Greg Bester discusses choices and placement of mics around a drumkit in a studio recording situation.
Finding the right spot to put the close mikes is a similar exercise which sometimes requires an assistant. The fact of the matter is that there is no way you can merely eyeball where and how to place your close drum mics. It’s just not humanly possible. You may get lucky. That’s entirely possible. But the only way to truly know is to move them around the relevant drum until you capture the right tone and the least amount of bleed. Every room and drum set setup is differently so they will come with their own set of variables. These cannot be circumvented by speculation so it is wise to always find that sweet spot before pressing record.
So, once we have assembled the best possible components we can in our recording chain, placed the drummer in a comfortable position in the room that sounds best to our ears, it is time to start miking.
These are generally the types of mics I tend to use for each drum:
Kick/Inside – AKG D112:
I use the AKG D112 because it is a large diaphragm dynamic microphone that can handle the low end and high SPL of a kick drum whilst allowing for a clear attack and chunky mids. I also like the Sennheiser e602 or the Audix D6 for a more tailored or scooped sound. Nowadays I would say the D112 and the Shure Beta 52 are the most common mics that I see for this application. The D112 is known for being more on the “thuddy’ side whilst the Beta 52 has more of a tailored, “pillowy’ sound. Other notable mentions to handle this duty are the EV RE20, the Audio Technica AE2500, the AKG D12, or the Beyerdynamic M88.
Kick/Outside – Rode NTK:
Or any other quality large diaphragm tube condenser. This is a large diaphragm tube condenser from the Australian microphone company, Rode. I use this mic to give a little extra low end and a more air to the kick drum to round out the isolated and sterile sound of the inside mic. Most LDCs will handle this duty well because most of them can handle high SPL very well. The Neumann U47 was the professional standard for this application for many years and if you have one available, use it!
Snare/Top – Shure SM57 (or Beta 57 for a brighter sound):
An industry standard. If you’re looking for more attack from your snare but want to attain that naturally (without EQ), try the Shure Beta 57 because it has a more pronounced upper mid-range presence peak than the SM57. Dynamic mics are mostly selected for drums because they handle the transients better as a result of their rugged and slower moving elements and can also take high doses of sound pressure. However that doesn’t mean a condenser microphone can’t do a great job. There are millions of other options out there that would work just as well on snare drum but what I would suggest is start with the SM57 to gain a reference and move on from there as it has been used on countless albums and is tried and tested.
Snare/Bottom – (or beta 57 for a brighter sound):
The main purpose of this mic is to pick up the sound of the strainer on the bottom of the snare drum. I like to use the same mic as the top as I find that when you flip the polarity, a more even sound is produced. But that’s just my personal taste. Other engineers may prefer another mic. This is a matter of taste so you may find you need either a brighter or a darker sound and will have to choose a mic accordingly. That will provide that sound. This is one of those things that cannot be taught and comes by experiencing different microphones.
NB. As far as the snare mics go, generally the bottom mic’s polarity is flipped in relation to the top mic and is blended accordingly to mix in the sound of the strainers. This is because the bottom mic, being that it’s pointed up at the bottom head underneath the snare drum, will naturally be opposite in polarity to the top mic. This occurs as a result of the diaphragm’s movement being directly analogous to the movement of the drum skin when struck. When the top head is caused to depress by being struck by the drumstick, the bottom head reacts oppositely in relation to the axis of the bottom mic and is captured as such.
In short, the bottom microphone is capturing the opposite motion of the bottom head in relation to the top head, i.e. the reverse polarity of the pressure wave created by the striking the top head. This will usually cause certan phase cancellations when combined with the top mic so initiating a polarity reversal by way of your mixers’ channel polarity switch will bring both signals back into phase. However, this does not mean that it will sound best for the material so check to see if the polarity reversal will supply the sound you are looking for. Once again, let your ears decide.
Hi Hat – AKG c418 mini-condensor:
This is a mini condenser that was originally created by AKG for percussion instruments. Being as such, the microphones’ response is bright with a presence peak in the high upper midrange and a gentle bass roll-off starting at around 500Hz at a 6dB/oct slope. This, to me, makes it a perfect candidate for miking hi hat as it’s nice and bright with an unobtrusive midrange and a nicely rolled off low-end. This supplies me with a good sound before it hits the tape that never needs to be EQed. Alternatively, any other decent small diaphragm condenser will work such as Shure SM81 or an AKG 451.
Toms – Sennheiser MKII 421:
These microphones have been the industry standard for miking toms for decades although any good quality cardioid dynamic microphone will work as well. SM57s will handle these duties just fine and so will some large diaphragm condensers (some engineers use U87s!), which is fine, but I prefer dynamic mics for rock/pop because they are more directional and therefore tamer when it comes to cymbal bleed. What makes the 421’s so nice is that they are clean, punchy, and focused while supplying a great deal of top end rejection from the outward extremes which makes them perfect in the battle of minimising cymbal bleed when recording drums. This is because at the upper frequencies the polar response of the microphone becomes narrower so cymbal bleed is minimized while the on-axis sound, ie. the tom, is maximised.
Overheads – Neumann TLM 103 matched pair:
I prefer large diaphragm condensers for the overheads but any matched pair of small diaphragm condensers (as best quality as possible, of course) will work fine as well, especially if you’re using an X/Y configuration, which is the method of aligning the capsules of two microphones vertically at around 90 degrees. This results in a focused stereo image that collapses well into mono. To me, the overheads are the most important in the drum kit miking process, so careful attention must be paid to their position and the quality of their capture.
A quick note on overhead mics is that, for me, this is where the sound of the drumset starts. Early on, it was a major revelation to me when I realized that the overheads are not there to merely capture the cymbals. In fact, I would say that starting with a great overhead sound that captures a balanced image of the entire kit (as always, to match your production goals) is probably the best approach. This forces you to, firstly, get the drums themselves sounding as best as possible and, secondly, to get a good sound with just two mics.
Finally, when it comes to choosing overhead microphones, the options are myriad and varied. Would I recommend dynamic mics as overheads or even a single mic, i,e, a mono overhead? Sure, if it fits the vision of the production. I do think it’s safe to say that the options are open. In my experience, the most common choice of microphone when it comes to overhead miking is the condenser or capacitor variety followed in close second by ribbon mics. Notable mentions for overhead applications are: AKG C12V, AKG 414, Royer Ribbons, Neumann U67/87, RCA 77 and many others, including worry free stereo microphones.
The overall placement of the microphones all comes down to knowing their polar responses and placing them in order to capture what you want and to reject what you don’t. This can be a tricky exercise, especially when dealing with a drummer who sets his kit up very tightly so getting a mic in there proves to be almost impossible. In my experience, a seasoned studio drummer who is aware of the basics of studio recording will be able to adapt his kit slightly to accommodate microphones. All drummers should know that failure to compromise might mean a compromise in sound quality if the engineer cannot capture what is necessary to suit the material. So, after you get the guy to move his splash over a few inches, the tracking can begin.