A Beginners’ Guide to Drum Mic’ing

Are you just getting into drum recording? Do you have a studio with the space, maybe some equipment but are not sure where to start? This article will serve as a quick, practical guide to drum mic’ing basics, from microphone selection to placement and technique.

You can record drums with anything from a single microphone placed to capture the entire kit in a more old-school fashion, to a whole mountain of microphones capturing the top and bottom of each drum and cymbal for a super tight isolated sound used on a lot of modern productions.

Overhead and Room Mics

The foundation of your drum sound is the overall “picture” of the entire kit, so that’s where we’ll start. One or more overhead microphones are typically set up to capture this, as well as the sound of the cymbals, which generally are missed in any close drum mics. Distance creates depth, and the closer you have these microphones to the kit the more direct and flat they’ll sound.

Yes, we live in the stereo age, but if you’re just starting out it’s advisable to focus on getting the best sound you can with a single overhead microphone. The more microphones you add to a kit, the more you’ll have to focus on their placement relative to one another to avoid issues with phase and mono compatibility. Use your ears, and experiment with the placement of this first microphone to grab the best balance of drums to cymbals to room sound.

When you’re ready for another overhead mic, try to form an equilateral triangle between the snare and each of the overheads. This will help phase coherency and give a more even stereo image to your overhead mics, meaning the snare won’t be louder in one mic than the other creating a lopsided mix.

Large diaphragm microphones can work wonderfully as overhead mics, but since this overhead mic is the basis for the rest of your drum sound, you’ll want to use the best overall microphone that you have.

Like the overheads, room mics give us a picture of the entire drum kit. If a pair is used, they will often be set equidistant from the kit as well as from each other. Go and record or monitor these mics with some compression on the way in, as room mics often benefit from being heavily limited for an exciting “pumping and breathing” sound. The room microphones can be placed at ear level, at knee level, way up above, lying on the floor...the general idea for room mics is just to put them where the room sounds best.

Kick Drum

Next, we’ll look at the kick drum. Similar to the overheads, it’s usually best to start with a single microphone and focus on making it sound as good as you can, only adding more as needed. When multiple microphones are used on the kick, there’s usually one inside the drum, close to the beater to capture the “click” and high-mid attack of the drum, and one outside the drum to capture the “oomph” and more low-frequency content. These are often referred to as “inside kick” and “outside kick” mics.

Inside kick mics are usually low-output dynamic microphones capable of handling very high SPL without distortion. Common examples would be the Electro-Voice RE20, Beyerdynamic M 88 TG, or Sennheiser MD421, all of which are great workhorse utility mics.

Electro Voice RE20

Beyerdynamic M88 TG

Sennheiser MD421

Outside kick mics tend to be large diaphragm condenser microphones with good low-frequency extension and a cardioid polar pattern. Having a switchable pad/attenuation on a condenser microphone in this position is crucial, so as to not overload your mic preamp.

A Subkick, such as the ones made by Yamaha, are commonly used as a third mic out in front for that ultra low end. These should not be overlooked as they are extremely handy come mix time.

Snare Drum

Next, let’s look at the snare drum -- almost always captured from the top head of the drum, and occasionally, also from the bottom to capture the sound of the snares themselves.

A good starting point for positioning would be aiming the microphone at the precise location the drummer is striking the head, starting 3-6 inches away and moving closer if unwanted bleed is coming in from the hi-hat or other drums.

Shure SM57

For the top head, the Shure SM57 has been the go-to microphone for a number of engineers, though there are other options, particularly small-diaphragm condenser microphones, which have a lot more high-frequency extension and can often eliminate the need for a bottom mic.

The bottom mic, if necessary, can sit directly underneath the snare pointing at the bottom of the drum, and often (but not always) needs its polarity inverted at the preamp so as to not cancel important frequency content out from the top mic. You can also put up a mic facing the shell of the snare if you’d like to try getting a more “overall” sound of the snare, but as with everything else, experimentation is the key.

Toms

Sennheiser e604 3-Pack

For toms, the microphone is often at the top head of the drum, quite similar to the typical snare drum mic placement. If you are short on mics, inputs, cables, etc, it is possible to place a single mic in between two side-by-side toms. You will get less clarity from each, but you will likely have more than you would out of the snare or overhead mics and might even get some good-sounding kick drum bleed as a bonus (yes, bleed can be your friend!). Sennheiser e604s come in inexpensive three-packs and are specifically designed as close tom mics -- they even come with nifty clips that mount directly to the rim of a drum.

Hi-hat

For hi-hat, the exact mic placement varies depending on the situation, but largely it will be mic’ed from above facing downward towards the hats. You’ll want to leave enough clearance for the hats to raise up and down during performance but not so much that it picks up too much of the other drums. Sometimes these will be placed at a 45-degree angle to shield it further from the other drums, especially the snare drum. Any directional small diaphragm mic will work, such as an AKG C451 B. An SM57 has been known to work in a pinch too.

AKG C451 B Stereo Set

Finally, get familiar with your drums. Listen to how they sound. Listen to how and where they resonate from. One of the key ingredients in getting great drum sounds is listening to what’s there, making that the best it can be and capturing it.

If you are making a quick demo for reference, then perhaps it's not worth it to spend a ton of time tuning the drums, and maybe the fewer mics the better. But if you are trying to achieve some serious sonic quality, do not overlook what a well-tuned drum kit can do. Remember, while there’s a tremendous amount of fakery we can do these days, the true nature of recording is capturing what’s already there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Worrell

Bill Worrell is the lead guitarist for the band America. He holds a degree in classical guitar performance from California State Northridge. Additionally, he is a music journalist and records out of his home studio in Nashville, TN.

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