Audio engineers and mixers alike love a well-captured drum tone, but it’s something that takes a lot of practice to perfect. For many, the question comes down to two main questions: how many microphones are needed and how do you use them in a way that gets you the sound you’re after?
Today, I want to look at the common microphones you’ll find in just about every drum tracking session and how they’re used for maximum impact, character, and size.
Start by Looking Up
For inexperienced recordists, recording drums might sound as simple as putting a spot mic on every piece of the kit. The thought is that by having a close mic on each drum, you’ll be able to capture them individually and handle the rest in the mix. Anyone who’s tried the approach will tell you it’s not that simple though – there’s phase and stereo imaging that needs to be considered when working with a drum kit.
Therefore, many engineers find it easier to start with their overheads and work backwards from there. Overhead microphones paint an overall picture of your drum tone quickly and simply. Even a good mono recording of a microphone centered above a kit can be effective in a tight situation where you just need a basic recording for a demo. Just listen to how much character the overheads add to James Licata’s drum sound in this clip:
In practice, modern music is much more demanding of a stereo overhead sound and the microphone options are numerous.
The most common types of microphones used on overheads are pairs of condenser microphones – either with a large diaphragm (LDC) or small diaphragm (SDC, or sometimes referred to as pencil condensers). The sound and frequency responses vary as much between different brands and models of LDCs as LDCs do with SDCs, so characterizing either is difficult. The general rule of thumb is that LDCs give a fuller, more colorful sound while SDCs are more detailed and pointed in their applications. Depending on the situation, one set of microphones may make more sense for your song than another.
When you’re just starting out, the choice between various pairs of microphones isn’t a common issue to have. Most importantly, you need to make sure you have a matched pair (or at least two of the same make & model microphones). The sound of an overhead setup depends on having a balanced sound between the two and you’ll never get there by mixing and matching.
Kick Drum Microphones
If you track drums with overheads, the first, most obviously missing element of your sound is going to be the kick drum. You might get a bit of that booming low end in your overhead sound, but the direct, punchy, clickiness is firing out of the front of the drum, not up toward your microphones.
As a result, your second microphone should be for your kick drum.
Kick drums are extremely loud sound sources with high sound pressure levels (SPL). Because of this, dynamic microphones are highly recommended. They can handle all of the dBs your kick drum can throw, especially when placed inside the drum shell.
For a clicky kick drum sound, try to aim the microphone at the spot where the beater hits the drumhead inside the shell. Angling it away from this spot will give you a slightly boomier, warmer tone, though at the expense of some of that attack. If you can spare an additional microphone and input, some engineers will use two kick mics – one inside and one outside to blend for a bigger kick sound.
Snare Drum Microphones
The other necessary spot mic for any modern session is a snare drum microphone. The snare may be more present in your overhead sound than your kick was, but usually it’s a far cry from what a direct mic pointed at the spot where your stick hits the snare can accomplish.
Once again, high SPLs play a large role in the sound of a snare drum, so dynamic microphones are popular here as well. Unless you’re able to back the microphone away from the snare a few inches, you risk damaging other mics with the crack of each snare hit – especially when working with a powerful drummer.
To help add some dimension and character, engineers will also pair a snare bottom mic with the top mic on occasion. This adds sizzle and warmth by picking up more of the snare’s shell sound and the snares rattling on the bottom of the drum. If you take this approach, make sure you flip the phase on your bottom microphone since it’ll be 180 degrees out of phase with your top mic. Many engineers miss this step and wonder why they get a thinner, weaker snare despite the additional microphone.
Great engineers should be able to get a completely usable sound by focusing on the 3 sources above, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. As budgets, inputs, and other resources allow for, spot microphones on each tom and even the occasional cymbal such as the hi hat are common. Each microphone you add is a chance to capture a more detailed sound, but it also introduces the chance for more phase cancellation. By constantly checking each spot mic against the overheads, you can minimize this risk. Simply toggle the phase of each mic in your DAW and adjust their placement to find the best combo!
Pairing Drums with Samples
Producers from all different genres love to enhance their drums, either using drum samples that they layer in, programmed electronic drums, or even percussive post-production sounds that aren’t drums at all!
There are a lot of options out there, but our favorites right now are the sounds in the Post Production Kaoss Volume 1 sample pack. With 100+ hits, booms, risers, slams, and more – it’s the perfect option to add some character to lackluster drum mixes.