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Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals Part 2

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Finally we have arrived at the home stretch of our drum recording journey in a home studio! Today we will begin Part 2 of the overheads, which will include how to record, mix, and process both toms and cymbals.

In the previous tutorial we discussed the functionality of the instruments both sonically and musically, while also examining what controls the tone of the instruments and what different tuning schemes would work best for different genres. Hopefully now you have the tone you are looking for and are ready to begin recording with a pair of overhead microphones.

So if you are looking to complete this home recording journey then read on!

Also available in this series:

  1. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 1
  2. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 2
  3. Snare Drum Compendium - Start with the Best Sound
  4. The Snare Drum Compendium - Recording and Mixing Techniques
  5. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals
  6. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals Part 2

Overhead Positioning

As with anything recording oriented, microphone placement is key. You never want to fix something in the mix and the goal here is to make sure you do not have to.

Overhead placement can be a tricky subject depending on what your goals are for the microphones. If you are planning on not using any tom mics then you will need to place your overheads accordingly so you pick up both the toms and the cymbals. If however you need a really tight pop or rock sound then a position that picks up only the cymbals may be better and let the tom mics worry about the toms.

So with that in mind lets begin to take a look at some mic placement techniques...

For the following positionings I will be using the Audix i5 for the microphone selection. While I would never recommend the i5 (which is essentially a SM57) for overhead duty, it is a common microphone that a lot of small home studios will have and would act as a good reference for you to try out against my audio samples. Remember, the goal here is to hear the differences in the mic positions, not the differences in mic selection!

Overhead Positioning: Standard

When in doubt this will be your go to microphone placement for overheads. Simply place the overheads above the drum set on the left and right sides of the drum kit and aim the microphones directly down. This is usually referred to as the spaced apart technique.

By adjusting the positioning from left to right and back to front you can blend the toms, snare, and cymbals to your liking. The closer you place microphones to the drum kit the more they will give you a more focused sound on the particular drum you are aiming at and start to negate the other drums (assuming your microphones are cardioid).

If however you happen to be using omni microphones then instead you will get more drum sound and less room sound by moving the microphones close to the kit. Some people criticize this technique for having phasing issues, which it most certainly can, but simply playing around with the spacing can alleviate this problem.

Others will suggest using the 3:1 rule but with the drum set having such a wide array of frequencies it can be difficult to find a starting point for the 3:1 rule. If you do insist on the 3:1 rule then I recommend using the snare as your focal point.

Here then for your listening pleasure is an example of the basic overhead technique; I positioned the overheads so that it blended between the cymbals and the toms relatively evenly...

i5 - Standard Overhead

Some other tricks you can use to tweak this overhead position is to tilt the mics towards the toms so that they are no longer facing directly down. Depending on their location this can help minimize the sound of the snare, hats, and kick if you prefer the close mic sound of those instruments. However keep in mind most drummers have their floor tom next to them and you will start to negate the floor tom just as you would the snare. Here is an some example of this as well...

i5 - Tilted Overhead

Overhead Positioning: The XY

To change up the pickup area so it picks up the sides of the kick a little more you can try using an XY configuration for your overheads. This positioning will obviously aim across the kit as opposed to straight on the kit with the spaced apart which will lead to a different sound.

What is nice about this technique however is how it handles phasing; you shouldn't have any phasing! To ensure this technique works you will need to make sure you position the microphone capsules evenly so they are at a 90-degree angle.

Here is an example...

i5 - XY Overhead

Overhead Positing: "Fronthead" Spaced

This next technique is sometimes referred to as a "fronthead" technique since the microphones will in front of the drum set, not over it. Arguably this would give us a truer stereo image since we never listen to an acoustic drum set from above!

If you are trying to achieve a balance of the kit, the trick for this technique is to make sure your microphones are not aimed directly at the cymbals since they tend to be in the corners of the kit. You will want the microphones at about tom height level, maybe a little higher or lower depending on balance, and pulled back far enough to get a clear stereo image.

Here is an example...

i5 - Fronthead Spaced

Overhead Positing: "Fronthead" XY

If you haven't already guessed, this technique involved putting a stereo pair of XY microphones in front of the drum set as opposed to above. However what I like about this technique is that unlike the front spaced apart, we can get in really tight on the kit since our mics do not need a lot of space in between. You can of course pull the fronthead XY back away from the kit but it really shines up close.

If you are looking for a more present tom sound then this is the technique for you. Simply make an XY pair aimed across the drum set and slightly down and position the XY above the front kick drum.

Here is an example...

i5 - Fronthead XY

Overhead Positing: Glyn Johns

This technique was invented by engineer Glyn Johns and requires a tape measure to ensure perfect phase. Essentially you need to place an overhead microphone directly over the center of the kick pedal and another aimed directly across the kit at the drummer's right side. The top mic needs to be 40 inches from the pedal and the side mic needs to be 40 inches from the center of the snare.

While it simply is just a variation of the overhead technique, it has very specific guidelines, which is why I believe it deserves its own place. I would highly recommend condensers or ribbons if you have a matched pair for this job and use more colored microphones if the kit is less than adequate sounding on its own.

You do need to be careful with the panning in this situation, as we do not have an even stereo field. I would suggest panning the top microphone halfway to the right and the side mic all the way to the left; adjust to taste of course.

Here is an example...

i5 - Glyn Johns

Processing the Overheads

So now that we have gotten the overhead sound we can for our circumstances we are probably going to need a little processing. When processing overheads you generally are going to contend with harmonic content, volume, space and that is how we are going to look at processing a the overheads. Lets first start with volume and dynamics...

Processing the Overheads: Dynamics and Volume

Here we find ourselves back at the compression wars. The overheads are not always at the forefront of the battle because generally speaking people like hearing a smashed snare and kick more than cymbals. However there are times when the overheads get compressed as well.

But when it comes to home recording you really need to ask yourself first "Should I compress?" and secondly if you decide to compress "How should I compress?" The problem with compressing overheads is you can be very prone to the pumping effect in the cymbals from the other drums. While I can't stress enough not to over compress the overheads, if you do feel the need to compress the overheads then take a look at some of these suggestions...

  • One way around the pumping effect is to use New York style compression in which you duplicate the signal and only compress one, thus allowing you to blend between the two. If you happen to have a compressor with a mix knob on it this will allow you to do the same thing.
  • An even better option than parallel compression however would be to use a multiband compressor so that you completely separate the lower frequency drums from the cymbals so they are compressed separately. If you couple this with parallel compression you can get a fuller overhead sound that doesn't suffer from noticeable pumping.
  • Use slower attack and release times if using a single band compressor. This will help minimize the pumping effect substantially. I also recommend using slow times for the higher bands if you are using a multiband compressor.
  • If you need more gentle leveling as opposed to hard compressing or limiting then make sure you do not overdue it on the ratio. While a simple 2:1 ratio might seem small, it is in fact still a pretty decent amount of compression. For jazz and other lighter music I would highly recommend keeping an eye on the ratio if you really feel the need to compress.
  • Be careful when choosing your compressor. Some plugins are based off optical compressors, which while may say they can react around 5 ms, may still be a little slower to the nature of optical compressors. I would highly recommend a optical over VCA or FET style compressor for overheads since they will be gentle to the pumping effects. However if you are using a multiband compressor then you can get away with quicker attack and release times and get a tighter sound.

Here is an example of some nicer overhead compression on the Glyn Johns recording. First I used a single band bus compressor with a very gentle ratio and attack and release times and blended it with the original signal to create parallel compression. Then I followed it up with a multiband compressor with some quicker attack times in all the bands except for the top. Keep in mind the attack and release times will vary depending on how quick or slow the drums are playing!



Processing the Overheads: Harmonic Content

The overheads in a mix can take up a lot of space if you balanced the toms, cymbals, and everything else out in the two mics. However we usually need a little push a in frequency range or two to really make the overheads stand out on their own or perhaps to make the cymbals or some other drum really shine. While you can of course use an equalizer sometimes you are also looking for that extra sort of gel that you get with analog summing, tape, etc. In that case then you need some saturation.

Here are some EQ guidelines and some saturation examples for the overheads...

  • If you have too much rumble leakage high pass everything below 100 Hz. If your overheads were intended to be mainly cymbal microphones then even go as far as 300 Hz.
  • For more body to the snare and toms play around in the 120-300 Hz region depending on the tuning of the drums. Do take care however that you do not boost the kick if you are not looking for that sound!
  • If you need more or less attack examine the 2-5 kHz region. Reducing this range will give you a smoother fatter sound while boosting this range will give you more articulation.
  • If you need more sizzle or air to the overheads or need some bright cymbals then look at boosting around 10k and up. Obviously if you have too much then just reduce this range instead.

Now that we have these ranges we need to decide what kind of equalizer to use. If you were really happy with the natural sound of the kit then I would recommend a cleaner more clinical style EQ, probably one that is linear phase. If however you think it really needs some color to cover up its blemishes then a program EQ like a Pultec clone would be a good choice.

For this example I decided to boost the lower portion of the kick slightly to give it more body, boost the 3.5k region to emphasize the attack and finally, boost the 10k and up to add a little more sizzle and air to the i5s. Here is our compressed signal without EQ to compare to our compressed signal with EQ...


Compression and EQ

Harmonic saturation always shines on sources that are already harmonically dense like overheads and really helps make it sound uniform if the microphones were too clinical. There are many harmonic saturation plugins out there to choose from but to be careful. Some of these plugins are essentially just static EQs and waveshapers that don't sound all that pleasing.

If you place your saturator before the EQ it will give you more harmonic content to work with inside your EQ where as if you place it after the EQ you will accentuate your EQ a little more. I highly recommend using a non-linear stateful style saturator that only adds harmonics based on what kind of content is put in it.

What this means is it will only add harmonics relative to what is already there and not just add the same kind of harmonics regardless of whether it is a bass guitar or a flute. A very good free VST for this is Variety of Sounds ThrillseekerLA compressor, which has a separate harmonic stage. Simply turn off the compressor portion and you have beautiful stateful saturation.

Here is an example of the harmonic saturation on the overheads with compression and EQ in comparison to just compression and EQ...

Compression and EQ

Compression, EQ, Full Saturation

Processing the Overheads: Space

Finally we come to issue of space and what kind of room our drum set should be in. If you have a lot of room sound in your overheads then there is not a whole lot you can do to change that. You can of course add different reverbs and ambiences to help cover up the room if you are not thrilled with it but that will only work so much. If however your overheads were dry without a lot of room sound then your custom reverbs and ambiences will become the room.

You can divide the space the drum set will sit in into either ambiences or reverbs. An ambience is going have a tighter more focused sound and is designed to sound like a type of room. A reverb on the other hand usually has a longer decay and will designed to emulate a hall in some form. There is no such thing as one particular type that works best for all situations, it is always song dependent.

Another consideration to keep in mind are the use of delay. Whether on its own or in conjunction with a reverb or ambience, a delay can add a greater sense of space that the ambience or reverb on its own may not be able to deliver.

In larger sounding rooms, part of what makes the room sound so large is the time it takes for the reflections off the walls to come back and reach your ears after the sound of the drum has faded away. A predelay in the reverb plugin or using a separate delay plugin can replicate this nicely.

Have a look at these following recipes and see what fits your situation the best...

  • For a tight smooth room sound use a fairly diffuse ambience (if using a convolution reverb a wood room works well) and set a tiny bit of predelay; only a few ms if that. Excellent for pop rock, funk, etc.
  • If you need a tight but more live sounding room use a ambience that replicates a concrete room. These generally are less diffusive and have more high-end content than the wood room. This can work excellent for metal drums that are not blazing fast.
  • For a bigger but still roomy sound use the above techniques but add just a tiny bit of delay before the ambience plugin. This will make the room sound large but not hall sized. This setup can work well if you trying to get a sound somewhere between a studio and a small stage.
  • If you need a soft pad like reverb in the background then add a nice long diffuse reverb, no longer than a second or two long. Next bring it down in volume so it blends into the back ground; good for modern pop ballads which still need a fairly dry drum sound.
  • When you need a reverb for a rock ballad then add a nice large tailed reverb and adjust the top end content to make it sound either more like wood or like stone (less high content vs more high content). Also be sure to adjust the diffusion between highly diffuse and barely diffuse to make it sound either more wood or more stone.
  • Finally for a big stadium sound you will need a long fairly diffuse reverb with a decent bit of delay before hand to replicate the sheer size of a stadium or arena.

One last guideline to keep in mind is the issue of bottom end buildup. With the longer bigger reverbs you need to be careful how much bottom end you let ring out as it can quickly get very muddy. If you find the reverb is getting too muddy then use an equalizer on the reverb track to bring down the 150 Hz and below range.

Here is an example of some room ambience style reverb on the drum overheads...

Compression, EQ, Full Saturation

Compression, EQ, Full Saturation, Ambience


So what have we learned? That you need to have a good drum set sound before you can really get the most out of your mic placement and processing. However there are still plenty of techniques available to get a decent drum set sound in a home setup regardless of your situation.

Spend some time and think about what processing and recording techniques would best fit the style of music you are going for. Above everything else make sure you fix your problems before you ever hit record if at all possible!

Thanks for reading and happy recording!

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