Miking drums is a subject that seems to be surrounded by a lot of voodoo in the home recording studio. I know it was certainly something I had a lot of agony over for years. Truth be told, there are really no hard and fast rules when it comes to putting microphones on drums. The purpose of this article is to give some loose guidelines to help you develop your own drum miking techniques. I have also provided some sound clips so you can hear my discussed techniques in action.
The rules of great drum mic technique
The first rule of miking drums is there are no rules to drum mic technique. I know, that is a cop out. It really is true though. You’ll hear all sorts of things about putting a mic two inches above a snare drum, at a thirty-two degree angle, aimed at a quarter taped an inch and a half from the edge of the snare drum, half way between two lugs and you will have the ultimate snare sound. On that particular snare on that day it probably yielded a great snare sound. Guess what? Try that on your snare and it will probably sound like garbage. This is part of the reason miking drums is surrounded by so much voodoo. You have respected engineers spouting off rules about drum mic technique and when you try it at home you don’t get the sound on the guy’s record. “But I did it just like he said, I must be missing some special magic touch!” No, you’re not missing a magic touch, you’ve just been duped. There are no rules. A specific set of drums tuned a specific way in a specific room does have rules. Use a different set of drums, tune them differently, or put them in a different room and suddenly none of your rules apply.
The golden rule of drum miking
Ok, I tricked you. I did just get done saying there are no rules but there actually is a single rule.
The quality of drums on tape will not surpass the quality of your drums live.
The reason I said there are no rules is because even that rule can be broken by the exceptionally talented audio engineer in a well equipped home recording studio. However, if you are that talented, you don’t need to be reading this article. So let’s agree on that basic rule for now. Make sure the drum kit is tuned and sounds great. Then find a great, or at least good, sounding place to put the drum set. A great sounding kit in an average sounding room can sound great on a recording. Drums that sound terrible will still sound bad in the best of spaces. On a recent recording session we put the drums in a children’s school library. The drum kit was put near a corner of bookshelves where I figured the thick rows of books would help dampen low frequency reflections while the many shelves around the room would create a diffuse high frequency sound. Libraries are also spaces which tend to be engineered and located to be quiet spaces. You may not be able to find a library willing to let you in to record a rock band, but I bring it up just to get you started thinking creatively about where you might be able to set up your drum kit for recording.
In summary, great drum set plus decent room equals great drum tracks.
Mic placement, close miking drums
The first method I want to talk about is close miking your drums. This drum miking method de-emphasizes the room. The sound is very dry and in some ways artificial in the sense that it doesn’t sound like a drummer sitting in the same room as you, but it does sound like what people think a drummer in the same room sounds like. This is due to many years of people listening to albums with close miked drums and not ever hearing an actual drum set in the same room as them. That is actually an important point to keep in mind when recording every instrument. People’s perception of what sounds real is not based on what instruments sound like. It is based on the sounds of their favorite records and the music they grew up listening to. The sound of close miked drums is both classic and modern. It is also a more moldable sound that you can shape quite a bit during mixdown. The trade-off of using a close miked drum set is getting great flexibility during the mix with a sacrifice of power and loss of organic sound.
Loss of power? Shouldn’t a mic that is two inches from a snare or kick drum be blasted with power? Blasted with energy, yes, but that powerful wave that smacks you in the chest when you are a few feet away is quite a different shape at only a few inches away. I think of close mics on drums as offering more of the inherent tone of the drum with less of the fully blossomed power.
Keep our original rule in mind while positioning mics on your drums: there are no rules. To get that close miked drum sound, I will generally keep the individual drum mics between two and six inches from the heads of each drum. A close miked drum kit will require one mic for the snare, one mic for the kick drum, one mic on each tom, sometimes a mic on the hi hat and I like to use one or two overheads depending on my available track count.
I used five tracks for close miking the drums. The MK-319 was on the kick, one SM-57 on the snare and another on the low tom, the F-96 on the rack tom and the C-3000B as an overhead. Each of these mics were sent to their own mono track in my recording software. A few rules were broken in getting the mics to the computer. The two condensers (kick drum and snare drum) were sent through Mackie mic preamps before going to the computer. The three dynamic mics were connected with 1/4″ cables through line channels of the mixer. That’s right, no mic preamp at all on the snare or the toms. Self proclaimed audiophiles are cringing at the thought, but I’m here to tell you they are wrong when they say you can’t get great results without using high end preamps on everything. The sound samples in this article should help prove that to you.
Mic placement, room miking drums
The sound of drums in a great room has been an integral part of many recordings that have stood the test of time. Miking your drums to include more of the acoustic space will help glue the sound of the kit together in the mix. The trade-off for using this drum miking technique is getting a very cohesive, natural and instantly pleasing drum sound while sacrificing mixing flexibility. You won’t be able to mold the sound of every individual drum in your mix with this technique. It will be much easier to have the kit sound great as a whole though as that is what we are trying to capture, the sound of the kit as a whole.
I do still like to have a mic on the kick drum and one on the snare. This helps retain a bit of the flexibility during the mixdown. I use two other mics with this technique, one overhead and one room mic. These are all recorded to individual tracks in the DAW which means you need to set up four tracks in total to capture the drums.
Kick drum mic placement
Oktava MK-319 price check
I picked this mic up for one reason, it was on sale, cheap! I thought I knew why it was so cheap the first time I listened to it. I’ve owned this mic for about two years and haven’t used it on a single recording. On this session I ended up using it on the kick drum (and again later on the vocals). Large diaphram condenser is not the first thing that comes to mind when miking a kick drum, but I have to admit I think I have a new favorite kick drum mic. I’m not sure what possessed me to put that particular mic in front of the kick drum but I sure am glad to have tried it.
After moving the mic around a bit, I found the MK-319 sounded best pointed right at the center of the kick drum. I tried it around eight to fourteen inches back from the outside head (not the beater side). I placed the mic on the closer end of the range during the close miked tracks and the long end of the range on the roomy drum tracks. I turned on the 10dB pad to prevent the kick drum from overloading the mic. I had to keep the mic preamp trim at less than 10% even with this extra pad. Kick drums are loud and that is why you don’t frequently see something as sensitive as a large diaphram condenser sitting within a foot of the drum. Have a listen to the MK-319 on the kick drum:
- listen – Oktava MK-319 about eight inches from the kick drum
- listen – Oktava MK-319 about fourteen inches from the kick drum
Snare drum mic placement
Shure SM57 price check
You can’t go wrong on a snare drum with an SM-57. This mic is so versatile that I think every home recording studio should have at least a pair.
I always start with an SM-57 on the snare and only deviate if that is not working. I like the SM-57 above the snare, angled over the rim, pointed toward the center. A closer mic yields more snap while a farther mic will give you more bang. The recorded sound of your snare drum is a lot more sensitive to mic adjustments. Listen to the two sound samples provided. The first sample is a mic that is only about two inches from the head while the second is about four inches away from the snare drum. With a mere two inch difference there is a huge difference in the sonic character that was captured by the mic.
- listen – Shure SM-57 about two inches from the snare drum
- listen – Shure SM-57 about four inches from the snare drum
Overhead drum mic placement
AKG C 3000 B price check
I bought this mic to be my primary vocal mic. It has a very open, clear and precise sound with a lot of sensitivity. I used this mic as an overhead for those reasons. The overhead is there to capture the hi hat, other cymbals, toms and to some extent, the sound of the kit as a whole. Even though the overhead is positioned quite high above the drums, it does not pick up as much room sound as you might expect.
The overhead drum mic is important for close miked drums and room miked drums. I use a full size boom stand and basically just get it as high as possible. I like to put the stand on the floor tom side of the drum kit so the mic is just about right over the floor tom. I angle it so it is aimed at the hi-hat as best as I can tell. The overhead is a good mic to activate the low cut filter built into your mic (if it has one, which the C-3000 does). The overhead mic is not as sensitive to positioning as the close mics are.
- listen – AKG C-3000B about seven feet high, pointed at the hi-hat
Floor tom mic placement
Shure SM57 price check
The venerable Shure SM-57 sounds great on toms too. I used it on the floor tom of this kit.
I like to angle the mic a bit more toward the center of the drum so I can pick up more attack from the tip of the drum stick. I only mic the floor tom when I am close miking the entire kit. When miking the room I usually don’t mic each tom unless I have lots of tracks to play with.
- listen – Shure SM-57 on the floor tom
Rack tom mic placement
Sony MTL F-96
I have a pair of these old Sony microphones. They look like they are from the ’70s. I picked them up at a yard sale with a 1/4″ reel to reel machine that no longer worked. They sound fantastic on drums. For the close miked drum tracks I used one of these on the rack tom. I usually use one on the floor tom as well, but the cable on it needs repaired and the middle of a fast paced recording session is no time to bust out the soldering iron. Mic placement on the rack tom is basically just like the floor tom. Don’t be surprised if you get a lot of bleed on this track from the other drums. My philosophy is to not worry about it and just embrace it. Be sure to check your phase and as long as there are no problems there, you can use this bleed to help fill out the sound of your recorded drum set. I only mic the toms when I am close miking the kit. If I am using a room mic I will skip the individual tom mics unless I am recording a larger budget production that can afford a high track count.
- listen – Sony MTL F-96 on the rack tom
Room mic placement
I picked up a pair of these nearly generic, small diaphram condensers for one reason, they were on sale, cheap! This microphone has about the same dynamic range as an SM-57, but with more air and a better transient response.
I like to walk around the room while the drummer is setting up his kit and warming up. While walking around I am listening to how the room sounds in different locations. I face away from the drums while doing this listening test. When I find a place where the room sounds really great, I will place a mic in that spot. The mic will be facing away from the drums. Often this space will be close to a wall (four or five feet). Aiming the mic at a wall will give you some extra slabpack on the recorded tracks which sounds very cool if you are looking for a live drum sound. If I am in a room with a high ceiling, I will try angling the room mic toward the ceiling. A mic with a built in low cut filter is a good choice for the room mic as engaging it will help cut down on recording of standing waves or other low frequency problems that tend to be present in makeshift recording spaces.
- listen – Astatic CTM-1000 used as a room mic
Final drum sound comparisons
This article has shown you two different ways to approach putting microphones on your drums in a home recording studio situation. We have demonstrated how mic position can affect the recorded sound of your drums as well as compared the final sound of each strategy. I hope you have also learned that you don’t need a case full of expensive mics and a rack full of gear to capture great sounding drums in your home studio. Every sound sample on this page is “right off the board” with no processing, EQ, reverb, or other sonic sweetening. Even the mixer had all EQ set flat. What you hear is the exact signal I got off each mic.
Shout out to Instance where you will hear more of these tracks soon.