Drumkits come in more shapes and sizes than there are names for them: “drums”, “trapset”, “drum-kit”, “kit”, “drumset”... Both the number of elements and the size and timbre of each piece within a trapset can vary widely. Two kits comprised of exactly the same brand, and exactly the same number and size of pieces, can be set up entirely differently, spatially and with respect to the timbre or tuning of each piece.
When the recording engineer goes about miking a kit, he needs to consider two things: the sound of the kit within itself, and how its sound(s) relate to the music to be recorded. Over time an engineer may develop tendencies toward using a particular mic on a particular element in the kit, but he should still use a keen ear towards the specifics of a given kit and keep searching until the sounds all meld together in an esthetically satisfying way.
In a perfect world I’ll almost always approach drum miking the same way. What’s in that perfect world? Generous track count, a deep mic locker, and a room with enough air space to give me choices. I’ll give myself three distinct sonic palettes from which to ultimately blend my final mix: a close perspective, a distant perspective, and an exaggerated or “altered” perspective. But less will do if it has to. It’s all a matter of perspective—of fitting the sounds together to serve the production.
The close perspective
At first glance, the close perspective resembles that of a live-sound engineer’s approach, at least in terms of mic placement. The closeness of the mic to the sound source has two aspects: maximizing the conveyance of power while minimizing bleed from other elements in the kit. With mics other than omnis (cardioid and figure-eight) there is also the bass-enhancing proximity effect to consider. Close mics on the drum elements of the kit are usually at a distance of about 1–3" from the source. Close mics on cymbals are usually further out, from about 6 to 24 inches, depending on the desired sonic characteristics, again both of proximity and rejection.
The main difference between mics a live-sound engineer and a recording engineer might choose lies in their sensitivity. How a live-sound engineer chooses mics depends on many factors—budget, type of venue, type of on-stage monitoring, etc., etc. Feedback and unwanted bleed (in this setting sometimes called “wash”) can be the most limiting factor in choosing mics in the live-sound setting. Live-sound engineers depend more heavily on dynamic mics since condenser and ribbon mics tend to be more sensitive than dynamics.
In the studio, even in a large ensemble setting, the absence of on-stage monitoring and of an amplified house greatly reduces these problems. Although my preferences continually evolve, my current favorite mics for studio close-miking of a trapset are as follows.
I almost always use two mics. On a kick drum with two heads and no hole in the front head, I’ll place my “close” mic on the beater side and my “distant” mic on the front head. On a drum with no front head or more often a hole in the front head, I’ll place both mics in front. To determine the exact position of the mics requires putting one’s ears in the line of fire and listening for a “sweet spot”. Kick is hugely important in a mix and for this reason I don’t have one favorite, but always like to have the following mics on hand.
For the close mic, I’ll usually choose between dynamics: AKG D112 or D12E, Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser e601, MD421 or MD441. For the distant mic I like to use a large-capsule condenser; my favorites are Neumann U47 or U47FET, or Sony C37 tube or FET.
I almost always use two mics to capture a snare, one focused on the top head and another aimed either at the port or bottom head. After trying everything I can imagine, for the top head I’ve pretty much settled on Shure SM57, or with brushes, sometimes an AKG C414. I know the following recommendation will be of limited use, since the Shure SM54 has been discontinued for years, but I really like these odd dynamics for port or bottom head duty. (Watch out for polarity/phase issues when using two mics this close together on a single drum... the same could be said for the kick.)
After years of trying everything I could get my hands on, I’ve settled on Neumann TLM103s for tom recording, they’ve never let me down.
Hi-hat and cymbals
If a studio has them, I love to use Neumann KM54s. If they don’t have KM54s, then any number of other small-capsule (or, for that matter, larger-capsule) condensers will work well—including the AKG C451, C452, C460, or C414, Neumann KM84 or KM184, just about anything in the 4000 series from Audio Technica, and others.
Bruce Kaphan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance producer/engineer/composer/musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His pedal steel playing can be heard on the recordings of Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Jewel, American Music Club, The Black Crowes, and others. He “adapted the underscore” to Bob Dylan’s Masked & Anonymous and has toured with David Byrne & American Music Club.