Drum Mic'ing, and Tracking onto Digial Media

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A great (and very long) resource for guidelines to getting the best drum sound you can with what you have.

In this tutorial I will enlighten you to my way of tracking drums. Drums are one of the most important and fundamental elements of any track, across many of the genres - most noticeably dance and rock / metal music. These techniques listed are my own that I have developed over time in the studio - they are by no means "set in stone" and are not necesarily the "right" way to go about this task, but I do urge you to at least think about these propositions and possibly try them yourself if you get the opportunity. Most of all I hope you enjoy this tutorial and gain some extra knowledge from it. Let's begin.

It is important that the kit is setup to the drummers preference, always let them assemble the kit as many drummers have preferred layouts - once the kit has been set up, make them a cup of coffee and let them sit down while you do the mic'ing.

Kick DrumsStart with the kick drum - Kick drums create a huge Sound Pressure Levels (SPL), so be careful with Mic choice - a dynamic mic is probably your best bet unless you like trashing condensers :) the AKG D-112 is the industry standard kick mic thanks to its "kick drum friendly" frequency response (which needs less EQ'ing upon mixdown). If you can't get hold of a dedicated kick drum mic, a Shure SM58 does quite a competent job if placed correctly thanks to it's 4k "presence" EQ curve - however, if you are forced to use an SM58, you will need to add a small about of Low Frequency EQ when tracking to make up for the 58's frequency response. You should only boost around 80Hz by about 3dB (as a general rule you should avoid EQ'ing when tracking unless you really need to). It is also important to check that the kick is sufficiently dampened, the usual technique is to lob a duvet or a pillow inside - at the end of the day this should be up to the drummer's discretion as they will know their kit better than you do :)

Using a mic stand position the mic so that it is just inside the sound hole and angled slightly upwards (see figure A) - Do not lay the mic inside the kick as the sound will undoubtedly be boxy - not at all what you are after with a kick. Also, as this mic if pointing upwards (and all the others are pointing downwards) - you should reverse the phase of the signal. If your desk has a phase-reverse switch, great. If not then you will easily be able to reverse the phase once the signal has been tracked by using a sample editor (like Soundforge)

If you have the mic's to spare then it can defiantly be an idea to mic up the back skin (where the beater hits the skin of the kick drum) - this can be done quite competently with an SM58, but if you have the resources, a condenser mic is preferable. Set up the stand so that the mic is positioned towards the top of the kick drum - you will want to bring the boom of the stand over the top of the kick so that it doesn't get in the way of the drummer's feet.

Snare DrumsNext mic up the snare drum - many people use the "over and under" technique which allows you to mix in more of the "snare" sound, but I very rarely do. However, certain music genre's lend themselves to this particular "bottom snare" sound, most noticably Jazz and Swing. If you have the spare mic's and channels, then by all means track the bottom snare - that way to have the option of using it when it comes to mixdown.

Snare mic'ing is fairly simple in theory, but can be a nightmare technically. An SM-57 will usually do a great job if positioned correctly. The mic should be positioned over the edge of the snare pointing downwards, slightly off centre and pointing away from the hi-hats (so as to avoid bleed). (see fig. B) If you are encountering excessive "ringing" from the snare, make sure that the skin is not too tight, get your drummer to adjust his snare, hopefully this will cure the problem. If it does not then another trick with trying is to get about 4" of duct tape (the big silver stuff) and fold it into a circle (with the adhesive on the outside) - attach this to the outer edge of the snare head (near the rim).

If you do go for the "Over and Under" snare mic'ing approach then you have to be VERY careful with the mic placement to ensure that the two mic's remain in phase - if they go out of phase then the actual sound of the snare will change as you mic in the "under" mic with the "over" mic. You have to ensure that both mic's are pointing at the same position (just off centre of the drum) - again, refer to figure B. Again, as with the kick mic, you need to flip the phase of the bottom mic as it is facing upwards.

One more thing to note about tracking snare drums is compression. Depending on the genre of music you are recording and the skill of your drummer, you may need to add just a smidge of compression to the snare (keep the threshold fairly high and the ration at 3:1 or less) This will help to maintain a constant level (which is ideally what you want) - this will make setting the gain trim easier and should iron out any irratic peaks that "heavy hits" often cause.

Next up are the Toms - tom's can be tricky buggers to mic properly, and there are many different techniques. A common studio method is to use a "mini-clip-mic" like the AKG C418PP - these mic's clip onto the sides of the Tom's are can capture the sound of the invidual drum with little spill - however, due to their build, they often lack a powerful low end response. Another method that I saw recently involved using an SM-58 which was placed between and about 6 inches above the Hi and Mid tom rack - although this does not provide any form of "stereo separation" the result was much better than I expected after a little bit of EQ at mixdown. Another mic is needed for the floor tom (which can then be panned to the right in the mix) - Floor toms are captured well using an SM-57, but, if you have the microphones, a large diaphragm condenser will work quite nicely too. Place the mic just above the floor tom at an angle - much like you did with the snare drum.

Hi-HatHi-hats are next, although it is not strictly necessary to mic them up as the overheads will pick then up quite well. However, if you have the spare mic's and channels, a hat mic will allow you to create a very detailed and lively hi-hat sound which can really help maintain a sense of movement in your track. Hats should be mic'd with a condenser mic where possible - AKG-414's work beautifully. The mic should be very slightly above the top hat and angled slightly downwards - refer to figure C for this.

OverheadsThe last set of mic's I set-up are the overheads. The classic technique of overhead mic'ing is to use two identical large diaphragm condensers over both sides of the kit - I stopped using this method after I was shown this one: ;)

Set up your condenser mic's so that they are both in front of the kick drum with a height of about 6-7ft off the floor. Position the mic stands so that the microphones point away from each other over the entire kit (see figure D). However, this time, it is preferable to use small-diaphragm condenser mic's such as the AKG-C1000 S. This setup give you a MASSIVE stereo field with far greater separation of left and right. As a result of this it is more important to enure that the hihats are mic'd or they may be panned a bit too hard for your liking in the mix.

Finally, if you have the mic's available to you and a decent sounding live room - a pair of "live mic's" are a very good idea. These NEED to be large diaphragm condenser mic's, good examples would be a pair of Rhodes NT2's. These should be set about 30ft back from the kit (told you you needed a big room for these - anything less and I personally wouldn't bother) and at ear level (so about 6ft) - place them at either side of the room to create a stereo field. These two are defiantly not essential as they can easily be mimicked with subtle use of reverb upon mixdown. If you have a small live room but want to use a natural ambience you can set up a condenser outside of the drum room (yes, with the door closed and with walls seperating it) - this signal can be EQ'd (to a add bit of top-end) and subtley mixed in - sometimes it works really well - the slight delay can really add dimension to your drum sound but then sometimes it sounds rubbish - but it's worth experimenting.

Once you kit is mic'd up you are ready to prepare your gain levels. Start off with all the gain-trims at 0dB, set up your bus / aux routing so that the signals are being sent to the correct inputs on your recording medium and zero all your EQ's (you should avoid applying EQ when tracking - leave that for mixing unless you REALLY need to alter a particular sound) - Set all your faders to unity gain (0dB)

Now get your drummer to play and loop the chorus from the song you will be recording (or whatever the "heaviest" part of the track - eg: a drum solo). If your Desk has a PFL (Pre Fader Listen) function then activate it on each mic's channel in turn (starting with the kick, then the snare, hats, tom mic's and finally overheads) - move the gain-trim to the right until it is showing 0dB at it's loudest peaks, then roll it off a bit (move it to the left slightly) to ensure that any excessively loud hits will not peak (you really do want to avoid peaking at all costs, but you still need a "hot" signal or your sound quality will be reduced).

If your desk does not have a PFL function then you need to rely on the desk's "clip" indicator - if it doesn't even have one of these then don't dispare - you can solo each channel and use the master meters. If your desk doesn't have a master led display then maybe it's time to get a new desk :)

Repeat this procedure until you have all your inputs as hot as feasible without clipping - don't worry about getting a mix at this point - that's not important yet, you just need to concentrate on getting every mic as hot as possible without clipping (I can't stress that enough).

Once your levels are set make the drummer play through the track - tell him that you are not going to record it yet and that this is just a practice to see if the levels are set correctly.

Start recording to your tracking medium....

Whilst the drummer is playing watch the signal levels like a hawk - make sure that nothing goes over 0dB and therefore clips, if it does then adjust the gain-trim to the left slightly. If all went well and nothing clipped then you have yourself a finished take - ask the drummer if he was happy with it, if he starts arguing about the fact you recorded it just wink at him ;)

If the drummer wants to go again or one of the inputs peaked (clipped) then simply do another take - but again, watch those levels, if any of them clip you will need to do the take again (and appologise to your drummer).

"My drummer just did the perfect take, but one of the mic's clipped - and now he's giving me that look"

Although I did say that you mustn't let anything clip, you can get away with letting the Kick Drum and the Snare Drum clip - BUT ONLY ONCE! If they're peaking all the way through the take is no good - you will have to adjust your gain-trims and start again, but if it just peaks once or twice you can probably get away with it upon mixdown - clipping on any of the other mic's is a big no-no (whatever you do, don't let the overheads clip, digital distortion on a crash cymbal sounds bloody awful!)

If you don't have the benefits of multiple inputs on your recording medium (eg: your PC's soundcard) or your mixing desk does not have Busses / assignable aux's (new desk maybe?) then you will be forced to do a stereo submix of the drums - this is not a good idea as it will mean you have no control over the individual items after this mixdown. As a result you will be forced to do your EQ'ing and compression at this point - my next tutorial will cover these points indepth.

You should now have an individual recording of each of the various mic's used on the kit, make sure you make a note of which track corresponds to which mic (I usually number as follows: 1. Kick, 2. Snare, 3. Hats, 4. Toms, 5. Floor Tom, 6. Left Overhead, 7. Right Overhead).

You are now ready to start mixing - but whatever you do, DON'T! not yet at least. Record any other tracks that need doing while the kit and mixing desk are setup. Once all tracking is completed remove all the mic's and stands before the drummer starts dis-assembling his kit (don't do it both at the same time, there is nothing worse than someone accidentally breaking one of your mic's - it's not professional and can be very embarresing for both parties.) - make him another cup of tea, get him some biscuits and play some music for him. Once the mic's and stands are safely away, offer to help the drummer dis-assemble his kit - don't automatically assume that he wants your help - again, this is not professional.

As a final note, many of you reading this will not have the equipment required to mic a kit this fully (I certainly don't in my own home studio - but then I do drums at my college studio for free, a major benefit :) The most important 4 mic's to use are the Kick, Snare and two overheads - this will give you control over the two most fundamental percussion items and a good stereo mix of the kit as a whole.

J. Reeves - 9 January 2003.

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User-submitted comments


Flashman
Jan 14, 2006 08:53 am
Thanks!
This is VERY helpful. Cheers.

Ingi Ingason
Feb 05, 2007 06:24 am
good advice
Thank you for this article. The micīs you mentioned are basically the only micīs i have (well...plus 1 or 2 more actually). Iīll definetely try this method out, and of course you will get some feedback from me. Thanks.


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