If you’ve ever dealt with a drummer or are a drummer yourself you know that one of the most important aspects of your kit’s sound is the way you mic it up. Placing microphones around your drum kit allows you to capture the sound coming out of each part of the kit individually and either enhance it or suppress it in the final mix. Great drums sound lovely even when you play them fully acoustically but in order to make it part of your PA system, you have to capture its sound and put it through your equipment (mics, cables, mixer, speakers). That will allow you to have control over how much the drums are heard in the final sound of your gig. In this article, I will try to synthesize the best ways to mic your drums in a comprehensive manner and get you through some of the basics of drum sound.
There are two kinds of microphones you are going to use for your drum kit – dynamic and condenser ones. Depending on the part of the drum you will record they will have different placements. The kick drum’s classic mic placement is in front of its resonant head, while the snare and toms get their mics typically on top of them. Cymbals are usually loud enough and are often not connected with microphones but if you want to throw them in the mix add a mic 3 to 4 inches above them.
In all honestly, there is no right way to mic up your drums no there is one default sound that you can start from. All drum kits sound differently and all mic combinations change that sound even further. Here, I will try to give you some of the most common mic placements and explain the terms behind drum mics and their usage. So, without further ado, let’s get into this!
The Main Type Of Mics
Not only in drum recordings but in recording in general there are a few kinds of microphones. The main ones we will be using here are:
- Dynamic Mics
- Condenser Mics
Each of them has specific properties and are used for a different purpose and part of the drum. Let’s take an individual look at both of them now.
These kinds of mics are working on a reverse-speaker principle, meaning that the diaphragm moves a coil which is connected to a magnet which creates an electrical signal every time the diaphragm moves (from sound waves). It is an excellent mic for picking up mids and also good for those dreaded miss-hits. Those mics use a cardioid pattern meaning that they are good at isolating sounds that only come from in front of them. They also work well when placed near the subject they are recording.
Those mics are used on:
- Bass Drums
- Toms (occasionally)
Unlike the first kind, condenser mics use power sent to them by a pre-amp or another similar source. This power is called “phantom power” and can also be sent to all mics without it affecting the dynamic microphones. Condenser mics have a capacitor inside them instead of a coil and a magnet. The power sent to them amplifies the signal captured by the diaphragm. They are more sensitive than dynamic ones and most often have pad switches which allows you to change the levels of sensitivity depending on the play style of the drummer.
Condenser mics are the go-to choice for room mics (more on that in a moment) and are usually come in pairs. Now, let’s get to the most important part – the mic placements. I will be listing every part of a typical drum kit and giving tips on where standard mic placement is. The sections I will cover are:
- Kick Drum
- Overhead mic
- Room mic
Before I move on, check out this article on how to set up your home studio if you are interested in getting your very own cozy home recording studio.
The kick drum varies a lot in shapes and sizes. There are some models that go up to 14 x 26 inches. Logically, there are just as many mic placement techniques as there are sizes. Some of the main options are:
- Single mic in front of the resonant head
- Single boundary mic inside the kick drum
- Single stand mic inside the kick drum
- Two microphones inside the drum
- A single mic inside and a single mic outside
I will be reviewing each of the positions now but it is safe to say that the best bet is having a single mic in front of the drum preferably at its air hole (if it has one). When using that position you can play with distance from the drum head and overall positioning across the drum’s diameter. If you want a lively sound from a kick drum with no hole, place the mic in the lower half around 1/3 of the diameter away. Otherwise experiment with ranges from 1 to 3 inches to see where your mic pics up the best sound
If you want to minimize the sound bleed from other drums, place a single boundary mic in a pillow inside the kick drum itself. This is a no-fuss solution and you won’t deal with any mic stands (at least for this drum).
The other three options are variations of the first two but using two mics bumps up your budget slightly which is another thing you have to keep in mind when going for a bigger set of mics.
Pro Tip: Ribbon mics shouldn’t be used directly in front of the drum’s hole as there is a lot of air rushing out when the drum is played.
One of the most important factors for the snare sound is the mic used to record/process it. One of the classic mics for snare recording is the Shure SM57. There are two options for mic placements when it comes to the snare:
- Over the snare
- Over and under it
There is no rule to tell you how much over the snare to place your so you should experiment from which distance you get the best sound. A good starting point is one and a half inches slightly inside the rim pointed towards the middle of the snare head. If you want fewer lows you have to move the mic higher up.
If you are looking for more buzz from your snare then place a mic beneath it as well. Point this mic at the snare wires again at a few inches distance depending on what you are looking for.
Just like with the kick drum and the snare, there are a lot of placement and recording options with the toms. The rules that applied for snare recording also apply for toms although you might want to get mics that aren’t as visible for your toms, especially if you are performing in front of an audience. If you position your cymbals really low and close to the toms you will need a microphone with a low-profile clip-on system.
As we pointed out already, some engineers don’t bother placing a mic on the hi-hat when it is very loud. Still, if you want to have options when mixing you might wanna put a mic on your hi-hat, just in case. The mic should be three or four inches above the cymbal around the middle of the cymbal. Remember that each hi-hat will sound different and the key to great sound is experimenting with your own. The personal taste also varies and you should decide whether you want a more bright or dark sounding hi-hat out of your mix.
There are a lot of techniques when it comes to overhead mic placements. Some drummers prefer a triangle-shaped configuration of three mics or an 11 o’clock and 3 o’clock positioning. The most common one, though, is having two mics slightly to the left and right of the drum kit.
I trick that i often use is to first start by hearing my two overhead mics and then slightly add every other drum part to the mix and sort of arrange the puzzle to my taste. That way you figuratively speaking have a blank canvas on top of which you can lay out anything you want in order to adjust it to perfection.
One thing that is critical to your drum sound and is often overlooked is capturing the ambient sound of the room you are recording in. The best way to record room noise is to place a mic 4 feet away and 2 feet above the floor. That is guaranteed to capture the full picture of your drum sound along with the room’s acoustic properties. If you are in a small room you can put two mics at the two corners facing away from you at 90 degrees compared to each other.
When you finally have your room mics plugged in, you will have the whole array of mics recording different aspects of your drum sound. Then, it’s up to you to mix it and create as rich sound as you want. Mixing on its own is a very complicated topic which is most suitable for a university lecture than a random article on the internet. Still, when you handle the basics you will be able to experiment with sounds until you have what your ears find perfect for your needs. If that proves too hard there are a lot of people online that do mixing for a small amount of money.
How Many Mics Do You Need For Drums?
A typical set of drum mics consists of around 6-8 mics, although you can record drums with just an overhead mic depending on the sound you are looking for and the room you are recording with. Apart from that scenario, typical drum sets need at least 6 mics to record every part of the set properly.
Do You Need An Audio Interface To Record?
Yes, definitely. Especially if you want to use mics and other external sources, sound cards are the best way to integrate everything into a single place such as a DAW or even a mixer. Audio interfaces also improve the latency you will be getting out of your recorded instruments and will up the quality of your production.
Some Final Words
The best ways to mic your drums aren’t always universal as I proved with the many techniques in this article. After all, sound is an objective phenomenon but the way we comprehend it is very subjective and therefore the way we process and edit sound coming from our drum kits can never be universal. Everything from mic placements to the actual choice of your microphones will play a major role in the final sound you will get out of your drum kit. Remember, unless you are a professional producer the final goal is you to like what you are hearing!