Home Recording Basics V: Mic’ing a Drum Kit from Start to Finish

Congratulations! Your new studio is up and running. You have an interface and a DAW, you set up a pair of monitors, and you’ve treated your control room. Now, it's finally time to start recording the album. But where do you start?

Most engineers choose to start recording a song with the drums, since they’re the rhythmic foundation for the song and provide a groove for the other musicians to play along to.

But laying down a solid drum track can be one of the most exhausting activities performed in the studio. It can take hours to properly set up and mic a drum kit, and even then you have to worry about masking, phase, and clipping on a dozen or more channels.

If that sounds crazy to you, don’t panic. In this installment of Home Recording Basics, we’re going to cover several different methods for mic’ing up a drum kit from start to finish, with as few as one, two, or three microphones. We’ll also go over how to mic each part of the drum kit individually, just in case.

One Mic

Mic’ing a drum kit with one mic is actually a lot easier than you’d think. Simply move your head around the room until you find the position where the kit sounds the most balanced — that’s a good starting point for the mic.

If you can’t seem to identify the sweet spot, place it about three feet back from the kit and three feet off of the ground.

Most engineers choose to use a large diaphragm condenser, as they capture the widest frequency range and detail, but literally any microphone will work. Just experiment with what you have until you find the mic you like most.

If you’re looking for a tighter, more controlled sound, try using a cardioid pickup pattern, and moving it closer to the drum. Just remember, the closer you get to the kit, the more pronounced the low–end will be, due to the proximity effect.

If you’re going for more of a roomy kind of sound, try using the omni pickup pattern and placing the mic three to six feet back (or more) from the kit. It should be noted that this method works best in professionally treated rooms.

You should also keep in mind that you can control the “balance" of the kit by moving the mic closer to a specific drum to feature it more prominently in the mix.

Not getting enough kick? Lower the mic so it’s closer to the floor. Missing your cymbals? Raise the mic up so it’s level with your tall cymbal stands. Need more snare? Hang the mic in the air above the kit, and point it straight at the snare.

If you want to hear more of a particular drum, just angle the mic so it can capture that sound more directly.

Two Mics

One of the drawbacks to using a single mic to record your drums is that there's no width. Sure, you can send your mono recording to a stereo reverb, but it's just not the same. You can use any of the standard stereo mic’ing techniques, but some will work better than others in certain situations.

Most engineers choose a matched pair of condenser microphones, but any two mics will do the trick. Just remember to experiment.

Spaced Pair: You can't go wrong with a simple spaced pair. Just remember the 3:1 Rule, and place the mics either a few feet above the kit for a tighter, more cymbal–heavy sound, or in front of the kit for a more balanced kit with plenty of room tone. This method works best in well–treated rooms and provides an excellent stereo image.

XY and ORTF: The XY technique works great in tight spaces, but doesn't offer a very wide stereo image. The ORTF method, on the other hand, offers a great stereo image that resembles the human ears. As always, moving the mics closer will give you a tighter sound with more bass response, and moving them further away will give you more ambience.

These methods work best by simply walking around the room and placing the mics wherever you're standing when the kit sounds best. Use your ears and trust your gut.

Mid/Side: The mid/side technique works great for recording drums. It gives you a clear center image of the kit while providing an ambient stereo image, as well. Start by placing the "mid" mic in front of the drum kit about three feet back. You can raise and lower the mic to change the mix of the kit, but just above the kick drum is usually a good starting point.

Again, this method works best in a well–treated room, as it captures a lot of room tone. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to get a good balance of each drum when using the mid/side method.

Glyn Johns: The Glyn Johns method is one of the most versatile two–mic setups for recording drums. It provides a great stereo image, an excellent balance of the kit, and an adjustable amount of ambiance.

Start by grabbing a pair of microphones. Glyn Johns traditionally used a matched pair of ribbon mics, but honestly just use whatever two mics you have that sound best. Place one mic above the center of the kit, pointing directly down at the snare drum. Place the other mic off to the side of the kit, just above the rim of the floor tom, pointed toward the hi–hat.

It's important that the two mics are both an equal distance from the center of the snare. Grab a tape measurer and start with the mics about 40" from the center of the snare. You can pull the mics farther back (up to about 60") for more ambience and room tone.

Pro tip: If you don't have a tape measurer, grab an XLR and hold one of the connectors if your hand. Stretch your arm out and use the cable to measure the length up to your armpit. Pinch the cable with your other hand and use that length of cable as your measuring tape.

In your DAW, pan the first mic halfway to the left, and the second halfway to the right. This method provides a great stereo image and works well in almost every environment.

Spot Mics

Some engineers choose to use "spot mics" to supplement their stereo drum recordings. Simply put, these are extra mics used to add a little extra punch from specific parts of the kit — most commonly the kick and snare — but some engineers choose to “close–mic" the toms and cymbals, too.

Here's a list of common mics and placements for each part of the drum kit:

Kick: Mics + Technique: Adding a dedicated kick mic is a great way to add more punch to your drums. Some engineers choose to place a mic inside of the kick drum for more attack, while others opt to place it a few inches back from the kit for more resonance.

A “kick in" mic will almost always have more punch, snap, and clarity, while a "kick out" mic often captures more boom, bottom, and thump. Some engineers choose to mic both the inside and outside of the kick drum and blend the two mics together to get the best of both worlds.

When placing a mic inside of the kick drum, some engineers place the capsule just inside the sound hole of the drum head, while others literally lay the mic inside of the kick drum without using a stand at all — especially when using a boundary mic, like the Shure Beta 91.

Generally speaking, moving the mic closer to the beater will give you more attack, and moving the mic closer to the shell will give you more resonance.

If you’re mic’ing a kick drum with no sound hole, or are simply going for a more “natural" recording, try starting with the mic the mic 3–4" away from the head, about halfway up and slightly off–center.

Another method is to have the drummer play, and place your hand in front of the kick drum. You should feel a shock wave every time they hit the drum (known as sound pressure level, or SPL). Place the mic at the point where the shock wave can no longer be felt.

Remember, move the mic closer to the kick drum for more low–end and further away for more room tone.

Common Kick Mics: Shure Beta 52a, Shure Beta 91, AKG D112, Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser MD421, Audix D6, Sennheiser e602 / 902

Snare: Mics + Technique: Adding additional mics to capture the intricacies of the snare is pretty common practice in commercial recordings. Some engineers choose a single mic, while others may use two or three to get their desired tone.

Most commonly, engineers will use a dynamic mic on top of the snare, usually placed roughly 1" or so above the rim, angled at about 45º. You can point the mic towards the center of the snare for more attack, and towards the edge of the snare for more tone. Your biggest concern should be minimizing bleed from the hi-hat.

Similarly, you can raise the mic further away from the snare for more “space" and room tone, or closer to the snare head for a tighter, more controlled sound. The proximity effect usually adds a little low end as well.

Occasionally, engineers will use more than one snare top mic to capture the desired tone. Most often, they’ll tape a small diaphragm condenser mic (like an Audio Technica 4041) to a dynamic mic (like a Shure SM57) so that the capsules are lined up. This gives the best of both worlds, and allows you to blend the signals to taste.

Often times, engineers will also mic the bottom of the snare to capture the “rattle" of the snares themselves. Usually this mic is 3-6" away, pointed directly up at the snare, although you can angle it off-axis for a softer, more diffused tone.

Pro tip: It is absolutely crucial that you invert the phase on one of the channels when using snare top and bottom mics. These two mics are being pushed from opposite ends of the snare drum, which makes them out of phase. Simple use the phase flip button on your console or DAW to correct this issue.

Common Snare Mics: Shure SM57, Audix i5, Sennheiser MD421, Sennheiser 441, Telefunken M80, Neumann KM 184, Shure SM81, Shure KSM141, Audio Technica 4041, AKG C414

Toms: Mics + Technique: Many engineers choose to close-mic the toms as well, especially in songs where they’re featured heavily. For the most part, mic’ing a tom is pretty similar to mic’ing any other drum:

  • Closer to the center for more attack
  • Closer to the edge for more tone
  • Closer for a “tighter", more controlled sound (and a low end boost from the proximity effect)
  • Further away for more resonance and room tone

Common Tom Mics: Sennheiser MD421, Electrovoice RE-20, Sennheiser e604 / 904, Audio DP2, Shure SM57

Cymbals: Mics + Technique: Now that every drum has it’s own mic (or two, or three…), you may find that the cymbals aren’t as clear as they could be.

Some engineers choose to put spot mics on cymbals that are featured heavily in a song, most commonly the hi hat and occasionally the ride.

Often times, a small diaphragm condenser will work best in these situations (either from the top or the bottom). Mic’ing the edge of the cymbal gives you more “air" and “wash", while mic’ing the bell gives a tighter, thicker tone.

Common Cymbal Mics: Audio Technica 4041, Shure SM81, Shure KSM141, Neumann KM184, AKG C414

Room Mics

Finally, after capturing a clear image of the entire kit with the overheads, and close mic’ing each element of the kit for added detail, you may find that the one thing you’re missing is the sound of the room itself.

It’s pretty common to add a pair of room mics to capture the ambiance and the sound of the kit in the room.

The selection and placement of these mics varies greatly from session to session. It depends on what you’re going for, but it’s not uncommon to see room mics in some pretty strange places, like pointed directly at the walls, the floor, or even posted away from the kit.

When trying to get the perfect room mic recordings, just remember the basic rules of recording, use your ears, and trust your gut!

Putting It All Together

If you’ve been following along, your input list might look something like this:

  • 1/2 Overheads
  • 3 Kick In
  • 4 Kick Out
  • 5 Snare Top
  • 6 Snare SDC
  • 7 Snare Bottom
  • 8 Tom 1
  • 9 Tom 2
  • 10 Tom 3
  • 11 Hi Hat
  • 12 Ride
  • 13/14 Room Mics

It might seem like a lot, but if placed properly each mic should be adding something unique to the recording.

So, there you have it; mic’ing a drum kit from start to finish. Whether you’ve got 1 mic or you’re using all 16 channels of your interface, this guide should have you covered!

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