Miking Drums: 3 Drum Recording Myths

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Contrary to popular belief there is no one correct way to record drums. In fact there are literally hundreds of ways to record a drum kit. Which is awesome! But for some reason, a few age old myths remain floating around the halls of audio “wisdom” and I’d like debunk them here for you.

Joe and I covered these myths in detail in a recent podcast episode but thought they could use repeating here on the blog. Please read with an open mind.

 

TRR154 3 Drum Recording Myths

Via xmith xmith Flickr

Myth #1 – You Have To Record Drums With Stereo Overheads

This is my favorite myth, so let’s hit it first. It’s common knowledge that just about everybody records drum overheads with two mics. Right? Right?! Well, you sure do see it a lot. And it makes plenty of sense if you want to capture a stereo balance of the kit. But this brings up the question. Why do you need a stereo balance of the kit in the overheads anyway?

The answer: you don’t! Especially when it comes to mixing, the drums tend to sit straight up the middle in much modern music. In fact, so many people fail to see just how awesome a mono drum overhead is. It rids you of any phase issues, can give you a punchy “centered” view of the kit, and best of all you can use your best microphone for the job instead of a matched pair of two sub-par mics. Give it a try next time. It might just open your mind up.

Myth #2 – You Should Have Spot Mics On Every/Most Drums

You see this myth a lot, likely because so many magazines show pro drummers with lots of mics on each drum. One for the snare top, snare bottom, kick outside, kick inside, hi-hat, etc. The list never ends. The problem with this thinking is that you need a lot of microphones, a lot of preamps, and a lot of time to deal with phase issues. It can be an awesome way to record, but it’s not the only way.

Since your drum overheads are really where your sound is coming from, you should view the spot/close mics as enhancers. I like to take a minimalist approach to recording drums whenever I can. And some great minimalist methods are the Recorderman method, the Glyn Johns technique, and of course my favorite one mic approach. A great example of a band who is shattering both myths #1 and #2 is The Black Keys. They typically record drums with 3 mics, using a mono overhead. And it sounds fat!

Myth #3 You Have To Record Drums In A Big Room

Let me start out by saying that most of the drum tracks we grew up listening to were tracked in a nice big drum room. There’s almost no substitute for that sound. I’m not against it (or either of the above myths). I just would like to point out that it’s not necessary for a great drum sound.

When limited to recording drums in small spaces (like I am a lot of the times) you benefit from throwing around some makeshift acoustic treatment and keeping the mics a little closer to the kit. The lower your mics are the, the fewer room reflections they will pick up. Then bring in a bit of reverb or a compressed room mic from down the hall to create a sense of space and energy. It will go a long way, trust me!

Be Courageous

As a final thought, I want to challenge you to be courageous in the studio. Learn as much as you can, but then go out and try some crazy stuff. Challenge the accepted ways of doing things and find something new that sounds even better. Don’t just digest and spit out what you read on a blog or forum. Try things, experiment, get after it.

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30 Responses to “Miking Drums: 3 Drum Recording Myths”

  1. Cameron Norman

    I usually record with stereo overheads and I was blessed with a fairly large room (with vaulted ceilings!), but I definitely prefer not to use spot mics on the toms.

    Reply
      • Cameron Norman

        To me, it sounds unnatural and is just overdoing it. Sometimes I use them, but when I do they are always a small part of the mix. They are useful for creating a stereo drum sound, but properly placed stereo overheads can easily accomplish that.

        Reply
    • sam bates

      Me too. They always sound too removed from the main sound to me! I’ll often just mic the underside of the snare too, get plenty of smack from the OH. I like using mono OH sometimes if it’s a simple drum part though.

      Reply
  2. Jérémie

    Hi Graham! I love this article, really simple, and I feel concerned since I record drums in my home studio with only 8 preamps. But I have a question. My drum have been getting bigger and larger lately, more toms, more cymbals etc. Does the size of my kit matters in choosing to use a mono overhead or a pair of stereo overheads? And another simple question that is tricky for me: If you CAN record your drum with stereo overheads and spot mics,does it means you SHOULD record like this? The Pros always have a lot of mics around their drum, but is it really usefull? Could they get a better sound with just a mono overhead and fewer spot mics?

    Thanks
    Jay

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hi Jeremie,

      It’s really about what YOU want. Not what I suggest, or what you see the pros doing. If you have the mics to do stereo and you like what you’re getting, then do it. I’m just pointing out that it’s not the only way to get a great drum sound.

      Reply
  3. MartinSoundLabs

    My biggest problem is that my trio records basic tracks live, we are not in the cans, so i get the inevitable guitar and bass bleed on the drum tracks, PARTICULARLY the overhead… i try to do my bass parts after they are done, to reduce the bass bleed… so now i’m learning about using gates to remove the crap between the kick hits… before realizing i can do that, i spent the weekend manually removing/clearing the space between each kick hit, and fading/smothing the beginnings and ends of each resultant kick clip. Yikes.. Love this site/blog, by the way.

    Reply
  4. Taylor

    Great tips Graham! I was curious what your thoughts were on recording drum samples? Doing something like using an overhead mic and a close mic on each individual drum/cymbal and trying a couple different velocities.

    I know there are plenty of professionally done samples i.e. Native Instruments and Steven Slate, that have used this technique for the drum samples we hear in almost every modern recording, but what would you say to the person trying to build their very own sample library to stand out amongst the generic drum sound?

    Reply
    • Graham

      I think it’s a great idea. In fact on many tracking sessions, I have the drummer record some kick and snare hits that I store in the session in case I need them.

      Reply
      • Taylor

        Ah. Smart. Your videos are super useful and informative. Keep up the good work.

        Reply
  5. Mark

    In order to record a drumkit, the technique should depend on the song, and perhaps the album. If you have the gear available, there’s nothing wrong with stereo overheads. Give a listen, and pan to the middle if necessary. With the drums themselves, unless the song depends on stereo, or even 6.1 surround, there’s likely no reason to offer the drumset in stereo. In fact, it may even be distractive. The exception there is the drum solo. I like to mic my kit so that during a solo, the drums to my left appear in the left channel, the middle drums panned center, and the floor tom to the right channel. In this way, the audience should hear the kit the way the drummer does.

    Reply
  6. SquidCap

    If you got equipment, i don’t see why wouldn’t you use spot mics. You don’t have to use them in the final mix but not having them at all might cause troubles.. Most often i drop tom channels completely away and use just overheads. But then on that one song you want to have that one tom with a lots of reverb and your screwed. (or you have to do lots of editing to extract those toms and it still sounds odd..). I’ll rather have more choices when mixing, it’s not like we are really limited on channels anymore.

    Reply
  7. Mickey

    Keep in mind that every open mike is a potential problem. Phase issues can be daunting to smooth out, because phase problems occur at different frequencies- remember the wave length of low frequencies is measured in feet, while the wave length of frequencies is measured in inches, or fractions thereof as you go up the scale. So placement of multi mics becomes increasingly critical up the scale- think where a splashy cymbal resides in the frequency spectrum. And even though phasing of mics used in recording drums can be resolved with careful placement, problems with mics capturing other instruments in the room may be increased. Unless you’re shooting for an off-axis, highly ambient sound, you may just be setting yourself up for a really muddy mess. And even if your sound gets whipped into shape in a multi mic set-up, your problems get worse if you need to overdub to fix anything in the other instrument tracks: all of that drum bleed through magically disappears on the punched-in or re-recorded parts. And if you re-do a whole track, intonation and precision problems rear their ugly heads.
    Not to say don’t ever do it: depending on the piece, the music, the equipment, and the musicians, multi mici-ing may be just the ticket. But less can be more. I’ve worked a lot of years with four, usually three drum mics.

    Reply
  8. Paul Motter

    I was a pro-recording Engineer in Hollywood for 10 years, working mostly on smaller projects; demos, TV soundtracks, movies, commercials, some records. The upside was that I was faced with a different situation almost every day. Let’s just say I had probably 1000s of opportunities to mic drum sets that I had never seen before, and in most cases I only had up to 2 hours to get a great sound.

    After awhile you start to find things that always work; things like this…

    1) if the bottom heads are off the toms you can mic from the inside and get a fantastic, isolated sound.

    2) same with the kick, mic from the inside through a hole in the front head. Use a pillow and (more important) a weight on the beater head inside, tune it low to get some snap and just the right amount of low-end bump.

    3) never put a mic OVER a snare or a hi-hat. The sounds of those pieces come from the top and sides – not just the top. If you mic a hi-hat just right you can get the sound of the foot pedal working alone as well as the sticks, at the correct balance in loudness between the two sounds.

    4) re the hi-hat, pointing and placing a mic is KEY. For example, you want to mic the place where the two hi-hat cymbals meet, but you don’t want the AIR that gets pushed out, just the sound. Raise the mic a bit OVER but outside the plane of the top cymbal and find the balance between the sticks and foot pedal action alone. I usually would mic the opposite side from the sticks.

    5) re the snare – a great sounding snare sounds like wood (not metal or “boing”) and it has a snap, a resonance, and the snares. You need to find the spot where all those sounds are balanced correctly and usually that spot is out and away from the snare, not over it.

    6) cymbals sound best miked from above – never from the side so you get the up/down oscillation. Miked from above you get the sound of breaking glass – not a gong.

    7) Pianos – I used to mic a grand almost every day. The key here is not to mic the hammers (so dumb and so common). Mic the spot where the hammers strike the strings (not over the hammers, but about 2 inches down the string looking at the spots where the hammers touch. This one example alone I think defines a lot of mic theory.

    Mic Theory: get the entire instrument when possible (sometimes leakage forces you to get closer). And look for the spot that creates the sound that is most realistic and representative of that instrument. For example, no one listens to an acoustic guitar with their ear in the sound hole. But a close-miked finger picked acoustic can sound great not too far from the sound hole. I would usually aim for the 12th fret.

    Finally – go with what works.

    Reply
  9. Steve K

    Just found this site and have been voraciously going though it. Thanks for all the great work.
    I’ve tried variations of minimal micing for years. Sometimes it works, like putting a single 57 overhead above the snare for an old school R&B tune. The last year or so I’ve been putting an LDC over my left shoulder with a ribbon over to the right. Similar to Gly Johns but I saw a video of Steve Jordan set up like this and liked the sound.
    But recently I’ve gotten a set of e603s and like the attack and clarity they bring to fills involving the toms. Not a lot but mixed in with the overheads just enough to bring some snap to the hits. Phase problems don’t crop up given the ratio of distance between these mics and the overheads from the drums.

    Recently did a session at a recording school and got the tracks at home to mix down. Mic crazy. Ton of tracks that they carefully time aligned but you can go out of your mind with the variations. High end mics in a good room too. C12s for room mics, Royer stereo overhead, 421s on the toms, U47FET kick out, with a B52 in and a SubKick along with a Coles out in front of the kick. All run though fancy outboard on the way in. Kind of has that really punchy live concert sound. But not any better or clearer than what I get at home with modest stuff.

    Interestingly, the common thing in both situations is keeping the hi-hat out of the snare mic so you can play with snare reverb or eq, or even just punch up the snare level. For all the fancy mics and outboard, the hat still bleeds into everything including the snare track. At home I’ve been using a B57 knockoff and trying different placements. A compromise between snare sound and isolation from the hats. That would make an interesting article if there were any good techniques for this.

    Reply
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    Reply
  11. Azael

    Hello!

    I need to say that this is a very interesting post. I guess that the main point is to try different methods and experiment based on the genre you are working with at the moment.

    While it is true that you can get a good drum sound with a very small number of mics as well as getting rid of phase related issues, it is important to point out that it also depends on the genre you are recording tracks to. While you can get away wih using one overhead mic, there are times that you really need that stereo width on your track. Your mastering engineer would thank you for that if the situation calls for it. The same can go for the recording room. There are times that you may have to record inside a badly conditioned room that the best bet is to close mic everything and add ambience and reverb during mixing. I understand that micing drums closely may not sound as natural as micing them a bit farther, but it sure is possible to arrive at a compromise between isolating each drum and have them sound more natural.

    I guess that it all comes back to what works best for the genre you are working on.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    P.S. I loved your post about mixing with headphones. I concur that you can get good results, specially if you are forced to use them since the control room is not properly treated

    Reply
  12. KohuGaly

    This is actually really relevant topic for me currently. Our band is in the process or recording an album (just finishing pre-production and we’ll be hitting recording phase starting next week). What we’re kind of struggling with is the drum sound. We used sampled drums last time (and during composing) since we had no drummer back then and are considering recording drums in a studio this time.
    What mixed the cards is that a week ago we moved to a new rehearsal room, which is considerably more spacey than studio we originally intended to record drums in. Also a guy we share the room with has a rig to record drums (8channel ADDA, mics etc.) and is OK with borrowing it. If we would be able to squeeze a decent drum sound out of it, investing a bit more time and considerably less money in the process, it would be awesome.

    What I’m concerned with is that high quality drums are kind of a must-have in the genre we are playing (symphonic power/death/black metal, think old Nightwish/Dimmu Borgir). In fact, I’m even sceptical about the studio guys being able to give us quality we’re after (it’s a local non-profit radio-station, not exactly pros in the industry). We want the drums finished till the end of may, so we can’t exactly waste time playing with gear.
    Do you think it is possible to achieve decent drum sound with 0 experience and that little time on our own?

    Reply
    • Graham

      For sure it’s possible. For your genre, you might still benefit from blending some samples in with your recorded drums.

      Reply
  13. Jean-Philippe Denis

    What works ok for me is 4 mics:

    Kick, snare, and stereo overheads. I usually just track live performance with my guitarist and bassist, (one dynamic close mic on bass cab and on guitar amp)… Drums blends there too and that gives some dimension and ”big sound”.

    anyway I am a shitty drummer that plays on a shitty kit so it will never sound great. But this technique give me ”decent” results.

    Reply

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