MEET THE WRITER
A drummer for over 20 years, 'Stick' (aka Paul Annis) has established himself on the session circuit and as a lively YouTube contributor. He still does plenty of live and studio drumming and runs Maplewood Studio in Kent.
MIKING UP DRUMS
In this constantly evolving world of new media, with home recording more accessible than ever, more and more musicians are looking to record themselves or their bands to become a part of the online world of musicians. However, this presents us drummers with many challenges, as a drumkit is one of the hardest things to record. There’s a bit more to it than just hanging an SM57 over your head! So, where do you start?
WAIT JUST A MINUTE
Recording a drumkit can be a very frustrating process and, as a general rule, the fewer microphones you use the easier it will be to ‘manage’. However, this does of course mean that the mics you do use need to be placed wisely and cover the full frequency spectrum of a drumkit. Before we even think about mic placement, there are a few key things to check first…
• Your drums: Make sure they are well tuned, eliminating any nasty overtones or harmonics (that annoying ringing you sometimes hear). This is where your gaffer tape comes in handy. Also it’s best to have relatively fresh heads on the kit so they’ve got some life in them.
• The room: You don’t want a dead sounding room but remember, the ambience (sound of the room) that you do have will be captured in the recording and can sometimes enhance the kit sound. If it’s too boomy/ringy for your taste, calm it down by closing curtains, hanging duvets on a wall or two and so on. It’s trial and error, but err on the side of quiet. You can add artficial room ambience later in the mixing stage but you can’t remove it!
• Preparation, preparation, preparation! Are all your mic cables good? Check the phase in your DAW. Do you have enough decent mic stands? You don’t want a drooper! Is your DAW configured correctly and are all the DAW channels labelled up? Write everything down – channel 1 = kick, channel 2 = snare, etc – as this makes troubleshooting a lot easier.
So, with the above covered, where do we start? Well, let’s take you through the various options available to you, from a single mic right up to multiple mic systems…
JUST THE ONE
First up, the single mic. The trick with just one is to get a good kit balance as you will be limited on how you can ‘tweak’ your recording. Try the mic out front at rack tom height or point it slightly towards the floor for more bass. A cardioid mic pattern will focus on the kit while omnidirectional will capture more of the room along with the kit.
Over the drummer’s right shoulder, looking slightly down at the kit is another popular position for your single mic, but the key is to experiment. Remember, this is all about capturing the sound that you want.
IT TAKES TWO
The next option is two mics placed in the ‘Recorder Man’ set-up. I’m a big fan of this one! Again, good kit balance is key here but phase can be the biggest problem so watch out for that. You can use small-condenser ‘pencil’ mics or large-diaphragm mics to capture more of the room, but if there’s a ‘matched pair’ available, go for those. Place your mics at an equal distance from the centre of the kit (commonly measured from the snare). To get them exactly the same distance above your kit, I measure the distance from the centre of the snare drum with a piece of string to each mic (saves messing about with a tape measure).
Your overhead mic should be looking down towards the snare/rack tom (experiment to find the right balance so it’s not too snare-/tom-heavy) and about one to two feet above the cymbal. The second mic should be looking slightly down at the floor tom/bass drum from behind the drummer.
Once you have set up and your levels are set, record some snare test hits and check the phase alignment in your DAW. Don’t be afraid to experiment with mic distances to get the sound exactly right.
THREE IF YOU PLEASE
The Recorder Man technique is great but you might find yourself missing a bit of bass, which is where your third mic comes in, as we can use it on the kick drum. Now you’re miking the kick separately, you can get more detailed sound with punch, click, boom and so on. My bass drum has a front head with a four-inch hole in the bottom-right side, so I pop my kick mic about one inch into the hole. I get some fantastic results from my end-fire Sontronics DM-1B condenser although the AKG D112 dynamic mic is a decent budget choice too.
As every drum/drummer/drum head/mic is different, do a bit of trial and error until you find the sweet spot that suits your ears and try playing with dampening too. It’s important that the kit sounds like a single unit in the mix, so play with levels until the kick doesn’t sound out of place.
GLYN IS GOOD
Add another mic and you’ve got the Glyn Johns set-up, named after the legendary drummer/producer who’s worked with the likes of The Who, the Stones, Clapton and many more. This technique employs two overheads and a kick drum mic, plus another mic on the snare to allow for greater flexibility and to give the snare a bit more definition. This was your typical mic set-up in the 60s and the basis of that famous Bonham sound.
With the extra focus on kick and snare, you might find you need slightly different overheads. Large-diaphragm condensers are good (I use a Sontronics Orpheus) and ribbon mics work surprisingly well.
With all these methods, there are a few issues to be aware of, not least getting a balanced recording. This means a combination of good mic placement and the drummer playing in a balanced way. Don’t be afraid to tell your drummer that he needs to lay off the hats a bit or get his fills more even. Play the track back to him/yourself to work out what he/you could do better.
Other things to watch out for are phase cancellation, kit balance, panning and overdoing it in the mix.
So far we’ve looked at set-ups using one, two, three and four mics, but the most commonly used technique these days is close-miking all the elements in a kit. However, I’m not a big fan of this, because more mics don’t always mean a better sound. With more mics/tracks to manage, it certainly has its challenges!
You can get a full ‘kit-in-a-box’ set-up for the same price as a single decent mic, although personally I prefer to use fewer good quality mics, but that’s not to say the kits don’t have their uses.
For this type of multiple mic set-up, you use the Glyn Johns method, then add tom mics, room mics, perhaps a mono lo-fi mic out front (the Røde NT-1A is a good choice), a separate mic on the ride cymbal and even some distant room mics and so on.
With the toms individually miked up, you can now raise the overheads, as you want to use them more to capture ‘air’ in the cymbals rather than the kit balance. Use the same measuring method (still measure from the snare) to ensure they have a good phase relationship. This rule also applies to the room mics or any stereo pair.
Experiment with tom mic placement to achieve the sound you like. I’d start off with the mic about two or three inches above the rim, pointing at the centre of the head. For more bottom and less stick attack, point the mic more towards the edge of the drum. Watch out for the toms resonating sympathetically with the rest of the kit. If you do experience this then you may be able to solve it with tuning or slight dampening and your choice of head can also make a massive difference. Coated heads sound warmer while clear ones have a brighter attack.
It is important to approach any recording with the attitude of getting it right at source; the myth of ‘fix it in the mix’ doesn’t exist. Sure, you can replace drum sounds in your DAW but that defeats the object! Make sure the overheads sound good on their own so if all else fails you can still work with them. Sure it may change the direction of the production, but the session won’t have been wasted.
BACK IN THE BOX
Of course, capturing the sound you hear is only half the battle... Mixing and production is the next challenge! Every recording will be different and every room you record in will sound different, so learning how to use your surroundings to your advantage is a great skill and it comes with practice. Once you get even more advanced, you should then also learn what mics to use to suit a specific environment.
If you’re just starting out, it may seem daunting, but with two well placed pencil condensers and some practice you won’t believe what you can achieve with a small budget.
• HERCULES MS531B
If you need a couple of stands for your overhead mics that are sturdy enough for your pencil mics but also, more importantly, kind to your budget, this sub-£40 boom stand will be perfect.
• AKG C414-XLS
This is the overhead mic of choice if money is no object. Flick between omni and cardioid modes to get the best image of your kit.
The AKG C414-XLS is also available as a matched pair for stereo miking.
• SONTRONICS DM-1B, DM-1T & DM-1S
This new trio of condenser mics has been designed specifically to capture the nuances of your kick (DM-1B), snare (DM-1S) and tom (DM-1T) and prices start from only £119.
You may also want to look at the Sontronics Orpheus for use as an overhead mic.
• SHURE BETA 56A
This new supercardioid dynamic mic with hinged mount on a stand adaptor is an affordable choice for your snare drum or toms.
You may also want to check out the Shure Beta 52A for your kick drum.
• SAMSON 5KIT
If budget is an issue, then this five-piece dynamic set costs less than a half-decent condenser mic, at around £150. It includes a kick mic, snare mic, three tom mics plus clips and carry case.