On Recording Drums

In theory drums should be a simple task. And in general they are but it can get complicated, fast. The challenge is that there are multiple drums and cymbals coming from different angles at completely different frequencies. It’s not like recording a guitar or singing voice that comes from one general sound source. It’s a whole different ball game.

For the most part I typically like recording with more mics than typically needed. That way, I have them if I need them. In the end I inevitably mute 25-50% of them. But at least I have them there if I needed them. OCD anyone?

On Recording Drums

I am not that crazy about micing the bottoms of drums. I’ve never been in a situation that made any significant difference. One mic on the top of each head is fine with me. The same goes for micing specific cymbals.

With that said, I like to start with micing the bass drum. I prefer a back head that has no hole. There’s more resonance and girth to a drum with out a hole carved out in it. If one needs to muffle you can lay a towel or small pillow up against the head. The mic is generally slightly off center but perpendicular to the head about 2-6″ away. You can angle the mic a tad if it’s too bright. And I just move the mic around until I find the sweet spot where it’s clean and crisp but with out the boominess, unless you are going for that sound. Micing the front (the beater side) sometimes works but is typically too “clicky” and “attacky” for me. I like to use a Shure Beta 52 or a Sennheiser 421. But as of late I am using the Shure SM7 more and more. It sounds more real and open to me.

For the snare I like to point the mic towards the center of the drum head about 1-2″ from the drum and 1-2″ from the rim in, depending on the snare diameter. It’s all about placement and finding the sweet spot where it’s crispy yet not too chunky. For the snare, you can’t go wrong with a Shure SM57. It’s true and tried and works 99% of the time. For more gentle music, I like trying out a ribbon or even a small diaphragm condenser.

Toms are miced similarly to snares, except I generally use a Sennheiser 421 or or a small diaphragm condenser. To avoid toms from being too boomy and bass heavy pulling the mic off the head an inch or two more will help with taming them.

The secret weapon comes with room mics and overheads which capture the overall kit and cymbals. Most people tend to mic above the kit. But to me that’s not always the most natural sounding. Remind me again when and where people’s ears are fixed above a kit listening to it?! I tend to mic in front of the kit pointed directly at it when space allows. I prefer a stereo spaced pair. But sometimes in an X/Y pattern. I’ve been using omni-directional mics more and more for overheads and rooms. There is no one or pair of mics I tend to use. It can be a vintage tube mic, a large or small diaphragm condenser or a ribbon. But try an omni. I bet you’ll like it. Get creative. And it never hurts to slap up a pair of PZMs to see what happens.

There are other techniques using only a few mics. These are wonderful starting points for learning to mic your drums. One method in particular is pretty easy to create. It’s the the Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen) technique which gives an open loud live sound. It involves an overhead cardiod (panned Left) about 4″-6″ above floor tom facing hi-hat across snare. An overhead cardiod (panned right) about 2′-3′ above the kit facing between the toms and snare. And a snare mic and a kick mic of your choice. You will have to watch out for phase problems with this method, so be careful! And try using a ribbon instead of the cardiod and see what happens.

You can also simply use a bass drum mic, snare drum mic and an overhead and get wonderful results. It’s all about creativity with placement with your engineer. It’s not about the cost or brand of mic. It’s how you use what you have. The room in which you record, how you play, and the way you tune your drums also plays a huge part, but that’s for another day.