Ask ten recording engineers about recording drums and you’re likely to get more than 20 opinions. Few instruments combine subtle nuance and brute force the way a good drummer can, and capturing that sound has been the subject of hundreds of articles and thousands of conversations.
So many different aspects affect the sound of a drum mix, starting with the player. Different skins, different shells, the type of sticks, the kick-drum beater all influence the sound. And of course, no two drummers sound the same, even on the same kit. Then there’s the room itself; the number, type, and placement of the mics; and so much more. Where even to begin?
Start With the Source
Let’s start with a basic premise: to get a good recording of any acoustic instrument, it has to sound good at the source. As obvious as that sounds, it’s amazing how many bands load in and set up in the studio as if they’re setting up for a live gig, blissfully overlooking the fact that there will be no crowd noise or excitement to mask a squeaky kick-drum pedal or poorly tuned toms.
Start by standing in the room and listening. If the drums don’t sound good to begin with, there’s no fixing it in the mix. Tune each drum in pitch with the song. Tighten rattling hardware, lube squeaky pedals and replace dead-sounding heads.
Listen to the room as well. If you’re recording in a home or other non-studio environment, you’ll probably need to work with the space a bit. Most rooms in a house have parallel walls, floors, and ceilings, which tend to attenuate some frequencies and accentuate others. Experiment with placement of the drums in the room until you find a position that generates minimal resonance. Use rugs, bookshelves, and furniture to deaden the space and break up reflections.
How Many Mics, and Where?
Once the kit sounds good in the room, you can start to put some mics on it. How many you use depends on what you want. Many of rock’s classic tracks have been cut with just a stereo pair on the drums, but individual mics on different drums will give you far more control over the mix.
I’ll typically use two mics on the kick and two on the snare, one on each tom and one on the hat, a pair of overheads, and two or three ambient mics. That’s upwards of 12 or 13 tracks, but it’s worth it. The flexibility to bring in just a little of the ambient mics, or play with two different sounds on the kick, opens a world of options later on.
Location, Location, Location
Don’t be afraid to experiment with placement or with different mics. Moving or tilting the mic even slightly can dramatically influence the sound you’re hearing. Start with the mic pointed at the center of the drum head, aimed at where the drummer should be hitting the skin. If you find you’re getting too much of the impact and not enough tonality, try aiming the mic down slightly to just in front of where the stick hits.
One of the hazards of using a whole bunch of mics so close to each other is the risk of phase cancellation between two of them. The most common issues tend to be between top and bottom snare mics, snare and hi-hat mics, or two kick-drum mics. Look for phase issues by soloing both mics and changing the phase of one. If the sound gets noticeably thinner, the mics are out of phase. Repeat this with other pairs.
Getting it Down
In setting up your drum tracks for recording, it’s a good idea to start thinking of them in stereo right from the start. Place kick and snare in the center, and pan the rest of the kit as if you’re sitting in the drummer’s seat: toms panned left-center-right, cymbals right-left and hi-hat slightly to the right.
Keeping your recorded tracks clean and unprocessed will mean more possibilities when it’s time to mix. One of the most frustrating things for a mix engineer is trying to work with drum tracks that have already been compressed, EQ’d or otherwise messed with. Even if you feel you’ve got the ideal sound on your drums, it can’t hurt to record another set of tracks that’s dry with no effects at the same time.
That said, many engineers are fond of adding a tiny bit of compression to their recorded drum tracks. More than just gain reduction, the right compressor can modify the tone of your drums in ways that EQ and other effects can’t.
Although every compressor has its own sound, some are ideally suited for drums. The 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier is a favorite of many engineers, as is the LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier. Start with a subtle ratio of 3:1 or 5:1, with a relatively fast attack (5-12 msec). Again, the goal is to avoid a heavily compressed sound, so gain reduction is set to minimal. Experiment with the threshold and release settings to find that sweet spot where the kick punches through.
For tracking drums, I try to avoid using EQ in favor of delivering the full tonal range to the mixdown phase. Again, it’s about having the most options for the mix. But EQ can sometimes be used surgically. A precise EQ like the Cambridge EQ can be great for rolling off a stubborn resonance on a tom, for example.
Tips and Tricks
Here are a few tips on individual drums, just to get you started. These are certainly not rules, and there’s not enough space here to do more than scratch the surface. Have fun and experiment.
Start with the Kick
To make the whole kit more manageable, try placing a heavy blanket inside the kick. This dampens the kick’s impact on the snare and toms, cutting down on rattles and resonance.
Do you want to hear more “boom” or more attack? A mic placed inside the kick, about 2 to 4 inches away from the beater, will emphasize the attack; moving the mic further away or even outside the drum will bring out more of a boomy sound.
I’m a big fan of using two mics on the kick, and recording both tracks separately. I’ll typically use a condenser like a Shure SM91 or Sennheiser e912 inside the drum to pick up the “click” of the beater, and a larger dynamic like an AKG D12 or D112, EV RE80, or Shure Beta 52 outside the drum.
Another trick is to use another blanket to build a “tent” around the kick – try sticking a second kick in front of the first and building a tunnel for some serious boom.
Mic position is even more critical with snare drums. Pulling the mic back an inch or two can significantly change the sound, generally giving less attack and more ambience.
I typically use two mics on the snare. A mic on the bottom gives you control over how much snare “crack” is in the overall sound. Point the bottom mic directly at the snare wires, mixing in that track sparingly. You can also try rolling off some bottom end to minimize the sound of the bottom head.
As to mic choices, The SM57 is arguably the most popular snare mic, but other choices include the Sennheiser MD421 and AKG 414. I’m a fan of using an SM57 on top and a Sennheiser MD441 below.
One of the most common challenges with toms is resonance. Toms typically have a longer decay than a snare, and the drum’s resonant tone can create a ringing that can be unpleasant at best. Sometimes a strip or two of gaffer’s tape can deaden the ring just enough to make a difference.
Good mic choices for toms include the Sennheiser MD421 and Neumann U87. Getting boom stands in place to mic toms can also be a challenge. Small clip-on condensers like the Shure SM98 or AKG C-519 can make it easier to get into tight places, and do a good job of getting a full and powerful tom sound. Certainly they’re a bit more fragile than dynamic mics, but most of the time they’re small enough to be positioned out of harm’s way.
It’s Over Your Head
Overhead mics can also be tricky. They provide ambience for the whole kit, so it’s important to get them high enough so they pick up plenty of “air” along with the cymbals. Generally they should sit at about 45 degrees left and right of the drummer’s dead center. Experiment with aiming them; you’ll notice a difference when the mics are pointed at the bell of the cymbals (more full and sweet) versus their edges (often brash and harsh).
Most people favor small diaphragm condensers for overheads. Common choices include the AKG 451 or 452, Shure SM81, Sennheiser e914 and AT 4021. Stereo mics like the Shure VP88 work well too. And I’ve been on some sessions where the cymbals were miked individually from underneath, using small condensers on goosenecks. It’s great for separation, and for avoiding the sound of the cymbals’ edges, but you’ll lose the ambience of overheads.
Hi-hats are a signature sound for many drummers, and are usually given their own mic and track. I like to position the mic between snare and hat, pointing the mic at the place where the drummer’s stick hits. Be careful not to place the mic so it picks up wind from the hats closing.
If you’ve got the luxury of a large space, ambient mics can be placed several feet away to add some natural room sound. Even in a smaller room, placing ambients high in corners or even in another room can add just the right touch of natural sound. I like to place a distant stereo pair at about 45 degrees left and right, and a third mono mic behind a gobo to catch reflected sound.
Heavy compression with something like a Fairchild 670 Compressor works nicely on ambient mics. Ambient mics can also be gated, so they only open when a certain level is reached. A great trick here is to gate them so they stay closed for the kick but open for the snare. The result is a nice tight kick with a more open-sounding snare.