For home studio owners, one of the hardest things to record is a drum set.
There are so many questions that come up. How many mics should I use? What kinds of mics are best? Where are the best places to put them?
The good news is this: if you already do some recording, you probably have what you need to get a good drum recording.
In this article, we’re going to dive into detail on how to get a great drumset recording in your home studio. Whether you have 16 microphones or just one, after reading this you will have the tools you need to get started.
Remember, as with recording anything, recording drums takes practice. So the sooner you start practicing, the better!
Before you set up a single microphone, you need to understand this fact:
You cannot get a good recording of a bad sounding drumset.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bother recording if your drumset doesn’t sound as good as you’d like.
But it does mean that you shouldn’t expect to record your poor sounding drumset and then make it sound great later in the mix. It doesn’t work that way.
So before you even touch a microphone, here are some important things you should do to get that drumset sounding as good as possible:
- Use nice sounding drums and cymbals. Again, you’re not going to be able to make them sound different when you’re mixing. Sometimes you can replace them with samples, but the goal here should be to use the best sounding kit you can get your hands on.
- Get good drum heads. Old heads eventually start to sound dull and lifeless. Getting some nice new heads can make a huge difference in the sound, even for a less-then-stellar drumset.
- For heaven’s sake, tune the drums! Drum heads do fall out of tune over time. Spend some time on getting the drums to sound good individually, and getting them to sound good relative to each other.
Another important part of getting the drums to sound good is choosing a good room to record them in.
In a home studio, this can be difficult. Your house almost certainly doesn’t have a room that’s designed to sound good, and probably the space you have available to you is pretty small.
If you do have some flexibility though, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Bigger is usually better. Drums often sound better in a bigger space. So if you have a larger room available to you, it might be more effective than a small bedroom.
- Minimize noise. As with recording anything, if you’re in a room with a lot of noise (HVAC system, lawn mower outside the window, etc.) you will quickly run into problems. Particularly in quieter parts of the song.
- Treat the room. Bare walls can cause slapback, flutter echo, and comb filtering. If possible, put some acoustic treatment on the walls. Even hanging a few blankets will make a difference.
Get to the point where the drums sound good in the room, and you’ll be all set to get a great recording.
Step 1: Overheads
Overheads mics are arguably the most important microphones on the kit. If you can get them to sound good, the rest will fall into place nicely.
In fact, if you need to record the drums with only one or two mics, your best bet is probably to use overheads.
The overheads tend to capture the natural sound of the kit. Think about how you listen to a drumset with your ears. You listen to the whole thing, not each drum individually.
Typically we use condenser mics for overheads. Condensers pick up the detail of the kit and the sparkle of the cymbals. There are no rules, of course, but they are at least a good starting point.
As for techniques, there are many ways to set up your overheads.
First of all, we normally use two microphones, because it allows you to capture the stereo image of the drumset.
However, you can get a great drum recording with a single mono overhead mic. Graham Cochrane from The Recording Revolution has often used a mono overhead.
In fact, Graham created a great video in his $300 Studio Challenge series demonstrating how to record a drumset with only a single microphone. This microphone was strategically placed as a mono overhead mic. You should definitely check out that video if you haven’t already.
As for techniques with two microphones, there are several patterns that you can use. In a previous article, I wrote about four common Stereo Microphone Techniques, all of which may be used for drum overheads:
- A/B Pair (or Spaced Pair): Two microphones, spaced apart. Really good stereo width, but creates potential for phase issues.
- X/Y Pair (or Coincident Pair): Two microphones at a 90-degree angle to each other with their pickup locations in the same place. The stereo width isn’t as good, but there are no phase issues.
- ORTF: A pattern that models how human ears are spaced apart.
- Mid-Side: Another pattern which avoids phase issues. Uses one unidirectional and one bidirectional microphone.
The most common of these techniques are A/B and X/Y. Feel free to check out the article linked above for more details.
However, there are two other popular overhead techniques worth mentioning. These were developed specifically for drum overheads. Both of these are variants of the A/B technique, but the two microphones are placed in specific locations.
The first is the Glyn Johns technique. This technique uses two microphones. One microphone is positioned directly above the snare drum. The other is positioned to the drummer’s right (assuming a typical right-handed setup) past the floor tom.
The key is to ensure that both microphones are the same distance from the snare drum. This way, you avoid phase issues in the snare.
For a much deeper explanation, I’ll defer again to Graham from The Recording Revolution. He wrote an in-depth article on The Glyn Johns Technique. If you’d like to try it out, I would highly suggest reading his article.
The second technique is called the Recorderman Technique. It’s very similar to Glyn Johns, but the difference is in the positioning of the second microphone.
Instead of positioning it to the right past the floor tom, instead it is positioned over the drummer’s right shoulder (again, assuming a typical right-handed setup).
As with Glyn Johns, you want to be sure that both microphones are the same distance from the snare drum in order to avoid phase issues.
The idea of the Recorderman technique is that the over-the-shoulder microphone hears what the drummer is hearing, which should make the recording sound more natural.
If you want to try this out, once again, Graham has done a fantastic job describing how to do it. Check out his video on The Recorderman Technique.
In the mix, stereo overheads are usually panned hard left and right. This isn’t always the case, but it is typical of the A/B and X/Y setups.
When I started with recording drums, I didn’t know which way I was supposed to pan them. Should they be panned so the floor tom is on the right, as the drummer hears it? Or should it be panned the other way, to model the perspective of the listener?
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. Different mix engineers prefer different panning methods. Pick the one that works for you.
Personally, I’m a drummer, so I like panning them the way I hear them as a drummer. That’s a perfectly fine way to do it. But panning them the other way is perfectly fine too.
Step 2: Kick Drum
After the overheads, the kick drum is usually the most important drum to get a microphone in front of.
The kick drum (obviously) has a lot of low end. Often this low end is picked up better by a specific kick drum mic, rather than the overheads. Particularly if you use a microphone that’s optimized for it.
If you can only use two microphones for your kit, you may want to consider opting for a mono overhead so that you can put a mic on the kick drum.
Typically we use a dynamic microphone for the kick drum. Kick drums are loud and move a lot of air. We need something that will handle it without clipping or being damaged.
There are a few places to try when micing a kick drum:
In front of the resonant head
This is the typical place to start. Try moving it around to find the optimal sound.
Different distances from the drum can have very different sounds. Further away from the drum may give you more low-end, as it takes some space for the low frequencies to develop. If you do this, you may want to create a “tunnel” from the kick drum to the microphone in order to reduce bleed from the rest of the kit.
Inside the drum
Placing the microphone inside the drum is also popular. This may be done through a hole in the resonant head.
Alternatively, the resonant head can be removed entirely. Just remember the very first rule: make sure the drumset sounds good. If the kit sounds better with that resonant head on, then don’t remove it just to get the microphone in a good spot.
Putting the mic inside the drum will get you more attack from the beater. Often, engineers will use two microphones on the kick, one inside and one outside. Then the two recordings can be blended to get a good amount of attack and low end.
In front of the beater head
It may be worth trying to mic the drum on the beater head. You’ll get lots of attack, and get closer to what the drummer is hearing. However, keep in mind that you’ll probably get more bleed this way.
Step 3: Snare Drum
If you want to record with 4 microphones, a popular solution is to use two overheads, a kick drum mic, and a snare drum mic.
The most common place to mic the snare is on top. This can be done with a clip that attaches to the drum (as shown in the image), or with a regular mic stand.
Distance and direction are the tools for tone shaping here. The mic can be placed a few inches away, or very close to the head. It can point very close to the edge of the drum, or right in the center. It’s worth trying a few different placements.
It’s also common to mic the bottom on the snare as an additional mic for blending. This mic tends to get more of the snare rattle. Keep in mind that you’ll need to flip the polarity of one of the recorded tracks, since they will be 180-degrees out of phase.
Step 4: Room Mics
This is something I didn’t do for a long time. But it’s a technique that can give your drum recording a lot of energy and life.
Essentially, you just place a microphone in the room. You might want to point it at the kit, but often you may want to try pointing it at a wall or the ceiling. You could even place it outside the room in a hallway while leaving the door ajar.
The point of this mic is to capture some natural ambiance and reverb. In the mix, it is common to heavily compress this track and blend it in to give an energetic feel to the drums.
The sky is the limit here. You can use a single room mic, or you can use several. They can be different distances from the kit, different types of mics, different heights, cardioid, omnidirectional, etc.
If you’re just starting out, I would recommend keeping it simple. A single room mic would be best. But feel free to experiment.
Step 5: Toms
If you have enough mics and inputs, it can be beneficial to mic the toms.
There’s a wide variety of mics to choose from. Some engineers use dynamic mics, others use condensers.
For placement, it’s the same idea as the snare drum. Distance and direction are what you want to play with. Typically they are placed consistently across the toms, i.e. the same distance from the edge or center of the drum. But there are no rules.
Often the toms are panned across the stereo spectrum to give a sense of travel from the leftmost tom to the rightmost tom.
Really hard panning in some cases can sound unnatural. On the other hand, having them all too close together may sound boring. Try to strike a balance that sounds good to you.
Step 6: Hi-Hats
The hi-hats are often recorded with a condenser mic to pick up the detail and sparkle.
Many people use a hi-hat mic. I personally don’t. I find that I get plenty of the hi-hat in the overhead mics.
But if you have enough mics and inputs, it’s worth trying.
There are many different ways to mic a drumkit. And the only way to get good at it is practice.
You can get a good drum recording with a single microphone. You can also get a good drum recording with 16 microphones.
Remember: the most important thing is to make sure that the drumset sounds good in the room where it’s being played. All the rest will follow from that.
Leave a comment below with some drum micing techniques you’ve used. How many microphones do you prefer? Where do you place them? Let me know!