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Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 3

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This post is part of a series called Recording the Drums (Premium).
Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 2

Last month we covered the different ways to mic a kick drum. This month we'll cover the snare and toms. As stated in Part 1 of this series a few months back, the real key to a great drum sound is a great drummer or a great sounding kit (preferably both). These two things can make most engineers look pretty brilliant without much trouble. But it's still possible to take those two excellent elements and still make the drums sound like trash cans, or as drummer extraordinaire Bobby Caldwell used to say, "moving furniture." That's why miking technique is so important. It gets you in the ballpark immediately and lets you assess what you're dealing with before resorting to experimenting. Let's look at miking the other pieces of the kit.


Also available in this series:

  1. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 1
  2. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 2
  3. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 3
  4. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 4
  5. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 5: It’s All In the Mix

While the kick drum might be the pulse of the song, the snare is the metronome and energy. In fact, sometimes the snare sound alone accounts for how we feel about the total drum sound. If the snare sounds good, it's easy for us to forgive other parts of the kit that might not be up to its standard. On the other hand, a bad sounding snare gives us the impression that the entire kit doesn't sound that good. Wimpy snare sound equals wimpy kit sound. That's why the snare may be the most important drum in the drum set.

Before we get into microphone positioning, be aware that no one snare will fit on every song, no matter how great the snare sounds. That's why most session drummers bring a variety of snares to choose from (between 5 and 10 depending upon the kind of session and who's paying the cartage) and will regularly try them all against a track just to see which one fits best before the final snare sound is dialed in. Yes, it's possible that a single snare can work for an entire album and frequently does, but sometimes a different one will fit better for a particular key and/or arrangement.


Mic Placement

By now most every engineer has at least tried the technique of using a Shure SM57 pointed towards the middle of the snare (see Figure 1). This placement is tried and true and it works, but with a couple of tricks you can get a few more variations in tone and keep the high hat leakage to a minimum as well.

Figure 1 - Snare Mic Placement

One of the keys to getting the snare drum to speak is to get a little height on the mic. I try to put it about two fingers above the rim of the snare at just where the body and the capsule of the mic meet. With a little height, you now have the ability to point the mic directly at the center of the snare, or a little towards the edge of the snare. Depending upon the drum and the drummer, either way can work. In fact, I've found that aiming over the top of drum towards the opposite side sometimes works best for a rimshot drummer as it picks up a lot of attack, which is what you're usually looking for.

Check out The Recording Engineer's Handbook for more snare miking techniques than you probably knew existed (some a bit bizarre, but all work in the right situation).


The Type Of Mic

One of the reasons why that good ol' 57 works so well is it can take a lot of level and when it overloads, it does so in a pleasing way. It also has a built-in rolloff in its frequency response under 200Hz, and that eliminates some of the kick leakage automatically. Then it has a dip in the response at 300 to 500Hz (the proximity effect frequency range), and a presence boost that peaks at 6kHz, although it rolls off quickly beyond that. That's why most engineers find the need to add some EQ at 8 or 10 or even 12kHz to get a little of that high frequency snap (they'll also might add a little at 120Hz too because of the low frequency rolloff).

That being said, don't be afraid to try other mics, especially condensers. The sound of the snare on the old classic rock records out of England in the 70's (Bowie, Supertramp, Pink Floyd, etc.) was the sound coming from a Neumann KM-56 (impossible to find these days) or a KM-84. You probably won't find those vintage mics too available, but any new condenser like a KM-184, AKG 460 or Mojave MA-100 is a nice alternative. And don't be afraid to use something with a large diaphragm like an AKG 414. When you can't get enough snap from a 57, that's when to try something different. Just make sure to insert the 10dB pad (or even a 20dB one if you have that option) so the internal preamp of the mic doesn't overload, especially with a heavy hitting drummer.

One of the best alternative mics for snare is the cardioid dynamic Shure SM7 (see Figure 2). Many think of this mic as primarily a vocal mic (which it's splendid at), but it also works exceptionally well on the snare since it has a frequency response that extends beyond 10kHz, a switchable low frequency rolloff, and a presence boost from about 3 to 8kHz. It costs about three times more than an SM57, but it's a more versatile mic and even more rugged. Highly recommended.

Figure 2 - A Shure SM7 Microphone


The Under-Snare Mic

Another way to help out the high end of the snare sound is by using a mic underneath the snare. There's no mic that's a standard like the 57 is for the top of the snare though, so anything goes. Some engineers use another 57, some use a condenser like a 460 or km-84 (or the newer model km-184), still others use a Sennheiser 441 because it's so directional that it keeps the kick drum bleed to a minimum.

Whichever mic you choose, there are four tricks that can improve the sound it captures:

  1. Almost always the phase needs to be flipped to eliminate any phase cancellation. It doesn't matter where in the signal path you do this at, although the microphone preamp is normal place. It also helps if the under mic is placed at about a 90 degree angle to the top mic (see Figure 3). This usually doesn't have much to do with phase cancellation as much as it makes the leakage sound better and the combination of the two mics more natural as a result.
  2. For best kick drum isolation, place the mic so the rear of it is facing the kick (also Figure 3). This is so the null point (the direction of the mic that it's the least sensitive) is facing the kick. Sometimes the null point is a 10 or 20 degrees off to the side instead of directly at the rear of the mic, so it's best to check out the polar pattern graph that came with the mic (see Figure 4).
  3. Many engineers like to gate the under-snare mic so you only get the snap from it. Unless you're really experienced at setting this up, I'd recommend you do this during mixing to avoid any problems that you can't fix later.
  4. Be careful about how much of the bottom mic you use since you can make the snare sound paper thin rather than just brighten it up. If in doubt, just use the top mic.

Figure 3 - The Under-Snare Mic At A 90 Degree Angle

Figure 4 - The Polar Pattern Graph For An SM57

As stated in #4 above, it's important that you add the under-snare mic in correct proportion to the top mic. Too much of the lower mic and the snare will start to sound thin and papery. Too little and the snare won't have enough high end. Usually something between a 40 to 50 percent of the total snare sound works well, although if you want more high end you can usually increase the amount of the under mic a little instead of adding any EQ.

Until you're absolutely sure that you know what you're doing, don't mix the two mics together on a single track. Keep them separate. What sounds great while your tracking might change drastically as the mix evolves with the addition of more instruments and general refinement of the sound. Just like phase cancellation (see Part 1), it's something that really can't be undone later if you added too much of the under mic. If you really have to combine both onto the same track, always err on the side of less under-snare mic rather than more.


The High Hat

Once again, the sound of the high hat depends upon what the engineer has to work with, which are the cymbals themselves. Drummers who mostly play live usually have thick hat cymbals that don't break as easily, but they don't sound that good when you get them under the microscope of the recording studio. Almost always, thinner cymbals sound better right off the bat.


Mic Placement

Place the mic pointing down at the middle of the top cymbal as in Figure 5. If you want a thinner sound, move it towards the edge of the cymbal. If you want a thicker sound, move it towards the bell. If the cymbals are thick and your sound is thick as a result, decrease the EQ by a couple of dB at 1 to 2kHz. If you want more "sizzle," add a dB or two at 10 or 12kHz.

Figure 5 - High-hat Microphone Placement

The mic should be placed about 6 inches (20cm) above the cymbal when it's in its most open position. If you want more isolation from the snare, place the mic on the far side of cymbal away from the snare and the point where the drummer strikes it with the stick. This will eliminate any stick noise as well.


Type Of Mic

Most engineers use a cardioid condenser mic on the hat because of the transient response of the cymbal. Since the sound that the hat creates has a very fast attack, you need a mic that also responds very fast in order to capture it, and that's where a condenser mic shines. A pencil shaped mic is usually chosen instead of something quite large like a 414, mostly because of space limitations.

AKG 451's and 460's are popular, as are Neumann KM-84's (my favorite) and 184's, but any number of excellent inexpensive mics like the Mojave M-100 work well too. As with the snare drum, remember to insert the 10dB pad in order to keep the internal electronics from overloading.


Hat Isolation

High-hat isolation doesn't come from placement as much as it does from our friend the high-pass filter. The hat has very little useful low frequency information so there's no point in amplifying it. That's why the HPF is so important; it cleans the sound up and isolates the hat from the snare as a result. Some engineers will insert the HPF at a frequency of about 160Hz, where others go up to as much as 1kHz. The higher the frequency, the more isolation you'll receive (we'll cover this more in the next post on drum mix balance). Be careful that you don't raise the frequency so high that you eliminate any of the meat of the cymbal though.


The Toms

The sound of the toms can be a curious thing and everyone has a different ear for how they should sound. I've seen engineers choke the ring of the toms so much that they end up sounding lifeless, and I've seen others that make them so big sounding that they take up the entire track when they're played.

Getting a good tom sound is way easier than people make it though. Assuming that they sound pretty good acoustically already (which is the biggest factor in the sound), there are just a few things to think about in order to make them thunder, yet still stay in proper balance with the rest of the kit.


Mic Placement

How far away from the drum head you place the mic is the most important thing to remember about tom mic placement. If you get it too close (a common mistake), you'll either pick up too much attack from the stick hitting the head, or too much ring, depending upon where the mic is pointing. In order to capture the full tone of the drum, you have to have some space between the head and the mic.

I've found that the ideal distance is about 3 inches (which is about all 4 fingers on your hand pressed together) away from the head (see Figure 6), although some engineers may place the mic as far away 6 inches (15cm). Any closer than 3 inches and you'll won't get the entire sound of the drum, and further away will begin to pick up more of the cymbals. Point the mic at the center of the drum to pick up more attack, or closer to the rim to pick up more of the ring and tone of the drum. If you need more isolation from the cymbals, move it a little closer to the head of the drum but realize that you're compromising the tone when you do so.

That's not the only placement that you have to worry about though. When miking a kit that has two rack toms, how the tom mics are placed in relationship to each other is equally important. It's actually pretty easy though. Make sure that the two mics are exactly parallel to one another (see Figure 7). Why? Because as soon as you get mics that are slightly pointed towards each other, it's possible to induce some phase shift (see Part 2 for more on phase shift). Now in reality, you can't always set the mics up this way, especially in a large kit, but the more you can keep the mics parallel, the more you can be sure that any source of phase shift will be eliminated.

Figure 6 - Tom Microphone Position

Figure 7 - Keep The Tom Mics Parallel


Types Of Mics

It seems that the Sennheiser MD421 has somehow become the de facto standard mic on toms, but I'm not sure it's the best choice. It's true that the 421 does have excellent high frequency response that goes out to 15kHz, but it also has a peak at about 2500Hz and a dip from about 400 to 1000Hz, a frequency range that contains a lot of the toms tone (see Figure 8). That's why I think you can get a lot better results from any number of other mics.

Figure 8 - The Frequency Response Of A Sennheiser MD421

You'll find that many of the best engineers use large diaphragm condenser mics like AKG 414's or Neumann U-67's or 87's on toms. That works for them because they're usually working in studios that have enough of them to go around, which isn't always the case for most of us working in our own studios. That being said, just about any condenser works well on toms, especially the ones with small diaphragms. The reason is that small diaphragms respond a bit more quickly to transients than large diaphragms, so it's easier to capture the attack of the drum, and contrary to popular belief, small diaphragm mics usually have a bit lower frequency response as well.

I like to use AKG 451's, but you can get great results with even some inexpensive Chinese condensers. Another tip, use identical mics for the rack toms to keep the sound of the kit consistent.


The Floor Tom

Even though the floor tom is part of the same kit, it has to be approached differently because of its size and sound. Everyone is familiar with how bad a floor tom can sound when it sounds like a beach ball being struck, and that's a sound we don't want to capture, so be sure that the drum is tuned properly before going any further (see Part 1 for more details). As with the other drums, you can have the best signal chain in the world and it won't do you much good unless you take care of the tuning business first.

A large diaphragm condenser or dynamic (like an E/V RE-20) usually works pretty well on the floor tom. You might even want to use the roll-off filter (if the mic has one) since sometimes there's a lot of very low frequency energy in the floor tom sound that isn't necessarily needed, and can even conflict with the kick and bass.

As with the rack toms, place the mic about 3 inches above the drum head and pointed at the center of the head in order to best capture the attack. Sometimes if you place the mic underneath the ride cymbal, you'll actually get the most isolation from the rest of the kit than if you place it on the outer side as usual. That's easier said than done because of the limited space involved, especially on a kit where the drummer keeps everything close together.


Equalization

The toms usually need a touch of EQ, but it all depends upon the mics that you're using. You might not need to add anything at 5kHz, for instance, if the mic already has a peak there. Nonetheless, here are some general frequencies to look at to make the toms fit better into the mix.

  • Too thick sounding - attenuate 1.5kHz
  • Need more attack and stick - add a little 5kHz
  • Need some presence - add a little 8kHz, but watch for cymbal leakage
  • Too boxy - attenuate 400-500Hz

As with the high-hat, sometimes you can increase the isolation from the rest of the drums, and increase the clarity of the kit as a result, by inserting a high-pass filter to roll off some of the very low frequencies generated by the toms, especially the floor tom. You can usually roll off anything below 40 or even 50Hz without having it effect the fullness, and the toms will then fit better into the mix of the kit and the song because they don't sound too big.

That's it for the skin part of the drum kit. In part 4, we'll take a look at the question of overheads versus cymbal mics, the mystery of room mics, and theory of drum mix balance.

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