Are you wondering how to mic drums?
You've come to the right place!
In this essential guide to micing drums, you will learn:
- What Do I Need To Record A Drum Kit?
- What Are The Different Microphones Used To Record Drums?
- How Do I Mic My Drums? (Step By Step Guide)
- Can I Record Drums With One Or Two Mics?
- How Can I Make My Drum Recordings Sound Better (Tips And Tricks)?
And Much More!
The drum set is a notoriously difficult instrument to record. They have the most amount of individual components of any instrument, all requiring different microphones and miking techniques.
If you’re someone that’s new to recording drums it can seem like an incredibly overwhelming and daunting thing to get into.
With all the different information online showing you the 8 different ways you can mic the hi-hat alone, no wonder people find it hard!
Don’t fear, through my years of recording drums in my own studio, I’ve managed to get to the core of how to get a great drum sound quickly and easily.
Using some pretty limited and inexpensive equipment!
In this essential guide, I will take you through some tried and tested techniques to make micing and recording a drum kit feel like a breeze.
What Do I Need To Record A Drum Kit?
Here is a list of the things that you will need to record a drum kit:
A computer is essential for recording drums. Ideally, you’ll want a computer that has at least 4GB of RAM and a decent processor. Lower end PC’s and Laptops often don’t have the power to process audio.
Short for Digital Audio Workstation, a DAW is software that allows you to record, edit and mix the audio coming from your microphones.
Good examples are Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase and there are also some free options such as Garageband and Cakewalk.
An audio interface
An audio interface is a piece of hardware that connects your microphones to your computer via USB. It acts as a soundcard so your DAW can recognise the audio from your microphones.
For drums you probably want at least an 8 channel interface such as the Focusrite Clarett 8 Pre...but you can record with fewer channels if necessary (more on that later).
Microphones pick up the sounds at the source and transmit them to the audio interface. For recording drums in detail, you’ll probably want at least 8 microphones. (More info on the types of mics needed in the next section)
XLR microphone cables
Each microphone will need a cable to attach to the audio interface. XLR (External Line Return) is the standard connection type for almost all microphones.
Microphone stands and clips
Microphones need stands to hold them in the right position to record each part of the drum kit. Each microphone should come with its own clip attachment that allows you to attach it to a stand.
You’ll be needing one of these! Preferably one that isn’t hungover…
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What Are The Different Microphones Used To Record Drums?
Depending on what you’re looking to record there are different types of mics that are better suited for certain jobs.
For the purpose of this guide, we’re going to focus on the two main types of microphones most commonly used for recording a drum kit (as well as other things!).
- Dynamic Microphones
- Condenser Microphones
Dynamic mics are predominantly used for capturing loud, strong sounds. These mics are usually pretty robust and can be placed very close to loud instruments to provide a tightly focused sound (ideal for drums!).
This means that any mics that you are placing very close to a part of the drum kit should be dynamic. In general, they will be used to close-mic the snare drum, toms and bass drum.
The industry standard dynamic microphone for drums (especially as a snare mic) is the Shure SM57, you really can’t go wrong with one of these….and they’re bombproof!
Also, keep an eye out for bass drum microphones, they are dynamic but tend to have a larger ‘egg-like’ shape. (NOTE: These are also great mics for recording bass guitar due to their superior low-frequency response).
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Condenser mics, in general, are used to record quieter more detailed sounds. They will often be larger in size and are used for instruments such as acoustic guitars and vocals.
However, they can still be used to record loud instruments but wouldn’t be positioned very close to the instrument.
When micing a drum kit, condenser microphones tend to be used for overheads (a few feet above the kit), cymbals, and for room mics to capture the overall ambiance.
A great affordable option for a condenser microphone for drums is the sE Electronics X1.
What mics will I need for a drum kit?
Here’s a handy table of what mics you will need for a detailed drum kit recording, with examples:
NOTE: The majority of the microphone examples are good quality mid-range mics. If you’re on a very tight budget you can use alternatives, just make sure you pay attention to the type of mic in relation to the instrument you are trying to record.
How Do I Mic My Drums? (Step By Step Guide)
Before I go on to talk about the individual set up methods for each mic, there is one process that will be the same for each microphone:
Setting a good gain level
Once you have plugged your microphone into a channel in your audio interface, you will need to adjust the amount of ‘gain’ on that mic.
Simply put, mic gain is the amount of raw audio signal you’re allowing the microphone to send to the computer (or mixer, etc).
If you have set the gain too high, the signal will become overloaded and will sound distorted and horrible.
If you set the gain too low, the signal will be very weak and there won’t be enough volume for a usable recording.
Setting the gain for a microphone (Step-by-step)
Set up your microphone to point at the instrument, then plug one end of an XLR cable into the microphone and the other into the desired input of your audio interface
Get the drummer to play the instrument at a loud volume, with constant regular strikes (for example hitting the snare drum over and over).
You should see some signal coming into your audio interface on that channel, usually it will show up as an ascending green LED bar.
Adjust the gain knob associated with that channel until there is a good level coming into the audio interface and there is no ‘peaking’ (i.e no orange or red LED’s) from the level being too high.
NOTE: Drummers often play louder when they are recording along to music, I often find my desired gain level for each mic, then just back it off a touch to accommodate for this.
Micing the drum kit
Step 1 - The kick drum
- Take your large-diaphragm dynamic microphone (ex AKG D112 kick drum mic) and connect an XLR cable to it
- Plug the mic into CHANNEL 1 of your audio interface
- (For a tight punchy sound)
If your bass drum has a hole in the resonant head, place the microphone halfway inside the drum on a towel. Point the front of the mic (grill side) towards where the bass drum beater strikes the batter head.
- (For an open/resonant sound)
Place the mic just outside the resonant head porthole, pointing at where the beater strikes the batter head. If your bass drum doesn’t have a porthole, just position the mic a couple of inches away from the resonant head. The further away from the mic, the more ‘open’ the sound.
- Once you have the mic setup. Set the mic gain using the steps above.
Step 2 - The snare drum
- Take your dynamic microphone (ex Shure SM57) and connect an XLR cable to it
- Plug the mic into CHANNEL 2 of your audio interface
- Position mic stand so the microphone comes into the snare between the hi-hat stand and first rack tom
- Point the microphone at the center of the drum, the grill of the mic should be a couple of inches in from the edge of the drum and about 2 inches above the head. (NOTE: Experiment with mic placement, depending on the sound you want. Closer mic = tighter/focused. Further mic = open/ringy)
- Set the mic gain
Step 3 - The hi-hat
- Take your hi-hat mic (small-diaphragm condenser microphone, ex. Neumann KM184) and connect an XLR cable to it
- Plug the mic into CHANNEL 3 of your audio interface
- Position the mic so it’s pointing at about halfway between the edge and the bell, roughly 5 or 6 inches above the cymbal
- I usually position it on the opposite side to the one the drummer is playing, facing slightly away from the snare drum...you’ll want to try and minimize how much snare sound it picks up
- Set the mic gain
NOTE: Often the overhead mics pick up enough hi-hat that you may not need to mic it up individually.
Step 4 - The toms
- The toms (tom-toms) will have a very similar process to the snare drum
- Connect an XLR cable to each mic
- Plug your toms into CHANNELS 4,5 and 6 respectively (Hi, Mid and Low toms)
- Position the mics just inside the rim of each tom, pointing at the center of the drum head. Most compact tom mics will come with a clip to attach the mic to the rim of the drum.
- Set the mic gain for each tom, one at a time
Step 5 - The overheads
Overheads are generally two mics that are combined to create a stereo image of the drum kit. They are placed a few feet about the drum kit, pointing down to face the drums. For me the overheads are the most important mics for the overall sound of your drum recordings.
The most common mics for this are large condenser mics, these mics usually require their own form of external power called Phantom Power.
No this is not some kind of Bond villain. Phantom power is the power needed for condenser mics to work. For each channel that has a condenser mic in it, you will need to turn phantom power ON.
Phantom power is usually represented as +48V and there should be a switch on your audio interface that turns it on. Some have phantom power available for individual channels, others just a single general phantom power switch.
Either way, it’ll need to be on if you’re using a large diaphragm condenser mic.
Setting up the overheads
There are many different methods for setting up a pair of overheads for a drum kit. Here I’m going to outline a pretty common one that I use a lot, it’s called a ‘spaced pair’.
- Plug an XLR cable into each overhead mic
- Plug the mic into CHANNELS 7 and 8 in your audio interface
- Positon the first mic approx 4-5ft above the left side of the kit. Point the mic so the front is facing down towards the drums and is covering the left ‘half’ of the drum kit
- Position the second mic in the same way but cover the right side of the drum kit
- IMPORTANT: Once the mics are set up, take a spare XLR cable. Hold one end on the center of the snare drum head and stretch the other end of the cable until you meet the grill of the first mic.
That gives you the distance of the mic from the snare. Now measure the distance between the snare head and the second mic using the same technique. They should be the same.
- If the mic distances are off, adjust either mic position until they are both an equal distance from the snare drum. This will help prevent phase issues.
- Set the gain for each microphone by getting the drummer to play the whole kit.
Overheads are probably the main determining factor of getting a great drum sound. Take some time to experiment with different heights and placements to get the sound you are after.
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Step 6 - Room mic (optional)
If you want to add a little more depth and ‘space’ to your drum recordings, you might want to consider adding a room mic.
This is commonly a large-diaphragm condenser mic, placed a few feet in front of the drum kit at head height, pointing roughly at the snare drum.
Obviously using a room mic depends on how many inputs you have available in your interface and the size of your room.
If you are recording in a very small room then a room mic is probably unnecessary.
Also be aware that, due to the further distance from the drums, the sound from the kit will be hitting the room mic later than the close mics.
This may cause phase issues when you’re coming to mixing, so be prepared to move the audio a bit in your DAW so it matches up with the close mic signals.
Can I record Drums With One Or Two Mics?
Absolutely! Some of the most famous drum recordings have been made using a very modest mic set up.
Pretty much any recording from the Motown era will use only one or two mics for the drum kit.
The key to recording a drum kit with one microphone is this: experiment, experiment, experiment.
Take ideally a large-diaphragm condenser mic (but any mic you have at hand will do!) and set it up as an overhead microphone, pointing straight down at the kick drum beater.
This is a great place to start as it’ll cover a good general mix of the drum kit.
From there, make a mark on the floor where the mic stand is (or take a picture) and record a little bit of the drummer playing. Then move the mic somewhere else, maybe try a few feet in front of the kit like a room mic?
Again record a little snippet of drumming....and repeat.
This will leave you with a handful of different mic positions that you can compare and pick your favorite. There is no wrong answer, just use your ears, and if it sounds good...IT IS GOOD!
A very simple way to record a drum kit with two mics is to place one on the kick drum and the other as a mono overhead mic.
This way you’re getting an overall balanced mix of the kit with the overhead, alongside the kick mic which you can blend in to give you more lower-frequency punch when needed.
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How Can I Make My Drum Recordings Sound Better (Tips And Tricks)?
Tune those drums
The most important thing when getting a great sounding recording of any musical instrument is that the instrument itself needs to sound good.
If your drum kit is held together with duct tape and all the heads are pitted from years of animal-like abuse, no studio trickery is going to help you.
If possible replace any old drum heads and spend some time learning to tune your drum kit (or ask an experienced drummer to give you a hand).
Also, if you’re struggling with a drum that is too boomy or ringy, try adding a small strip of duct tape to the batter head to tame those unwanted overtones. Adding a pillow inside the bass drum can really help get that low end ‘thump’ too.
Loud drums/quiet cymbals
If you’re the drummer, or you have a drummer that’s open to suggestions. Try getting them to play a little quieter than their used to. Especially when it comes to the cymbals.
When a drummer really lays into the cymbals it tends to overpower the drum mix and make everything very ‘top heavy’ frequency wise.
Treat that room
Another MASSIVELY important factor that will affect the sound of your drum recordings, is the room your recording in.
If your room is square and has a lot of hard surfaces, the sound will bounce around and cause all kinds of problems. Try adding some acoustic tiles and soft furnishings to tighten up an overly ‘lively’ sounding room.
Similarly, if your room if very ‘dead’ and dull sounding, try removing some of the acoustic tiles or soft furnishings to get a little more liveliness and ‘bite’ to your sound.
Final Thoughts On Micing Drums
The main thing I would suggest is to have fun experimenting with recording. Everything in this guide is just guidelines to get you started.
There are no wrong answers and nobody is marking you, try putting mics in weird places and see what happens...you may be surprised by the results!
The more you experiment, the more you will find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t. Meaning that your ears will also improve as you go.
So there you have it, a definitive guide to help get started in the world of recording drums.
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