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How to Professionally Mic Drums

How to Professionally Mic Drums

A step-by-step guide for album-ready drum sounds.

Discover how multi-Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Waits) captures killer drum sounds with rock duo, Robot Monster, at UA Headquarters in Santa Cruz, California.

Keep it Simple with a Proven Miking Technique

Inspired by legendary engineers Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Eagles) and Geoff Emerick (The Beatles, Elvis Costello), learn how to setup a simple mic recipe using stereo overheads to capture the majority of the drum kit’s sound, with only two close mics to fill out the rest.

Setting up the Overhead Mics

To start, use a pair of large-diaphragm condensers in the standard "Glyn Johns configuration," with one mic placed a few feet above the snare and the other placed next to the floor tom pointed across the kit.

The pair of overhead mics are typically panned left and right to create the drum's stereo image.

Each mic is placed equidistant from the snare drum to create a balanced image of the kit with the kick and snare in the center.

With this setup you don't need to close mic the toms, hi-hats, or ride cymbal since they’re picked up clearly by the two "overheads."

For realtime processing on the overhead channels, the API Preamp plug-in — a favorite for rock with its punchy sound — and the API 550A EQ to sweeten things up, the 1176 Rev E for transient control and glue, and the Trident A-Range EQ for some final tone shaping.

Miking the Kick Drum

When miking kick drums, avoid placing the mic too far inside the drum, which can cause the mic to pick up nasty shell resonances and doesn’t allow the low end to fully develop.

Quick Tip: If you’re not getting enough attack or snap out of the kick drum, it’s better to try a different head or beater instead of placing the mic farther into the kick drum to compensate.

To that end, place a dynamic kick mic just outside of the kick drum’s resonant head — pointed slightly up at the beater — for more articulation.

The API Preamp and 550A EQ again to sweeten and the dbx 160 compressor to control the level.

Remember, a little goes a long way with kick drum compression. Here, the threshold on the dbx 160 is set fairly high, only catching the loudest peaks while adding its signature midrange thump.

Capturing the Perfect Snare

Here is a fairly typical snare mic placement, with a dynamic mic — a UA SD-1 modeling mic — tucked between the hi-hats and rack tom about 1" to 2" inches above the rim of the snare, pointed directly at the center of the head.

The dynamic mic’s cardioid pickup pattern helps isolate the snare by rejecting sound from the hi-hats and rack tom, which are slightly behind the mic’s capsule.

The API Preamp and 550A EQ do some heavier lifting here, with the 550A’s high band to bring out the snare's "snap," before hitting the Empirical Labs Distressor compressor set to 3:1 for some moderate compression, and the Trident A-Range for final polish.

Quick Tip: Even though it's on a mono channel, enable the Distressor's "stereo link" button. It adds slightly more saturation and color, just like the hardware.

How to Add "Color" Mics for Cool Textures

The kick, snare, and overhead mics make up the majority of the drum kit’s sound, so if you’re working with limited mic options or audio interface channels you can get great sounds just using those four mics alone.

However, if you have extra mics and available input channels, here are some techniques to blend in interesting shades and textures into your drum sounds.

The first color mic is a large-diaphragm condenser placed just above and to the side of the kick drum, pointed towards the drummer just below the snare. Think of this as a "kit mic."

This mic captures a fairly balanced image of the kit as a whole — although a very different image than the overhead mics — so you can blend in a new color without changing the overall balance of the kit.

The API preamp and 550A EQ are scooping out as much high end as possible via the HF shelf. This tames the ride cymbal and keeps it from interfering with the overheads. The FATSO Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor squeezes out a touch of color.

Remember, this mic doesn’t sound great on its own. But when blended in sparingly with the other mics, you can shape the drums in a unique way.

Next, a dynamic Shure 520DX "Green Bullet" harmonica mic — which by nature has a very limited frequency range — is placed face down on the floor below, and a little behind, the kit mic.

Just like the kit mic, this mic is never meant to be heard on its own, and is blended very sparingly into the drum mix.

Due to its placement and lo-fi sound, this mic has an interesting low-frequency color that will balance out the kit mic, by panning the kit mic slightly right and the harmonica mic slightly left.

For one last dash of color, place a sub mic behind the drummer to capture all of the low frequency energy of the kit.

The sub mic picks up low frequencies regular microphones miss.

This is a trick engineers have been using for decades, originally by wiring a Yamaha NS-10 studio monitor in reverse to an XLR cable so it can be used like a microphone to capture ultra-low frequencies not typically picked up by normal microphones.

Today a few companies make off-the-shelf versions that don’t require destroying one of your speakers — which is what we're using here.

These mics are typically placed in front of the drum kit a foot or two behind the kick mic, but here it's placed behind the drummer for a different flavor, so the drummer’s body will help isolate the mic from the cymbals.

Besides the API Preamp, the sub mic channel uses the API 550A EQ to cut the highs and mids — the other mics already have plenty of those frequencies. The 1176 Rev E tops it off with some heavy compression.

Add Ambience with Room Mics

With a few open Apollo channels left, let's add a couple of ribbon mics to capture the room sound.

The first room mic is a Royer SF-24 stereo ribbon mic. To place it, simply walk around your space listening for spots where the kit sounds balanced with some nice reflections from the walls, floor, and ceiling.

If the mic picks up the cymbals too harshly, try pointing it up towards the ceiling to roll off some of those direct high frequencies coming from the kit.

In this particular room, a spot about 10'-15' away from the drum kit provides a nice low-end glue.

The first room mic is processed with the API Preamp and Fairchild 660 compressor to add a vintage flavor and bring out some additional vibe.

A second room mic, a mono ribbon mic — actually a UA Sphere DLX modeling mic using the RB-4038 ribbon model — is placed in another area of the room, fairly close to a wall to get some nice slapback reflections that add depth and dimension.

The API Preamp is used for more gain while the 550A EQ is rolling off some highs. The Teletronix LA-2A silver finishes it off for yet another flavor of compression.

Now you're Ready to Mic up Some Drums

Although a total of nine mics are used on this session, you certainly don’t need nearly that many to get a great drum recording.

If your budget and input channels are limited, simply stick to the first setup using three or four mics for killer, album-ready drum sounds.

However, if you have the available mics and inputs, adding additional mics for color and ambience will open up whole new worlds of sounds and give you more flexibility in the mix, letting you shape the energy of the drums by raising or lowering certain mics during different sections of the song.

Want to check out all of these mics for yourself and try your hand at mixing them? Download LUNA for free and dive into the full Robot Monster mix session.

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