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A drum kit is a big stereo instrument, much like a piano.
A DRUM KIT is a stereo instrument. Sure, there are many different components in a drum kit that engineers try to capture individually, but never lose sight of the fact that you are recording a big STEREO instrument. Even if you were to mic each string of a piano separately, you would most likely have a stereo pair of mics to capture the natural stereo sound of the piano. Treat drums the same. It will be much harder to try to create a stereo image than to properly capture it in the first place.
Drum sets are large stereo instruments, and as such the way to best capture the natural sound of a drum set is to record it in stereo. You will also need to use a few close mics in order to better control certain key musical elements such as the kick and snare. Regardless of how many close microphones you use, if you do not have a full, wide, and natural sound from ONLY the stereo overhead mics you will not be able to create one later. You HAVE to capture the stereo sound of the instrument.
I try to mic to capture the full sound of the drum set.
EXPECT TO HAVE TO MOVE ALL OF THE MICS TO FIND THE SWEET SPOT FOR EACH SITUATION.
Given my preferences, I tend to use vocal quality mics for much of my drums. Do NOT do this unless you really trust your drummer. Also, many of the mics I prefer to use are not easily available. The similar named models (AKG-D12 vs AKG-D112, ATM-25 vs ATM-250) do not sound exactly the same.
In addition, I prefer my drum mics to go through chunky sounding mic pre-amps, like Neve 1073 or 1081 modules. I will compress sometimes compress my kick and snare mic SLIGHTLY when recording, and sometimes also compress my room mics if I know how I intend the final drum sound to be.
I never and I do mean NEVER gate my drum mics while recording, unless I am doing so on extra tracks. Although the practice of recording individual drums with zero leakage and then trying to mix them to sound like a drum kit is very common, it goes against my personal approach to recording drums. You can always gate them later.
What happens when you gate a tom mic while recording? When the gate on the tom mic opens, the kick drum leakage on the tom mic that will suddenly be heard will change the overall sound of the kick drum.
FOR A NATURAL DRUM SOUND, BE AWARE OF HOW ALL OF THE DRUMS SOUND ON ALL OF THE MICS. EXPECT AND ACTUALLY WORK WITH THE LEAKAGE. The snare bottom mic WILL have kick leakage on it, and how you treat that mic will definitely affect the kick sound.
In addition, always be aware of how the PHASE setting of one drum mic will affect the sound of the other drums that are leaking ON that mic.
Any suggestion listed below should be taken as a starting position rather than the final one. You should expect to have to reposition your mics and listen to the results many times before your are done. There is no such thing a single positioning that works for every drum kit.
For an open head kick I usually use an AKG D-12, positioned at a slight angle about 7-10 inches away from the head. I then move the mic forward and back or side to side a little and find where I like it the most.
For a closed head kick I will usually use a pair of Audiotechnica ATM 25 mics, one by the beater and another on the other side of the kick (at around the “beater” position). Of course you will have to flip the phase on your front mic.
The snare usually gets an SM-57 on the top, positioned about an inch in from the rim and angled low to the snare instead of head on. I almost seem to aim the snare mic across the skin and then down a little to the center rather than straight down. Position the mic so it will get as little hi-hat leakage as possible.
Under the snare I usually stick a bright condenser mic with a tight polar pattern to avoid kick leakage. The AKG 414 set to hyper-cardioid is excellent for this purpose. The mic goes 6-8 inches down, and of course the phase should be flipped. Be sure to use the mic pad!
The hi-hat gets a bright condenser. Often I go with something tight like a 414 set to hyper-cardioid, but sometimes I go for a more open mic like a KM-84. I position it at different positions, ranging from 2 to 4 inches in.
I put tom mics over the skin about 1 inch in from the rim, angled downward (often at about 45 degrees). If I use dynamic microphones I often need to add high frequencies, if I use condenser microphones I sometimes need to add more meat. I prefer to use U-87s on toms (pad on of course) set to cardioid, but if not I will use Sennheiser 421 or even SM-57.
OVERHEADS (DRUM KIT / CYMBALS)
Your overhead mics are the most important mics. They are NOT intended as only “cymbal” mics, which is what all too many engineers do. Overhead mics should be used to capture the entire stereo instrument.
Make an imaginary line from the high tom to the low tom, and then bring that line up at least a foot or so above the cymbals. Position your microphones along that line, just outside the cymbals, facing IN towards the snare. Now LISTEN to the sound of the mics in the control room or pair of headphones. Have the drummer play and angle or move the mics to better pick up any drum not being clearly heard.
You WILL need to flip the phase of these mics and may also MAY need to raise or lower these mics for optimal warmth when heard with the kick and snare close mics. I prefer U-67, Cole ribbon, or U-87 mics for overheads.
Front mics function similarly to overheads in that they also capture the stereo sound. Set your mics a few feet in front of the kit, starting at about tom height. Experiment with mic height and even distance. I have had front mics very low to the floor with good results and also have been happy with them as high as 2 feet above the cymbals. Depending on the size of the room, once the mics get more than 10 feet they are turning into simple room mics.
In general I only use front mics if I have extra tracks and microphones. When I do use them I prefer condensers such as U-87.
Room mics are fun. Room mics can give a sense of simple “room-iness” or cavernous savagery. Simple room mics are just that – mics far in the room to give a sense of the room sound. For this purpose, use U-87s set to OMNI in two positions far from the drums but not necessarily directly against the walls.
Savage cavernous thickening room mics are a different story. Those mics are used to give the impression the drums are HUGE because the room is huge. For this I will still use U-87, but set to cardioid and positioned as close to the wall as possible, or even nestled closely into a corner. I have frequently set room mics 1 quarter inch from the wall.
Sometimes I have set drums in one room and room mics in another. A few times I recorded drums in a stairwell with room mics several floors up and down. Once when recording in a dead carpeted room I set up a bunch of music stands in a jumbled mess and put a room mic in the midst of them (which sounded like tinny crap but it was a cool idea).
One of my favorite recording rooms on the planet had an awesome sounding Neve 8068 and a split studio that had a live area separated from a wood area by large sliding doors. I liked to record the drums in the live area with room mics not only in the live area but also in the wood area. By closing the doors different amounts I could adjust the amount of sound that had to bounce around before going into the wood area. The room mic sound there was usually very huge.
In the 80’s Platinum Island (downtown NY) had a small room that I had to record tom overdubs in one day. The machine drums were already recorded, but the song needed some live tom fills. I set the kit up, miced the toms and overheads and looked around for what to do with the room mics. The room was low, small, and narrow so I expected the room mics to be no more than front mics. Then I noticed that in the upper corners there were two little alcoves, as if space had been left for shoeboxes to be shoved in. I stuck the room mics into the alcoves and was amazed at how big they sounded. The toms sounded like there were recorded in a room that was much, much bigger. Unfortunately when I next went into the room to record drums the whole front of the wall had been filled in.
Room mics can be processed different ways for effect. Big savage room mics benefit greatly from extreme compression and can sound cool when gated off individual drums like the kick, snare or toms.
DRUM MIC PROCESSING
GATES should be avoided unless you are going for a specific effect...and even then you may want to record un-gated versions on different tracks to be safe. Since gates will cut off sound after it gets softer than a certain level, gates will totally kill off the natural decay of cymbals and even room reflections. You will never be able to recreate the sounds that were gated off and will be committed to working with what you have. YOU CAN ALWAYS GATE LATER.
COMPRESSION can be used to "beef up" your sounds and create impact that "pumps". Add only a little compression while recording (except for extreme stuff) as you can always add more compression later. Ratios of about 2:1 or 3:1 with a fast attack can help the impact of individual drums, and extreme ratios with a slow attack can make big "room" sounds. Remember that if you are trying something extreme to record un-effected versions on different tracks. This will not only allow you to be more "daring" with what you try but will also allow a safety net for going in different directions later.
Compression can be added later, but you get a fuller sound if you are compressing a real instrument rather than a played back version of it. I would compress very conservative to tape and add a little more later if needed. Like gating, compression is one of those things you cannot "take away" from a track when it has been recorded with it.