Record Your Drums With 1 (or 2) Mics
By Ben Blakesley
Congratulations, you're a drummer!
That means you're the coolest member of the band, you have less drama in your life, and an excellent outlet for your anger on the rare occasion you do have issues.
Being a drummer is great. What's not great is that you have the most gear to lug around and you require the most microphones to record your instrument.
Or do you?...
Here are a few methods to try when searching for a great recorded drum sound using a minimum amount of gear.
Before You Start Recording
The very first thing you need to do is get your gear and your room ready. I'm guessing you probably don't have the luxury of owning a professionally tuned and constructed recording studio, but that doesn't mean you can't get a good sound.
The #1 most important thing is the drummer him/herself. The drumming (and recording) is only going to be as good as the player, so as you set your expectations about the sound you're going for, keep in mind the kind of drummer you are.
#2 in line of importance is the drum kit. If your drums sound bad to your ears, they'll sound worse through a mic and speakers. Choose a kit that has the sound you want and take good care of it. Change your drum heads as needed.
#3 is the room in which you are playing. If it's a large room, position your drums so that they are facing into the room (not the wall) and about 3/4 of the way into the room so that you're seeing the most area of the room [see picture]. This will give your sound waves some room to breathe and avoid nasty short reflections off the back wall.
Try to choose a room that is NOT SQUARE! I cannot emphasize this enough. And the bigger the better (short of a gymnasium). It's also a good idea to choose a room with plush furniture, drapes, and bookshelves with lots of books. These will all help to give you a more even drum sound by absorbing some noise and diffusing the sound waves to cut back on unpleasant reflections. The more flat, shiny surfaces you have, the more 'live' your sound will be. The more carpet, fabric, and softness in the room, the more controlled the sound will be.
The Single Mic Approach
It may sound crazy, but often you can get the best sound for your music with just a single mic, a good drummer, and a little know-how. As with any recording, the first thing you need to do is decide what kind of sound you're going for so that you know when you get it!
Using a single mic, there are only a few places you can really put the mic and still get a balanced sound. These spots are:
1.) 6-7 feet in the air directly above the kit, facing the snare drum. Adjust the height to taste (the higher you get, the weaker your kick and snare will sound), but it's pretty important to keep the mic directly above the snare as that will serve as the focal point of the kit. Although a condenser mic will work for this setup, I recommend a dynamic mic like a Shure SM57 or something similar. The sound you'll get here should sound pretty familiar because it's very close to what you hear as you play your drums! The drawback is that you'll get a lot of cymbals in this setup, so if your material is cymbal-heavy, you may want to consider another method.
2.) [Ben Recommends] About rack tom height, 4-6 feet in front of the kit, facing toward the kit. I use this mic placement on nearly every kit I record (while also placing mics elsewhere) as you can get a very balanced room sound here. I like to use a large diaphragm condenser mic for this application, sometimes with an Omni pattern if you have a decent sounding room. Simply move the microphone slightly up or down to get more or less kick drum and cymbals, and further or closer to the kit to get more or less room sound.
The 2 Mic Approach
Although you only have a couple of generally acceptable options with one mic, two mics gives you many more possibilities.
1.) Kick and Snare. If you've got a driving beat and really need definition in the kick and snare, you can do a modified version of close miking on those two drums. Use dynamic mics (a Shure SM57 on the snare and an AKG D112 on the kick) and place the snare mic just over the top backside rim of the drum but give it a little more distance than you normally would so that you can get enough bleed from the cymbals and toms to make up for your lack of other close mics. Same goes for the kick mic, place it facing the resonant head of the kick but about a foot back so that you retain the definition but are able to get some signal bleed from the rest of the kit. [Note: if you have one more mic, tighten up the close mics on snare and kick and add the room mic from Single Mic Option #2. That will give you pretty stellar results regardless of how many tracks you have available.]
2.) [Ben Recommends] Stereo XY Overheads. Use this method if your song is not all cymbal wash. Use two small diaphragm condenser microphones like the AKG C451 and place them over the drum kit in an XY pattern so that the capsules are nearly touching but are facing the kit at a 90 degree angle from one another. I like to position them so that they split the difference between the snare drum and the top of the drummer's head, about 6-7 feet in the air. When mixing, pan the tracks hard right and left depending on how wide of a sound you're after. Biggest drawback: You won't be able to get a tight, responsive kick sound in this setup.
3.) Spaced Stereo Pair. This will give you the most room sound and is a stereo version of Single Mic Option #2. Depending on the size of your room, put the mics as far away from the kit as you can while staying at least a foot away from the wall. Space two large diaphragm condenser mics apart (the wider the space, the larger the stereo field) but at the same height and distance from the kit. This will give you an accurate 'picture' of how the drums sound in the room. The room you've chosen will be very important in this setup, so make sure the drums sound good in the room in the first place!
That should be enough to get you started, but remember, as with any recording, experimentation is key. What works for one drummer in one situation may not work for another. Keep trying different placements using these as guidelines and you'll be rockin' new great sounding drum tracks in no time!
Ben Blakesley is in charge of Marketing and Technology at George's Music and has been recording drums for over a decade as the Chief Engineer at Javboy Records recording studio www.javboyrecords.com