Recording Drums: 3-Mic and Full Set Techniques

When done right, even the 3-mic recording technique can yeild awsome results

Simply put, recording – or should I say, a great recording – is no small feat. There are hours upon of hours of work that must be done in order to ensure a great sounding mix, and even then, a lot of producers would argue that their work never truly feels done (always room for a remix!).  And of all of the pieces that go into a standard rock track – save maybe for a full on orchestra or something else of that magnitude – the drum kit poses its own set of particular challenges. Besides the fact drums take care of the all-important beat of song, an average kit consist of multiple individual pieces – all of which must be taken into account while recording. Last week, we here at PAL have been discussing a few of the important aspects of the drum kit, specifically the things you should think about and get ready before you even think about hitting that REC button. We discussed some of the inherent challenges that come with recording a full kit along with ways of getting it primped and primed for show time such as the very important but often skipped step of drum tuning. We also discussed things as drum mufflers, different setups for a different sound and a few other essential tips. If you haven’t already, check out Part I and Part II at the link.

Alright, so now that we know how to get those toms nice and tuned, that kick drum good and muffled and the snare nice and cracking, we can now focus on the next step – the microphones! Well, before we can get onto that, you need to figure out what kind of recording approach you are going for, that is to say, how many mics you plan to use for your kit recording.


The Three Mic Technique

Although some professionals tend to use at least half a dozen mics to record a drum kit – and even more than that at times – you can still get yourself a pretty good recording using as little as three microphones. For some of you out there, especially the starving artist variety, you might simply want to take the minimal mic approach because you’re a bit strapped on cash. Although I can go on and on about how important investing in a decent sized microphone collection is, especially if you plan on recording in a variety of styles with a several musical voices, we will leave that for another time – or you can head over to our article on some of the best mics for under $200, including some great choices that can be used to with a drum kit recording.

Anyways, if the minimal approach is what you're aiming for, you have to make sure your working environment is as noise free as possible as background sound pollution can be easily picked up with this method. Now that we have that very important concept out of the way, the first thing you’ll need to do is grab a large diaphragm condenser microphone and place it about six feet directly in front of your kit and about three to four feet off the ground. This mic is going to be responsible for recording the main body of the kit as well as kick drum so it is important that you use the best quality large diaphragm condenser you can find. Keep this mic panned dead center.

Next, you’re going to need two identical small capsule condenser microphones and hang them about seven to eight feet off the ground, placing them equally at about the front and slightly to the side of the kit as shown in the image at the top. Pan these hard left and hard right using either the audience’s perspective or the player’s.

With these three mics, you should be able to get a decent recording of your entire kit but if you want something a bit more well defined, that is to say, be able to clearly hear every single different piece in your kit, you’re going to need to use the close mic approach.


Close Miking – Recording the Big Picture

While the minimal miking approach can yield some pretty good results when done right, if you happen to have the necessary amount of mics, preamps, cables, mic stands, track channels and memory – there is no reason why you shouldn’t go for recording the bigger, higher resolution picture. In this setup, we will essentially be close miking the kick, snare top, snare bottom, each tom and the high hat – meaning one mic at close range for each. Then, we’ll be using stereo overheads to record a bit more of that body and a ride cymbal mic if the ride doesn’t cut through well in the stereo overheads.

If you happen to have a decent number of dynamic and condenser mics, use the dynamic mics on the drums. The larger the drum, the larger diaphragm dynamic mic you should use. For the high hat and cymbals, use small diaphragm condenser microphones. And finally, use your best large diaphragm condenser microphone for the body.

How far should they be placed? Fairly close, but just how close depends on what sounds best to your ears.  Don’t be too afraid to experiment with the positioning. Unlike a live stage performance where mic placement is important in avoiding feedback, this should not be much of an issue in a controlled recording environment. You will more likely run into some issues with isolating sound (keeping the parts of the kit from bleeding onto other tracks). In this case, you’re going to need to place the mics a bit closer to the sound source and adjust the mic gain as necessary to avoid clipping the track.

Alright, so here’s the general idea on what you will be recording along with an example of a mic:

Kick – AKG D112

Top Snare – AKG C414

Bottom Snare – Shure SM57

Toms – Sennheiser e604

Cymbals and High Hat – E V Cardinal

Body – best quality large diaphragm condenser


Need some suggestions on some more mics that can work great for each piece of the drum kit? Maybe some suggestions on preamps? How about getting that kick drum to sound just the way you want it? Well, we will be getting to all that and more, but unfortunately, that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow’s article.  In the meantime, why not check out some of our previous articles or check out our huge selection of mics including the ones already mentioned. Anyways, we’ll be back tomorrow with plenty more tips and techniques.

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