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Less Is More - Minimal Drum Miking
Using few mics instead of more to capture drum tracks...
By Bob Ross

Let me very quickly outline the typical multi-mic setup I use when recording a drum kit for contemporary rock/pop music.

Eight or more microphones:

1. Kick drum: Sennheiser MD421, Shure SM-91, or Electro-Voice RE-20, inside the drum between 3-10" from the beater head.

2. Snare drum: Shure SM-57, 1" in from the rim and half an inch off the head.

3. HiHat: AKG C451E, AKG C460, Neumann KM-84, or Shure SM-81 (position dependent on cymbal type and desired sound).

4, 5 & 6. Toms: Sennheiser MD421, EV RE-15, Shure SM-98, or Neumann U-87 (position same as for snare).

7 & 8. Overheads: AKG C414, AKG C451E, AKG C460, or Neumann KM-84, in either coincident or spaced cardioid orientation, 1-3' above cymbals.

Given available time, tracks, and desire, I may also add:

9. a separate kick mic 2-3' in front of the drum (EV RE-20 or Neumann TLM-170i);

10. a second snare mic underneath the drum (Neumann KM-84 or Shure SM-81);

11 & 12. a pair of spaced condensers in the opposite corners of the room for stereo ambience (Crown PZM, AKG C414, or Earthworks TC40k).

Now let me very quickly outline what’s potentially problematic about the above setup.

Perhaps most obvious, especially to the project studio owner, is the financial perspective. I’ve used between eight and twelve microphones, an inventory whose net worth could easily exceed $10,000. A lot of small studios don’t even have eight mics, period, to say nothing of this particular assortment.

From the technical perspective, I’ve now set myself up for a lot of phase degradation if I’m not careful. This many microphones in close proximity to one another is asking for trouble, and I have to be careful about phase cancellation from divergent sources. I’ve got to at least heed the 3:1 principle, which states that the distance between any two mics on the drum kit should be at least three times the distance of the mic from its intended sound source.

Sometimes I have to compromise the optimum sounding mic position to achieve optimum rejection of some other nearby drum. I may have to patch in a few (gasp!) noise gates. And sometimes I have to eq mics just to prevent phase cancellation from being apparent; this often is the case with the overheads, where I’ll roll off a lot of bottom end (making them in effect just cymbal mics now) to mask cancellation of the low-mids caused by tom mics.

Finally, there is the performance/aesthetic perspective. Traditional multi-miking takes the individual components of the drum kit (kick drum, snare drum, toms, cymbals, etc.) and treats them as separate instruments. Yet many drummers approach the drum kit as a single integrated multitimbral instrument; separating it into constituent sub-instruments is as antithetical to their philosophy as separately miking each string of a guitar. (I’m going to get a lot of flak from guitarists with hex pickups now, I just know it!)

So for the above reasons, plus my own desire to experiment and seek out new sounds, I’ve been embracing a minimalist miking approach when recording the drum kit. After coming across numerous requests (in person and on the internet) for advice on miking drums with a limited mic inventory, I’ve decided to share some of my techniques.

Seven microphones

Okay, so it’s not that much fewer than eight, but every bit helps, right? Right off the bat, get rid of the hi-hat mic. After countless years of pulling it farther and farther down in the mix, I finally stopped using a hi-hat mic altogether…and didn’t miss it at all. Disco’s falling out of favor during the last 20 years may have helped me get away with this; the only times I consider a separate hat mic nowadays are if the tune is a “smooth jazz” jingle or a slick retro-funk number à la Quincy Jones or Steely Dan. For the bulk of my recording I’ve found the overheads (plus some judicious leakage in the snare mic) more than sufficient for getting a natural and balanced sound on the hi-hat cymbals. Plus it frees up an extra track.

Six microphones

While we’re at it, get rid of those tom mics. Both single and double headed toms create the bulk of their tone some distance from the drum, where the sound waves from the head and shell can combine. Close miking the batter head forces you to emulate that natural breadth with a combination of eq and artificial reverb. Save time and free up your processors with this technique: instead of individual close mics on each tom, put a pair of boundary mics (Crown PZM or Shure SM-91) on the floor on either side of the kick drum, and pan them to opposite sides.

Combined with the overheads, this stereo pair will give your toms a fullness and natural spaciousness reminiscent of John Bonham’s thunderous barrage. Bear in mind that the boundary mics will most likely have to be flipped out of phase from the overheads; but don’t overlook the sonic potential of ignoring this logic either. Listen both ways, especially in mono, and let your ears decide. Additional impact can be derived by compressing the boundary mics judiciously and bumping up their low mids (400–600 Hz), while cutting this same register on the overheads and boosting their high end (>10 kHz).

Four microphones

Of course, if your drumkit is tuned immaculately and you’re using primo condensers for overheads, you should be able to get an accurate, balanced, and punchy sonic portrait from that pair alone…

But old habits die hard, so a kick and snare mic round out the kit nicely. I’ve been recording the bulk of my drum tracks lately with just a 421 on the kick, an SM-57 on the snare, and a pair of condensers overhead, with stellar results. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat purist philosophy; the drummer more than the engineer is responsible for balance and tone, and I’m acting like a portrait photographer rather than an abstract painter. The applications for traditional jazz are probably self-evident, but I’ve found it appropriate and/or unusually effective for pop, rock, and dance music as well.

One helpful technique when using this setup: if you are using spaced (non-coincident) overheads, make sure their diaphragms are exactly the same distance from the snare drum. This keeps the two overheads working together to reinforce your backbeats. Use a measuring tape or some other reliable marker (in a pinch, I’ve found one-meter patch cords perfectly suitable) and position the overheads equidistant from the top head of the snare. (Obviously, a coincident pair doesn’t require this attention, but you may prefer the spatialization cues of a non-coincident pair.)

One microphone

I am not kidding. I have recorded killer drum tracks with a single mic, six to ten feet in front of the kit. Oh yeah, it’s mono all right. You’ll find that the low- to high-frequency balance is determined in part by the height, as longer wavelengths may combine out of phase when they bounce off the floor; between four and six feet off the ground has worked best for me. Try it with a large diaphragm condenser, or even an SM-57. And don’t be shy with the compressor either; try maxing it out for a real in-yer-face retro sound.

Now, obviously “killer” is a subjective term, and it goes without saying that the results will not sound like a multi-close-miked kit with separate eq, compression, gates, and reverb on each drum. But as long as your drummer is having a good night, it could be exactly what a tune needs to convey: attitude, urgency, and sincerity.

And think of what you could do with all those spare tracks.

Bob Ross has been an audio engineer since 1975, much to his parents’ chagrin.


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