A great drum sound is the core of a great mix. If the drums sound fantastic, you’re off to a great start. If the drums aren’t working, nothing will sound as good as it should.
This is the first of several posts I have planned on drums, and I’m starting at the beginning – how to mic up a drum kit.
Obviously there’s no one right answer to this, it depends on the kit, the room, the player and the material. But I’m going to suggest ten techniques that in my experience will help you record the best drum sound you can.
You might want to check out my post 10 Rules For Achieving Outstanding Music Mixes, too – taking special note of points 2 and 4:
Before starting recording you need a decent kit, and a decent space to record it in.
Otherwise you’ll be fighting an uphill battle from the outset.
There are basically two ways to record drums – using the overheads for an overall sound and supporting it with close mics, or building the kit up from individual close mics and using the overheads mainly for cymbals. Personally, I use as few mics as possible whenever I can. Especially for an open, live sound, you can sometimes get a great result even using just kick, snare and overheads.
So, without further ado:
- Start with the overheads Put up a stereo pair and see how the kit sounds. Are you getting a good, balanced result ? If so, use it ! This only works with decent players – if someone isn’t hitting the toms hard enough, or is overdoing the cymbals, you’ll have to get more surgical. Decide early on if you want to use the overall sound of the kit from the overheads, or if you need to get more separation.
- “Overheads” don’t need to be overhead If you like the overall sound of the kit, but it just sounds a little unbalanced, don’t be afraid to move the overhead mics. If you plan to filter out all the bass and build up the rest of the kit drum by drum, then fine – put them right over the cymbals. But don’t just set it and forget it – experiment with the overheads in front of the kit, parallel with the toms, and even behind the player pointing at the drum skins. Listen, and put them where they sound right.
- Tape cheap PZMs to the wall One step further from the last point – if the drums sound good in the room, try using PZM (pressure-zone mics) taped to the wall in front of the kit, to capture just that quality. PZMs are (often very inexpensive) mics which can give excellent, spacious results on all kinds of instruments. Even if you just blend in a little to add a live feel to a close-miced kit, this can be a great technique.
- Mic close and steep There are several schools of thought on this, but I have always found that it’s best to point the individual mics almost straight down into the drums – say at 70 degrees or so – this way you get the most weight and body to the sound. You can use the overheads to get the more open sound of the kit and of the sticks hitting the skins – use single mics to get separation and punch.
- Move the mic around the drum head If a drum sounds good in the room but disappointing in the control room, move the mic. An inch closer, an inch back, pointing more towards the centre of the skin, more to the edge – listen and find the sweet spot.
- What does the drummer hear ? Try putting a mic over the drummer’s shoulder – after all this is where he makes his playing decisions from. Along similar lines to point 3, try heavily compressing this signal and feeding just a little into the mix – it can add great energy and feel.
- Try micing the front of the kick Many kick drums have a hole in the back (what you see as you look at the kit). You can try sitting the mic there, or use it to get the mic right inside in front of the beater – or, you can ignore the hole and just mic up the drum skin from the front, as you would any other. Often this gives a great, natural, punchy sound. Listen, and choose what sounds best.
- Forget about the hi-hat This one is very personal to me, but to this day I’ve never willingly used a hi-hat mic in a mix. I always prefer to rely on the overheads. There is often so much spill on the snare mic anyway that you’re always trying to get rid of hi-hat, not add more ! But, maybe it’s just me : )
- Tune the kit I probably should have started with this point, but perhaps it’s a little less interesting than the others. However it’s just as important, if not more so. Tuning the kit is a whole blog post in itself and it’s not something I can claim to be an expert on. But briefly – the tuning of each drum is critical to it’s sound. If the skins are too slack or too tight, the drum won’t sound or ring as it should – and if the tension is uneven, you’ll get very unpredictable results. Tricks like adding tape or other damping materials to the skins are also useful. (Edit – If you’re interested in learning more, check out this post : The secret of a great drum sound)
- Tune the recording space, too. It should go without saying that you need a room where the drums sound good to record them in – but don’t forget that you can have some influence over this. If you’re in a rehearsal studio where everything is carpeted, even the walls and sounds dead as a result – get some sheets of plywood in to add reflective surfaces. If you’re in a big concrete garage where everything is too bright and lively, add carpets, packing blankets and duvets – or even better, make yourself some gobos – more on this in a future post, too.
- Get the world’s greatest drummer. Or even Lars Ulrich. OK, not really. But seriously, you do need a great drummer. Oops, sorry, I said ten steps, didn’t I ?
- Check the phase OK well the whole “10 steps” thing is blown now so I might as well add this excellent suggestion from Danny in the comments. When blending multiple mics, it’s essential to make sure they are in phase with each other. I think I’ll do a whole post on phase, but the short version is:
(1) Add the new channel
(2) Toggle polarity reverse on the channel
(3) Pick whichever sounds fuller and stronger.
(If it sounds “hollow”, it’s wrong)
(4) If neither sounds good, move the mic or patch in a delay
(5) Repeat, but listening in mono !
There are other, more outlandish ideas for getting great drum sounds, but I tend to save those for special occasions. Stick to the suggestions I’ve outlined here, use the best mics you can lay your hands on and Listen, Listen, Listen.