Musician Tips: How To Mic Drums and Influence Producers


It seems as though engineers and mixers grumble more about drum sounds than anything else in the studio today. All of us have had those miserable sessions when it seemed the very best sound you could obtain was still slightly worse than a cardboard box and a Q-tip. The opinions of engineers on “how to,” “what with,” and “where at,” are as numerous as the engineers themselves. How many times can you remember the drummer coming in for the second session, only to find that your really neat sound from the day before has vanished? That long, hard stare you received from the drum booth was not respect. He probably thought you were fresh out of the trees.

A friend and I were discussing the vast difference we had heard from one day to the next, with the same drummer, kit and microphone selection. The sound one day was great, and the next, the cardboard box. There does not appear to be a logical explanation, but I assure you, there is.

I do not have any incantations or special herbs, nor do I suggest bringing incense to make your drums sound good. However, I may have an answer as to why they sometimes sound bad for no apparent reason. As we all know, when the drum sound is loose and muddy, the entire track will sound a little better.

In most cases, we are dealing with an average of ten to twelve microphones on a kit. The phase time relationship between these microphones can be extremely critical. If phasing errors are present in substantial magnitude, the low-end response will be loose, muddy and undefined. The center image will be cloudy with random notes across the stereo spread. Not a happy state of affairs.

Each mic, whether it be designated for tom, snare, kick, or cymbal, will receive a signal not only from its intended sounds source but the leakage from all the other drum instruments as well. This leakage will sim at random with the number of mics, the more leakage to be heard in the mix. This leakage, if not phase aligned, will cause the hollow, muddy sound described above.

A brute force method for eliminating the negative effects of what we shall term “bad leakage” is to electronically gate the tom and overhead mic when not in use. When the drummer strikes a drum that has its microphone mutes via a gate, the mute threshold level is exceeded, which opens the channel, allowing the microphone to be heard. This electronic band-aid for leakage can and does tighten the overall drum sound, but not without a price. The band-aid is only concealing a lack of knowledge in microphone placement and technique, a dying art in this day and time.

The “bad leakage” can be transformed into good leakage, making the drum kit sound rich and fat without reducing the apparent size of the kit. I have a method for nulling the phase errors in a drum kit. I feel so strongly about this method—I am convinced it can help you obtain a tighter rhythm sound.

First, let us assume the kit to be well tuned and well played. The type of microphones you prefer are not nearly as important as how you implement them. For example, these are my favorites: AKGD12E for kick, C451E with 20 db pads on snare, C451#’s with 10 db pads on high hat and overheads, and Shure SM-57’s on toms. This is not to say these are the best, just my preference.

With all these console faders down, bring only one fader up at a time, adjusting the level of equalization for that particular drum channel as well as possible. Now, with all fader levers and equalization setting obtained, mute all the drum channels except the snare and floor tom mics. Have the drummer hit the snare in a steady, repeated fashion. Lower the snare fader level and increase the floor tom fader until the level of each of the two channels is approximately the same (the snare leakage through the floor tom mic being the same apparent loudness as the name mic itself). While listening in a mono mode, instruct the drummer to continue the steady beat and have an assistant move the floor tom mic over the head of the tom in a circular manner, being sure to cover the entire surface of the head until you hear the phasing between the two microphones “lock in.” That is to say, the loose, hollow sound at some point across the head will be at a low ebb. You are effectively nulling the bad phase response out.

After having determined the mic placement to obtain the best snare sound through the floor tom leakage, lower the floor tom fader to about the same relative level as the snare channel in the text above. Now, proceed to raise the next highest tome fader and repeat the phase adjustment process. Each tom, cymbal, and overhead microphone thereafter is adjusted using the same method. When all the microphones have been adjusted for phase response, return the faders to their proper and respective levels. The leakage remaining will add richness and fullness to the overall sound. Any “bad leakage” left will, for all practical purposes, be masked by the inphase relationship of the kit.

Some trouble spots are the smaller toms of 8” or less in diameter. The head is so small, the placement becomes harder to determine. At times it may be necessary to reposition on the these small toms slightly to compensate for the phase lag between its microphone and that of the snare. Usually, this can be done without affecting the drummer’s playing ease to any great extent.

The kick drum can be phase aligned as well, although it may be necessary to reverse the polarity of the microphone itself due to the usual technique of mic-ing the kick from the inside of the shell, which is 180 degrees out of polarity with the front.

Slight and conservative equalization changes can be made after the drum kit has been phase adjusted with little effect on the phase response overall. However, bear in mind the equalization on each channel was adjusted before the phase alignment has been performed. Therefore, these phase shifts inherent in each particular equalization were compensated for, to a certain extent, by the mic placement and phase alignment procedure. Equalization changes after the fact will slightly alter the response to some degree.

In summation, all too often pet microphones and techniques are implemented with no regard to phase or time lag differences between adjacent microphones. Hence, consistency is lost between setups. On drums, the phase difference can be a tremendous disadvantage or it can be an asset if properly done. The same procedures can be used on pianos and even microphones placed across the room from each other, with similar results.

Give my technique a try. The drummer will love you, and you will be extremely satisfied with yourself when you realize how much better it sounds and how much easier the mix becomes later on down the road. I am sure you will agree. It’s worth the time spent. a


For more from the SLUG Archives:
The Stench
Verbal Assault – Twice As Nice