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Miking Drums - Acoustic Drum Mics

Ephriam Nagler 7/26/2005
There is an endless list of techniques and equipment that will alter the digitally recorded sound of your drum set. Among these are the drums themselves and how they're tuned, the different types of microphones and how they're positioned, the pre-amps driving those microphones, the A/D converter in your audio interface, and finally the audio software that saves everything to your hard-drive. The most important information that needs to be addressed before the others is what microphones to purchase and how to use them to record your drums.

Miking The Kick Drum

Kick Drum Mics: Large diaphragm dynamic cardioid mic rated for high pressure and low frequencies such as the AKG D112, the Shure Beta52A, the Audix D6, the Sennheiser E602, etc.

Before we can decide how to mic your kick drum, we need to know what it sounds like. Big and boomy? Round and muffled? Tight and punchy? Does it have a lot of sustain or is it staccato? Depending on the type of sound that you already have translates how you should go about capturing it. Here is how you experiment with these different sounds:

Big & Boomy
Try miking the front head of the kick drum. Start by placing the mic around two inches or so away from the head pointed at the center of the drum. If there is a hole in the center of your front head, position the mic between the edge of the hole and the rim of the drum. This should be a good starting place, but you need to experiment a little bit. Try distancing the mic a few more inches away if the sustain of the drum is overbearing (but bear in mind that the farther away the mic is, the more it is going to pick up the other drums and cymbals.) If there isn't enough sustain (or too much attack), move it closer and closer until you hit that sweet spot. If you're still lacking enough attack, reposition the mic in front of the hole (if you have one) and try playing with the different distances again.

Round & Muffled
If you've stuffed your drum with a blanket, pillow, or a large piece of foam to muffle it, then you're going hear a drum that is even more muffled after you record it. All of the attack will be lost inside of the blanket or foam or whatever is in there by the time it should be reaching the microphone. If it doesn't turn out the way you like it, then you should try lightening up on the muffling in you kick drum. For positioning, use the same miking techniques from the Big & Boomy section.

Tight & Punchy
Start by positioning the mic inside the kick drum so that the back half of the mic is sticking out. Point it directly at the spot where the beater strikes the head. If you want more punch, simply move it a little closer towards the beater. Generally, this method will give you some weird lower-mid messiness, which can be remedied in post-production. Do not point the microphone in any other direction inside of the kick drum. Otherwise, the phasing of your kick drum can get all messed. What happens, is with all of the sound bouncing all around inside of the kick drum, the waves will end up canceling themselves out. This can result in a loss of volume and tone, which of course we do not want to lose any of it.

The Best Kick Drum Miking Technique EVER (well, my favorite anyway!)
Now here is how I prefer to record drums with the best outcome for any of the tones your drummer can throw at you. Using two microphones on the kick drum, you will have so many options for carving your sound, and all you will have to do in post-production is balance between the two inputs. Basically, use one mic with the Big & Boomy method and another mic with the Tight and Punchy method. The only difference (if it is at all possible) is that you should try and keep the two mics on the same horizontal plane. If you are unable to do this (because of your mic stand or the position of the hole makes it difficult) then don't worry about it. Using this double miking technique is basically going to give you the most realistic sound you can get from a kick drum. The combination of a punchy drum with some deep sustain has got to be one of the most sonically satisfying pieces of audio you're ever going to hear in almost every style of music (in other words... it's awesome.)

Miking The Snare Drum

Snare Drum Mics: Unidirectional cardioid dynamic microphone for miking the top of the snare such as the Shure SM57, Shure Beta56A, Audio-Technica ATM23HE, Audix D2, etc. Unidirectional cardioid small diaphragm condenser microphone for underneath the snare such as the Shure KSM137, Shure SM81, Sennheiser E614, AKG C 451B, Rode NT5, etc.

Unlike the kick drum, where one microphone will suffice to musically illustrate what a kick drum sounds like, you have to use two microphones on the snare drum in order to correctly illustrate what a snare drum sounds like. Microphones are trying to reproduce what it is you are hearing. But when we cram those microphones as close as possible to the sound source (for isolation,) we're actually changing the sound of the instrument. So, simply throwing a microphone on top of the snare drum is not enough. You will also need to mic underneath the snare in order to pick up the one thing that makes a snare drum unique: the snares.

The Top Mic
A good position for starters is to point the microphone at the head about an inch above the head and an inch in from the rim. The angle of the mic should be a little over a 45-degree angle. Try and position the mic so that it avoids the hi-hats as much as possible. If there is enough space, try and have the back of the mic facing the hi-hats. On larger kits, placing the mic on the snare can be fairly difficult. Some times you don't really get a choice as to where you'd like to put that mic. If you can get that drummer to move his hi-hats, toms, or maybe that cowbell out of the way, then you've got it made. But if there isn't any room to work with, just try and get that mic in there as best you can; just so long as that mic is pointed in the general direction, then you should be fine.

The Bottom Mic
The best thing to do with the bottom mic is to make an exact mirror image of the top mic. However, if this points your condenser mic at the hi-hats or at the kick then you need to put it somewhere else. This one really depends on what your snare sounds like. Point the mic at the snares themselves or just off to the side or facing it straight up should work just fine. A note for the post production side of things on the bottom mic of the snare drum: you will most likely need to flip the polarity (phase) of this microphone, since you are pointed two mics at each other. Just flip it on and off with while listening to both mics and listen to which setting has the fuller sound.

While Using Brushes
If you play with brushes for jazz or country, I recommend using one of the condenser mics on top of the snare instead of the dynamic. This is because most dynamic microphones roll off a lot of the higher frequencies such as those frequencies produced by “brushing” the snare drum. A dynamic mic will make the snare sound like its behind a wall. This time put the condenser mic two and one half inches away from the head and point it at the center of the drum.

Miking Toms

Tom Drum Mics: Both dynamic and condenser microphones will work on toms. I recommend using dynamic microphones if you are just starting to learn how to record. Some of these mics are the Sennheiser MD421, Shure SM57, Audix D2, AKG 22/XLR, etc. After working with some dynamic microphones, try out some small diaphragm condensers to open up the attack using mics such as the Shure SM81, AKG 451B, Sennheiser E604, Behringer B5, etc.

The microphone should come down on the head of the tom at a 90-degree angle. If this is not manageable, then a 45-degree angle will work just fine. However, with the 90-degree angle, you will be able to experiment more with the distance of the mic from the head. Usually around one inch from the head sounds real nice. You’ll get the attack of the stick striking the head without losing any of the tone and sustain.

Miking Cymbals

Cymbal Mics: Use small diaphragm condenser mics to isolate the cymbals from the rest of the kit. Use large diaphragm condenser mics to pick up the cymbals and add decay to the rest of the kit without sounding “roomy” using mics like the Audio-Technica AT4040, AKG C2000B, Shure KSM32/SL, Rode NT2A, Studio Projects C1, etc.

The Overheads
There are so many different ways to mic the cymbals. This is mainly because of all the extra space looming on top of them allowing you to do whatever you want. Do not get overexcited and hang those microphones as high up as possible! In order to really hear the cymbals without too much bleed from the other instruments, you need to get in on them as close as possible. However, how close is determined by the drummer. If he doesn’t smash the crap out of them, then try and bring the mics down on them about a foot away. If he is a hard hitter, try around two feet away. If you go any higher, the microphones will become room mics instead of cymbal mics since they will be picking up everything that is happening in the room. The angle of the mic depends on the setup of the kit itself. Position the microphones so that the cymbal is in-between the mics and any of the other drums. If that doesn’t look possible, and 90-degree angle from the face of the cymbal will sound good.

For crash cymbals, point the mic at the outer edge of the cymbal. For the ride cymbal, point the mic a few inches away from the bell.

Miking Hi-Hats

Point a small diaphragm condenser down at the hi-hat and angle it so that the hi-hats are in-between the mic and the snare drum. This will help in isolating the hi-hat from the snare drum. Have the mic around three to four inches above the hi-hats. Do not put the mic along side of the hi-hats, because the air that is pushed out when the hi-hats close will blow into the mic producing a terrible popping sound.

Miking The Room – Any mic that you want!

This is where you get to experiment the most. Grab any matching pair of microphones and put them all over the room you are tracking in. Put them in the corners, on the floor, on the ceiling, facing away but close to the drums, deep in the closet, wherever! It’s entirely up to you to find out what mic sounds best and where. Have fun!

I’ll be writing some other useful tutorials and reviews of some pretty awesome (but neglected) gear out there. I would love to help you with your studio or recording project with any advice or knowledge that I can give you.

Ephriam Nagler
Bananas At Large