When it comes to the drums, they can be one of the most challenging instruments to record. Unlike a guitar or vocals, you are essentially recording multiple instruments.
Each drum and cymbal is an instrument in itself and the best sound and tone needs to be picked up by the mics from each part of the kit.
I have recorded drums in multiple ways from being in a top of the range recording studio to bedroom home recording and everything in between. Some projects I have been part of include Indie Folk band River Meets Sea, Punk Rock band Supernothing, Indie Rock band Thelma Ball, as well as my own hip hop track.
With each of these projects, I have tried to approach each one attempting to capture the right sound that best fits the vibe of the group. In this article, I will outline some effective ways of recording drums without having to break the bank.
Equipment & Setup
1. Obvious but Important One/ The drummer
The first piece of equipment you will need to record a great drum sound is a great drummer! There are so many possibilities in how a drummer can hit the drums, creating many sounds and tones.
If the drummer has a great touch and tone when playing a kit, it makes the whole drum kit sound another level better, bringing the drums to life. When your drums sound better, your microphones will sound better, no matter which mics you are using.
There are also many varieties in which a drum groove can be played. You can take a group of 10 drummers all playing the same piece of music; however, that piece of music will come out in 10 different flavors and styles.
It is important to find the right drummer with the great feeling you want for the song. You don’t want to be using a thrash metal drummer for a jazz trio or vice versa.
2. The Drums
The next important step is to start with a well-selected, tuned, and treated drum kit. Drums are like any other instrument, such as guitars or keys.
Each drum needs to be in tune to sound at its best. When a drum is well-tuned, it can have a great tone and really sing. It is miles better to have a cheaper well-tuned drum kit then to have a top of the line luxury kit with bad tuning.
The drum selection themselves is also an important part when it comes to recording. Like how 10 drummers playing the same song can each have their own style, the same goes for drums.
Also, when placing microphones, or “micing” drum set, there are many different factors involved and several things to be considered. The microphones are secondary to the drum set itself, so it’s important to select the right drums, cymbals, and drumheads for the job.
Drum Set Selection
1. In selecting the drum set, many different types of wood will affect the sound, the two most popular being maple and birch. Maple offers a more “full” sound with an increased low end, while birch is punchy and more midrange focused.
Many manufacturers will also make drums that use a combination of different woods, including mahogany and bubinga, to take advantage of all woods’ characteristics. It’s not uncommon to mix and match drums for recording, for example, using a maple kick, birch toms, and a metal snare drum.
2. For snare drums, the same wood options typically apply, with various types of metal presenting themselves as options as well. While there are some metal drum kits, metals are typically more commonplace for the snare drum.
Metal, as opposed to wood, typically offers a brighter sound with more overtones, which can work great for most genres. Steel, aluminum, and brass are common metal types seen in snare drums, offering slightly different sound characteristics between them.
The Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum is perhaps the most popular rock snare drum used for recording, which is a nickel-plated brass snare drum offered in different sizes.
3. For all drum types, the drum’s depth is responsible for the body and resonance of the drum. Around a 6” depth is a nice choice for snare drums, being that it has a great balance between having a good low-end response but still shallow enough for a quick, crisp attack.
A piccolo snare is a shallow depth usually around 3-4”, which is tuned higher for a sharp attack that decays very quickly. A piccolo snare can work great for genres like reggae, while you may lean more towards a 6.5-8” depth for something more classic rock-tinged.
4. Like the snare, the depth of toms and your bass/kick drum will have a large effect on the respective drums’ sustain and body.
Shallow depths, like the Tama Hyper-Drive toms, are meant to have a quick attack without ringing out for too long, while depths closer to the drum’s diameter allow for the drum to ring out longer.
The same goes for the kick drum, though many drummers will also choose to put some muffling material like a pillow inside the kick to keep the body of the larger depth, but shorten the sustain and highlight the attack.
5. Other ways of controlling the drums’ sustain include the head type and dampening gels, to be placed on top of the drumhead. A single-ply drum head will ring out more freely, while a double-ply head will cut the sustain to a shorter amount.
Drumheads with pinstripe rings near the edge are a popular choice since they eliminate more of the overtones from the ringing. Coated heads will sound slightly darker than their clear counterparts, which can help achieve a more vintage sound.
6. Lastly, the cymbal types used will produce different sounds that may be chosen to accentuate the drummer’s playing style and the tone of the overall recording.
Cymbals with a sleek, shiny surface (often called “brilliant” finish) provide a brighter, more cutting sound, while a traditional finish produces a darker, warmer sound.
The cymbal weight will also affect, as a thinner cymbal can produce more of a sustained wash of sound when hit consistently, and heavier weight will have more of a defined sustain.
3. The Room
Another important aspect that can greatly contribute to the drum sound is the space where the drums are being recorded. If the room is live-sounding and splashy, it’s going to be difficult to get a dry drum sound.
Think about what drum sound is needed for the recording project, and choose the recording room accordingly. Ideally, you would want a studio space where the sound is dry (little reverb). However, using a studio may not be an option, so the next best thing is to try and make the space you are using as dry as possible.
To minimize reverb and sounds bouncing about, you want to avoid hard surfaces. The best way to treat the bad sound is to start adding elements that are the opposite of the bad sound. Using blankets, pillows, and other soft materials can help absorb the washy reverb sound.
If you hung some blankets covering the walls, it would soften the reflection of the mid and high frequencies bouncing off the walls, which would be getting picked up by the mics.
The easiest frequencies to deaden are often the higher frequencies. This can leave the low frequencies still bouncing from the hard surfaces. An effective way to treat low frequencies is to fill the space reducing that ‘box’ shape.
Filling the space with overstuffed furniture can work well. If you can find an old couch or two or add some stacks of cushions to the corners, you might find it tightens up the drums’ bass response.
However, when it comes to recording, there are no rules, only guidelines. You may want to be going for a bigger drum sound, such as Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham with his infamous bass drum sound.
They ‘broke the rules’ and recorded Bonham’s drums in a large hallway at the bottom of a three-story grand staircase to get this sound. They set up a pair of microphones on the second floor of the stairwell to capture the larger-than-life sound they heard, resulting in the iconic sound.
Never assume that you’ll get a great drum sound from microphone placement alone. Always have a drum key to hand in the studio to tune drumheads to avoid flabby sounding shells or tune out sympathetic resonances from other kit pieces.
If you struggle to tune drums, then I suggest you get the Tune Bot. This simple little device takes the guesswork out of tuning drums; it’s also not too dissimilar to clip-on guitar tuners.
One thing you can’t record drums without are the microphones. It can seem daunting with how many mic options there are, but once you understand which mic does what, it should become clearer.
If you only have two channels to record an entire drum kit, then one of your best options is to go with a pair of overhead or room mics. The overhead mics purpose is to provide a balanced stereo image of the whole drum kit.
The standard choice for room mics is a matched pair of condenser microphones. Several condenser mics can work for you, depending on your budget.
The biggest problem with recording using just overhead mics would be the bass drum. The bass drum is arguably one of the most important aspects of the kit, driving the song forward and giving it its rhythm.
Like with any bass instrument, with the kick drum, a specific type of dynamic is typically used with a frequency response tailored to the low-ends.
As well as the kick, the other ‘most important’ aspect of the kit is the snare drum. This is the backbeat to the groove, giving the audience something to clap to. The go-to mic for when it comes to recording snare drums is Shure SM57.
This common but reliable mic has most likely been used on some of your favorite recordings. It is also a very affordable mic for what it offers; it also has a high SPL (Sound Pressure Levels), meaning it can endure and pick up many loud sounds.
It also has a tight cardioid pattern, minimizing bleed from the other drums, and can handle more gain before feedback. It’s also incredibly durable and is a popular choice for the live settings as they can get thrown about taking a heavy beating without much damage.
Which Microphones are Suitable
1. Dynamic microphones, such as the popular Shure SM57, have the benefit of being able to withstand loud volumes and have great durability.
For this reason, dynamic microphones are usually used on the individual drums themselves- the snare, toms, and kick. With their larger chassis, these are also less susceptible to damage in case the drummer hits one with a stick!
2. A condenser microphone can provide greater detail than a dynamic microphone due to the way it captures sound. Being more sensitive to subtle changes in volume allows for a more nuanced capture of the sound, which can work great when recording the drum kit as a whole.
For this reason, condenser microphones are often used for overhead mics, where they are suspended a few feet above the drum kit. Condensers are also used as room microphones and can be placed on individual drums as well if the recording calls for a more detailed response.
3. Ribbon microphones, as a result of their thin ribbon moving back and forth to capture sound, are more delicate than the other two microphones.
Ribbon mics typically have a lower volume threshold and can be damaged if they are placed too close to a loud source. Although modern ribbon microphones can handle higher volumes, it’s rare to see ribbon microphones used as close drum microphones in contemporary music recordings.
Where ribbon mics excel at though, is as ambient microphones. When placed in a room, the tendency of a ribbon microphone to roll off the high-end response can provide a very big, thick sounding capture of the drum set.
Ribbons can also excel as overhead microphones since they can naturally cut down on the higher frequencies generated by the cymbals.
A common modern recording setup would be dynamic microphones like the Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD421 ii on snare and toms, a stereo pair of condenser microphones such as AKG 414’s as overheads, and one or two mics like the Neumann U87 condenser or Coles 4038 ribbon as room microphones.
A setup similar to this gives you plenty of flexibility in the mixing stage, as you can have individual control over the individual elements of the kit, the drums as a whole, and an ambient mic or two to fill out the space.
After you have positioned your close drum microphones across the kit you need to check that all the boom stands you have set up are not touching any part of the kit such as any cymbal stands.
Microphone stands that touch parts of the drums will pick up vibrations from the kit that will transmit through the boom to the mic. Take the time to get the positioning of your stands absolutely isolated otherwise you’ll get some unflattering noises in your recorded tracks.
When we usually think of professional drums being recorded in a studio, our mind usually pictures the image of complex mic set up made of many microphones, often as many as 12 or more covering every angle of the kit.
A mixture of stereo overheads, close mics on each drum, top snare mics, bottom snare mics, room mics all seems to be the ‘standard’ when it comes to recording drums.
However, as great as all this would be to have when it comes to recording drums, to get a great drum sound it is not always necessary. I want to highlight some other (more affordable) techniques that can be used whilst still ensuring a great drum sound.
There are a number of techniques you can use when it comes to recording drums. Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages so it is best to see which one would apply best to you.
1. One Microphone Recording
The most basic of these techniques would be to record the drums with just one microphone. Using one microphone does have its advantages. As well as it is the cheapest and budget-friendly option, it is probably the easiest for a beginner to get their head around.
By experimenting with different mic positions, it will help give you an understanding of where works best for the sound you are going for.
Using one mic also eliminates any phase issues. If more then one microphone is used for recording a sound source this can introduce potential phase issues.
Phase cancellation is when a chunk of your sound waves are being canceled out, leaving you with a weak and thin sound, which is undesirable. When using multiple mics, it takes a lot of time to get just the right balance. You have to balance the overheads to the close mics to maybe even the room mics all to get a nice even picture of the drums.
This isn’t an issue with one mic. Balancing becomes super easy. Just put the mic somewhere, listen back and assess what you hear. Are the cymbals too loud? Move the mic closer to the other drums. Too little kick drum? Find a better position and angle to hear the kick clearer.
Some suggested mic placements for recording drums with one microphone are:
- Placing a mic above the kit looking down so that it can see all the drums and cymbals.
- Placing the mic near the drummer’s head so that it looks at the kit like the drummer does.
- Placing the mic on the floor in front of the kit.
- Placing the mic above the kick pointing toward the side of snare and top of the kick so that it can hear both the kick drum and the snare in a balanced way while picking up the rest of the kit at the same time.
Make sure not to leave spare drum shells lying around the studio. A spare snare drum or tom shell on the studio floor can result in a pitch that doesn’t quite sound right getting picked up by the overhead mics.
2. The Recorderman Setup / Two microphone setup
Another technique that can be used is the Recorderman setup. The Recorderman setup is when you use a pair of microphones. One mic would be above the kit pointing down at the rack tom and snare and measure the distance to the center of the snare and kick beater.
With the second mic, you place it near the drummer’s shoulder on the floor tom side. The distance of this mic would also be measured out so that it is the same distance from the snare and kick beater as the other mic. Ensuring that the mics are the same distance is important, as this will eliminate any phasing issues.
Both mics can be panned left and right with the snare and kick sound staying the center of the audio image. This is because the kick and snare sounds would be hitting both microphones at the same time.
3. The Lijman Technique / Three microphone setup
To take theRecorderman technique a little further, a third microphone can be placed in front of the kick drum. Again, this mic would need to be measured the same distance from the kick beater as the other two mics. This way you can get a little more body and impact from the bass drum. You may hear this technique often be referred to as the Lijman technique.
An important tip to remember is to always leave more headroom when setting the drum levels. When you are running a sound check, often a less experienced engineer will set levels by having the drummer go around the kit and hit each drum individually, and then play a representative beat.
Naturally, the engineer will tell him to play “like he’ll be playing in the song”, and he will be happy to oblige. And then, almost universally, when recording the first full take for real, he’ll proceed to dig into the performance and pin every meter well into the red.
A drummer will almost always generate much stronger transients and overall levels in actual taxes than they do in sound checks and run-throughs. The 3–6 dB of headroom you may have thought was safe is often easily exceeded, possibly ruining a potential great take.
4. The Glyn Johns Method / Four Microphone setup
We have covered techniques using 1, 2 and 3 microphones, so it is pretty obvious what would come next. A famous technique for recording big drum sounds using only 4 mics is the Glyn Johns method.
I am quite familiar with this method, as I have used on many projects before, including the Supernothing album Black & Blue, Thrills and Spills. The Glyn Johns Method has most famously been used on the John Bonham drum sound on the Led Zeppelin records, as well as with other acts such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, and even The Beatles.
For this technique, all you need are 2 overhead mics (ideally large diaphragm condensers), one kick mic (dynamic or condenser), and one snare mic (usually a dynamic).
The idea behind this method is that the sound comes from the overhead mics, whilst the kick and snare mics act as ‘spot’ mics to fatten up those two important elements of the kit, giving you more to mix with. It is the way these two overhead mics work together that makes the Glyn Johns method an interesting but effective one.
First and Second mic
The first overhead mic is placed about 3 to 4 feet directly above the snare drum. The mic should be pointing down towards the kits. The sound being picked up by this mic should be a complete balance of the whole drum kit. You want to hear a nice blend of snare, toms, and cymbals all from this one mic.
If you aren’t getting enough of the toms then angle the mic a little towards the toms. If the cymbals are too abrasive then moving the mic up a bit should be effective.
Once you have a well-balanced kit sound in your first mic, it is time to move onto the second overhead mic. With the second mic, you place it just to the right of the floor tom, ideally about 6 inches above the rim facing across the tom towards the snare and hi-hats.
It isn’t really an ‘overhead’ mic as such, rather a side mic capturing the kit from a different perspective. Like we have mentioned before with phasing, you want to ensure that the second mic is the exact same distance from the center of the snare as the first overhead mic.
An easy way to do this is to take a mic cable and hold one end of it firmly against the center of the snare. Stretch the cable up to the first overhead and pinch the cable at the distance it meets the mic. Whilst still holding the other end against the snare, swing the cable over to the second mic and make sure the mic is lined up to where you are pinching the cable.
When panned, just these two mics by themselves should give you a completely balanced, clear and punchy stereo recording of the drums. The crack of the snare should be heard in the center, with the cymbals all around and the toms nice, punchy and clear. You may notice that what is missing, is the low-end frequencies coming from the bass drum and the fatness of the snare and toms. This is where the other two mics help come in to play.
Third and Fourth Mic
The kick mic should be placed close to the resonant head, or if you have a bass drum port hole, place the mic inside the kick. Experiment with the angle and positioning to get the fullness and attack that you want to compliment with your first two mics.
From my experience, I have noticed that placing the kick mic inside facing the top left or right batter head corner has helped pick up the attack from the kick beater whilst also the low-frequency boom that you want.
The snare mic should be placed a couple of inches above the rim angled across the snare. Again, experiment with the angle of this mic for differences in sound. Start by having the mic aimed directly at the center of the snare and move accordingly to get a more desired sound that works for the song you are recording.
Don’t stress too much on getting the exact snare sound you want from this one mic alone, as you will be getting a lot of snare tones from the overhead mics too. It is when the mics are mixed together you should end up with a nice full snare sound in the mix. The same can be said for the kick mic.
When it comes to recording drums, you don’t need the highest tech equipment with 1000s of microphones, as long as you take some thought and time with carefully placing the microphones you do have. If it has worked for Gimme Shelter and Baby O’Riley, then it can work for you.
I hope with this information it has given you a good starting point of where to go when it comes to recording drums in an affordable but effective way.
Drums can be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating of instruments to record so it is worth putting the time and thought into it. By having a good approach we can show that there is still some space for live drums in a growing drum machine world.