Drum and Instrument Mic'ing, Part 1

Photo courtesy of goatling

Photo courtesy of goatling

A while back, I found myself in a somewhat unusual situation; I just couldn't get the toms sounding good. I say it’s unusual because most weeks they dialed right up and sounded really good. We had a house kit that we used every week and while the drummers changed, for the most part, the tone remained the same. But not that weekend. They didn’t have the snap they usually do, and were not sitting right in the mix. I tried EQ, I tried compression and gating. I even tried changing the plug-ins. But nothing really worked. And since we start from a baseline that should sound good, I knew something was amiss. 

Then it hit me—I hadn’t set the drum mics up, a less experienced volunteer had. I ran down to stage and sure enough, they were all out of position. Not by a lot, but by enough. I quickly repositioned them (they probably moved a total of 1 1/2” inches) and returned to FOH. Finally, I had my toms back. I reset my EQ, and compression to my usual starting points and went on with the rehearsal.

I share that story at the beginning of this series to demonstrate that quite often very small changes in mic position can yield large changes in sound. Sometimes, we will rely too heavily on “fixing it in the mix,” when what we really should do is head down to the stage and move or change the mic. Sometimes, the problem is having the wrong mic on the instrument. I’ll illustrate that point in a moment. But first let’s consider the instrument that probably has the most mics on it; the drum kit.

Drum Kit Mic’ing

How you mic your drums will depend on the room, the size of the kit, your mic inventory and the style of music you’re dealing with (not necessarily in that order). Generally speaking, most of us will have at least a mic in the kick, on the snare and high hat. Which mic you use for each will depend on taste and/or budget and inventory. There are plenty of mics to choose from for the kick (the Shure Beta 52, Audix D6, AKG D112, E/V RE320 and Heil PR-48 are popular choices), and each has a different sound. 

Placement is just as critical as mic choice. First, listen to the kick drum by itself. Get right up on it, and listen to what it sounds like. If the front head has a hole in it, I typically start with the mic sticking in the hole about 1/2, and give it a listen in the PA. If I like what I hear, I’ll leave it. If not, I may move it inside to get more of the snap of the beater on the front head, or outside to get more boom. There aren’t necessarily wrong positions; it all depends on your set up. By the way, I start this exercise with the EQ flat and leave my compressors bypassed. I want to hear what the drum really sounds like. After it sounds good with no FX, then you can work with those tools. 

For snare and tom mics, your life will be much easier if you are using rim-clip mic mounts. These give you the ability to put the mics right close to the drums without having stands all over the place. Positioning again starts with listening. If the drums don’t sound good up close, tune them (or have someone tune them). 

There are a lot of ways to get your positioning dialed in, but here’s one way to get them in the ballpark. Turn one hand over and place it near the rim of the drum. Use your other hand to flick the drum head (or use a stick). As you hit the drum head, move your other hand around and you’ll feel the hair on the back of your hand vibrate. The place where the “tickling” sensation is the strongest is a good starting point for the mic. 

Sometimes you’ll want them low and near the heads, other times, it will sound better with them off the heads just a bit. Always listen first, then adjust. Once you get it sounding good with no EQ, compression or gating, you have a good starting point for great sound. This takes a while if you’re doing it yourself, so it’s good to have someone else help.

There are plenty of ways to position a high hat mic, but lately I’ve found myself swinging a boom mic stand over the center of the cymbal and pointing the mic toward the outside rim, away from the snare. This takes advantage of the natural null in the cardioid pattern of the mic to reduce the snare spill into the high hat mic. I prefer the sound of this position, but many like to come in from the outside and get more of the open/close action of the hat. Use what works well for you. Or try something different. 

Many times, you don’t really need overhead mics. If you have a smaller (or really live) room, you may have too much cymbals already. But if not, there are two basic approaches here. One is to take one or two condenser mics and position them a few feet above the kit, on the left and right sides. These act as “whole kit” mics and will pick up all the drums as well as the cymbals. This technique can add some overall sparkle to the whole kit, though you may have to delay your close mics to keep phasing issues to a minimum. 

Another approach is to use dynamic mics with a tighter pattern—such as a Heil PR30, my personal favorite—and use them more as cymbal mics. I’ve been doing this lately and really like the results. By minimizing interaction between the drums (mainly the snare) and the cymbal mics, phasing is reduced and I find the whole kit sounds tighter. 

Yet another option is under-mic’ing the cymbals. I’m seeing this more on awards shows and concerts as it gets some of the hardware out of the way. I have not personally done this much as I’ve not had the right mounts, but some friends have tried it with good results. This definitely offers more of a cymbal mic sound, which might be just what you’re looking for.

But this is not a right/wrong thing; take the approach that works best for you in your room.

So that’s the drum kit; but there are plenty more mic’s on stage that we need to account for. But we’ll save those for next time!

DPA Microphones