Out of all the instruments that exist, the drum kit is arguably the most difficult to record. Then again, a drum kit actually isn’t a single instrument; it’s a collection of loud percussion instruments that cover the entire audible frequency spectrum. As such, it’s not uncommon to record a drum kit using multiple microphones. In this blog, you can find out which microphones are the best for the job and how you should set them up.
First off, there are a couple of annoying situations I’d like to warn you about. Before you start recording your drum kit, or somebody else’s for that matter, make sure that the kit is properly tuned. Also, check to see if your cables are long enough and if you have all the stands you need. In most cases, two tall stands are needed for the overheads, and a bunch of low and mid-height ones for the rest. Also, since the drummer needs to hear the guide track or metronome clearly, having a pair of sound-isolating headphones handy isn’t a bad idea either.
The most important part of your microphone configuration are the overheads. This is usually a stereo pair of condenser microphones, suspended above the drum kit to get an overall ‘picture’ of the kit. The snare drum can be considered the centre, so make sure both microphones are placed at an equal distance from the snare. When it comes to the height of the overhead mics, you’re free to experiment a little but keep the important details in mind, like the balance between the cymbals and shells, as well as the amount of natural room reverb. When the overheads are positioned too low, the acoustics of the room will work against you and the crashes and hi-hats will sound rather loud compared to the snare and toms. Think of setting up the overheads as the first step of the mixing process and keep tweaking until your test recordings are spot-on; poorly balanced overheads in the recording are almost impossible to fix or touch up further down the road.
The Close Mics
When you listen to the overhead track, you’ll notice it sounds rather thin, the kick drum especially. That’s why each shell in the kit needs its own microphone to add a little more body and punch – something that’ll also give you more control over the balance and overall sound when mixing. For each kind of shell, there are special microphones with custom frequency responses available and, since they’re often placed really close to the shell, these mics need to be able to handle a serious amount of sound pressure. That’s why for the close mics, you’ll want to go with dynamic microphones rather than sensitive condenser microphones.
The Kick Drum
Some of the most popular microphones for recording kick drums are the Shure Beta 52, the AKG D112 and the Audix D6. These mics are usually placed inside the kick drum, facing the beater. The closer it sits to the batter head, the more of a ‘tick’-like sound you’ll get. If it’s placed closer to the resonance head, you’ll get a more boomy sound. To capture extra sub-lows, a secondary microphone (e.g. a condenser with pad switch or a ribbon mic) is often set up outside the kick near the resonance head.
The Snare Drum
When it comes to recording the snare, microphone choice and positioning will also largely determine how your recording sounds. A dynamic microphone is the go-to for most, with the Shure SM57 being the classic weapon of choice for many. Solid alternatives are the Audix i5 and the Audio Technica ATM650. In any case, start by positioning your microphone so that the capsule peaks 2 centimetres above the snare while its back is facing the hi-hat. Then, aim the mic towards the centre of the drum head for a full, albeit rather dull, striking sound. The more you aim the microphone towards the outer edge, the more harmonics will be picked up and registered.
Due to the fitted snare wires, snare drums are a different story compared to the other shells. To capture the best possible snare-sound, the recording mic is commonly positioned underneath the snare. Here, you can use a dynamic microphone or a small-diaphragm condenser model. However, don’t forget to reverse the polarity for the snare channel, because this mic registers the resonance of the batter head from the opposite direction as the overheads, meaning they’re in counter phase.
Since you’re going to be dealing with multiple microphones, you’re also going to be dealing with phase shifts. This has everything to do with signal speed, since the sound of any drum kit component is likely to reach one mic first before it’s captured by a second one. This goes for the snare, the kick and the toms. If you take a close look at your DAW, you’ll probably see the audio waves aren’t running in sync, and they might even be going in opposite directions. The result is a thin and hollow recording, an issue that can be easily solved by simply reversing the polarity of the close mic. You could also use sample delay to match the close mics up with the overheads.
Pro Tip: Room Mics
If you have a drum kit set up in a room with great acoustics, it’d be a shame if you didn’t use that to your advantage. Using a handful of room mics, you can easily create a ‘custom’ reverb effect that’ll sound much more natural than any artificial effect you mix in. Room microphones are usually condenser or ribbon microphones, and shouldn’t be placed too far away from the kit. In fact, pointing them away from the sound source will likely already give you more reverb than you need, even in relatively small rooms.
Got any drum-recording secrets to share? Don’t hesitate to enlighten us in the comments below!