Miking Drums – How to Set up Microphones on your Drum Set

drum mics

Ask any sound engineer about his worst nightmare and the answer will usually be the same – drums.  Considering the size, loudness and the number of parts, it’s no wonder that this instrument is by far the hardest thing to mic. On stage or in the studio, it’s always complicated, especially if you don’t have too much experience.

Therefore, this article consists of a lot of useful information that can help your drum kit sound better, both on stage and recordings.  We will discuss different types of microphones, their application on drums, different miking approaches and many other things that play an important role in this complex process.

Types of Microphones

The first thing to discuss is the different types of microphones. There are several ways to classify them, but the first and most important is by the transducer principle. Simply said, there are different types of microphones use different technologies to convert the signal they catch. Through the history of microphones, various technologies have been used. These days, the three most common types are condenser, dynamic, and ribbon.

Dynamic microphones are the most popular these days. Reasons are numerous. First of all, this is the most reliable type of microphones, which makes it a perfect workhorse. Also, it can stand a lot of sound pressure, which makes it perfect for loud conditions. Finally, the price and costs of maintenance are quite low.

The working principle is rather simple, as dynamics microphone works via electromagnetic induction. A small induction coil is positioned in the magnetic field and attached to a diaphragm. The soundwave makes the diaphragm vibrate, which moves the coil, which produces current.

Condenser or electrostatic microphones work on a completely different principle. These microphones have a so-called condenser or capacitor. Once the diaphragm starts to vibrate, it changes the distance from the condenser.

These types of microphones are characterized by hi-quality sound, so their primary use is for studio recordings. You can use them for pretty much any instrument, though they can’t deal with high sound pressure that well. That’s the main reason why drummers don’t use too many of them, even in-studio sessions

Another drawback is the fact that these microphones require power, either from a mixer or a so-called phantom power. Finally, the reason why they are not used too much for live performances is that they are not as sturdy as dynamic microphones.

Ribbon mics aren’t as popular as they’ve been in the past. Still, many musicians who want to get that vintage vibe like to use them. With new technologies, these mics are now far more reliable than before. Their main advantage is the fact that they deliver amazing sound quality at high frequencies. They can capture high notes without any harshness, which isn’t always the case with dynamic and condenser microphones. Still, you won’t find many drummers to use them.

Polar patterns and Diaphragm shape

These are other aspects you should consider when it comes to microphone types. Polar patterns are important because they determine how the mic will pick up the sound. For example, cardioid mics will pick only the sound that is in front and block everything else. Super cardioid mics have an even narrower area of sound picking. Omnidirectional mics will pick the sound from all directions, while the figure-8 pattern blocks the sides and picks the sound from front and back. Of course, there are many more patterns, but these are the most popular ones.

A diaphragm is one of the most important parts of a microphone. Once it is in touch with soundwave, it starts to vibrate and changes sonic energy into electricity. The size plays an important role here, as it has a huge impact on sound characteristics, on things like sensitivity, dynamic range, internal noise, sound pressure handling, etc. The larger the diaphragm, the more natural the sound is. On the other side, small-diaphragm mics are dealing with high sound pressure much better. We classify them in three groups – large, medium and small diaphragm microphones. 

Best Mics For Drums

The beauty of a drum set is in diversity. Each part of the set is characterized by distinctive sound characteristics. Snare, toms, cymbals, kick drum – all of them sound notably different. That also means you will need different types of microphones for each part. Sometimes, this can be a real nightmare. Fortunately, there are some general rules that work great in most situations.

Kick Drum

Musicians and sound engineers use several different approaches to mic the bass drum. Not only that these pieces come in different sizes, but drummers also prefer different sound characteristics.

The most common method is to put a microphone in front of the resonant head. The best way is to place the mic somewhere in the lower half of the head, on a distance between 2 and 3 inches. For this method, the best choice would be a super-cardioid or cardioid dynamic microphone, with a large diaphragm. Such microphones work great with lower frequencies and also deal with high sound pressure pretty well.

You can also place a microphone inside the kick drum. You can use a stand and also a dynamic cardioid or super-cardioid microphone. Another method you could try is to put a mic on a pillow. It this case, you can even use a condenser microphone, it would sound great.

Finally, you can try with both methods at the same time. It may be a little bit complicated for your sound engineer but will ensure excellent sound quality and tons of new options. While many drummers use two mics inside the bass drum, it’s not a rare thing to see one mic inside and one outside the drum.

Snare

Snares are particularly important in pop music genres. They can be miked in so many ways, so lots of sound options are in the game. Of course, dynamic mics are the most popular choice, but more sensitive condenser microphones can do an amazing job as well. Even ribbon mics can be used, although you have to be very careful with these.

A snare is usually pretty loud, so you don’t need necessarily to put the mic close to the head.  Moreover, headroom is the most common method for snares. The biggest issue with miking snares is to avoid side noise that comes from toms and cymbals. Therefore, a super-cardioid, or even hyper-cardioid, is a must in this case.

A typical position is to put the mic just over the snare. You could also try a so-called over/under method.  This means you can put one more mic under the bottom head, to accentuate the snare and get new sound characteristics. 

Toms

Rules for toms miking are generally the same as for snare. So, you can experiment with different microphone types, different polar patterns, etc. Still, there are some common issues, so typical for toms. When you want to mic a tom, you have to consider that cymbals are pretty close, so there is a lot of potential side noise. Therefore, many drummers use super and hyper-cardioid polar patterns. However, the trouble with these ones in that they have particularly good response at high frequencies (which are typical for cymbals), which can make things even worse.

Therefore, I’m pretty sure that mic position actually plays a more important role. You should place the mic as close as possible to the head.  Clip-on low-profile dynamic microphones would be a good choice. Also, try to keep cymbals as higher as possible.

Hi-Hat

Things with hi-hats are rather simple. As they are loud, in many cases drummers and sound engineers don’t even bother with making them. Those who prefer miking usually choose a condenser microphone, due to better sensitivity

A hi-hat can deliver a wide range of sound colors. A general rule is to put the mic above the hi-hat, on a distance around 4 inches.  On the other side, a position between the center and outside edge is a matter of personal preference. As you go closer to the center, the sound becomes pinging-like. If you go all to the edge, the sound becomes too loud and unarticulated.

Overhead

Pretty much every drummer has his own method of overhead drumming.  Still, there are several common methods that work well on all occasions. One of them Eddie Kramer’s 3-mic method, which includes three large-diaphragm condenser microphones in a triangle shape over the drum set. Another popular method is Glyn Johns’ 3-mic technique, where one mic is used for the kick drum and two others are above the set.  

Of course, there are many more methods in use. In any case, large-diaphragm condenser mics are recommended.

Room

Capturing the sound around the drums is crucial for a good sound. In most cases, the best way is to place a couple of microphones on the “safe” distance from the set, not very far from the ground. Condenser microphones would be my first choice, but you can experiment with ribbon mics as well.  Stereo mics are also a great option.

Different Approaches to Drum Miking – Live vs Studio

There are various ways to mic a drum set, but all of them can be classified into two main groups. The one is studio miking, while the other one is drum miking for live performances.

Of course, things are much easier in the studio, where you can control the sound. Therefore, you can mic all drum parts or just some of them, use room mics and, of course, overhead mics. Still, all this equipment usually costs a fortune, though that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good sound with a tight budget.

The most affordable method for studio recording would be with a pair of two condenser microphones. That is also the simplest way of recording you could ask for. Place one of the microphones above the set, while the other should work as a room microphone, in front of the drums. You can also try with both of them over the drum set to get a stereo recording. Still, keep in mind that low ends would be sacrificed in this way.

If your budget is enough for four good microphones, the best way would be to get a couple of condenser overhead mics, one for the kick drum and one for the snare.

When it comes to living performances, things are a little bit complicated. As I’ve already mentioned, you can’t control the sound, so room microphones are out. Also, be careful with overhead microphones, as you are about to pick a lot of side noise, from your bend mates, audience, etc. Multiple mics are required here, though there are cases when you can do the gig with just three microphones. In this case, most drummers go for kick, snare, and overhead mics. Ideally, you would get two more mics – one for the hi-hat and additional overhead microphones. For most live performances, that would be everything you need.

The main thing about live miking is to get as much as possible gain without feedback. The most secure way is to rely on dynamic microphones. Still, most drummers prefer condensers on their snare, even on hi-hats. Condenser mics would definitely deliver a much more sensitivity and better sound quality. Still, it can be tricky to find a perfect position, which would save you from unwanted noise and feedback. In my personal experience, overhead mics should be small-diaphragm condensers.

Common issues

Snare Buzz

One of the most common problems drummers have to deal in a studio is a so-called snare buzz. Sometimes this can be very frustrating and getting rid of it can take hours. Fortunately, more experienced drummers are already familiar with the group of potential reasons for such troubles.

In most cases, the problem is in bad snare wiring. The space between the ends of the snare wire sets and the drum shell should be even and that’s the first thing you should check. Also, you can rotate the snare, to keep wires away from toms. Of course, you can always purchase higher-quality snare wires, it could help.

Tuning

Bad tuning of the drums can cause a lot of troubles. Not only that you have to tune your drums to a certain pitch, but also to keep in mind the relation between different drum parts. This primarily refers to the relation between snare and toms. If toms are at the same frequency range as the snare, it may also cause a lot of buzzes and other unwanted noise. Keep that in mind when preparing for studio sessions.

Room Acoustics

Professional studios usually have rooms designed especially for drums, which can add a lot of character. On the other side, things probably won’t be that great in your home studio. The room shape, size, and materials can have a different impact on sound characteristics. So, relying on room miking too much isn’t always the best choice. In most cases, home studios are small and cube-like, which can cause a lot of troubles with low ends and these things can’t always be fixed with mixer.

Phasing

Another huge, but often overlooked issue with drum miking is phasing. If your recording sounds terrible and can’t be fixed with a mixer, there is a big chance that the problem lays in the fact that not all mics are in-phase. You can learn a lot about phase issues on this page.

Recording To Audio Software

Thanks to modern technology, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to make a decent-sounding recording. These days, there’s a lot of quality audio software that can do the job right. Of course, you would need an audio interface with enough inputs for all the mics (check out our article on the best audio interfaces for recording drums for more info), to connect them with a computer. As I’ve already mentioned, you can get a good sound quality with just a couple of microphones, so it’s not always necessary to spend thousands of dollars on audio equipment.

Getting good audio software is pretty easy these days. You can buy one, or even download for free. Of course, paid software will provide you with better overall quality and more recording options. In most cases, these workstations are very intuitive and won’t take too much time to get used to them.

Summary

As you can see, drum miking isn’t a simple process. Even experienced sound engineers have troubles with getting a great drum sound sometimes. Still, a good thing is that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune on microphones to get a decent quality. Sound engineers and drummers have developed various methods of drum miking, depending on a number of microphones.

Sometimes, a couple of mics is everything you need, though it is very important to stick to some general rules. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment. After all, we all have different preferences. Try different methods, with different numbers of microphones. Also, try different types of mics. The more things you try, the bigger chances you have to get the sound you dream about.

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