The Basics of Drum Kit Miking

by Eric Scot Porter

August 2001

Editor's Note: We are pleased to welcome Eric Scot Porter to!! Eric Scot Porter is an accomplished drummer out of Oregon's own Bay Area. His recent solo project, Kingdom, is available on-line from Amazon or CDNOW . In Eric's first three columns, he will provide us with the fundamentals of miking an acoustic drum set, an equalization primer and a review of some microphones to accomplish the task at hand. Eric's columns will be exclusively featured each month at this site. He will also be contributing to the Members Only Forum from time to time...

Over the past few years, home recording has made great leaps in both affordability and quality. It is now possible to make an audio production in a modest home studio of the quality which 10 years ago would have only been possible in a big budget professional studio.

However, having quality equipment does not necessarily equate to having the skill to make a quality recording. One area that usually suffers in "home made" recordings is the drum sound. Many have resorted to either using electronic drums, or ditching the drummer all together and using drum machines or sampled drum loops. Not only is this an easier and faster way to make recordings, but also one is not required to have the multitude of microphones that are required to record an entire drum set. However, the music often suffers and the drummer finds himself either without a job, or playing an electronic drum set that is incapable of capturing his or her unique sound and the nuances of his/her playing that has taken a lifetime to master.

It is this dilemma that hopes to help you solve...

The Fundamentals of Microphone Placement

For the sake of illustration, we will assume that we are miking a 5-piece drum set. A typical microphone setup for a five-piece drum set would have microphones for the following:

Snare Drum
Bass Drum
Small Tom
Medium Tom
Floor Tom
Hi Hat
Left Overhead
Right Overhead

Lets start by discussing the placement of the overhead microphones.

Overhead Microphones:

Overhead Microphones are the two microphones that are placed over the top of the drum kit. They provide an overall stereo image of the drum kit and are often the main microphones for the cymbals. Many inexperienced "studio engineers" place the overhead microphones parallel to each other. See figure #1:

The problem with this setup comes when we start considering stereo imaging. The typical panning setup for drum recordings is:

Kick: Center
Snare: Center
Toms: Left - Center - Right
Cymbals: Left - Right
Hats: Half Right

However, the typical drum set is not physically setup this way. The snare drum is actually to the right. The toms generally go from center to right. Because of this, the overhead microphones are not going to pickup the pan image that we want to achieve. The snare drum will be in the right, and the toms will go from center to right.

In order to pickup the pan image that we want to achieve we have to think of a center line traveling through the drum set and set up our microphones accordingly. See Figure #2:

By setting up the overhead microphones in this manner, we can achieve a stereo image as we desire. Typically, the overheads are what pickup the cymbals so they should be placed at a height of at least 12" above the highest cymbal. They also give the drum set an overall ambient sound by picking up some of the overall acoustics of the room. A drum miked up close usually does not sound very realistic because a close mike picks up mostly impact, and not an equal amount of ambience emanating from the drum. The overheads help alleviate this problem. Feel free to experiment with distances. By placing the overheads further away from the drum set, you will pick up more of the room ambience. Be careful, however, to keep them equidistant from the drum set so that the stereo image is not altered.

Snare Drum Microphones:

One of the most important sounds you will achieve with your drum set recording is the snare sound. The snare sound is the most heard, and often one of the most important contributors to the overall sound of the song you are recording. There are a couple of factors to consider when placing the snare drum microphone.

First, as with all drum mikes, it needs to be in a position where the drummer will not be hitting it by accident. Secondly, it needs to be in a position that isolates it from picking up other drums and cymbals. It is generally best to mike the snare drum from the top if you are using only one microphone. However, many engineers use two microphones, one on the top and one on the bottom. The normal position for the top microphone is to the drummers left at about 10 o'clock.

By placing it here, it is pointing away from all of the other drums on your drum set and will have less leakage. It is also out of the way of the normal playing area of the drum as well as out of the way of the normal side stick, or rim shot position. The mike should be aimed at the normal impact area of the snare, that being the center in most cases.

Some engineers us a microphone on the bottom of the snare as well. This can give the drum more depth. It also gives more control over the sound that you want to achieve, by allowing you to add or remove some of the actual "snare" sound, the snare being the metal strands stretched across the bottom head. Some engineers even go so far as to add a third microphone to the snare drum around the 2 o'clock position for side stick. This allows for use of different EQ for the side stick. This often requires a live engineer to turn off the side stick microphone manually on the board when the drummer is not playing a side stick, or if it is on a separate recording track, it can be removed at a later time.

Kick Drum Microphones:

The kick drum is often one of the most challenging, yet essential drums to achieve a good sound on. There are many methods of miking a kick drum. Which method you use will depend largely on the "setup" of the drum. Some kick drums have both the front and rear skin on. Some have only the front skin on. Others have a front skin on and a rear skin on with a hole in it.

The challenge in miking the kick drum is to achieve the right balance between the attack of the drum (the actual better hitting the drumhead) and the body of the drum (the full bass tone created by the sound waves within the drum. Depending on the configuration of the drumheads on the bass drum, your miking techniques will vary to achieve this balance.

If the kick drum has a front head with a hole in it, or only one head, it is usually best to place a microphone inside of the drum. The microphone should be pointing to where the beater hits the head of the drum so that it picks up the full attack of the beater striking the drumhead. Being inside the drum, it will also pick up the bass tone created inside the drum. Note, it is also usually best not to place the microphone in the very center of the drum. You will get a much richer tone by placing the microphone off center, usually half way between the center and the edge of the drum. This is due to the pattern of sound waves inside the circular shell of the drum.

If the kick drum does not have a hole in the front head, I recommend either using a microphone on both the back and the front of the drum, or if only one microphone is available, using it on the beater side of the drum. I have been able to achieve a rich, deep bass drum tone on an 18" bass drum using only a microphone on the beater side. It takes a bit of work with the EQ and a good microphone, but it can be done with a little experimentation.

Tom Microphones:

There are 3 things to take into consideration when miking the tom toms. Once again, as with the snare drum, the mikes should be placed in a position so that they are unlikely to get hit by a stray drumstick. Secondly, as with the snare drum, they should be angled to point toward the center of the drum. The final factor to take into consideration is the distance from the playing surface. When using microphones on instruments with lower frequencies, there is a law called the "proximity effect". Basically, this law states that the closer the microphone is to the sound source, the more the bass frequencies will be accentuated. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Often, a boost in the lower frequencies can add to the fullness of the tone you achieve. Experiment with microphone proximity to the drum to see how it affects the sound you achieve.

Tom are generally miked from the top, however, if the drum set has single headed tom toms, you may be successful by placing the microphone inside the tom. This placement also has the advantage of better isolation from the rest of the drum set.

Note: If you use dead ringers, or another type of sound dampener on your drum, miking up close can sometimes pick up the vibration of these devices on the drumhead. Beware of this when miking up close.

Hihat Microphones:

If you are on a real budget, the hihat microphone can be optional. It is often picked up by the overheads, but usually is not up enough in the mix. I would recommend miking the hihat whenever possible.

I have heard of drummers placing the snare microphone in a position that also picks up the hihat. This can work in a pinch, but I don't recommend it for three reasons. One is that the EQ used for these two instruments is usually very different. Secondly, the forces you to place the snare drum mike at a less than optimal position. Thirdly, it is usually best to use a condenser microphone on the hihat because they have a really clean hi end, while the snare microphone is usually not a condenser microphone.

Usually the hihat mike is placed so that it points at the impact area of the hihat, yet utilizes the hihat as a barrier between the microphone and the snare drum. By doing this, you achieve greater isolation. One thing to be careful of is to not place the hihat microphone so that it picks up the air currents created by the opening and closing of the hihat. This can cause "breath" noises, much like a singer creates when breathing into a microphone.

Note: A similar problem can arise with the ride cymbal as the hihats. Often, it is not loud enough in the mix. If this is the case, you may want to dedicate a microphone solely for the ride cymbal. In my experience, this is usually not necessary.

Eric Scot Porter is an accomplished drummer out of Oregon's own Bay Area. His recent solo project, Kingdom, is available on-line from Amazon or CDNOW . You can check out several MP3 audio clips of Kingdom at The Orchard. You may forward your comments and suggestions to him via ...

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