Recording drums is one of the most exciting days in the recording studio! Getting the drums tracked right can have a huge positive impact on the rest of the project, so it’s worth putting in some thought into what drum recording setup to use long before the session starts. But with so many drums, cymbals, bar chimes (etc!) in the kit, and so many different types of sound to capture, how do you decide what microphone techniques to use for drum recording? Indeed, before even thinking about what microphones to use and exactly where to position them around the drumkit, the most fundamental question about how many microphones to use for drum recording is in itself non-trivial.
Before getting into the detail, it’s good to be very clear about one thing – it’s definitely possible to record great sounding drums with just 2, 3 or 4 good quality microphones! But in some circumstances, it can be valuable to use more (maybe even 16 or 20) different mics to record a drum kit. More mics do not necessarily result in a bigger or better sound, in fact more microphones make it more difficult to get a clear and authentic sound in the finished mix, for reasons related to phase incoherency (which we’ll discuss in more detail in another post too!). Authenticity of the sound of the kit and the space it was recorded in can be really important for some projects and music genres (often more classical and jazz recordings). But for some rock and pop music, authenticity is not so important, and we can look to create an enhanced or ‘hyper-real’ result in the final mixed drum sound. So the type of finished result needs to be considered even before you start recording, and that ‘creative objective’, as we might call it, can help you decide on which approach and how many microphones to use for drum recording.
Microphone setups for recording drums
There are generally three broad microphone placement techniques for recording drums, and many recording engineers use a combination of these approaches to capture all sonic characteristics and nuances of the drum kit, whilst also allowing necessary production options during mixdown. It’s possible to differentiate these three recording techniques by the distance of the microphone from the drum kit, i.e. close, near and far, though in general it’s more valuable to term each technique more descriptively based on the purpose of each microphone.
Spot microphones (or close mics) are those which are placed very close to a specific drum or cymbal on the drum kit, in order to pick up a detailed and focused recording of individual instruments in the kit.
Stereo microphones require at least two microphone capsules and are generally placed near but a few feet away from the drumkit, in order to pick up an authentic representation of the whole drum kit, whilst capturing a good balance of each drum and with a natural representation of the drums and cymbals as they are physically placed from left to right on the kit. Often these are referred to as overhead microphones because they are usually placed above the head height of the drummer.
Room microphones are placed more distant and further away (perhaps 2 – 5 metres away) in order to capture sonic characteristic of the drum kit in combination with the performance space that is being used for the recording.
With these microphone locations in mind, there are therefore a number of combinational approaches for recording a drum kit, as summarised in the table below:
Let’s just consider these drum recording setups with a little extra detail:
Recording drums with 2-4 microphones
Using just two microphones is a perfectly valid approach for tracking drums, especially if you are looking to capture the drums exactly as they sound in the room. A simple stereo overhead mic setup means that it is quite straightforward to evaluate and reduce any potential phase incoherence issues which can arise when more than one microphone signal is mixed with another mic signal of the same sound. (Phase coherency is a huge topic in its own right, so do be sure to look that up and check out our other posts on the subject!). Optionally, you might add one or two room microphones a few meters away too, to capture the room’s acoustic characteristics a little more, and then use this for setting the level of natural reverberation you’d like to hear in the finished mix. The main challenges with this drum recording approach are the fact that the limited number of mics used means it is hard to pan different drums or cymbals far and wide in the mixdown, if that’s what you desire. It can be hard to get a big, impactful sound out of the kick, snare and toms too, if that is something you want in the final mix. But these things are certainly outweighed by the speed and simplicity of the approach, and the natural sounding result that can suit many musical projects.
Recording drums with 3 – 6 microphones
Adding some close spot mics to a stereo overhead setup can be all you need to create a strong and powerful drum sound that is also authentic and impactful. Adding a close mic to the kick and possibly the snare too can allow an extra level of low frequency detail and crisp attack to the main beat and backbeat of the rhythm. and you can compress and EQ each spot mic too, giving the opportunity to create a slightly more ‘hyper-real’ sound than heard in the room during the recording session. Using this approach, you’ll need to listen carefully for phase incoherence issues when you are setting up, because, for example, it’s possible for the close kick or snare drum mic to be out of phase with the overhead microphones, and you might hear some low frequencies getting lost when you sum all the microphone signals together. To solution to this is either move some of the microphones by a few centimetres and listen again, or hit the signal polarity button on your mixing desk and see if that improves things.
Recording drums with 6 – 12 microphones
You can add close mics to the toms for similar benefits as with adding spot mics to the kick and snare, giving excellent definition to all of the drums in the kit. The close tom mics allow each drum to be panned slightly wider in the mix, so the toms can be panned from left to right to give space to any interesting fills and grooves that use them. The spot mics even allow you to pan things wider than they might be in reality to a listener or audience, so you can make it sound like the listener is sat at the drum kit themselves, which gives a very impactful result and works well for rock and metal genres. You can also add furth spot mics to some drums in order to capture different sound characteristics. For example, to add close mics to the batter and resonant sides of a snare, or to have a microphone inside and outside the kick drum. Each mic and mic position captures a subtly different sonic aspect of the instrument, so using multiple mics on a single source can be advantageous in some cases. Whilst it’s not ideal to make more work for yourself than needed, it can also be advantageous to record with close mics on each drum to keep your options open at the mixing stage. You don’t have to use everything you record in the mix, though sometimes it’s worth making creative decisions early in the process if you know exactly what sound you are aiming for.
Recording drums with 8 – 20 microphones
If you have an unlimited selection of mics and recording channels, then why not just keep adding mics?! Well, more mics mean more time to setup, more complexity at the mixing stage and of course more chance of phase incoherence, so you need a good reason to add more mics just for the sake of it. With that in mind, it can sometimes be beneficial to add close mics to the cymbals too, so that you can really have full control over the mix. Sometimes a hi-hat close mic is very beneficial because it allows the balance between the hi-hat and the snare to be tightly controlled in the mix, using EQ, compression, panning and volume adjustments to get just the right relationship between the two. Additionally, it can be really exciting to hard pan cymbal sounds on the left- and right-hand side of the mix, which close cymbal mics allow. If you have close cymbal mic recordings then you can also create some cool effects with swells that move from side to side, and you can make sure that the panning and balance of the hi-hat, ride and crashes is just right at each moment in the song.
The Glyn Johns drum recording method
Whilst it can be exciting to load up a drum kit with as many microphones as possible, an example of a simple-but-effective technique is the Glyn Johns drum recording method. Glyn Johns developed his own novel drum recording approach and used this regularly for recording bands including The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The Glyn Johns technique uses just three microphones and attempts to capture the best attributes of a drum kit with maximum phase coherency. The method uses two cardioid stereo overheads placed one above and one to the side of the kit, both equally spaced from the snare to allow 100% phase coherency for the snare sound. The third microphone is a close kick drum mic which captures the necessary low frequency detail of the kit and negates any very low frequency phase incoherency that might occur with the overheads. It is also possible to add a fourth microphone as a close snare mic, if the desired snare definition is not achieved in the stereo pair.
It’s clear then that each drum recording approach has its own merits and challenges, and so all of those discussed should be considered equally valid techniques. Recordings with more microphones do not always yield bigger and better results, and likely bring more challenges with respect to phase coherency and authenticity in the mixed recordings. Moreover, the different techniques are more suited to different projects, different recording scenarios, equipment availability, budgets and different music genres, and it is valuable for a recording engineer to be experienced, confident and capable of recording a viable drum sound with each of the approaches described!
If you want to know more about the underlying science of drumheads and drum sound, and learn more creative approaches to drum sound and drum tuning, check out the free iDrumTune ‘Drum Sound and Drum Tuning’ course at www.idrumtune.com/learn
Author Professor Rob Toulson is an established musician, sound engineer and music producer who works across a number of different music genres. He is also an expert in musical acoustics and inventor of the iDrumTune Pro mobile app, which can be downloaded from the App Store links below: