As I’ve said in previous articles, modern recording technology has paved the way for affordable home recording, and we are now seeing a massive shift from the traditional studio approach to a more do it yourself industry. Most instruments are easy to record with only one or a few microphones, and while many people assume that to record drums you will need many, this is not necessarily the case. Although a full mic'd kit will give you a much better representation, and a lot more versatility in your mix, it isn’t strictly necessary, and you can get away with using as little as two microphones to produce a reasonable recording (you could even go as far as to use one, but personally I don’t think a mono drum kit is a good idea).
In this article, I am going to suggest a way in which you can record drums with two mics, three mics, and a full mic'd kit. I’ll also explain some of the common pitfalls, and ways to overcome them.
As I previously explained in the guitar article, make sure to gain stage before you start recording.
The first thing you’ve got to consider when recording a drum kit is what room you are in. For best results try to find as dead a room as possible as this will give the recording as much versatility as possible for processing.
One of the common restrictions that a lot of home recorders face, aside from how many mics they have available, is a number of inputs they have available on their interface. Commonly, most basic interfaces that home recorders use have only two XLR inputs available. Not to worry, though, as you don’t have to let this stop you recording drums, with a minimalist approach of just one dynamic microphone for the front of the kick drum and one condenser mic to capture the drummer’s perspective, you can still capture a good representation of a drum kit. The drummers perspective will capture an accurate representation of what the player will hear, and the kick mic will help maintain that punch necessary to capture an energetic performance.
When micing a kick drum, you have to take into account the sound pressure level (SPL) that a kick drum produces, and choose your microphone accordingly. Condenser mics are generally not as good at handling high SPL without clipping as a dynamic microphone, this is due to the fact that a condenser mic has an internal pre-amp with a clipping point, whereas a dynamic microphone doesn’t, and the clipping point is therefore determined by the pre-amps in your interface.
Mic placement on a kick drum depends on whether you’re drumhead has a hole or not. If it does you should place the diaphragm of your mic just inside the hole, as all the sound will be focused out through the hole, and if you put the mic just outside it, you could get a lot of mud. If there is no hole, simply place the mic just in front of the skin.
Due to the fact that the whole kit is not mic'd evenly, it is a good idea to adjust your playing style accordingly. Try going lighter on the symbols and kick slightly and slightly harder on the snare and toms. Experiment around and then adjust your style accordingly.
If you do have more than two inputs available (yet don’t want to/can’t fully mic), it is much better to use two overheads in place of the drummers’ perspective mic from the previous example. This will allow you to capture a good stereo image of the drum kit.
I would recommend using two condenser mics with a cardioid polar pattern (so to minimise reflections off the ceiling), with one above the floor tom, and one above the Hi-hat, at equal height (between 30” to 60” above the snare), and facing each other at an angle of about 45 degrees.
If budget is less of a restraint, by far the best way to get the most out of your drums is to fully mic the kit, and then you have the option to pick and choose which mics you will use in the mix after.
As always it’s best to experiment with mic choices and positions till you get the sound you’re looking for, but in the table below I’ve provided a good template to use as a starting point.
Again, this is just how I would do it so make sure to experiment.
Due to the fact that there are multiple mics involved in recording drums, you are likely to encounter issues with phase cancellation. Phase cancellation is when the wave from one signal partly or fully cancels out that of another. If the two signals are at 180 degrees to each other they would cancel each other out completely and you would hear nothing, despite the fact that the sound is still playing.
The main culprits for this are mics that serve a similar function, including top and bottom snare mics, in front of the kick and beater mics, and overheads, although you can also have more general phase issues as well. In the former case, the problem is easier to improve, due to the fact that you can simply flip the polarity of one of the mics, either by using the button on your interface if you’re lucky to have one or by using the phase reversal button (ø) on a channel eq.
More general issue, however, are a bit harder to solve, though they can be minimised using the 3 to 1 rule. When using multiple microphones, try to keep them at least three times further apart than they are to their respective sources. This significantly reduces the level of the signal from one source being picked up by another mic, and therefore reduces phase cancellation.
Like everything in music, rules are made to be broken, so make sure to play around with these rules and adapt them to tailor the sound you are recording to what you are looking for.
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