microphone like the Shure Beta 91, positioned on a pillow, easy to place; it gives an extremely good low end and impact.
For the outside part of the kick: Shure Beta 52, AKG D112, Electrovoice RE20. Those are all great mics for the job.
it’s also possible to use a large diaphragm condenser microphone outside of the kick, in this case there are several options on the market: NOVE Microphones NV-01, Neumann U87, Rode NT2.
Another great choice for the outside microphone is to use the Yamaha Subkick, which is a speaker converted into a mic. It provides only the low frequency portion of the kick drum because of its physical incapacity to capture high frequencies; it is used in recording studios but also in live situations.
The snare drum is the loudest instrument of the set. The hit of a snare can generate SPL of more than 140dB at few cm from the rim. Just like the kick drum also the snare can have different size, hence different sounds. Deeper snares offer “big” sounds with a lot of body, while shorter snares have more “hit” and less body. Snares have metal wires running though the bottom side; such wires are the “buzz” component of the sound. To capture the snare in its integrity there are usually two microphones, one positioned on top and one on the bottom side of the instrument.
Because of the high SPL involved, the top side of the snare drum is recorded using a dynamic microphone positioned at 1.5” above the snare and between 1.5” o 2” inside the rim with the capsule pointing toward the center of the snare. (Hint: find the best angle from the center to the rim to find the sound you are looking for).
Best recording microphones for this job are: Shure SM57 (a standard), Telefunken M80, Audix i5.
On the bottom, side of the snare the microphone should be placed with the capsule facing upward, toward the metal wires in a position where it can get this sound without too much bleed from other parts. The metal wires produce high frequencies, it is a sound with many details and harmonics for this reason it is a good practice to use a condenser microphone, possibly with a pad inserted to avoid the distortion of the input stage and a cardioid polar pattern. Because of the proximity to the kick-drum, it could be good to apply also a high frequency filter. The phase of this microphone should be reversed; alternatively, you risk to generate phase cancellation that will remove a portion of the body of the snare in the mix.
Great selection of mics for recording the bottom side of the snare: NOVE Microphones NV-01, Rode NT2, AKG 414 XLII.
Along with the kick and snare, the hi-hat completes the basic rhythm section of the drum-kit. These three instruments are the fundaments of each beat. They are tight together to form the structure and give the timing to all other instruments in the song.
The hi-hat is essentially a cymbal with a small diameter. It is played closed or open, controlled with the feet of the drummer. The sound is composed by mid-high frequencies depending on the type of hi-hat, it can be a bit “darker” or “lighter”. Using a condenser microphone with a small diaphragm is the normal practice, but engineers also adopt large diaphragm at times. The microphone is positioned approximately at 3” or 4” away from the upper cymbal facing downward. It’s important to consider the direction of the capsule to avoid capturing too much snare component in the recorded track.
The best-recording microphone for hi-hat are Neumann KM184, AKG C451 B, Audio Technica AT4051.
Toms varies in numbers depending on the drum kit and the need of the song being recorded. Some kits can arrive up to 6 or 7 toms in the kit so the drummer has large choice for making great fills or for style purpose of the arrangement.
Toms come in a wide range of sizes from very small to very large. The option for microphone choice and placement are many but generally follows the description provided for the snare drum with the difference that they might be influenced by the presence of the cymbals right above them, making it difficult to position your favorite microphone on top of them sometimes. That’s why having an alternative ready is always a good thing.
Larger microphones for toms recording are: Sennheiser MD421 (the standard), Shure SM57
If you want to adopt low profile mics, less intrusive but with a great sound: Sennheiser e604, they are clip on mics, another option is the Shure Beta98 AMP.
A particular note of attention should be spent on the floor tom. The floor tom is normally the largest tom in the set offering an important low-end contribution to the sound of the kit when it is played. In addition to the top mic, as explained above, it’s a good practice to have a large diaphragm condenser mic on the bottom, with the capsule facing up at 2” away from the body and positioned 2” inside the rim. This additional mic should be reversed in phase to avoid cancellation occurred because of the reversed position.
Overheads are generally microphones placed to pick up the whole kit. There are different approaches to the overhead microphone placement and recording techniques. They play the most important role, some engineers use overheads as starting point when miking up a kit, adding only the necessary spot microphones, since overheads contains all the parts of the drum set already. It is in any case a good practice, especially if you are a beginner, to keep spot mics in place and record them. You can always adjust their level during mixing.
Overheads are generally recorded as a stereo signal with two microphones, hence stereo miking techniques are used to achieve the goal. Spaced pair, X-Y, Mid Side are typical stereo technique with Spaced pair being the most used. It consists of two microphones positioned at an equal distance from the snare above the kit on the left and right side, the distance from the snare must be equal to avoid the snare resulting in a wrong position in the stereo image. The usage of a stereo matched pair set of microphones is crucial, same characteristics and capsules, to maintain an integrity of the sound. Condenser microphones are the best for getting all the sonic details provided by the entire kit.
The most professional recording microphones for overheads are: NOVE NV-01, Neumann, U87, Neumann KM184, AKG C414 XLII.
If you record your drum kit in a great sounding room why not record the sound of the room?! The room tracks will help considerably to make the sound of your drums deeper and natural.
Miking up the room it’s very funny because you can literally use any kind of microphone in any position. You can also use as many microphones as you wish, from one to many. Some engineers likes to record the sound of the room compressed (or they add it later) adding a natural enlargement effect of the kit. A good rule of thumb is to adopt two large diaphragm condenser microphones positioned 4 feet away facing the drum kit and 2 feet above the floor spaced symmetrically from the center of the kit.
The best recording microphones for rooms are: NOVE NV-01, Neumann U87, Neumann U47, Telefunken C12.
I hope you will mix the above suggestions with your will of experiment. Try, make mistakes and re-try; it is the only way to make experience and know how to get the best out of your professional recording microphones.