Photo by Gabriel Barletta on Unsplash

A cluttered nest of XLR cables, microphones positioned tightly and constrictively above every percussive aspect, and valuable studio time wasted to solve various phasing issues. Numerous engineers have been there- the achievement of capturing a solid drum performance can be a stressful feat. Luckily, using only one, two, or three microphones; there are numerous microphone positioning techniques that exist to help simplify this task and enable a drummer’s recorded performance to radiate with natural and pleasing tones.

Basic Information Before Recording

As it has been countlessly proven, the art of recording can be completely subjective. There are never any ‘you must live by’ rules, all that is required is making your recorded sound source(s) sound as good as possible. Sure, there are definitely guidelines to adhere by, but they can
occasionally be bent or broken as sacrifices for creativity. Utilize this information as a foundation for an approach. The key is to always experiment!

Recording Space

The space where the drum kit will be recorded is much more important for a minimal mic’ing approach than it is for traditional close mic’d recordings. The larger the room the better, especially regarding ceiling height. The drums will have more space to breathe before the sound
reflects downwards and will ensure the possibility of a lush room tone.

Acoustically, it is also important to have reflective floors and absorbent ceilings in the room for these recording situations (think carpeted floors and drywall ceilings). Of course, if the room
does not contain these, some clever mixing can help solve the lack of reflection and absorption. But having proper room treatment already in place will aid tremendously during mix-down.

Additionally, the positioning of the drum kit in the room is very important for the recording’s
acoustics. Be sure to have variable distances from major reflective surfaces to aid in the creation of an accurate room tone. An example can be: having the far wall 20’ in front of kit, the back wall 4’ behind the throne, the ceiling 8’ above the cymbals, a side wall 10’ to the left, and the other side wall 13’ to the right. This way, room reverberation will occur to be more natural sounding in context of the recording.

A Balanced Kit

Ensure that everything within the drum kit sounds balanced when playing in the room. Are the toms creating a lot of boom? Is the snare ‘thwack’ overwhelming? Is the kick providing too much thunder, or are the cymbal strikes painful to hear within context of the kit? When using minimal mic’ing be certain to tune the kit appropriately to eliminate any of these balance issues, because there will not be any easy mixing possibilities available to appropriately fix this later.

Microphone Selection

Blue Microphones Bluebird SL Large Diaphragm Cardioid Microphone
Blue Microphones Bluebird SL Large Diaphragm Cardioid Microphone

Ribbons, dynamics, large condensers, and small condensers are completely capable of recording organic drum tones in their own manner and providing a varying tonal palate for the engineer to mix. But because close mic’ing will not be taking place, a minimalistic recording requires microphones that capture a full range of tones in a direct fashion- which is why large diaphragm condenser microphones are highly recommended for this situation. Also, when using more than a single microphone to record the kit, a stereo pair is also very important to have to promise an even and cohesive recording.

Of course, large diaphragm condensers have an extremely vast price range (as do all other types), but choose ones from the microphone locker or the shopping list that are known to provide the most balanced representation of a drum kit and acoustic space. Also, focus on using microphones that have a traditional cardioid polar pattern, although ones with multiple polar patterns will be practical for more specified positioning techniques.

AKG C414 XL II Condenser Microphone
AKG C414 XL II Condenser Microphone

For example, a Blue Bluebird will be a smart economical choice and capture all tones sufficiently and unhindered, but some may find the high-midrange frequencies to be a bit overhyped for drums. Equalization will easily solve this, but for those who prefer a more neutral variety of tones to initially work with, the AKG C414 XLII is always a wise choice due to its more flat, slightly darkened frequency response, along with: variable polar patterns (Omni, Wide Cardioid, Cardioid, Hypercardioid, Bi-Directional) equipped low cut filters (40Hz, 80Hz @ -12dB octave, and 160Hz @ -6dB octave), and attenuation pads (-6dB, -12dB, -18dB). There are many more microphones to choose from, research their frequency responses and find what is best for the intended tonal achievements.

Other Microphones To Consider:

Using A Single Microphone

While using only one microphone to record the entire kit, the method of positioning will be dictated by the recording’s need of room tone or ‘air’ from the drum kit. Obviously, the farther the mic is positioned from the kit, more of the room ambiance will be recorded. Also, if other
instruments are being played simultaneously, microphone bleed will occur.

Obviously, the primary aspect to help decide on microphone position is the intended tone that is to be captured. Want more kick? Position and angle the microphone low in front of the kick. Or more snare, toms, hi-hats, and rides? Place the microphone higher above the kit, focusing the capsule towards the middle of the kit.  Unfortunately with only one microphone in use, those are the only two options that are available that will provide an accurate image of the drum kit. This is because a kick drum radiates sound outwards and the primary frequencies from the rest of the kit emits upwards.

To comprise a good balance for a mono drum track, aim for a symmetrical placement. Simply make sure the microphone is the same distance from the front of the bass drum as it is from the ground. An example would be placing the microphone 5’ from the resonating head of the kick drum and 5’ from the floor, angled slightly downwards (30 degrees) aimed towards the snare.

To add even more to the tone, a bit of compression (2dB-3dB) during tracking will help smooth the transients and, after increasing the compressor’s output, will unveil more of the room tone and increase the kit’s attack. As a general mixing guideline for mixing drums, especially for the kick, using gentle peak attenuation in the lower-midrange frequencies (above or below 350Hz) will help carve a more natural drum tone.

Using Two Microphones

Although with most sound sources, including an ensemble recording where the room is recorded rather than each performer, stereo microphone techniques will come to mind when using two microphones on a single sound source. Unfortunately, that is not the general case for drum recordings. This is because of one primary reason that was mentioned here before- the kick radiates sound away from the kit and the rest emits upwards.

If an engineer were to record a drummer using just an X/Y Coincident Pair above the kit, the kick drum will be practically non-existent and the mix will instead dominate with snare, toms, and cymbals. The same concept comes into effect if the same configuration was placed in front of the kit to capture more of the kick. Any attempt to compensate for these discrepancies during mixing will only result in ‘mud’ or lack of definition.

Instead, the best application for two microphones on a drum kit (preferably a stereo pair of large diaphragm condensers) would be to use one for the kick drum and the other as a mono overhead. This will not provide a stereo image of the kit, but it will allow you to control both aspects of the kit separately and apply equalization and dynamics processing through two discrete instances. This is especially important for the kick drum and the added ability to enhance definition of the kit.

Ideally, for a good two-microphone method, try positioning one approximately 12” from the kick’s front head and 16” from the ground. Then place the other microphone relatively 36” above the snare, positioned perpendicular above the kit. The goal here is to experiment with placement, especially with the overhead, as increasing or decreasing the distance from the kit will do the same for the room tone within the recording. Of course, distances for both of these mics will be subjective to the creative decisions made for the overall drum tone.

The ending result will sound slightly tighter when compared to the one-mic recording; especially with the added ability to diminish unwanted frequencies from both aspects of the kit (between 200 Hz and 500 Hz), adding attack (between 3 kHz and 5kHz) and additional brightness if required (6kHz to 10 kHz). However, be careful with adding brightness to tracks containing cymbals, things can get out of control in a hurry. In addition, if the resulting overhead track sounds increasingly shrill, a low pass filter (starting at or near 12kHz) can be swept higher until the undesired tone is eliminated. The same compression can be applied as before, or more with an increased output if a harsh/pounding tone is desired. Due to the addition of a second mic, the overhead track can also be sent to a reverb auxiliary track to add subtle depth to the drums and
enhance the warmth of the room tone.

Three Microphones

Here is where the fun kicks-in, there are many positioning techniques to choose when using three microphones for drums! Since the recording will now essentially be in stereo, all stereo microphone techniques can be utilized- some with more effectiveness than others. The primary techniques to consider for this application are: AB/Spaced Pair, X/Y Coincident Pair, ORTF (Near-Coincident) Pair, and Isosceles Pair.

For each of these techniques, a microphone aimed at the kick drum’s beater head (3-4” away) is added for enhanced control of the kit. But, of course, get creative with the positioning to guarantee the exact sound needed from the kick!

A/B/Spaced Pair and Kick Drum

The A/B or Spaced Pair technique is a typical arrangement for overhead drum microphones. To put simply, the microphones are spread evenly above at equal heights, pointing straight down towards the middle of the kit. Typical spacing between the two ranges between 24” and 48”. The same concept regarding microphone height comes into effect here, where the increase or decrease of height will dictate the amount of room tone the capsules will absorb. If a broader scope of the room is required and multi-pattern large diaphragm condensers are being implemented, try switching them from cardioid to a wider polar pattern.

Although the A/B Pair is one of the simplest stereo techniques to put into practice, this technique presents the most problems with phase relationships and comb filtering. Since both microphones will pickup hits from the kit (snare, toms, cymbals) but will arrive to one microphone slower than the other, the problem can be somewhat mitigated by keeping the two capsules equidistant from the center of the snare drum. After repositioning, solo each overhead track to reveal possible phasing problems with the kick, toms, or cymbals to ensure all issues are minimized.

A great advantage from this spaced-pair arrangement is the broader and more defined stereo spread of the kit, especially when the overhead tracks are panned 100% to the left and right. This may appear to be an unrealistic image of the drum set, so be sure to even alter the panning until the desired results are achieved.

X/Y Coincident Pair and Kick Drum

Aston Microphones Starlight Stereo Mounting Bar
Aston Microphones Starlight Stereo Mounting Bar
On-Stage MY800 Quick Release Stereo Bar
On-Stage MY800 Quick Release Stereo Bar

An X/Y stereo pair consists of placing two microphones (existing as a stereo pair) entirely next to each other, without touching, and having the capsules pointed at a 90-degree angle towards the right and left sides of the kit.. To be sure the angling approach is correct, the space between the microphone capsules and the microphones themselves will resemble a triangle. The accuracy of the angle-ing can be fairly difficult to achieve using two large diaphragm microphones positioned on separate microphone stands, especially when height and distances need to be augmented later. For this technique, a stereo bar used on a single microphone stand will tremendously simplify this.

 

Other Microphones To Consider:

Now, with the two microphones properly angled on a single stand, the X/Y Pair can be positioned using the similar height guidelines as the A/B pair (shoot for 36” above the snare to fortify the centering of this drum in the stereo image) with hard panning to the left and right. The
end results are a realistic but under-hyped stereo image. This can be ideal for acoustic or jazz music where a simple and realistic image of the drum kit is wanted. Most importantly, phase issues are essentially non-existent with this technique due to the capsules being so close together that sound waves from each drum and cymbal are absorbed nearly simultaneously.

ORTF (Near-Coincident) Pair and Kick Drum

With the microphones still positioned on the stereo bar, space them further apart to 17 cm (about6 3/4”) apart, and expand the angle of the capsules to 110 degrees. This is known as ORTF Stereo, a recording method created by the French National Broadcast System to simulate the directional perspective of human ears. ORTF stands for “Office de Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise.” Crazy, right?

Due to the wider spread of the microphones and the likelihood that a majority of the kit will be between the capsules, this method will have little success in a small or untreated space because the microphones will primarily pickup reflected sounds. By moving the array closer to the drum kit, from either behind or over top, room reflections will be mitigated. ORTF, when properly positioned above the middle of the kit, will produce a wider stereo image than X/Y, but not immensely. Either way, the stereo image produces very natural and realistic tones that should provide minimal phasing discrepancies.

A Way to Simplify X/Y and ORTF Microphone Techniques

It may appear difficult to position large diaphragm condensers in the positions and angles
explained in the two previously mentioned configurations, a common solution is to use a pair of
small diaphragm (pencil) condensers. Although the details of the kit will be minimized, the
microphones are much simpler to handle and provide an accurate cardioid polar pattern.

Small Diaphragm Condensers to Consider:

Isosceles Pair and Kick Drum

This configuration is a much more different approach than traditional techniques involving simple directionality. Deriving from a method popularized by esteemed recording engineer/producer Glyn Johns (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin), this method resembles an isosceles triangle between the two overhead microphones and the snare. The full technique, however, includes an additional close mic on the snare.

In order to produce great results from this method, the location of the two isosceles (overhead) microphones. One microphone is positioned directly above the snare, 32” in height. The second microphone is then positioned slightly above, beyond, and behind the floor tom. By using a string or tape measure, be certain to make sure this mic is equidistant from the center of the snare as the first microphone. The second microphone’s capsule should then be angled across the top of the floor tom, toward the snare and rack toms to further ensure a properly in-phase and full bodied snare tone. With this method, the location of the overhead microphones will produce a much better image of the toms and cymbals than the other methods explained.

When mixing, the overhead mics are panned hard left (overhead snare) and hard right (second microphone above and behind the floor tom). This results in a strong stereo separation of the kit, with a thick snare tone, fully realized cymbals, and sweeping toms. If a snare spot microphone is used as well, the panning changes to this: Kick and snare to the center, overhead snare halfway right, and the behind floor tom mic panned hard left. With those pan settings, the definition and stereo image only intensifies!

Conclusion

Although vast and sometimes well-involved, limiting the microphone count for a drum kit to three or less will produce fantastic results and provide numerous routes for tonal discovery. There are plenty more methods to uncover, but just a glimpse into implementing the room into a drum sound will hopefully minimize the stress that comes from the very thought of mic’ing a kit with a bunch of spot mics and then solo’ing each to locate which is causing phase inconsistencies. If any more assistance for your drum recording needs are required, contact a Sales Engineer here at Sam Ash and they will provide ample customer advice and gear recommendations.