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Drum Miking for the studio

Lyle Caldwell 1999

- mention of a specific microphone is not an endorsement of that company, merely a reference point to a commonly used model.

Before we get to actually using microphones in the studio, we need to look at what makes microphones different. Once that is understood, you can choose the right mic for the sound you want.

There are many different kinds of microphone pickup patterns (how the mic hears). Here's a quick overview of the three most popular patterns:

Cardioid or Unidirectional - picks up what's directly in front of it, while sounds to the rear and sides are attenuated (lower in volume). A good example is the Shure SM57. Cardioids are the most common microphone in use today. They exhibit what's known as proximity effect, which means that sounds very close to the mic's diaphragm have an emphasis on the lower frequencies. How much depends on the mic, and varies from model to model. A variant on the cardioid is the hyper-cardioid, which has more rejection of the rear and sides than a cardioid, but does have an area behind the mic where it picks up quite a bit. Hyper-cardioids also exhibit a bit more proximity effect than a cardioid. An example of a hyper-cardioid would be the Shure Beta 87.

Figure 8 or
Bi-directional - picks up the sounds on either side of the mic, while rejecting sounds on a plane with the mic. An example of a Fig 8 mic is the Royer R-121. If you've ever seen a picture of John and Paul singing on either side of the same mic, that's a good example of a Fig 8 mic in use. This pattern has more proximity effect than a cardioid.

- picks up sounds from all around the mic, more or less evenly. Often used when isolation is not an issue and you want to hear more of the room along with the sound source. Typically has a very even frequency response. A good example would be an Earthworks TK30. Omni mics have no proximity effect.

Note: many more expensive mics (AKG 414, Neumann U87, etc) offer different patterns with the same mic. So you can choose between Cardioid, Fig 8, Omni, etc.

Now, there are 3 main ways to make a microphone, separate from their pattern:

Dynamic - essentially a small speaker in reverse. Air pressure moves a diaphragm that's suspended before a magnet. This magnetic field's variations are converted to electrical impulses and sent down the wire, so to speak (hey, I'm keeping this brief). A common example is again the Shure SM57. Dynamics are typically less expensive than the other two categories. They also typically have a more colored output (less accurate frequency response) and a higher self-noise (hiss) than a condenser. They also can typically withstand a much louder air pressure level than the other kinds of mic, hence their popularity for snare and bass drum use.

- Air pressure moves a diaphragm which is suspended before a charged plate (true condensers like the Neumann U87 have a preamp which charges the plate only while turned on as opposed to electet condensers like the Shure Beta 87 which have a permanently charged plate. This is an area where prices jump tremendously. A really good preamp is required with a true condenser, which results in better performance but a correspondingly higher price). Condensers require a voltage to operate as a result, which commonly takes the form of phantom power (12-48v provided from the console/preamp along the mic cable), though batteries are common in lower-priced electet condensers and tube condensers often require a separate proprietary power supply. Condensers typically have a more natural sound than dynamics, though often with an exaggerated high frequency response (hey, it sells records). They also usually have a lower self-noise than dynamics (less hiss). Cons- higher price and usually need phantom power, so budget a phantom power supply in if your console doesn't offer it. Also condensers can be fragile, so be careful about using them on that bass drum.

Condensers come in two flavors- large diaphragm, and small diaphragm. Large diaphragm mics (like a Neumann TLM103) tend to be very colored (in a good way), and make things sound very big (often used for vocals). Small diaphragm condensers (like a Shure SM81) tend to be more neutral, more accurate to the sound source, and pick up a wider range of frequencies more equally.

Note- there's a lot of misinformation about large diaphragm condensers having "more bass" than small diaphragm condensers. Not true at all. A good small diaphragm condenser usually picks up a full octave or more higher and lower than a comparable quality large diaphragm condenser. Don't think you have to have a big mic for a big sound.

- a thin metal ribbon is suspended between two magnets, and changes in the electrical field are turned into electrical signals. Though less popular than dynamic and condenser mics, ribbons are making a comeback. The Royer R-121 is a good example, and Beyer makes several good models. Ribbons are extremely colored (usually in a musical-sounding way) and usually very fragile (don't blow into one). Ribbons are almost always Fig 8. They not only don't need phantom power, it can be hazardous to the ribbon. Consult the manufacturer if you purchase/use a ribbon microphone. A great sound, though.

Whew. Still with me?

Which one to use?

This is the fun part. If you want a natural sound, choose a neutral (uncolored) mic. If you want to bring out the crack in the snare, a mic with a gentle high frequency boost may be a better choice. If you want a darker sound, choose a mic with a gentle high frequency roll-off.

Another important consideration is sound-pressure-level. Bass drums move a lot of air very quickly, so ribbons are rarely used, and you have to know what your condenser can handle. The most common choice for bass drum is a dynamic, such as the AKG D112.

Separation considerations

The next choice is what you want each microphone to pickup. If you want to keep the high hat out of the snare mic (as much as possible, anyway), a cardioid or hyper-cardioid is a better choice than an omni. But for overheads and room mics an omni may be just the ticket. There really aren't any rules, so grab as many mics as you can and experiment.

Phase considerations

Life would be easy if you could just get every drum sounding good on their own, and then they just sound great together. Life is rarely that easy, thanks to phase relationships.

As an example, let's look at the following scenario:

The snare is miked with an SM57. Sounds great. The rack tom is miked with an MD421. Sounds great. But when both channels are up, it sounds weird. That's because the snare mic is also picking up a little bit of the tom, and vice versa. This is called mic bleed. If the tom bleeding into the snare mic is out of phase with the tom in the tom mic, the tom can sound thin when struck. Without delving into physics, it's important to stress that moving either mic in this situation by as little as a 1/4 of an inch can fix the phase problem. So listen to all the mics together and make little changes until everything sounds good together.

A good thing to remember is that the volume of a source is halved when you double the distance. So a mic 2" from a drum will pick up that sound twice as loud as a mic 4" away. So even though two tom mics might only be a foot apart, if they are 1-2" away from the tom they're trying to pick up, you still will have a reasonable amount of isolation. If you're careful and what bleed remains is in phase, this is not a problem.

At this point, you're probably thinking, "I'll just gate it." While gating is a subjective subject, I do recommend that you not track with gates. Wait until mixdown for that. That way you can experiment and get it right, rather than live with a hasty decision while tracking.

Overhead Miking

There are two ways to view overheads:

The main stereo pair- gives you the bulk of the drum sound, with maybe kick and snare added for reinforcement. Usually very natural (though Bonham twisted them into a force of nature), but requires very nice mics in a very nice sounding room. Most commonly used in jazz, though it's becoming more popular in other genres.

The cymbals-only approach- you just want to pick up the cymbals, using close micing for the rest of the kit. You can roll off everything under 500-800Hz and just have your cymbals left, along with a little bit of attack from the drums. This is probably heard the most on radio today.

Try both methods, experiment, and find out which one works best for you. You will probably end up using both for different sounds.

Stereo Miking

Now, stereo miking for drums is a neat thing. Even sticking to a natural representation, there are lots of creative subjective choices to be made. There are a quite a few different approaches to stereo miking.

As this is a very deep area outside the scope of this FAQ, click this link for an excellent overview of stereo miking techniques.

A few notes...

First, compressors and limiters, like gates, should usually be left until mixing. Yeah, famous engineers may do it, and you've read about it in a magazine, but remember they've been doing this for years. You've never heard their mistakes, just their hits. When starting out, go easy on this stuff. It's really easy to screw things up.

Second, many times the bass drum sounds better in the mix if you reverse its polarity. This is easy to do in computers and on higher end boards, but if you don't have one, you can make or buy an adapter cable that goes between the bass drum mic cable and your board. This only works for balanced XLR cables, though. To make one yourself, get a soldering iron (read and follow all the safety guidelines that come with the soldering iron) and reverse pins 2 and 3 on one end of a short XLR cable.

Third, if you're using digital recorders (ADATs, computers, etc), drums have a lot of transients. It's real easy to hit a digital over, which sounds like crap. Try setting everything so that the peaks hit -6 dB on your meters. This will sound fine, and gives you headroom to play with in the mix.

Drum By Drum

That's enough general information, now for some specifics...

Let's look at each drum in a typical kit, and talk about common ways to mic them. Be sure you're read the website/FAQ sections on drum tuning and treatment first.

Note- these are all just suggested starting points. Experiment!

Overheads, you really should read the info at the link above first, but I recommend XY or ORTF methods when starting out.

Bass drum
- do you want more click? More boom? Or natural?
To emphasize the attack, you may want to place the mic inside the drum, about 3-4" away from the spot where the beater meets the batter head. Try angling the mic slightly, which allows you to control how much high end is present.

To emphasize the boom, try either miking the outside of the resonant head (about 1-4" from the resonant head) or placing the mic just inside the hole in the resonant head, aimed at the beater contact point.

A good trick when miking the resonant head is to light a match, and hold it just to the side of the resonant head. While someone's playing strong quarter notes on the bass drum, bring the match across the face of the resonant head. When the air from the moving head blows out the match, stop and put the mic right there. This is a good place to get a lot of air movement, but not so much it might crap out the microphone.

For a "modern" sound, appropriate for rock/country, etc, the following mics are good choices (but not the only ones): AKG D112, Shure Beta 52, Audio Technica ATM25, Sennheiser MD421, and the EV RE-20.

For Jazz or a more natural sound, try an EV RE-20 or a Beyer M88.

Snare - What you usually want is a microphone that will handle the volume level and emphasize the attack of the snare while minimizing the bleed from other drums, especially the high hats. A cardioid dynamic is usually the ticket. Try placing the mic about 1-2" above the snare top head, and about 1-2" in from the rim, at an angle. You want to position it so it's out of the player's way, and so that the bleed from other drums is lessened. This can be tricky. Assuming a right-handed drummer, try about 10 o'clock.

Good choices for snare include: SM57, Audix D1, Beyer M201, Sennheiser MD421, and the Earthworks SR71.

You can also try adding a second mic beneath the snare, to pick up the sound of the snares themselves. This is a matter of taste, but try a mic that has a nice high end reproduction. AKG 414s and AKG 451s are common choices. Try reversing the polarity of this mic in the mix.

Note- many people try to get everything out of one snare mic, but a lot of the crack and air in a snare come from the overheads, so if you think the snare channel isn't bright enough, make sure you listen to it in conjunction with the overheads!

Toms - not too different from snares in miking technique, but you often want to choose a mic with more low-end response, depending on tom size and tuning. As an example, an 8" tom may sound great with an SM57, but a 16" tom may sound better with an MD421.

You can change the angle and distance of the mic and really change the "EQ" of a tom (this is true for any drum, but it's really apparent on toms). Be sure to experiment with mic placement!

Common mics for toms include: Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421, Audix D2, Audio Technica ATM25, and EV 604.

High hats and rides - while you normally get plenty of both in your overheads, for some styles you may want to have more control on their level in the mix. Cymbals usually sound much better if you use condenser mics, though dynamics can work. On high hats, try using a small diaphragm condenser mic about 2-4" above the halfway point between the center of the hats and the edge, starting perpendicular to the hats. You'll want to try different angles and different parts of the hats to mic, depending on the hats and what character to you want to emphasize.

With hats mics, you're going to get a lot of snare bleed. It's a rule. Just make sure it's in phase, and when it comes time to mix, try rolling off all the frequencies below 800Hz so you get more hat and less snare. Again, save this for mixdown. For rides, the same rules apply, but you'll want to keep the mic farther away from the ride cymbal. Rides create weird washes of sound up close, so keeping the mic 6" or greater away from the ride gives you a more natural sound.

Common mics for this include the Shure SM81, the Neumann KM184, and the Audio Technica 4051 (all small diaphragm condensers with cardioid patterns).

- if it's included in a kit, treat it as a drum as above, matching frequency and volume for miking suggestions. If it's an overdub or separate percussion performance, you can often just use one small diaphragm condenser about 3' above the instrument, or better yet, use a stereo miking technique.

General rule of thumb, treat tambourines and bells as cymbals, and mic them a bit distantly. Tablas, congas, etc, treat as a drum as above. Experiment!


Last thought - does this mean you have to have a lot of expensive mics to record drums well? Not at all. What it really boils down to is knowing how to use what you have. Use what's available, but know your mics well enough to take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses.

A beginner at The Hit Factory will still sound like a beginner. A real pro with two SM57s in your mother's garage will still sound like a real pro. Painful to consider, but it's important to remember. So experiment until you don't sound like a beginner!