The Glyn Johns Drum Recording Method

| Audio Example, Tips

When we think of professional drums being recorded in a studio our mind usually draws up images of complex mic techniques utilizing anywhere from 8 to 12 (or more) microphones. A combination of stereo overheads, close mics on each drum, as well as room mics seems to be the doctor’s orders for a modern, punchy drum sound. But today I want to highlight a famous technique for recording big drum sounds with minimal mics (4 to be exact), the Glyn Johns method.

Who Is Glyn Johns?

Glyn Johns is a british musician, engineer, and producer who most notably worked with Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and even started his career assisting for The Beatles. He really made a name for himself in the annuls of recording legend with his monstrous John Bonham drum sounds on all those Zeppelin records. And the kicker…he only used 4 microphones to do it!

Specifically all you need for this method are 2 overhead mics (ideally large diaphragm condensers), one kick mic (dynamic or condenser), and one snare mic (usually a dynamic). The big picture is that the sound comes from the overheads while the kick and snare mics act as “spot” mics to fatten up those two huge elements of the kit and give you a bit more to mix with.

But before you think this is nothing special, you have to realize that the way these two “overhead” mics work together is very unusual and is part of what makes the Glyn Johns method so interesting. Let’s take a look…

It Starts With One Mono Overhead

If you saw last week’s post on makeshift acoustic treatment then you may have noticed the positioning of my drum overhead mics. We used the Glyn Johns method on the drums for this project and it really worked well.

The method starts with taking your first overhead mic and placing it about 3 to 4 feet directly above the snare (or middle of the kit). It should be pointing down at the kit. Record a little bit and listen back to that one mic. You are listening for a complete balance of the kit. You want to hear a nice blend of snare, toms, and cymbals all in one mic. If you have don’t have enough of the hi and mid toms, then angle the overhead a bit towards the toms. If the cymbals are too abrasive, move the mic up a bit more. Rinse and repeat.

Now For Something Completely Different

Once you have a good balance of the kit with your first mic, things get a bit interesting. Take your second overhead mic and place it just to the right of  your floor tom, maybe 6 inches above the rim and facing across the the tom towards the snare and hi hat. As you can see this “overhead” mic isn’t overhead at all, rather it is a side fill mic capturing the kit from a different perspective.

The key to getting this mic in phase with your first overhead mic is to make sure that the grill of the micrphone is exactly the same distance from the center of the snare as the first overhead mic. Simply take a mic cable, have your drummer hold one end of it firmly to the center of the snare as you stretch the cable up to the first overhead and pinch off the distance. Then with your drummer still holding his end firmly to the snare, swing the cable over to the second mic and make sure that mic is lined up with where you are pinching it.

When panned, these two microphones alone should give you a completely balanced, clear, and punch stereo recording of your kit. You should hear the crack of the snare in the center, cymbals all around, and toms punchy and clear. What you will however lack is some obvious low end punch to the kick and some fatness to the snare. That’s where the final two spot mics come into play.

Kick And Snare To Round Things Out

With your overheads sounding good, things get simple. Grab your kick mic and place it close to the resonant head or inside the drum. Place it where you get that fullness and attack that you want to compliment your first two mics. With the snare, place your mic a couple of inches above the rim angled across the snare. Experiment with the angle of this mic for big differences in sound. Adjust these two mics to taste to round out your drum sound. Remember,  you already will have the kick and the snare in your overhead mics to some degree so these two close mics should bring what is missing from that initial sound.

Final Thoughts To This Method

Some things to keep in mind with the Glyn Johns method (and really with any method of recording drums):

  • New drum heads (beater and resonant) are a must to getting the best tones out of your kit. For not much money new heads can guarantee dramatically better drum recordings.
  • Where you record really affects the sound. To get that classic big Bonham drum sound that Johns was made famous for you  need to record in a big sounding room. Of course even in a smaller space, you can get a great sound. The better the room sounds though, the better your recordings will sound.
  • There are no rules. Use this method as a starting point for your recordings if you like. But move things around, experiment, change it up. Rumor has it that this method was discovered by accident anyways, so don’t be afraid of “screwing things up”.

That being said, here is a sample of our drums from last week’s recording. This drum kit was tracked in the foyer of a house using the traditional Glyn Johns method. Mics used were Kel HM-1s for overheads, a Kel HM-2d outside the kick, and a Shure SM-57 over the snare. This is just a raw bounce out of Pro Tools. Enjoy!

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46 Responses to “The Glyn Johns Drum Recording Method”

  1. Marc Lapointe

    Very interesting. I am looking forward to trying this out. First I liked the reference “Rinse and repeat” good early morning chuckle. Question: when you say overhead mics “panned”, do you mean panned opposite (left/right) or panned to center? Thanks

    Reply
    • Zach

      Panned left and right is what he means. Otherwise there is no stereo image. It’s just a mono drum track.

      Reply
  2. Dar

    Thanks Graham! I’ll be testing it out real soon! I’m composing one last song for the band’s latest project.
    My question: the 2nd overhead towards the rear of the kit (floor tom), approx. where should it be position? From the photo, it looks like it’s underneath one of the cymbals but a tad behind the tom…looking at the different angles from the photos.

    Reply
  3. Graham

    @Marc – Yes, I pan the OHs left and right (not quite hard) but that is up to taste.

    @Dar – The 2nd OH is above and slightly back from the floor tom (and yes that put it slightly underneath the cymbal there). The biggest thing with that mic is to look across to the snare and hi hat. Make sure it’s in phase with the first OH then experiment.

    Reply
    • Sam

      Graham,

      What kind of frequency should we get out of the overhead microphones? I looked up the frequency response of the mics you’ve used, and I’m assuming we should go for something really flat. But I’m on a budget, and the flattest thing I can find that fits in my budget is an Audio-Technica AT2020. Any words of wisdom? Better mics in that price range?

      Reply
      • Graham

        Any mic will do. You can always compensate for offending frequencies by tweaking the placement and EQ after the fact if need be.

        Reply
  4. Dar

    One more thing: The set I normally record my drums with is more like the graphic used at the top of this article (2 toms instead of one & 1 splash plus a ride). Should I place the 2nd overhead under the riding cymbal that’s attached the floor tom?

    Reply
  5. Toby Baxley

    Graham – Great post, as always! If possible, I would like to hear the drums mixed in context with the rest of the instruments. In your example, the hat and ride seemed a bit overpowering. I really like this setup, though, especially since I have limited inputs on my interface.

    I just bought a stereo x-y condenser. I wonder how that would work instead of the two separate mics for OH.

    Reply
  6. soupcon

    Just an FYI, but Bonham’s former drum tech was interviewed discussing the JB sound, and he said that JB tuned the bottom side skin tighter than the top in order to push out as much air as possible.That’s how he was able to project the huge sound.

    Reply
  7. ThatGuy

    Glyn Johns recommmends not hard panning the drums – but putting them just off centre. He also says that measuring a precise distance is, and I quote, “bullshit”! :) Hear it from the horses mouth….

    Reply
    • Graham

      This is AWESOME. Thanks for sharing. Love his emphasis on simplicity, letting the drummer play, etc. (FWIW, I’d still do a quick measure to keep the OH mics equidistant from the snare, makes life easier in the end)

      Reply
  8. Martijn

    Great post, gonna try it tomorrow! …there are no rules… is it advisable to use a matched pair for the overheads? They record something different, so I assume I can pick two different mics. Am I right?

    Reply
  9. Alexandre

    Hi Graham,

    Sorry for my poor english, i’m from Brazil.
    I need to start recording my band (include the drums). I now have a 4 channel audio interface, the presonus 44vsl. I also have a true shure sm57, and a G.P.A. 570 (a cheaper version of the sm57), because i used to record guitar. I’m thinking about buy a samson C01, for vocals and maybe drums overhead. Do you think C01 is a good mic for overhead? And think with these three mics is possible to get a acceptable sound? The objective for while is just to record some demos. Thank you so much, and congratulations for your awesome work with hints, lessons and posts. They are very important for begginers like me.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Yes, I’ve used the C01 on drum overheads a lot, especially live. Great little mic. And yes three mics is perfectly fine to capture a drum kit.

      Reply
    • buzzyH

      I dis a session and they only had 1 OH sampson C01. Everything else was close miked. If that’s all you have use it. If the kit and drummer is worth it you may want better. I’ve been using a pair of rode nt1s on the road. Here’s the session. http://youtu.be/LxwLN0OqrIo

      Reply
  10. Oliver

    Very interesting. I once read that the famous ‘Levee break” was done in a staircase. The sound is obviously many things. Tape Saturation for one. it’s just one of those magic things, like the “AMEN” break. I will start following the blog close, even though I dont produce as much. I’d rather focus on song writing and bringing Rockand Roll back in a huge way. Thx

    Reply
  11. Frank Sinatra

    Don’t want to take any credits from Glyn, but that record technique is 100% from Jimmy Page. He produced all the Led Zeppelin albums and was responsible for the sound, NOT Glyn Johns. Actually Glyn tried to get some producers credits but Page didn’t gave him any.

    Reply
  12. Mc

    “He really made a name for himself in the annuls of recording legend with his monstrous John Bonham drum sounds on all those Zeppelin records. ”

    Uh, first of all, the word is “annals.” Second, Glyn Johns he was the engineer on exactly one Led Zeppelin album — the first one. And Page had more to do with how the drums were recorded than Johns did.

    Reply
    • Alamo Audio Concepts

      In reply to the smart ass “annuls” comment:

      You’re correct about johns work on only the first album. But, in honesty, the bonham sound on all the subsequent albums isn’t the end all be all drum sound if you ask me. It’s worth the time to find out what else Johns engineered in his long career, along with his brother Andy. But I guess it’s easier for you to take a dump all over a beloved blogger than to produce something of equal worth. So, flame on. As a matter of fact, there’s no time to spare: You’d better go check out Gearslutz, there’s probably some newby there you can flame for not knowing everything you do.

      Also, for the comment prior to that, I get the feeling your understanding of the roles of an “engineer” and “producer” are hazy at best, Jimmy Page did indeed produce the albums in question, and had a pretty good idea of how to work in the studio from his days as a session musician. All that said, the job of a producer (or receiving producer credits therein) can range anywhere from some guy saying “no that sounds bad, yes that sounds good. Sing louder here. Sing more quietly here” all the way to a guy in a lab coat who demands ” I want km84′s on the drum overheads, Coles 4038′s on the cellos, md421′s on the bass cabinets. I want the overheads 28 inches above the snare in an Coincident pair, I want the snare mic’d with a m201, through the Pultec, boosting 100hz and 6hhz and attenuating at 40hz and 16khz, then into the Fairchild 660. I want the vocals on a C12, into the LA2A, and the drum overheads into the 1176′s. I want to track drums on tape at 30ips, then bounced to Protools at 24bit/192k.

      Just to make it all even more confusing, I’ve come across rappers who call the guys who make and sell pre-made beats/music “Producers”. I engineered and produced a rapper who bought his music/beats from a guy who wanted “producer” credits. I told him he’d be credited as “Music / Percussion written by:” and we butted heads for a while. In the end, it was I who helped the artist decided which parts To use, where to double, where to dub ablibs, coached the vocal performance, ect.

      Reply
  13. BillyZeppa

    I wasn’t able to make out what he said about the fader (at -10db) and the gain – and this is the part that i found most interesting – does anyone know what he was actually saying and why? TIA.

    Reply
    • Jim Ash

      What he was saying was that he likes the sound ( on a good console )
      of raising the gain 10 db and then lowering the fader a corresponding 10 db, thereby
      getting more of the sound of the preamp involved, without overloading the output.

      Reply
      • BillyZeppa

        Ahh. thanks Jim. So I assume the same principle applies if you are using a mic. pre into A/D converter, rather than a console.

        Reply

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