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Minimal Mono Drum Recording

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Stereo is everywhere my friends. Err well, almost everywhere. There are still many places in which audio is summed to mono and we all know the dangers of mono summing and what it can do to a mix. While we all should check the mono compatibility of our mixes, if you know ahead of time that the song will be played heavily in a mono setting then why not record in mono?

A very good example of this is a club setting where the music is most often done in mono. While recording some instruments like guitar cabs and vocals in mono is not a problem, what about stereo sources like a drum set? Well in this tutorial we are going to cover just that!

In this tutorial we will cover what techniques work best for a minimal mono drum recording and what mixing techniques will best serve our purposes. So if mono and minimalism are your thing then jump on in! But be warned, the information inside is anything but minimal!

Mono Theory

Before we get into the micing techniques lets first examine what makes a quality mono recording. First and foremost when dealing with mono recordings we need to ensure that the entire audible frequency spectrum is accounted for in one microphone. That means microphones such as dynamics and ribbons, while both very good in their own right, may not cover the whole spectrum accurately, especially on the top end.

While many people use ribbons as mono drum mics, they do so in conjunction with other microphones that brighten up the soundscape; of course remember that everything is style dependent. That leaves us then with condenser microphones as our mic of choice.

But should we use a small diaphragm or a large diaphragm condenser as our mono mic? If you need a very articulate sound then a small diaphragm condenser will be your best bet as they have a very fast transient response. However if you find a small diaphragm condenser to be too bright then using a large diaphragm condenser will prove more to your liking with the added benefit of a larger proximity effect if using a cardioid pattern which can help to emphasize the bass drum. Moving away from frequency response, the other issue that needs to be addressed in a mono recording is that phase.

While you can of course use a single microphone for a mono recording, you often will need at least a kick drum and snare mic for the drum set in order to still get that in your face modern sound. This then induces the problem of phase cancellations between the mics. In a stereo setting we can pan the microphones which helps to reduce some of the phasing problems but in mono we do not get that luxury. The placement of the micing then becomes paramount because as we add more microphones to compensate for what another microphone is not delivering we start to add more phasing problems.

This is why minimalistic micing techniques work so well for mono recordings. So with that in mind, let's take a look at some micing techniques for mono drums.

Minimal Mono Micing

First and foremost we need to start with a solid single microphone that can capture the whole frequency spectrum. For this I am going to be using Mojave's new MA-301 FET which is a large diaphragm condenser that is both full and articulate in how it sounds. I personally wanted a slightly smoother top end sound and a beefy bottom end which is why I did not opt for a small diaphragm condenser but the choice is yours.

Now not every microphone placement will work for every microphone but the between the following microphone placements you should be able to find a good compromise for your microphone; remember we are aiming for a balanced sound that shows off the entire drum set.

  • First up we have the microphone placed just above the kick drum aimed at the toms and pulled back a few feet. This technique will obviously emphasis the bass drum but if your microphone is lacking a little in the bass region then this will help to fill it in. Here is what it sounds like through my Mojave...

    MA-301 - Low In Front

  • Next we are going to move the microphone up a little more so that it is starting to look down over the kit and move in slightly but not so much that it is actually over the drum set. This technique will give you a little more tom, cymbal and snare sound since it is looking down at the kit as oppose to straight at it.

    MA-301 - Just Above In Front

  • The final placement is going to be even higher up than the previous placement and actually be slightly over the set; barely over the toms to be specific. In addition you will also want to aim the microphone down a little more. This placement will give you more emphasis on the cymbals and toms and provide a more balanced sound if your microphone is balanced sounding as well.

    MA-301 - High and Above

You can of course also continue to move the microphone straight above the drum set until it's facing down but you may end up losing some of the bottom end and full tone of the toms and get more attack.

However again the choice is yours but I do recommend choosing a mic placement that ensures a good tom and cymbal sound as we are trying to avoid having to mic every drum and micing every tom would defeat that purpose. So with my Mojave I personally found the last position to be the best. With that in mind let's move onto adding the snare and kick drum mics for the classic three mic sound.

For the kick and snare mics you going to need mics that add what the single overhead could not. If you find your kick having plenty of attack but not enough bottom end then you will need a kick mic that reflects that. With the snare you are probably going to want a mic that adds a little snap to the snare as the overhead will probably not sound quite as articulate as a single snare mic.

In my case I will be using the Audix D6 on the kick drum and the Shure 55SH Deluxe on the snare. The reason I choose the D6 was because it has both an articulate sound as well as having a substantial boom as well, and the 55SH Deluxe was chosen because of its ability to handle loud sound sources and having a hyper cardioid pattern.

If you need a more balanced kick drum tone from your kick mic then I recommend placing the mic just inside the drum port but if you feel you need more attack then by all means push it in closer towards the batter head. The single snare mic can of course be put on top in the usual snare placement but I recommend micing the snare on the side aimed straight at the middle of the shell as this will give a very good single mic snare sound.

It is because of this position I chose the 55SH Deluxe for its hyper cardioid pickup. Since hyper cardioid has good side rejection and this will help to minimize the pickup of the hi hat and other drums on the side of the snare.

Here is what we have now with all three mics...

MA-301, D6, 55SH Deluxe

Hear how the kick and snare have a more in your face sound like you would hear on a typical modern day sound? Did you ever notice that everything wasn't in stereo?

Mono Mixing

With our recording now in line it is time we get to mixing the tracks together to give us our cohesive drum sound.

First and foremost we need to make sure that our tracks are in phase with one another. If they are not we will probably over compensate when adding effects. If your kick and snare tracks are not in phase with the mono overhead then shift your tracks around ever so slightly until they are; more ideally you would have shifted your microphones around instead.

Once that is achieved you can then begin to balance how much kick and snare mic you need into the mono mics sound. Remember, in mono mixing you have to mix to the overhead, you cannot mix the overhead to the individual mics since the individuals do not cover the whole drum set. Here are some tips to help you along with your drum mixing...

  • If you are finding that your snare is not giving you enough crack then try adding a compressor with a short attack and longer release time to the snare track so that you have more emphasis on the attack; I find a 5ms attack and a 30 ms release work fairly well.

  • When there is too much bleed from the other drums (this usually occurs in the snare) try adding a gate effect before the compressor. Make sure the threshold is low enough that the gate doesn't close on the softer attacks but is high enough to get rid of the garbage. A 4ms or less attack will add a nice snap to the snare and using a 30-50ms release time will ensure a nice even sustain. Now if you solo the snare track you may feel like it has a pumping effect and is chopping the snare too much but remember you still have the overhead to smooth out the gated snare sound.

  • If you think the kick doesn't have enough snap and has too much bleed as well then try and add the gate as state above. However make sure the attack is around 1-2 ms and that the release is at least 150 ms. The reason for the long release is because we do not want to cut off the low sustain of the kick too soon.
  • If the kick does not have enough room shaking bottom end try boosting the 20-60 Hz region but be careful! If your speakers cannot put out 20 Hz then do not boost anything in this region or you may blow a speaker that can put out 20 Hz!
  • For a clearer sound to the whole mix overall try adding a EQ to the overhead and bumping up the 5k region by just a few dBs. This will enhance the cymbals and drum articulation which creates the clearer mix.

  • Adding some gentle compression to the overhead can help give it a fuller sound without adding any noticeable artifacts. Try and attack around 10ms and a release of about 30 ms, but make sure the threshold is high so it only reacts on the peaks (mostly from the snare and toms).
  • To add some gel to the whole mix, add a saturation plugin on the master fader or the drum submix to glue together to the mics but do not overdue it or the mix could get cloudy from the additional harmonics.
  • Finally if you feel you need some more punch for the whole mix try adding a multiband compressor to the drum submix buss so you can accurately control the levels and once again be careful with the bass region!

You will have noticed that I did not include anything about reverb here in this section. This is because reverb in a mono setting can be very dangerous to a mix. The danger comes in when you put the reverb on and forget to merge the stereo reverb to mono. If you forget to do this you end up mixing with a nice wide stereo reverb and when you playback in mono it will more than likely cloud up the mix. You can do reverb in mono but you need to mix with a mono reverb from the beginning.

Here is the final mix after some processing and balancing of the levels using the suggestions above...

Final Thoughts

Minimal micing and mono recording can be a wonderful break from the complexity of multitrack stereo recording. Your options are limited and it forces you to make educated decisions early on in the recording process.

These techniques can also be applied (carefully) to a live venue situation and help control feedback since there fewer mics. (You will of course have to be careful with the overhead placement however as it will be prone to feedback.)

If you are producing electronic music and desire a live drum sound then this technique is a must since almost all electronic music is played back in mono (hence why the snare and kick are always straight down the middle). And for those of you with a limited budget and mic selection you can see how this technique gives more than satisfactory results.

I hope this tutorial as proven useful and enlightening for you and that it will help you in your audio endeavors. Once again thanks for reading!

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