By Giles Reaves
Drums are probably the oldest musical instrument in existence, as well as being one of the most popular. Drums are also one of the most basic instruments, having evolved little in concept through the years: at their most basic, drums are anything you strike which makes a sound!
As simple as they are, drums can be difficult to master. The same can be said of properly recording drums. While most folks may recommend that you go to a ‘real studio’ to record drums, that isn’t always a possibility. They will also tell you that drums are difficult to record properly, which is at least partly true. But it’s also true that there’s a lot you can do, even with a very limited setup – if you know some very basic techniques.
To introduce you to the world of drum recording at home, I’ve gathered some of my favorite tips and recording techniques in hopes of encouraging you to try your hand at recording some drums in your personal home studio. I’ll cover a few different scenarios from the single microphone approach on up to the many options that become available to you when you have multiple microphones.
Drums in ‘da House
There are many ways to approach recording drums besides the ‘mic everything that moves’ approach, including many time honored ‘minimalist’ approaches. Sometimes all it takes is a well placed mic or two to capture a perfectly usable drum recording. Luckily, this ‘minimal’ approach works well in the home studio environment, especially considering the limited resources that are typically available.
It’s worth mentioning that there are as many drum ‘sounds’ as there are musical styles. Certain drum sounds can require certain drums/heads and certain recording gear to accurately reproduce. Other drum sounds are easier to reproduce with limited resources, mainly because that’s how they were produced in the first place. Try to keep your expectations within reason regarding the equipment and space you have available!
Issues to be Aware of:
First, let’s cover some of the potential issues you may run into when bringing drums into your home studio:
The first issue is that drums (by design) make noise – LOUD noise. Some folks just don’t like noise. This is usually the first hurdle to overcome when considering recording drums at home. The best advice may simply to be considerate of others and be prepared to work around their schedules. There is little you can do (outside of spending loads of cash) to totally isolate the drums from the outside world.
While it is unlikely, you may run into a situation where a noise from outside will intrude on your recording. Like already mentioned, there is little you can do about this other than work around the schedules of others. Most home recordists will likely have already run into these issues before, and have learned to work around them!
The second hurdle is usually not having enough microphones to ‘do it right’. There are some time-tested ways to get great drum sounds using fewer mics, or even just one good mic. Rather than looking at this as an obstacle to overcome, I prefer instead to call this the purist approach!
A possible third hurdle is the sound of the room you’re recording in. It can be too small (or even too big), too live or too dead, too bright or too dark. Some of these issues can be dealt with by instrument placement or hanging packing blankets, some you try to avoid with close miking! Generally speaking, a smaller/deader/darker room will be easier to deal with than the opposite. The thing to understand here is that the room itself will almost always be a factor, since the farther you move a mic from the source of the sound, the more of the room sound you will pick up.
Finally, you should also be prepared to provide headphones (at least the drummer will want phones, but will often bring their own), and make sure you have all the cables you need and that they are long enough to reach where they have to reach.
Options are good – multiple cymbal choices, a few different snares to choose from, or alternate drum heads or sticks/mallets, or even different mics are all good options to have on hand (but not absolutely essential).
Ask the drummer to bring a small rug to set the drums on (a common ‘accessory’), and be prepared to provide one if they don’t have one (assuming you don’t already have carpet). Also consider having a few packing blankets on hand to temporarily tame any ‘overly live’ walls or other surfaces.
One thing before I forget – a drum kit is only as good as the drummer that is tuning and playing it. A drummer should have decent gear (no ‘pitted’ heads, unexpected rattles, or malfunctioning hardware please), the basic skills to tune the kit, good time/meter, and be able to hit the drums consistently. Many folks overlook this last quality, but the sound of a drum can change drastically with different stick position and velocity. The more consistent a drummer is (both with timing and with dynamics), the more ‘solid’ the sound will be in the end (and the better it will make you look as well!).
And finally, the actual drum part is important too – not every drummer will share your musical vision and it’s up to you to keep the drum part ‘musical’ (whatever that means to you) and not too ‘drummery’ (overly busy and showing off). It may be helpful in some circumstances for you to program the drum part ahead of time (either alone or with the drummer) so that you have a reference point and are all on the same page. Let the drummer listen this track to prepare for the session, and let them know how strictly you’ll need them to stick to the programmed part.
To Recap: Issues to address prior to a drum session:
- Noise Issues
- Drum/Cymbal Choice and Tuning
- Drummer’s Timing and Dynamics
- Mic Choice/Placement
- Sound of the Room
- The Drum Part/Pattern
Space is the Place
If this is the first time you’re recording drums in your space, you may hear things you never heard before. This is where the packing blankets can come in handy, especially if there is ringing (Flutter Echos) or if the space is just too bright or ‘roomy’ sounding. If you hear these things, try to cover any large flat spaces, especially glass or mirrors. As with every other aspect of recording, you will have to experiment a bit to see which locations help with your specific issues. You may be able to locate the obvious problems ahead of time by simply clapping (and listening) while walking around your studio space.
The physical placement of the kit in your space may be dictated by available space, but if you do have the option, try moving just the kick around and listen in the room to how it sounds. You will probably find that you prefer one location over another – I suggest choosing the position that produces the most low end, as this is the toughest frequency to add if not present in the original source. Also listen to the snare, but keep in mind you’ll have to compromise in placement between the sound of all the drums in the room. You’re looking for the place where the entire kit sounds its best. Don’t forget to move yourself around with each new kick position. If you find a spot that sounds particularly good, put a mic there!
Once you settle on placement for the kit, let the drummer finish setting it up and fine tuning it before you begin to place microphones. You may have to guess at the placement at first, then tweak it by listening. When recording drums in the same room as your speakers, you can better judge the sound by recording the drums first and then listening to playback to make any decisions. Even when drums are in the next room, the “bleed” you hear through the wall, being mostly low end and coming from outside of the speakers, will give you a false sense of ‘largeness’. So be prepared: the first ‘playback’ can often come as a bit of a disappointment! It may help to have a reference recording of drums that you like as a ‘sonic comparison’ to refer back to from time to time when getting initial drum sounds.
Now let’s move on to discussing where to put the mics, once you get the drums all setup, tuned, and ready to rock. Now may be a good time to tell the drummer to get ready to play the same beat over and over for the foreseeable future!
If you only have one mic:
[NOTE: Choosing the Microphone: Any microphone that is a good vocal mic will be a great place to start when miking the drum kit with a single mic.]
There are not many options to consider when you only have one microphone to mic an entire drum kit – however, this can actually be a good thing! First off, you don’t have to worry about mic selection as the decision has already been made for you. Second, there is no chance in the world for any phasing issues to be a factor! That leaves mic placement as the only concern, and that’s where the fun begins.
Sometimes you have limitations in space that prevent certain mic positions (low ceilings, close walls), sometimes there may be one drum or cymbal in the kit that is louder or softer than the rest and may dictate mic position – you never know what you may run into. But if you can find the ‘sweet spot’, you’d be amazed at how good one mic can sound!
It’s best to have a friend help with this next part, have them move the mic around the drum kit as the drummer plays a simple beat. Listen to how the ‘perspective’ changes. You can learn a lot about how a drum kit sounds (generally and specifically) by listening to a single microphone moving around a kit. You may have to record this first, and then listen on playback – if so, be sure to ‘voice annotate’ the movement, describing where the mic is as it’s moved.
One mic moving from front to back of drum kit
When you listen to this recording, you can hear the emphasis change from a ‘kick heavy’ sound in front of the kit, to a more balanced sound in the back of the kit. The microphone, a Lawson L-47 (large diaphragm tube condenser) is about four feet off the ground. You can faintly hear me describe my position as I move the mic.
If I had to pick just one microphone position, I’d say my favorite single mic position is just over the drummer’s right shoulder (and slightly to their right), pointing down at the kick beater area. Use the drummer’s head to block the hi hat if it’s too loud. Raise the mic higher if you have the space and want a more distant sound.
For an even more distant sound, position your single mic out in front of the kit and at waist high (to start). Moving the mic up and down can dramatically change the tone of the kit, helping you to find the spot with the best balance between drums and cymbals.
Further options with a single microphone:
Consider recording each drum separately (kick, then snare, then hi hat), one at a time. The “Every Breath You Take” approach. Or at least take samples of the each drum, and program patterns using these sounds.
In fact, if you take the time to bring drums into your home studio, you should at least record a few hits of each drum – you can cut the samples out later if time is a concern. No time like the present to start building or add to your personal drum sample library.
If you only have a few mics:
- First Choice: Right Shoulder (RS) position, plus Kick (K) or possibly Snare (S)
- Second Choice: Stereo Overheads
- First Choice: RS plus K $amp; S
- Second Choice: Kick, plus Stereo Overheads
- Stereo Overheads plus K & S
With four mics you can have stereo overheads plus close mics (spot mics) on Kick and Snare. Having two mics for overheads doesn’t mean they have to be exactly the same exact model microphone (but should be as similar as possible). With two mic for overheads, you have many choices of microphone configurations including A-B (spaced pair), X-Y (coincident), ORTF (near coincident), M-S (using one cardioid and one figure 8 mic), the Glyn Johns or “RecorderMan” approach, or you can even try a Blumlein Pair if you have two mics that can do a ‘figure 8’ pickup pattern.
Beyond Four Mics
Going beyond 4 or so mics means you will begin to mic toms or even hi hats or ride cymbals. You may also opt to record more distant ‘room’ mics if you have enough microphones, preamps, and inputs to your recorder. The sky’s the limit, but don’t be too concerned if you try a mic position that ends up being discarded in the end.
Further options with a single microphone:
Obviously, with only one or two microphones to cover an entire drum kit, you can’t place the mics very close to any one drum. But when you have more mics at your disposal you may begin to use what are sometimes called ‘spot mics’, or more commonly ‘close mics’.
[NOTE: For drums, dynamic mics with cardioid or hyper-cardioid pickup patterns are preferred for close miking, while large and small diaphragm condensers are preferred for overhead and room mics.]
With close mics on a drum kit, you are attempting to isolate each drum from the rest of the kit – this is not a precise science, as you will always have a bit of the other drums ‘bleeding’ into every other close mic. By positioning the mic close to the desired drum, and also paying attention to the pickup pattern of the mic you can achieve a workable amount of isolation.
When considering the position of a microphone, the most important aspect of close miking is the actual position of the mic’s diaphragm in the 3D space. The second more important aspect is the pickup pattern of the mic, and how you are ‘aiming’ it. Most of the time, when considering close miking a drum kit, you are not only aiming the mic AT the desired source but also AWAY from all ‘undesired’ ones. Every directional mic has a ‘null’ point where it is the least sensitive, usually at the back of the mic. By aiming this ‘null’ point at the potential offenders you can reduce the level of the offending instruments. One common example is aiming the back of the snare mic at the hi hats to minimize the amount of hi hat bleed (a common problem with a close snare mic).
If there’s a hole in the front head of the kick, placing the mic diaphragm just inside this hole is a great place to start. With the mic further inside the drum, you can sometimes find a ‘punchier’ position. With the mic outside the front head, you can get a bigger/fuller sound.
The best place to start when miking a snare up close is a few inches above the drum head and just inside of the rim when viewed from above. I usually aim the mic down at the center of the drum, which also helps to aim the ‘null’ at the hi hat. But remember, it’s the position of the diaphragm in the 3D space that contributes most to the sound of the snare when the mic is this close. Moving the entire mic up and down, or in and out will produce a more dramatic change than simply ‘aiming’ the mic differently.
Overhead Mic Options:
Overhead microphone ‘cluster’ for comparing different positions/techniques
Probably the most common miking of overheads is a spaced pair of cardioid condenser mics facing down, and about 6-8 or more feet above the ground (2-4 feet above the drums and cymbals), and as wide as required for the kit (follow the 3:1 rule for better mono compatibility, see below). Also common are an ORTF or X-Y miking configuration, but we will demonstrate all the above approaches so you can hear the differences for yourself.
There are two different general approaches to overhead drum mics: capturing the entire kit or capturing just the cymbals. With the first approach, you go for the best overall drum sound/balance from the overheads. With the second, you only worry about capturing the cymbals and usually filter out much of the low frequencies. The following techniques can be applied to either approach, with varying degrees of success.
If you have fewer overall mics on a drum kit, you will most likely need to capture the entire kit with the overhead mics. In fact, it’s often best to begin with just the overhead mics and get the best possible sound there first. Then you add the kick and snare ‘close mics’ to bring out the missing aspects (attack, closeness) to fill out the sound coming from the overheads. So with fewer total mics, the overhead mics become VERY important.
Here are the various overhead techniques we will explore, with a short description of the technique. Also listed is the gear used to record the examples of each technique. Where possible we used the type of microphone typically used for that miking technique.
X-Y, or Coincident Pair
Rode NT-5s, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
With this approach you are placing two mics as close together as possible, but aimed at a 90° angle to each other. The mono compatibility is second to none, but the stereo image isn’t that wide. (see illustration below)
ORTF, or Near Coincident Pair
Rode NT-5s, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
ORTF allows you to combine the best of a spaced pair and an X-Y pair. You get decent mono compatibility, but a wider stereo image. Like X-Y, one advantage is that you can use a ‘stereo bar’ to mount both mics to the same stand. This saves space and makes setup a breeze as you can ‘pre-configure’ the mics on the stereo bar before you even put them on the stand. (see illustration above)
Rode NT-5s mounted on the “Stereo Bar” attachment, set to ORTF
A-B, or Spaced Pair
AKG c3000, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
This common miking approach can be use for mainly cymbals or the entire kit. Either way, you may want to be familiar with the 3:1 rule for multiple mics: for every “one” unit of distance from the sound source to the mic, the two mics should be three times this distance from each other. If the mics are one foot above the cymbals, they should be three feet from each other. The main reason for this ‘rule’ is to help with mono compatibility, so don’t sweat it too much if you can’t hit these numbers precisely. If you check for mono compatibility (assuming it’s important in your work) and you don’t hear a problem, you’re fine! By the way, in our example the mics are about two feet from the cymbals, three feet from each other, and doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Glyn Johns Approach
Lawson L-47, API mic pre
This is a four mic approach, which using a close mic for kick and snare, and two overheads in a ‘non-standard’ configuration. The first mic is centered directly over the snare, between three and four feet away. The second mic is aimed across the drums from the floor tom area, and must be exactly the same distance from the snare. Some folks pan the two overhead mics hard left/right, other suggest bringing the ‘over snare’ mic in half way (or even both mics in half way).
Rode NT-5s, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
Named after the screen name of the engineer who first suggested this approach, it is similar to the Glyn Johns approach in that you begin with a mic directly over the snare drums. But it diverges from that approach with the second overhead mic, placing it in the “Right Shoulder” position. This can also be considered an extension of the one mic ‘over the right shoulder’ approach. Fine tuning is achieved by measuring the distance from each mic to both kick and snare, and making each mic equal distance from each drum. This is easily accomplished by using a string, but difficult to describe in writing. For a further explanation of this technique, check out this YouTube video.
Royer 122 ribbon mic (figure 8), Focusrite mic pre
Named after Alan Blumlein, a “Blumlein Pair” is configured using two ‘figure 8’ microphones at 90° to each other and as close together as possible. This approach sounds great for room mics, by the way.
Lawson L-47s, API mic pres
The Mid-Side technique is the most intriguing mic configuration in this group. In this approach, you use one cardioid (directional) mic and one ‘figure 8’ (bi-direction) mic for the recording. But you need to use an M-S ‘decoder’ to properly reproduce the stereo effect. The ‘decoder’ would allow you to control the level of the mid and the side microphone, allowing you to ‘widen’ the stereo image by adding more ‘side’ mic. This technique (along with X-Y and Blumlein) has great mono compatibility. This is because with M-S, to get mono you just drop the ‘side’ mic all together and you’re left with a perfect single microphone recording in glorious mono.
I invited a few engineer friends to the Annex Studio for a ‘drum day’ to record the examples for this article. It’s always more fun to do this stuff with some friends! It’s a good idea to have someone move the mics while you listen – sometimes the mic doesn’t end up in a position that ‘looks right’ (even though it may sound perfect!). We took the time to get each approach setup as precisely as possible, and recorded all of them in a single pass so they could be compared side by side.
The recording space is a large, irregularly shaped room, about 24 by 30 ‘ish feet with 9 foot ceilings. There are wood floors throughout (carpet under the drums) and we hung one large stage curtain to tame the room a bit for this recording. The overhead mics, for the most part, were about 6-7 feet above the floor (2-3 feet from the ceiling).
The Reason Song File
I’ve provided the Song File because it’s easier to compare between the different miking positions when you can switch as a track plays. I’ve set it up so that there are “Blocks” with the title of each section. Just click on a block and hit “P” on the keyboard and that section will begin loop playback. As it is currently setup, you must mute and un-mute tracks in the sequencer – you could also do this in the SSL Mixer by un-muting all the sequencer tracks and using the Channel mutes instead.
Single Mic Sweep, front to back
The first track is a single microphone starting from in front of the kit, and slowly moving around to the back and ending up in the “Right Shoulder” position. Listen closely and you’ll hear me describing my position as I move.
Compare Overhead Mic Positions
Next you will find a few bars of drums with close mics on Kick and Snare, and the following overhead tracks: X-Y, ORTF, A-B, RecorderMan, Glyn Johns, Blumlein. Playing this clip allows you to explore the different miking techniques, and allow blending of the close mics at will. All the “stereo” overhead tracks are designed to be heard one at a time, although the mics are all in phase so they certainly could be used in combination with each other if you’re feeling creative. But the main purpose of this clip is to allow you to hear the difference between the various miking techniques presented.
Moved the Royers to a Room Mic Position
The third clip is a similar drum pattern, with the Royer ribbon microphones (Blumlein Pair) moved to 15 feet in front of the drums. This is our typical ‘room mic’ position and mic choice, and is the only difference between the previous clip and this clip. In my opinion, the sound of this miking technique combined with the ‘color’ of a ribbon mic makes the perfect ‘room’ sound. For a room mic to work, the room must sound great, of course. But also it has to be more diffused and a bit ‘out of focus’ compared to the close mics, which produces a similar effect as the ‘blurry’ background of a photo. As in the photo example, having a blurry background can help to put more focus on the foreground (close mics).
Fun with Mid-Side – Adjust M-S in Rack
Finally we have a Mid-Side recording (plus the Kick and Snare close mics) to play with. We didn’t have enough mics to include it in the first round, but wanted to present it as an additional track. In addition to drum overheads, the Mid-Side approach also works well with room mics, because you can increase or reduce ‘width’ after the recording. I’ve inserted an M-S decoder on the Insert for this channel in the mixer, and by going to ‘rack view’ you can use the M-S combi to adjust the balance between the Mid and the Sides.
Kick: Sennheiser 421, API mic pre
Snare: Shure SM57, API mic pre
X-Y, ORTF, RecorderMan: Rode NT5s, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
A-B: AKG c3000, Digidesign “Pre” mic pre
Blumlein: Royer 122 ribbon mics, Focusrite mic pre
Glyn Johns, Mid-Side: Lawson L-47s, API mic pres
1967 Gretsch kit
16×16 Floor Tom
13×9 Rack Tom
14″ Pearl Snare
Zildjian and Paiste Cymbals
There are always other ways to record drums. Here are a few slightly out-of-the-box approaches for your consideration.
The “Every Breath You Take” Approach:
You don’t necessarily need to record the entire kit at once – this can help if you only have one mic. Things to plan for: the drummer must know about this in advance. It’s not as easy as you would think to only play one instrument at a time! This approach can work especially well if you’re building up a rhythm track, much like you’d program a track with a drum machine. Start with the kick, then add snare, then hi hat. Move on to the next beat. Then for fun you can us one of the ‘One Mic’ approaches.
The Quiet Approach…shhhhh:
Sometimes in the studio, less actually IS more! Case in point, recording drums that are lightly tapped can sometimes produce huge sounds when played back at loud levels. This approach will work best if you can record one drum at a time, and will certainly help with neighbor issues as well! You can also apply this technique to sampling as well. Consistency is the key when playing softly – sampling can help if you can’t play softly at a consistent level.
Sampling, Why Not!?:
Sometimes you don’t have all the ingredients for a full drum session. Don’t overlook sampling as a way to get around some of these issues – and why not do it anyway! Don’t forget to record multiple hits at multiple levels, even if all you need at first is one good single sample – these additional samples may come in handy later, and you never know when you’ll have the drums all tuned and setup again (and it only takes a few minutes)!
The ‘shaker’ family of percussion can be recorded with any mic, depending on the sound you’re going for. As a starting point, any mic that’s good on vocals or acoustic guitar will work fine for the ‘lighter’ percussion like shakers and bells etc. For hand drums like Djembes and Dumbeks, or Congas and Bongos, you can approach them like kicks/snares/toms. A good dynamic mic on the top head, and sometimes (for Djembes in particular) a good kick drum mic on the bottom. Watch for clipping – these drums can be VERY dynamic!
Giles Reaves is an Audio Illusionist and Musical Technologist currently splitting his time between the mountains of Salt Lake City and the valleys of Nashville. Info @http://web.mac.com/gilesreaves/Giles_Reaves_Music/Home.html and on AllMusic.com by searching for “Giles Reaves” and following the first FIVE entries (for spelling…).