Drum and percussion sets are, like grand pianos, complex instruments to record.
Miking Drums and Percussion
The quality that makes this process so difficult is that each individual component of a drum or percussion set is essentially its own distinct instrument being played at high sound pressure levels in close proximity to other instruments. For this purpose, dynamic microphones are favorites for miking kick and snare drums and toms. Engineers usually choose condensers to record hi-hats, cymbals or for “overheads”—literally microphones positioned over the entire drum or percussion set. The more mics you have, the greater the control you have over the balance, stereo placement, EQ and effects for each component of the kit. Nevertheless, it is still possible to create good recordings with just a few microphones if they are used correctly.
Using a single microphone, the best you can attain is some sense of balance between the individual drums, along with the amount of reflected sound versus direct sound from the drums. To do this, try using a microphone boom stand to angle a cardioid condenser microphone toward the kit at about six feet off the ground and about one foot in front of or behind the kit. Alternately, place the microphone four feet above the center of the kit. If you desire more room sound, try pointing the microphone directly at the kit at a distance of about eight feet.
Several techniques are available using two microphones. If you have a pair of the same condenser microphones, try an X-Y pattern—positioning the front of the capsules at 90 degrees to each other—about three feet directly above the kit. (See image “F”.) Alternately, place the mics level with the drummer’s ears and facing forward about four to eight inches on either side of his/her head. (See image “G”.) If you have two different types of microphones, try placing the one with the larger diaphragm inside the kick drum and the other on a boom about two feet over the rest of the kit for a solid kick drum sound and an overall drum set sound.
Where only three mics are available, there are two useful standard approaches. The first approach utilizes a hybrid of the aforementioned dual microphone techniques where one microphone is placed inside the kick and the other two form an X-Y several feet above the kit. The second technique is to mic the kick and snare separately along with one overhead. The use of four mics begins to open the possibilities for professional results. Place individual mics on the kick and snare, then use a matched pair in X-Y configuration for stereo overheads.
Modern music centers so much on the kick, snare and hi-hat that being able to mic these components of a drum individually is fairly critical. At a minimum, you also need a pair of overheads to catch everything else in stereo. In a perfect world, you have enough mics and channels to mic each element of the kit individually—with the exception of the cymbals (hi-hat excluded) being captured by the stereo overheads microphones. Cardioid or hyper-cardioid polar patterns are ideal in most cases due to the need to isolate the elements of the kit from one another.
Kick Drum. If the front head is on the kick drum and there is no hole in which to insert a mic, simply place the mic close to the front head. Placing the mic inside the kick drum provides more flexibility.Placement near where the beater strikes the head produces a tighter, punchier sound, while moving further out makes the sound larger and deeper. It is common practice to experiment with various methods of padding inside of the kick in order to increase punch and reduce boom. Use as large a diaphragm as possible. You may need to switch on the mic’s built-in pad if the sound pressure is overloading the electronics of either the mic or the preamp.
Snare. Snare drums are one of the few places where dynamic mics are routinely used in the studio. One of the reasons for this is that the snare mic is the most likely to be hit by errant drumsticks. That said, you could certainly use a condenser, especially in more subtle applications such as those involving brushes. Standard practice is to angle the mic down toward the drum at about two inches from the rim. Moving the mic further in provides more attack and less body—something that is true for most drums. Some engineers routinely place a condenser under the snare drum as a second mic in order to capture the sizzle of the snare wires themselves.
Hi-Hat. Most engineers place a mid-sized cardioid condenser facing down at the outer edge of the hi-hat. This position tends to produce more of the sound of the stick striking the cymbal, where moving it further inward captures more of the quality of the bell. In either event, orienting the cardioid diaphragm downward helps to reject bleed from a neighboring overhead cymbal.
Toms. As with the snare, tom-toms are often the domain of dynamic mics because of the possibility of being hit by drum sticks. Here again, condensers are perfectly valid in controlled situations. Mic’ing toms individually provides the flexibility of balancing, panning and EQ-ing them separately in the mix.
Overheads. Medium diaphragm microphones are used more frequently than large diaphragms in this application due to the smooth high frequency response. The pair can either be used in an X-Y coincident fashion or spaced several feet apart over the left and right portions of the kit. In both cases, experiment with a height of anywhere between two and five feet above the kit. In general, high ceilings are helpful in regard to drum overheads because there’s more room for the sound to “breathe” before being reflected back into the microphone.
Room Mics. If the drums are in a sizable room, you can attain a truly large drum sound by placing a stereo pair of mics far out, then mixing their sound with the individual mics. Adding compression can make the sound appear to be even bigger.