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Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 4

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In Part 4 of my drum miking series we're going to look at a couple of ways to do overhead miking, the philosophy and placement of the sometimes mysterious room mics, and some surprising and interesting alternative miking techniques. Don't forget, as I've stated in the intro of every part of this series, the real key to a great drum sound is a great drummer or a great sounding kit (preferably both in that order). These two items will make just about any engineer look like a genius to his or her clients.

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

The Two Philosophies Of Overhead Microphones

Many young engineers sometimes place the overhead mics almost as an afterthought, which is a mistake since they're very important to the overall drum sound. There are two distinct philosophies regarding overhead mics. The first theory (and the one that's been around the longest) is that the overhead mics are primarily used to pick up the main sound of the kit, with the other individual drum mics filling in the sound. The second philosophy uses the overheads more as cymbal mics that compliment the rest of the individual drum mics on the kit.

The sound of these two techniques are, as you'd expect, different, so it's best to think about what you're going for before you randomly place some mics over the drums. The true overhead mics are placed higher over the kit and therefore capture more of the sound of the room. If your room doesn't sound that good, or your ceiling is low so the sound reflects off of it back into the mics, this technique probably won't work for you and you'll have to rely on technique #2.

When you're primarily trying to capture the sound of the cymbals, then the mics will be placed lower on the kit and the room won't come into play as much. This is also the technique used in sound reinforcement in order to obtain as much isolation as possible from everything else on stage.

Which Mics?

Just about every engineer uses a condenser mic for overheads because they react fast enough to catch the transient of the cymbals and the attack of the drums. Of course, vintage condenser microphones will usually sound great, but the new inexpensive condenser mics can sound pretty good too if the drums and cymbals themselves sound good in the first place. Even some cheap dynamics can work in a pinch, and except for being a little light on the high end, will sound fine. Whatever you use,

just make sure that the mics are the same model so the sound remains tonally balanced.

If you end up using condenser mics, make sure to use the -10 dB pad that most have, since the output from them can be high enough to overload you mic preamps, especially with a loud player. On a lot of condenser mics, there's also a high-pass filter built into the mic to filter out lower frequencies (usually somewhere between 40Hz to around 120Hz). Engaging this filter will eliminate a frequency band that you won't use anyway, and it will clean up the ambient sound of the kit and clarify the sound of the cymbals.
Miking The Kit

This placement is designed to pick up the entire drum kit. In this configuration, two mikes are crossed at about a 110° angle (see Figure 1) and about 7 inches apart. This is sometimes mistakenly called "XY" but the official name is "ORTF" which is the technique developed and adopted by the French Radio and Television Organization. The angle of 110 degrees was chosen because it's the same as the ear spacing on your head and produces a very localized stereo soundfield and greater sense of space as a result.

Figure 1 - ORTF overhead miking

Keep in mind that if you have a very live room, you may want your overheads closer to the kit to reduce the amount of liveness being picked up.

The trick to this overhead technique is that it becomes the main sound of the kit with the other mics just filling in and reinforcing it. It also allows you to use a lot fewer mics, something that we'll discuss later in the article.

When using this technique, the overheads are brought up first in the mix instead of the kick or snare, then the other drum mics are used to fill in the sound. This provides a very open and ambient drum sound with a pretty even balance.

Miking The Cymbals

Miking the cymbals may be a bit of a misnomer as you'll still get plenty of the other drums bleeding into these mics (especially the toms), but the cymbals will be a lot louder than everything else because the mics are closer to them.

Start by putting the left and right mics parallel to each other over the bell of the crash cymbal on each side of the drum kit (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Overhead mic positioning for cymbals

Then place the front of the mic about 12-16" (38-51 cm) high, pointing down over the bell of the crash cymbal (Figure 3). It's important to place the mic over the bell to eliminate the "swishing" sound that happens as the cymbal rocks back and forth as it gets closer and further from the mic when it's placed towards the outside of the cymbal.

Figure 3 - Overhead mic pointed at cymbal bell

If there are two or more crash cymbals, center the mic between the crashes and raise it a bit higher to diminish the swishing problem.

Cymbal balance can be a problem with a drummer without much studio experience because of his choice in cymbals. Most drummers that play live use thick cymbals because they project more and last longer. That being said, thin cymbals sound a lot better for recording. An engineer can deal with either one fairly easily, it's when the cymbals all have different weights that the problem arises. If that's the case, try balancing everything by moving the mics a little one way or the other, especially in favor of the crash cymbals. If the ride is too quiet, give it it's own dedicated mic, preferably over the bell. If that's not possible, place the mic underneath the ride pointing up at the bell and about 6 inches away, but make sure that the phase of the mic is reversed.

Balancing It All Out

To balance the overheads, have your drummer hit the crash cymbals on the left and then the right side of the kit and make sure that the level (which should hit about -10dB on the meters) is the same on both sides (assuming that you're panning the mics left and right for a stereo image). Then have the drummer hit the snare drum and listen to it through only the overhead mics. You should find that it will be just a little right of center if everything is balanced. If a particular cymbal is louder than the others, move the mic away from that cymbal. If one cymbal seems lost, you may want to move the mic a bit closer to it.

Using Room Mics

Many engineers love to use room mics because they add an overall finish and glue the drum kit sound. In many cases, room mics will fill in any frequency holes and make all the individual drums sound more like the complete drum set that it is. Actually, the term "room mics" is a bit of a misnomer. What you're really using are "ambient drum mics" or "distant drum mics" since you're just miking the drums from a distance and picking up the a lot of the room sound as a consequence.

Most A-list engineers like to use large diaphragm vintage mics for the room (which most of us don't have access to), but in reality, the choice matters more in how you'll use them.

  • If the room sounds great, then you really want to use some good quality mics because fidelity will be important.
  • If you're trying to capture a lot of the room ambience, then the quality of the mics are also important.
  • If you don't care much about the room and only want more "glue" on the drum kit, then fidelity, and therefore your mic choice, is important.
  • If you're going to squash the sound from the room mics for that really compressed room sound that many love, it probably won't matter too much what mic you'll use.

Even though most of the time large diaphragm condenser mics are used for this purpose, you'll find that small diaphragm condenser mics work just as well if not better because the frequency response is a bit wider and they react faster to the transients. Also, if the room is dark, then you want a brighter mic that will accentuate the high end a bit so you won't have to EQ later.

Miking The Room With A Single Mic From The Front

If you only want to use a single room mic, this placement method is the way to go. Place the mic about 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) in front of the drum kit at about 7 feet (2.1 meters) high, then aim the mic at a 45 degree angle looking down at the kit. A stereo mic can also work great in this application (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 - Using a stereo mic in front of the kit

Miking The Room Using A Stereo Mic Overhead

Another method for room miking is to place the stereo mic directly over the kit, centering on the middle of the bass drum about 6 feet (1.8 meters) above (see Figure 5). This only works if you have a high ceiling that's at least 12 feet (3.5 meters) high, otherwise the mic will pick up some unwanted reflections from the ceiling that can make it sound pretty bad.

Figure 5 - Using a stereo mic as an overhead

Parallel Room Mics

The most common way to do room miking is with parallel miking. Place a mic at each side of the kit about 10 feet (3 meters) apart and pointed directly at the outside edge of the furthest cymbal. These should be placed about 6 to 10 feet (1.8 to 3 meters) in front of the kit, and should sit just on the edge of the kit on the same plane and exactly parallel to each other (see Figure 6). It might seem like you're miking the wall behind the drum kit, but it will sound great since keeping the mics parallel will keep the phase shift to a minimum.

Figure 6 - Using parallel miking for the room

Using Three Room Mics

This is a combination of single miking and parallel miking, giving you a three mic setup. The engineers that use this setup usually end up using more of the middle mic than of the other two, but it really fills in the sound of the drum kit and adds width to the stereo image at the same time.

For any of these methods, DO NOT engage the low-frequency roll-off on the mic. You want the full frequency spectrum so it will fill in any of the holes that you might get from the other mics on the kit. However, when it comes time to mix, you might decide that the added low end makes the drums sound a little too muddy and you might want to roll it off then.

Room Mic Sound Check

Get a level on the room mics by having the drummer hit the snare drum and adjust the gain until it hits about -10dB on the meters, then have a listen and make sure that the snare is panned off a little to the right, at about 12:30 clock position (the same as you hear it in the room). Ask the drummer to play a song that uses all the cymbals to make sure that nothing is overloading.

Room mics always seem to need a couple of dB increase at 12 to 15kHz to add a little "air", even if the room (or the mics) is bright. If the low end of the room mics muddy up the drum sound and you lose definition on the kick drum, you might want to roll off the low end at about 100Hz. Sometimes the low end is just the thing you need to fill in some areas of the kick or the toms, so it all depends upon the situation. As always, use your ears for the final choice.

It's popular to compress room mics to within an inch of their lives but I don't recommend any compression while recording. It's really easy to do this later during mixing if that's the effect that you really want.

Alternative Miking Techniques

Techniques that we consider alternative today were really the standard drum miking techniques of the past. In fact, you can see how drum miking has progressed as we go through them all.

The Single Mic Technique

If you have limited gear available to you but you want to get started recording drums, or if your aim is to recreate a vintage sound, it's possible to use a minimalist miking technique and achieve a completely different effect than with the tried and true basics described earlier.

In the early days of rock and roll, a drum kit was recorded on one track with one mic. Remember all those great old Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records your grandma played? These are great examples of what can be done with the limited technology they had back in the 1950's and 60's as compared to what's available today. I'm sure if you've ever recorded a band rehearsal, at some point you've probably experimented with a single mic technique. However, there are tricks to getting the best drum sound out of just a single mic.

Single Mic Placement

If you put a mic about 3 feet (1 meter) in front of the drum kit "looking" at the center of the kit, you'll find that it should pick up everything fairly evenly (Figure 7). While the drummer is playing around the whole kit, have someone move the mic around until you find a position that gets an even balance of the entire kit. If you need more bass drum, move the mic down toward the bass drum. If you need a little less, move it higher and away from the bass drum. Obviously, the better the mic, the better the sound, but use what you have and make it sound the best you can by varying the placement, compression and EQ. You'll be surprised at how well this can work.

Figure 7 - Single mic technique

With a single mic on the drums, you'll probably want to use a compressor to smooth out and hold together the dynamics of the kit. Try a fairly light setting just to reign in the peaks, with a gain reduction of -1 to -2dB using a 2:1 ratio and the fastest attack and release settings. Don't be afraid to experiment by over-compressing as you may find you like the effect that it sometimes achieves.

The Two Mic Technique

If you have two mics available, try placing one in front of the bass drum about 6 inches to 1 foot (18 to 32 cm) away from the front head on a short stand and position the other mic up about 3 feet (90 cm) above the kit as an "overhead", looking down at the middle of the kit (Figure 8).

Figure 8 - Two mic technique

While your drummer is playing, have someone move the overhead mic around until the kit sounds balanced through the speakers. If you're not getting enough snare, for example, move it a little more towards the snare, and if you're getting too much, move it the other way. You may want to add a little equalization at 12kHz to give the kit a little more clarity and crispness. Once again, don't be afraid to experiment!

The Three Mic Technique - Option 1

With three mics you have several options as to mic positioning. The first option is to do it as the two mic positioning described above, but add a an additional mic for the snare drum. Position this snare mic as described Part 3 (Figure 9). Remember that this configuration will give you a mono recording only.

Figure 9 - Three mic technique - Option 1

The Three Mic Technique - Option 2

If you would like a stereo recording of your kit with only 3 mics, try using a bass drum mic and two overheads. Place these overhead mics about 3 foot (90 cm) over the left and right sides of the kit pointed straight down, 90 degrees to the floor.

Again, move the mics until you get a stereo image of the kit that satisfies you.

The Three Mic Technique - Option 3

This method may be the most odd looking and non-intuitive option of the 3 mic techniques, but it has a unique place in recording history and really does work. It starts off just like the two mic technique, with a single overhead and kick drum mic, but adds a third mic about 6 inches (15 cm) or so above and away from the floor tom pointing across the kit towards the snare (see Figure 10). It's strange, I know, but the story behind it will explain it a bit better.

Figure 10 - Three mic technique - Option 3

The Zeppelin Connection

This technique was accidentally stumbled upon by the famous engineer/producer Glyn Johns while recording Led Zepplin. Jon Bonham's drums at the time were being recorded in mono with just overhead and kick drum mics (really a drum front mic as it was about 6 feet away from the kick), when Johns sent an assistant out to the studio to change the settings on Jimmy Page's guitar amp. The assistant moved the mic while changing the settings and forgot to move it back. Meanwhile the mic came to rest at the side of the floor tom pointing towards the snare. When Bonham started to play again, everyone in the control room was floored, it sounded so huge. And the drum sound was now stereo, which is the first known occasion of stereo drums!

What to remember here is that the kick drum mic is really a "drum front" mic as it's placed about 6 feet (18 cm) away from the kick where it hears all the drums somewhat equally. The other thing to remember is that the overhead and side mic should be exactly the same distance from the snare (this is the key to the sound)!

So give this method a try. It's fast and easy and really results in a great sound if you can get past the way it looks.

The Four Mic Technique - Option 1

The four mic technique is the same as option two mentioned in the Three Mic Technique but with the addition of a snare drum mic. Position the snare drum mic as described in Part 3 from last month. This technique gives a real open and live sound to your recording (Figure 11).

Figure 11 - The Four mic technique - Option 1

Four Mic Technique - Option 2

In this technique, the kick and snare mics stay the same as the Four Mic Technique Option 1, but the overheads are placed in a crossed ORTF configuration (remember back to the beginning of this article abut overheads?). Place them about 6 or 7 feet (180 to 215 cm) above the kit and centered directly in the middle (see Figure 12).

Figure 12 - The Four mic technique - Option 2

Now you can see how far we've come since the days of just a single mic on the drums. Not to discount that technique or any of the other alternative techniques, because they can sound great and have been used on so many hit records of the past, but the multi-mic setup that we use today provides the engineer with so much more control of the overall drum sound. Still, there's a lot to be said for simplicity, so don't be afraid to try any of these techniques. You may be very surprised at what you come up with.

Next month we'll discuss getting the different ways to get a great balance on the drums and the elusive relationship between the bass and the drums.

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