Drum recording techniques part 3

In part three of our drum mic'ing techniques series, we cover the selection of the mics you should be using to get the best quality recording possible 

Now we can get into the actual practicalities so a few technical terms are required…

Dynamic Mic – small to medium diaphragm mics, not requiring extra power, the classic SM 58 is probably the most common. These mics are robust and designed to work in a wide range of environments but don’t have the same response or silky quality of a condenser (see below). So, on a loud source such as drums, rock vocals and electric guitar amps they are ideal, but on quiet vocal or acoustic instruments, i.e. soft sources, they are not so good. They are excellent in live applications as most have a cardioid pattern that rejects sound ‘behind’ the mic reducing the chance of feedback.

Condenser Mic – Ranges from tiny (such as lapel mics) to very large diaphragm studio mics that you would often see people singing into in recording studio film clips. These mics were traditionally very expensive but recently have become as affordable as dynamics. They have excellent top end response so they sound very smooth for strings, cymbals, vocals, acoustic instruments and generally possess a more natural sound than dynamics. Again up until recently they were more fragile and couldn’t handle the same sound pressure levels (SPL) as dynamics but that has also changed with technology so they can now be found on kick , snare and toms as well.

NB: there are of course many other types of microphones, ribbon, pzm, crystal and so on but for the purposes of drums we can safely stick to dynamic and condenser. One notable exeption is the Beatles classic mic set up of Coles 4038 ribbons on overheads, and a U47 on kick.

Close mics – As the name suggests, these are the ones you see in pics of a drum kit mic’d up, usually dynamic mics, often including a Shure SM57 on the snare, slightly larger diaphram mics on toms such as MD421’s, bass drum specific mics such as D12, RE20, M88, Beta52 plus condensers for overheads/cymbals/hi-hats. A classic condenser such as a Neumann U47 can often be found just outside the kick drum.

Room Mics – Also called ambient mics, large condensers mics that are placed further away from the kit so as to capture the natural ambience of the room. Tube condensers are brilliant for this but great results can be achieved with specific large dia dynamics such as Shure SM7’s as well.

Less is More

The more mics you add, the more chance of phase problems, increased set-up time, track availability, breakdowns and the like. A very good drum sound can be achieved with only a few good microphones but it also depends on the style of music and what level of post-production, such as mixing/editing, is planned and the overall sound you are trying to achieve. Thinking about all of this before-hand saves time and gives the engineer an idea of how to proceed. For example, if you want an Eagles “Hotel California” drum sound, it’s very warm and dead and  therefore all about the dead end of the room with close mic’ing and some ambience from the live end. If you want a John Bonham sound, then it’s live end, room mics and overloading the mic pre-amps. The classic Ringo Beatles drum sound is somewhere in the middle and was often achieved with only 4 mics. Often these decisions are not made early on so it’s best to again steer a middle course so that those options are potentially available later.
Here are some examples of what I have used for various situations; 


4 mics only…bass drum, room and overheads… the trick is balancing the overheads and having them full range so they capture the whole kit, not just the cymbals (as you would in a rock set up). Play with the distance away from the kit on the room mic to create some nice room ambience. The slightly live drum sound is a key element of top jazz recordings. This is similar to the Beatles 4 mic set up mentioned above except they would often have bass drum, snare drum and then the overheads quite high so they were really capturing the room as well. The extremely high ceiling in Abbey Road permitted this as it was originally designed for recording orchestras. Allowing plenty of time to be spent balancing and having an excellent drummer who worked with the dynamics of the songs also had a lot to do with it.


As above, but adding a close mic for the snare and for any unusual percussion.


If it is live drums, which is rare for pop nowadays, it is pretty much all about close mic sounds that can be manipulated later. So Dynamics on kick, snare and toms, condensers for the ‘top end’, hi hat, ride, overheads and rooms (fairly close in). As much as possible, use separate tracks for all mics. If you use a snare top and bottom mic (remember to have the bottom out of phase with the top so they don’t cancel each other) the ‘mix’ of the two can be put on one track.

If there is more than 2 toms then its often good practice to have a stereo pair of tracks that you bus into rather than having 4 or more separate tom tracks. It saves a lot of time mixing!


Pretty much as above but maybe some more ambience especially if it’s a nice sounding recording space.


Well, how long is a piece of string… generally I use all close mics but with the option of more ambient mics so there’s more options to play with the ‘room’ sound. A mono room mic 15 feet or so in front of the kit is a good extra one to throw in. Another idea I’ve used is to throw a couple of PZM (pressure zone gradient) mics on the floor under the kit or gaffer them to a nearby wall. 

Obviously there are many other musical styles but the above should show the various techniques that can then be applied to any other style.

Next time, we get into line checks and balancing….


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