Hear what different mic options on drums sound like and learn how various mic placements – combined with dampening options – affect the tone of the final drum recording.
By Hunter West
This is the second installment of a 3-part series on recording drums at home. Check out part 1 on choosing the room & acoustic treatment here.
Once you’ve made the decision on a space to start recording drums in, the next step is to consider what instruments you have available and what microphones you have to capture those instruments.
The most important factor in a recording is always the source. If you can get things sounding great at the kit, the rest becomes a lot easier.
In this blog, we will discuss how you can think about tuning & dampening options, and how those changes will translate under microphones. We will also discuss the varying characteristics of different styles of microphones and how that plays into the final drum sound.
1. What kind of sound are you going for?
While there are, quite literally, millions of different drum sounds one could achieve, let’s keep it simple and define the types of sounds you would want into 4 main categories: small, big, muted and open. Essentially, any drum sound you’ve ever heard could be categorized under those 4 general styles. Even within those few overarching styles, there are 4 different combinations you could experiment with. Let’s talk about those differences and some simple ways to achieve them.
a. Small vs. Big
What characterizes a sound as being small vs. big? Some might say it has a lot to do with the literal size of the drums, but that’s not always true. Understanding the ways in which we can manipulate that perceived “bigness” with tuning and mic placement can blur those lines. A “big” sound could be related to many other factors, like the amount of low frequency information present, the length of sustain, or even at times the amount of attack or transient in the sound. With that said, using smaller drums for small sounds and bigger drums for bigger sounds can often get you there easier.
b. Muted vs. Open
What characterizes a sound as muted or open? Those words could also be replaced with short vs. sustained, or dead vs. ringy. It usually has to do with one main factor: decay. Decay is how long the sound takes to stop sustaining. For example, a “muted” snare may only sustain for less than a second, whereas an open snare may ring for several seconds.
Now that we’ve contrasted these styles, let’s discuss a few ways to achieve each at the source.
The first thing to consider is the multitude of ways that you can mute or dampen your drums, and the effect that each method has on the result. Let’s start with the least amount of dampening and work up to the most dampened.
OPEN SOUND: Small amount of sustain/overtone control, full attack
When you don’t want to change the tone/attack of the drums but still want to dampen them a small amount (for something like a punchy rock sound), something like the Snareweight, moon gels, or even a piece of gaffer tape on your snare & toms will do the trick. These items sit lightly on the head with minimal weight and simply lessen the decay, depending on where they are placed. For the kick, placing a light blanket or towel inside the drum with the material up against the heads will work great.
SEMI-MUTED: Medium amount of sustain/overtone control, full attack
When you want to control or take away even more sustain/overtones but still maintain the same amount of attack (for something like a funk or pop sound), you could use something like the Roots EQ ring, BFSD rings, or even cutting the center out of a previously used head. The extra weight and surface area coverage cuts down considerably on the decay, but your stick is still able to come in direct contact with the heads to maintain attack. For the kick, using a heavy blanket or multiple blankets/towels up against the heads will shorten the kick decay even more for a punchy sound.
HEAVILY MUTED: Large amount of sustain/overtone control, less attack
If you’re going for a very short and muted sound (often used for a “70s” or “disco” sound), using something like the Roots EQ heads or even tea towels from around the house as well as removing the bottom heads can be the trick. Covering the entire batter head heavily shortens the sustain and attack by adding wright and thickness to the surface you are playing. If you don’t want to take off the bottom heads, taping them up heavily can achieve a similar result. For the kick, also try removing the front heads and keeping all the blankets inside the drum up against the batter head.
Here are some examples to compare the sound of a kit open, semi-muted and heavily muted.
- Example 1 – Open Kit
- Example 2 – Open Kit (no room mics)
- Example 3 – Semi-Muted Kit
- Example 4 – Semi-Muted Kit (no room mics)
- Example 5 – Heavily-Muted Kit
- Example 6 – Heavily-Muted Kit (no room mics)
Now, let’s lay out some simple starting places for 4 varieties of sounds. Keep in mind, there are no hard rules. These are simply examples of ways to get in the ballpark quickly.
Small & Muted: smaller drums (kicks 20” or below, toms 10”-14”, snares 5.5” or shallower), using smaller lighter sticks, playing lightly. Perhaps using a soft kick beater. Tuning could be any range but likely somewhere medium low - medium high.
Small & Open: smaller drums (kicks 20” or below, toms 10”-14”, snares 5.5” or shallower), using smaller, lighter sticks, playing light-medium dynamically. Soft - medium kick beater. Tuning could be any range but likely somewhere medium - high.
Big & Muted: bigger drums (kicks 22” and above, toms 12”-18”, snares 4” or deeper), medium-large sticks, playing medium-loud. Soft - medium kick beater. Tuning range likely low-medium.
Big & Open: bigger drums (kicks 22” and above, toms 12”-18”, snares 4” or deeper), medium-large sticks, playing medium-loud. Medium - hard kick beater. Tuning range likely medium low-medium high.
Once a kit is setup acoustically, let’s talk about how you will be capturing it.
2. What kind of mics do you have available?
Now that we’ve established some ways to change the physical drum sound in the room, it’s time figure out how the drums will be captured.
The two most important things to consider are:
- - How many input channels do you have?
- - What kind of microphones do you have to fill those inputs?
Generally, the ability to record with more mics allows for each mic to do a more specific job, giving you more control over the balance when mixing. But more mics will also introduce more issues with phasing. With less microphones, each mic needs to pull more weight in the mix, giving you less control of the balance later. But this method can sound more phase coherent or pure. The types of microphones involved plays heavily into these roles, so let’s do a quick run through of several pickup patterns and mic types.
a. Pickup patterns
Cardioid picks up signal only in the front of the mic and rejects from the back. Visually, imagine the top of a mushroom.
Figure-of-8 picks up from the front and back of the mic and rejects the sides. Visually, it looks just like the number 8.
Omni picks up 360 degrees around the microphone. Visually, it’s simply a circle.
b. Mic Types
Dynamic mics are often in the middle of the road frequency wise, offer a punchy sound and can be placed in just about any position with favorable results. They most often have a cardioid pickup pattern, but some are omni as well. Dynamic mics often have great rejection of surrounding sounds as well. They are great for close miking on the shells but can be used literally anywhere on a drum kit. They often have a more mid-forward focus.
There are two styles of condenser mics: large diaphragm (LDC) and small diaphragm (SDC). Condenser mics capture the full frequency spectrum, offer a smoother sound, and can be used in many different applications. They often contain more bleed from surrounding sounds because they are more sensitive than dynamic mics. Condensers will sometimes offer cardioid, figure of 8, and omni pickup patterns. They work great for overheads, rooms, cymbal spot mics, outside kick mics, and sometimes even tom/snare mics.
Ribbon mics typically capture fairly full frequency spectrums, but often roll off some of the top end. They are generally very warm and rich in the low-mid areas. Most ribbon mics’ pickup pattern is figure of 8 but there are a few that are cardioid. Ribbons often work well for overheads or room miking because they tame cymbal harshness in a musical way. Ribbons can be sensitive to high SPLs and air flow, so they often aren’t recommended for close miking uses.
Here are some examples comparing different microphones when capturing a kit with a single mic.
- Example 7 – Auricon E-6 (Dynamic)
- Example 8 – EV RE-15 (Dynamic)
- Example 9 – Shure sm57 (Dynamic)
- Example 10 – Telefunken M60 FET (SDC)
- Example 11 – Warm Audio 47JR FET (LDC)
- Example 12 – Mojave MA-300 Tube (LDC)
- Example 13 – Beyer M160 (Ribbon)
- Example 14 – Coles 4038 (Ribbon)
Now, let’s decide how to use these mics in practice.
3. How many inputs do you have available and how can you make the most of those with mic placement?
With a basic understanding of what types of mics you have and how they work, it’s time to put this into practice. I would recommend starting minimally, and then adding more mics once you’ve gotten great results from the ‘less is more’ mentality. Let’s layout some standard positions based on the number of mics/inputs available.
For this option, I would recommend either an overhead position or a knee position. You can capture a well-balanced picture of a full kit in either of these positions if the drummer is balancing their actual playing. The overhead option gets more cymbal clarity and less body, where the knee position captures more body but a more smeared cymbal sound.
For this option, I would recommend putting one mic in the overhead position and one on the kick drum. This way, you get the full kit picture of the overhead mic but with the added body from the kick mic that the overhead mic may be lacking.
With 4 mics, if I wanted a stereo image of the kit I would place 2 mics in overhead positions, and then one on kick and one on snare. If I valued having a more distant capture over a stereo image, I would move one of the overheads to a room mic position instead. With either of these, you are getting the full kit capture with the overhead/room, and also capturing the body of the two most important drums; kick and snare.
With 6 mics, I would likely setup 2 overheads, kick, snare, and 2 toms, or one overhead, kick, snare, 2 toms and a room mic. You could capture the body from every shell (in a standard 4-piece setup), but also have full kit captures from the overheads/room.
With 8 mics, two ideal setups might be: 2 overheads, kick, snare, 2 toms and 2 rooms, or the same, but only using 1 room mic and instead move the other room mic to the knee position. If you don’t need a room capture, you could move the room mic to the kick as a second mic, hi-hat or snare bottom.
When you get to this many mics, you start to have a lot of options. You could likely cover every standard position: 2 overheads, kick, snare, 2 toms, 2 rooms, hihat and snare bottom. Then, you could get creative with adding a second kick mic, the knee position, and/or an additional overhead for a 3-mic overhead setup.
Here’s an example of a standard mic setup for me with placements:
One of the most important things to think about when you start miking with a stereo setup for overheads or room mics, is the technique involved and how that impacts the stereo image of the kit. Let’s compare the 3 most common overhead/room configurations.
a. Spaced Pair
The two mics are placed a distance away from each other on each side of the kit or room, splitting the drum kit into left and right sides. This will give you the widest stereo image but can also make it tough to capture your kick and snare in the center of the stereo image. The most important thing for this configuration is to measure and make sure the two spaced overhead mics are equally distant from the center of the snare drum. This will ensure they’re in phase with each other.
The two mics are generally placed above the center of the kit in very close proximity to each other and point across each other in an X/Y axis configuration to capture each side of the kit or room. This will give you the tightest picture of the kit, the kick/snare centered with a narrower stereo image. If each mic capsule is within an inch of each other and aligned with one another, there should be no need to take measurements with this technique.
c. Glyn Johns/Recorderman (for OHs only) c. Glyn Johns/Recorderman (for OHs only)
One mic is placed directly over the snare, and one mic is placed to the right side of the side of the kit: either near the floor tom (Glyn Johns) or over the shoulder (Recorderman). Both have a similar vibe but create a slightly different stereo image/balance. Like the spaced pair option, you must measure and make sure both mics are equidistant to the snare drum. These methods sort of sit in the middle of spaced pair and X/Y. They sound more centered than spaced pair, but wider than X/Y. While to some degree this method gives you get the best of both worlds, it is the hardest to get right.
Here are some examples of the kit recorded with these various configurations:
- Example 15 – Spaced Pair (OHs only)
- Example 16 – Spaced Pair (Full Kit)
- Example 17 – X/Y (OHs only)
- Example 18 – X/Y (Full Kit)
- Example 19 – Recorderman (OHs only)
- Example 20 – Recorderman (Full Kit)
The variety of sounds we can achieve between the modifications of the instrument and the way we capture it will surely keep you chasing that “sound” in your head for years to come. Hopefully this gave you some more insight into the process and will get you on your way to recording drums at home.
This is the second installment of a 3-part series on recording drums at home. Check out part 1 on choosing the room & acoustic treatment here.
Hunter West is a producer, mix engineer, musician, and artist currently based in Nashville, TN. Check out Hunter’s work, samples, and more here: huntertwest.com.
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