We pass on the hard-won wisdom of fifty top producers in the essential Sound On Sound guide to recording kick and snare drums, the backbone of modern music.
When it comes to describing in interview how they record drums, top producers seem to spend more time discussing techniques for snare drum and bass drum than anything else. The reason I know this is that I've recently been combing SOS's interview archive and Howard Massey's book of interviews Behind The Glass, looking for nuggets of wisdom on this very subject. In the process, I've compared the snare- and kick-recording tricks of fifty high-profile producers, who are collectively responsible for hundreds of millions of record sales. My aim in this article is to distil that information for you, to help you on the way to your perfect drum sound.
Clearly, different miking methods suit different records, and even the studio greats disagree about which techniques 'sound best', so ultimately it's up to you to decide which works for you. However, drum-miking is long on options, whereas most studio musicians are short on session time and don't have the luxury of comparing lots of setups while the band are breathing down their neck! So I've created audio files to demonstrate dozens of the most commonly used mics and placements for both snare and kick, using the same drum kit, the same drummer, and the same room. This means that you can audition and evaluate them all side by side at your leisure, and decide on the most useful contenders before your next session.
I'll be dropping a lot of producers' names in this article, some of which you may not initially be familiar with, even though you've probably heard a lot of their records! To avoid an avalanche of parentheses, I've listed all of them in separate boxes throughout this article, together with a handful of their most relevant credits for reference.
Fix It In The Live Room
As with recording any instrument, the choice of drum and the manner of its tuning and preparation can make a huge difference to the sound you capture, so this should always be the place to start. Even if you don't play drums yourself, it makes sense to discuss the sound with the drummer, encouraging him or her to make any adjustments that might improve the sound. When discussing his recordings for The Darkness, Roy Thomas Baker also stresses how the type of music dictates the target sound: "You're going for a sound that's appropriate for the song, not necessarily what's a good sound, and what's appropriate can vary greatly... That's why we had three drum kits and a multitude of different snare drums and tom-toms."
Nile Rodgers takes a similar view, adjusting the kit to suit the song: "Even if the band uses one drum kit for the whole record, I want it tuned right for each song. We'll change the heads or tune it differently, all that kind of stuff. Sometimes we change the beaters... It all depends on how those frequencies are responding to the key of the music, to the pulse of the music. Every record is different, every song is different, every tape is different."
That said, Alan Winstanley found that sticking with a particular model of snare drum that suited his sound constituted a useful production shortcut: "I remember renting a Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum from a record company for [Madness' The Rise And Fall], and [their drummer] actually ended up buying one because he liked the sound of it so much. At the same time, it became a staple part of... my drum sound for quite a few years — 'If you haven't got a Ludwig Black Beauty, we're going to rent one in'."
Snare Miking: Over, Under, Or Both?
Important as it is to get the sound right at source, the main focus of this article is on how to translate that sound into recorded form. In this context, the predominant studio tool for manipulating snare and kick sounds while recording is the close mic. In the case of the snare drum, although the drum overheads will usually include a great deal of the snare sound already, a carefully selected and placed additional close mic has the potential to significantly remould the sound. For this reason, most engineers have highly developed personal preferences here.
Miking the snare drum's batter head is an almost universal first choice, either with one mic or two different mics together, but opinions are divided as to whether the drum should be also be miked from below. John Astley, Joe Barresi, Dave Eringa, Chris Thomas and Alan Winstanley are amongst those who regularly mic both sides of the drum, but Steve Churchyard is more circumspect ("I'll put something underneath, but invariably I won't use it"), Alan Parsons is less of a fan ("I try and steer away from using two mics on the snare. I prefer a good over-the-top snare sound"), and John Leckie avoids it most of the time (I very rarely use an underneath mic — it's very dangerous"). By way of contrast, though, Bruce Botnick regularly used the under-snare position on its own, combining this with just overhead and kick mics to provide a complete drum sound.
Even top and bottom snare mics together aren't enough for some people, though. When I interviewed the Feeling recently, they had also set up a large-diaphragm condenser at the side of the snare drum. They explained why they used it: "Whenever you get really close to a drum head you get all sorts of strange frequencies you don't hear from a distance, so it sounds really odd. The side mic gets a much more overall view, and captures the top and bottom sounds together, but without the real upfront sound... It's been much more useful having that side mic than even a bottom mic a lot of the time... You get the 'crack' from the top mic, fizziness from the bottom mic, and then this side mic seems to find that 'beef' area."
Dealing With Phase
When Tony Visconti uses an under-snare mic he gates it to keep it carefully under control: "If I'm not getting brightness, if it's a very dull snare, or something's wrong that day, or it's just not cracking, then I will put an under-mic in, but I will always gate it — I don't like it rattling around all the time... I want to clean that bugger up before it gets to tape." He also touches on the importance of the phase relationship between the two snare close-mics: "Invariably [the under-snare mic] is out of phase with the top one. I have never ever had the good luck of having both mics in phase naturally, so if you do that trick you must check it. Even though it's being gated, you'll hear a big difference if you just play with the phase button, and you'll find that the low end will disappear if it's out of phase."
When two different over-snare mics are used simultaneously, phase cancellation can also easily make a mess of the instrument's high frequencies if the mic capsules aren't carefully aligned, but phase is even an issue if you opt for just a single snare mic, given its interaction with the overheads and any other close mics. "I mix a lot of other people's stuff," says Steve Churchyard, "and by far the most common problem with drum sounds — particularly when they're multi-miked — is phase. Typically the overheads are out of phase with everything else, because they're hearing things later than the closer mics. So typically I'll [invert the polarity] and usually all the sounds kind of come forward. When you've got things out of phase, it sounds like the snare's kind of sucked into the kit and the bottom end is gone; it's a strange thing."
"Anything and everything should always be checked for phase," concurs Thom Panunzio. "I check the bass drum phase with the overheads, I check the snare with the overheads, I check the toms with the bass drum, I check the toms with the snare... All you've got to do is just hit the [phase invert] button on the console and see if it sounds better in or out of phase... It takes no time — if it took an hour, it would be well worth the trouble it saves you later."
The Perfect Mic Position?
Most engineers recognise that the exact position and angle of the snare mic are very important considerations. Ian Grimble: "Another crucial factor is mic positioning... You have to get the sound right at source and use the right mic in the right position. This results in a much cleaner sound. So I tend to fiddle around with mics a lot, and often spend more time [in the live room] trying out mic positions than in the control room." Jon Kelly also recalls Geoff Emerick taking "immense care positioning the mics" when recording drums.
Despite this, however, all the producers I researched remained staunchly noncommittal as to the exact mic positions they use. If you're the kind of person who lines their hat with Baco Foil, then you might suspect an industry-wide conspiracy to closely guard trade secrets, but Craig Leon provides a more down-to-earth explanation: "How you mic something and how you EQ it — in fact, everything that you do — is actually driven by the way the instrument is being played... so there isn't a standard setup that works; no one thing works all the time." Steve Albini elaborates a little: "It's hard to describe where I place [the mics] and it varies a lot. If the drummer plays very lightly, then there's a lot of attack and not a lot of tone, and I want the microphone to look at the contact point of the snare drum. If the drummer is playing very hard and he's exciting the whole drum, I usually have to back the microphone off a little bit so that it's not overloading."
As defensible as these viewpoints might be, it's not much help for those short on drum-recording experience. After all, if you don't really know what differences you can achieve with changes in mic positioning, then following Albini's advice and trying to make adjustments in response to the drummer's playing style will be a bit of a stab in the dark. So to help out I've created a set of audio files to demonstrate the sounds of close mics in a variety of positions. By comparing the audio files, you can get a feel for the sonic options available and thereby speed up the process of finding a great sound in the heat of your next session. These audio files, like all the others in this article, are available to download from the SOS web site at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun08/articles/kickandsnareaudio.htm
These recordings were made with Shure SM57s aimed at a point halfway between the centre and edge of the head, at distances above the batter head of one inch, three inches, and eight inches respectively. A very close placement will tend to emphasise certain frequencies in the drum unduly, whereas moving the mic further back gives a more natural sound, albeit with increased levels of spill from other instruments.
For these recordings I used Shure SM57s three inches above the batter head, aimed respectively at the centre of the drum head, halfway between the centre and edge, and at the edge.
I also set up an AKG C414B ULS large-diaphragm condenser to mimic the setup I'd seen the Feeling using — about six inches to the side of the drum shell.
While listening to the individual mic positions solo is interesting in its own right, it's difficult to really evaluate their effectiveness in practice without hearing them mixed in with the overhead mics (as they would normally be during mixdown). For this reason, I recorded a stereo overhead mic pair (Shure KSM141s in an X/Y configuration) alongside every set of audio examples, so that you can compare sounds in context, and there was also an AKG D112 mic set up just inside the hole in the kick-drum's resonant head for similar reasons. To mix and match all these files, though, you'll have to import the examples into your MIDI + Audio sequencer and line them up so that they all start at exactly the same time.
Howard Massey: Behind The Glass
This great book of interviews is, in my opinion, one of only a handful of truly essential record-production books, and is packed with down-to-earth recording advice as well as discussions of the art of production. In addition to the interviews I've referred to in this article, the book also features such greats as Glen Ballard, Arif Mardin, Brian Wilson, Phil Ramone, Mitchell Froom and George Martin, and one of the strengths of Massey's approach is that he often asks them similar questions, which makes for interesting comparisons. There are also two interesting panel discussions where several of the featured producers discuss their trade head to head.
Behind The Glass by Howard Massey (ISBN 0879306149), £16.95 including VAT.
Snare Mics To The Stars
If you read my article on recording electric guitars back in SOS August 2007 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug07/articles/guitaramprecording.htm), you'll know that Shure's SM57 can lay a strong claim to being the king of guitar mics. However, this rugged little mic is also the most commonly-cited choice for snare drum: a list of users includes such audio luminaries as Steve Churchyard, Bob Clearmountain, Mike Hedges, John Leckie, Elliot Scheiner, Stephen Street, Bill Szymczyk, Chris Thomas and Tony Visconti, to name only a few — and at least half a dozen of them are happy to use SM57s for both the drum heads.
Given the spatial restrictions when placing snare close mics, the SM57's low-end 200Hz roll-off is doubtless part of its appeal, combating proximity-effect bass boost when it's used up close, as well as minimising kick-drum spill. The other response characteristics (a 300-500Hz dip and a generous 2-12kHz presence peak) serve to reduce muddiness and add more 'snap'. However, the mic's rapid slump in sensitivity above 12kHz means that some engineers using this mic always reach for EQ boost: Steve Churchyard mentions the 10kHz region, while John Leckie goes for around 8kHz and Jim Scott 5kHz. The SM57's fairly tight cardioid polar pattern, designed with on-stage feedback reduction in mind, also has to be a factor, helping to reduce spill from other drums, and particularly from the neighbouring hi-hat.
Other than the SM57, two other mics, both small-diaphragm condensers, also stand out as leaders of the pack: AKG's C451EB and Neumann's KM84. What has come to be known colloquially in the trade as 'the 451' was actually part of a modular system of mic preamp bodies and interchangeable capsules with different polar patterns. However, it's probably fairly safe to assume that it is the mic's CK1 cardioid capsule (the one originally shipped as standard with the preamp body) that is being referred to, given that no mention ever seems to be made of the type of capsule used. Indeed, AKG's modern reissue of this mic, the C451B, only offers a CK1-style cardioid polar pattern. Tonally, the C451EB is a bright-sounding mic, with a good 4dB frequency boost in the 10-15kHz area as well as a very gentle low-end roll-off from 200Hz, and it's no surprise to find Joe Barresi, Bob Clearmountain, Dave Eringa, Butch Vig, and Toby Wright all using it alongside an SM57, thereby compensating for the latter mic's HF roll-off. Three of them actually strap it to the SM57 with gaffer tape to make the setup easier to manage. Other producers (such as John Leckie, Ian Little, and Al Schmitt) are happy to use this mic on its own as well — although John Leckie usually uses an SM57, he adds that "sometimes I substitute the AKG C451 with the pad in if the drummer is playing with brushes or is playing lightly; then it's better to use a condenser mic... it gives you more of a 'sizzle'."
Neumann's cardioid KM84 gives a much more neutral tonality, with a frequency response that's essentially flat between 100Hz and 15kHz, and only 2dB down at 50Hz and 20kHz, so it's eminently capable of capturing pretty much any instrument all on its own. Alan Parsons used it on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, for example ("I could never get a sound I was happy with using any mic other than a KM84."), directly influencing Peter Henderson to do the same for Supertramp's Breakfast In America sessions. John Fry chose one for his work with Big Star, and John Astley put KM84s above and below the snare when in the studio with Glyn Johns and the Who — the extended frequency response of a condenser makes it well suited to capturing the complex under-snare signal. The KM84's neutrality and extended bandwidth also provide a good contrast to the SM57's more characterful sound, and combining the two mics is a technique for which Jim Scott and Ian Grimble have both expressed a partiality.
There are, of course, many other mics that are the personal preferences of individual producers, but none of them are as commonly singled out as the SM57, C451EB and KM84. Nevertheless, a few others are worthy of mention given that different producers independently agree on their merits. For example, Joe Barresi shares his preferences for Neumann's dual-small-diaphragm KM86 and AKG's dual-large-diaphragm C414B ULS with Chris Thomas and Gil Norton respectively. Barresi also joins Toby Wright in selecting Sennheiser's wide-bandwidth, supercardioid dynamic MD441 as a suitable under-snare contender. Another shared preference arises between Bruce Botnick and Steve Albini, who have both made use of Sony's 1950s-vintage C37 single-diaphragm condenser (a precursor to the current, breathtakingly pricey C800G).
To illustrate the sonic differences between some of these mics (in terms of both timbre and spill rejection), and to show the impact on the sound of using different drums, I lined up five over-snare mics (Shure SM57, AKG C414B ULS, AKG C451EB, Neumann KM84 and Neumann KM86) and two under-snare mics (Shure SM57 and AKG C451EB), and recorded them with the stereo overheads and kick close-mic to create three sets of audio files, one set for each of the following drums: an Orange County 14x5-inch maple snare (for the 'Snare1Mics' set of files); a Ludwig Black Beauty 14x5-inch hammered-brass snare ('Snare2Mics'), as singled out by Alan Winstanley; and a deeper Gretsch 14x6.5-inch mahogany snare ('Snare3Mics'). I was careful to try to phase-match the positions of the SM57, C451EB and KM84, so you should be able to experiment with typical combinations of these mic signals without encountering significant cancellation problems.
Classic Kick Mics
When it comes to choosing which mics to use for kick drum, all sorts of different models crop up in interviews, but some mics are cited again and again. Probably the most commonly mentioned are AKG's D12 large-diaphragm dynamic mic and its more recent D112 successor, used by producers such as Steve Albini, Roy Thomas Baker, Steve Churchyard, Bob Clearmountain, Elliott Scheiner, Steven Street, Chris Thomas, Butch Vig... the list goes on and on. A tight cardioid directional characteristic and the ability to cope with just about any SPL feature high on the list of reasons why they've become so popular, but it also has to do with the way their tonality is specifically tailored to flatter recordings of bass instruments. In particular, a special resonant chamber incorporated in both designs introduces considerable added weight at around 100Hz, while the D112 also has a pronounced presence boost at 3kHz that really emphasises beater definition, perhaps one reason why Alan Parsons has referred to it as "the punchiest drum mic I've found". A significant minority, including Tony Platt, Geoff Emerick and Chris Kimsey, turn instead to AKG's cosmetically similar D20 and D25, which use similar large-diaphragm capsules voiced with a flatter bass response. Both models are technically identical, but the D25 is built into a rather groovy-looking elasticated shockmount.
Another large-diaphragm dynamic mic that is a favourite of Joe Barresi, John Leckie, Peter Henderson and Toby Wright is Sennheiser's MD421. On account of its 100Hz low-frequency roll-off and hefty 5-8kHz sensitivity peak, it is in practice often used in combination with another, bassier mic (such as the D12/D112), although Henderson has used it on its own too. Shure's ubiquitous SM57 is name-checked for kick-drum recording by Ian Little and Tore Johansson, but given its even higher 200Hz bass roll-off, Little's tactic of combining it with AKG's C414B ULS, notable for its extended LF response, comes as no surprise. Both Steve Churchyard and John Leckie mention, though, that such combination techniques can easily cause disastrous phase cancellation, just as with snare multi-miking, so be prepared to finesse mic positions and experiment with phase-inversion for the most solid sound.
Electrovoice's RE20 is another popular choice, with a frequency response that's unusually flat for a dynamic mic, and good resistance to proximity effect. Glen Kolotkin, Jim Scott and Chris Tsangarides have all been happy to use this mic on its own on their recordings, but Don Smith and Tony Visconti have both combined it with the more tonally sculpted D12 — in Visconti's case using the RE20 to focus on the beater definition while laying the D12 on a pillow in the drum to catch the low end.
Although there are a number of popular preferences when it comes to dynamic mics for kick, in the field of condenser mics one model reigns supreme: the large-diaphragm Neumann U47 FET. Joe Barresi, Steve Churchyard, Eddie Kramer and Jon Kelly are just some of the producers using this mic, and many more mention the U47 without specifying the FET or valve models — although given that none of the interviewees mentioned the U47 valve specifically, I'd suggest that the FET design is fairly universally preferred. It's not that other mics aren't mentioned for use on kick drum (the AKG C414B ULS, Blue Mouse and Sennheiser MKH20 all popped up in my research), it's just that the U47 turns up 20 times as often!
So what's so special about this mic? Well it probably goes without saying that the low-end response remains substantially flat down beyond 30Hz, but this is also combined with a little presence boost in the 2-5kHz range and a larger sensitivity peak up at 10kHz for clarity. The mic will handle a maximum SPL of 147dB for 0.5 percent distortion, another good reason to go for it in this application over the valve version, which manages just 120dB. However, another important, and often overlooked, factor of its design is the well-controlled supercardioid polar pattern, a pattern that typically picks up less room ambience than the more common cardioid, helping to keep the kick sound clear and focused even when miking from outside the drum.
Enough of talking about all these mics: how do they actually sound? To give you an idea, I lined up six of them (AKG D12, AKG D112, Electrovoice RE20, Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421 and Neumann U47 FET) right next to each other, 18 inches outside the front of the kick drum, and recorded them (along with usual stereo overheads setup and a Shure SM57 snare close-mic) to create the 'KickMics' set of audio files. Check them out and decide for yourself whether they live up to the hype!
Mic Positioning Inside The Bass Drum
It probably goes without saying that the kick drum will benefit from the same care and attention as the snare when it comes to preparing it for recording — tuning and damping can often solve problems much more easily than mic technique. You can also try using different heads or beaters, although, on the evidence of my survey, producers seem less inclined than with snares to try out different drums. One factor that needs extra thought with the kick drum is what to do about the resonant head: leave it on, take it off, or use one with a mic-access hole in it? There appears to be no real consensus amongst the producer interviews as to which of these approaches yields the best results, despite the obvious sonic differences between them.
Taking the resonant head off completely or using a head with a mic-access hole means that you can easily mic up the batter head to get a prominent beater 'slap', while the kick drum's shell helps keep spill from other instruments to a minimum. The problem with miking inside the drum, though, is that the resonant modes within the shell cause the sound to vary much more for small changes in mic position than you might normally expect. "It's amazing how much the sound changes," remarks Steve Churchyard, "if you're completely on-axis to the kick-drum pedal beater rather than more off-axis and to the side of the kick drum." Taking the resonant head off completely makes these internal resonant modes a little less severe, but it also lets in more spill and gives a different character to the sound. "I used to take the front head off, with a cushion inside" says John Leckie, "but now I prefer to leave the front head on, but with a hole cut in it; it sounds a bit more contained."
It may be because small placement tweaks make such a big difference that few producers give any exact indication of where they place mics inside the kick. However, there is one discernible trend in the way the sound changes that's worth bearing in mind: you'll get more beater presence when you're miking close to the batter head and more tone as you move the mic further away. You can also adjust the timbre and level of beater sound by adjusting the angle of your mic. These principles not only allow you to balance the different elements of the kick sound to taste with careful mic positioning, but can also be used to separate the 'beater' and 'tone' characteristics to different tracks for more control at mixdown, much as Tony Visconti does with his 'D12 plus RE20' technique (see above). In a different interview, Tony Visconti also suggests an alternative placement for the D12, right in the hole of the resonant head, and this is a setup that offers similar practical advantages.
In the absence of much exact placement information from the pros, I've recorded some audio examples to try to demonstrate the ways the sound varies as you change mic positions inside the drum, both with the resonant head removed and using a resonant head with a mic-access hole cut into it. To do this, I set up five D112s in a line next to each other, to cover five different lateral positions inside the drum: mic one was a little to the left of centre (from the audience's perspective), mic two was roughly in the centre facing the beater, and mics three to five worked their way out towards the shell. I recorded this rig at three distances from the batter head: as close as possible ('KickHeadOnClose' and 'KickHeadOffClose' sets); about eight inches back ('KickHeadOnMid' and 'KickHeadOffMid' sets); and as far back towards the position of the resonant head as I could ('KickHeadOnFar' and 'KickHeadOffFar'). Listening to these files not only illustrates how dramatic the tonal variation can be even for mics at the same distance from the batter head, but also shows how the sound changes in a general way as you move the mic forwards or backwards. The usual stereo overheads and snare-drum close-mic were recorded alongside.
Recording The Audio Examples
The audio files (which we've placed on the SOS web site at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun08/articles/kickandsnareaudio.htm) were recorded over two days in the Colin Hill Recital Room at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, making use of their Music Technology department's adjoining control room: thanks to the Director of Music, Jonathan Sanders, for making this all possible. Many thanks are also due to Ant Fox, our long-suffering drummer, and to Tom Adams, Matt Coulson and Geoff Smith, who all helped out tremendously with the session logistics. Likewise, I'm grateful to FX Rentals (+44 (0)20 8746 2121) for supplying many of the highly desirable mics we tested. If you fancy using any of them on your own sessions, you can rent them for just a single day if you like. For rates and discounts, see www.fxgroup.net.
Outside The Bass Drum
With an unperforated resonant head in place you tend to get the most resonant sound, and if you mic at the usual frontal position you won't get any real beater definition (because the mic can't see the kick pedal) and you'll pick up quite a bit of spill from the rest of the kit. While the resonance can be reduced if required, by virtue of extra damping inside or outside the drum, John Leckie points out that you can also deal with this simply by miking from a greater distance, about three feet away. In this position he sometimes uses an RCA 44DX ribbon microphone, a type of mic that is very rarely associated with kick-drum applications on account of the mechanical fragility of ribbon transducers.
To increase beater definition, you can simultaneously mic up both drum heads: Robbie Adams favoured a Sennheiser MD421 on the batter head when working on U2's Zooropa, while Steve Albini suggests a small dynamic or condenser mic, such as Shure's cardioid electret SM98. Billy Bush and Eddie Kramer also mention covering the mics and the front of the drum with blankets to cut down on the spill if necessary, a very common studio trick. So even if you can't get inside the drum, there's still a lot you can do to catch a tighter, punchier sound when you need it.
Rigging up my five D112s about four inches away from the drum (which had a full resonant head fitted), I recorded some more audio files ('KickHeadOnOutside'), with the usual overheads and snare close-mic, so that you can compare this sound to those produced by the various internal mic positions. In addition, I set up an MD421 and a KM84 over the top of the kick drum pointing down at the batter head's beater-contact point, along the lines suggested by Robbie Adams and Steve Albini.
External miking positions aren't just for when the inside of the drum is inaccessible, though; combining the signals from internal and external mics is actually a pretty common pro technique. The concept behind this is very similar to that of Tony Visconti's internal multi-miking techniques — the mics provide contrasting timbres, which can be balanced to get the required composite sound without heavy processing. "I use a three-microphone technique on bass drum," says Eddie Kramer of his variant on this approach: "A Shure SM52 and SM91 inside the bass drum and a U47 FET outside the bass drum. By playing games with the various qualities of each, I get the sound I'm after. I'm a great believer in the sound quality of each microphone, and you don't have to use a lot of radical EQ to get great sounds if you choose microphones for their particular qualities and put them in the right place."
Steve Churchyard and Steve Marcantonio independently describe almost identical techniques, pairing a D12 or D112 inside the drum with a U47 FET outside. Marcantonio makes it clear that he positions the internal mic right next to the beater skin, and the resultant hard, clicky sound balances well with the U47 which, remarks Churchyard, "adds a lot more fullness and roundness to the sound." Billy Bush went for a fairly similar technique in his work with Butch Vig's band Garbage, but selecting an Audio Technica ATM25 for the inside mic, and occasionally substituting a Blue Mouse for the U47.
Joe Barresi, on the other hand, prefers the MD421 or Shure Beta 52 inside, and although he lists the U47 as one option for the external mic, the alternatives he offers (a Beyerdynamic M160 ribbon mic or the old studio trick of using a Yamaha NS10 speaker cone as a mic) imply that he's looking to it more for a unique character than for general-purpose warmth. Another different approach comes courtesy of Ian Little, who turns the typical 'dynamic inside, condenser outside' idea on its head, putting a C414B ULS inside and an SM57 outside. And there's no need to abandon this kind of dual-mic technique just because you can't get a mic inside the drum, either. Ian Grimble used a combination of a D12 close to the drum and a Sennheiser MKH20 small-diaphragm condenser further away when recording the Manic Street Preachers This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours with Mike Hedges.
How Far Is Far Enough?
A final question to answer is: how far from the drum should an outside mic be placed? Steve Churchyard and Steve Marcantonio are pretty much on the same page again with "just outside" and "four to 10 inches away from the hole" respectively, whereas Robbie Adams went out to about 18 inches for U2's Zooropa. Joe Barresi and Ian Grimble constitute the 'three feet away' camp, presumably roughly in line with Al Stone's unusual three-mic setup for Jamiroquai's Travelling Without Moving: "Travelling Without Moving was a three-mic job, not even close-miked — one mic a few feet in front of the bass drum, one over the drummer's shoulder covering the hi-hat and snare, and another to the side to cover the cymbals."
To give you the option to experiment with the sounds of these kinds of multi-mic techniques I took the opportunity to add in a few extra mics while recording the 'KickHeadOn' and 'KickHeadOff' sets of audio files. Alongside all these file sets, you'll also find files for two different U47 FETs, one placed 12 inches from the drum, and the other at three feet. This means that you can freely substitute different internal mic positions to see how they combine with either of the external mic positions. Inspired by the dual-mic approaches of Steve Churchyard, Joe Barresi and Ian Little, I also slung up additional D12, MD421 and C414B-ULS alongside the D112s while recording the 'KickHeadOffMid' files, to give an impression of the different flavours imparted by those specific mics when they're used inside the kick.
In the light of the range of opinions as regards the best miking distance, I've also created a separate set of audio files ('KickDistance') to illustrate what kinds of sounds are on offer here. Fitting a resonant head with a hole in it to the kick drum, I re-used the same five D112s in a line, roughly one in front of the other: mic one was inside the kick drum, about 12 inches from the batter head; mic two was directly in the hole in the resonant head; and mics three, four, and five were 10 inches, 18 inches, and three feet away from the resonant head's hole respectively. The usual overheads and snare close mic were recorded alongside.
One of the things you'll notice, of course, in these files is that there's quite a lot of spill from the other instruments in the kit at larger miking distances. This means that they aren't necessarily very representative of those techniques where the kick mics have been baffled with blankets to reduce spill, so I also re-recorded the same set of microphones for the 'KickDistanceBlankets' files, using a few spare mic stands to support a closed tunnel of blankets and foam suspended around all the mics and gaffered to the drum itself.
In addition to this 'blanket tunnel', I also set up a different tunnel technique which Butch Vig described when talking about recording Nirvana's influential album Nevermind. "In the case of Dave Grohl's kit, I used an AKG D12 and a FET 47 on the kit, and then we built a drum tunnel consisting of old drum shells attached to the bass drum and extended out about six feet. That way you can move the mic back three to four feet, and the U47 was a little farther away from where the front head would have been. By having the drum tunnel, you isolate the room, so you don't get all the cymbal bleed."
Finding four extra kick-drum shells is by no means the easiest thing in the world to do, but once I'd tracked them down I removed the blanket tunnel I'd used for the 'KickDistanceBlankets' files and slotted the shells in place instead, gaffering them together before covering them in all the blankets again for good measure. In the light of Butch Vig's stated mic choices, I then added in a D12 next to mic number five (three feet from the drum) and put up a U47 FET right at the end of the tunnel.
Was it all really worth the trouble? Well, the resonant qualities of the tubular structure certainly impart a unique character to the sound, and what particularly impressed me was the way in which a U47 six feet from the drum could be made to sound as punchy as a mic sitting right in the hole in the resonant head. But don't trust my ears — take a listen to the 'KickDistanceTunnel' files and decide for yourself!
The Role Of The Room
In addition to the various close-miking techniques I've looked at so far, room ambience is regularly used specifically to support the kick and snare sounds, giving them an extra impression of power and size. However, you'd be forgiven for wondering how it's possible to do this, given that ambient mic positions will pick up a mix of the whole kit, rather than just kick or snare.
Even if you've somehow managed to avoid Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight' you'll doubtless have heard one of the most common tactics professional engineers use, namely gating the ambient mic tracks and then keying the gate side-chains from the kick and/or snare mics. Before you write off this technique as something only fit for '80s throwbacks, though, bear in mind that it has been used more subtly on a much wider range of records than you might initially imagine. You can hear something of this nature on the snare in AC/DCs 'Back In Black', for example, and Bill Price has divulged that keyed ambience was used all over the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks.
"Various strategic ambience mics that suited the task were placed around the room," Price recalls. "A couple of old BBC ribbons were literally at floor level behind the drums to try to pick up the ambience of the bass drum and the bottom skins of the tom-toms, and a couple of Neumann KM84s were slung above the kit to pick up the ambience of the cymbals... [The drum sound] involved me keying different ambience mics off the drums as they were being hit, using the old-fashioned Kepexes. These were the earliest American gates available, and using them was pretty much an integral part of the sound. [The producer, Chris Thomas's] suggestion that we could shorten the ambience with gates, providing more without it sounding too distant, all made total sense to me."
Which close-mic channels you feed to the gate's side-chain and how the gating parameters are set up both make a big difference to the final sound. So rather than trying to demonstrate some 'ready-made' gated-ambience drum sound (for which you might as well just put on one of the records listed above) I've just recorded a basic kit setup alongside a few different ambience mics to create the 'Amb' set of audio files. This allows you to import the files into your MIDI + Audio sequencer and try out different gating strategies for yourself. The kit was miked with the usual stereo overheads: an SM57 and a KM84 over the snare; an SM57 under the snare; a D112 inside the kick drum, poked through the hole in the resonant head; and a U47 FET placed 18 inches outside the hole in the resonant head. Based on Bill Price's mic positions (and a very similar setup used by Ian Little), I miked in stereo both from above and behind the kit. A spaced pair of Earthworks TC20 mics occupied the high positions, their omni polar patterns emphasising the room ambience, and a pair of Crown PZM boundary mics were placed about a meter up the wall behind the drummer. Boundary mics (usually referred to as PZMs or Pressure Zone Microphones, although both terms are trademarks of one manufacturer), are a common choice for ambience miking, counting Joe Barresi, Dave Eringa, Ken Nelson, Ian Little and Tony Visconti amongst their fans.
Adjusting The Ambience Mix
An alternative strategy for supporting the kick and snare sounds, in particular, using ambience is to adjust the mix picked up by the ambient mics. Alan Winstanley had a trick for doing this by using a highly directional rifle mic, "positioned high and pointing down on the kit as an extra room mic, trying to pinpoint the snare more than the other stuff." I rigged up a Sennheiser MKH416 rifle mic in this way, alongside all the other mics, while recording the 'Amb' files, so you can hear what it sounds like. On a practical note, though, I found it took a little while to find a position for this mic where the snare level rose above the cymbal spill, so if you do decide to give it a go, make sure to work with the placement for the best results.
A much more common technique for increasing the snare and/or kick levels in the ambient mics, however, is to set up a PA system in the room and feed it with a mix of the close mic signals. Chris Kimsey adopted this approach for the snare on the Rolling Stones' 'Start Me Up', for example ("The PA was aiming at the drums, so the snare would actually come back through the overhead mic and create this quite unique sound."), while Steve Churchyard used tinny little Yamaha powered speakers behind the drummer when recording the Pretenders. He also sent the odd delay effect through there too.
Chris Fogel has applied a similar approach with kick drum. "I run everything that's at the bottom end, like kick and low tom, into a powered 18-inch subwoofer situated right behind the drummer... Basically it extends the bottom end on the kick drum, and when the drummer hits the kick, you really feel it... In fact, in some cases I didn't have to EQ the drums at all." Jack Douglas takes this idea and turns it up to 11: "Another trick I'm trying these days is to spread out a bunch of powered subwoofers — maybe six of them — in the room. Then I'll put a contact mic on the bass drum and use that as a trigger, so whenever the drummer hits his bass drum, everything from about 80 cycles down to 20 suddenly shakes the room. The subs fill the room with this low wave, which everything picks up — room mics, guitar mics, everything. That'd be pretty tough to do in a project studio, though..."
For my final set of audio files, 'AmbPA', I fed a mix of the kick and snare close-mics in the 'Amb' setup to a small PA system which happened already to be installed in the hall where we were recording. Although the PA we had was not the most powerful of systems, the way the extra snare and kick ambience changes on all the mics between the 'Amb' and 'AmbPA' sets demonstrates the potential of this idea.
101 Ways To Skin A Drum
It should be pretty obvious by now that there's no standard way to mike up a snare or bass drum, with different engineers gravitating towards certain techniques based not only on how they sound, but on how much control they provide at the mixdown stage. If you've listened through to all the audio files which accompany this article (or, better still, if you've imported them into your sequencer and A/B'ed them in context), you should be much better equipped to choose the right method to deliver the goods, whatever sound you're after.
About The Author
Ex-SOS Reviews Editor and regular contributor Mike Senior has worked professionally with artists such as The Charlatans, Nigel Kennedy, Therapy, and Wet Wet Wet. He now runs Cambridge Music Technology, delivering courses and training based on the studio techniques of the world's most famous producers.
Who's Who: Selected Discography
Here is a list of the producers mentioned in this article. I've put the source of the interview in parentheses after each name in case you fancy reading more about them, and have also appended a selection of the most influential recordings they've been involved with for reference.
Robbie Adams (SOS March 1994 & July 1997)
U2: Achtung Baby, Zooropa; Pattie Griffin: Impossible Dream; Smashing Pumpkins: Adore; Lara Fabian: A Wonderful Life, One; Donnie Osmond: What I Meant To Say.
Steve Albini (SOS September 2005)
The Pixies: Surfer Rosa; Nirvana: In Utero; Bush: Razorblade Suitcase; PJ Harvey: Rid Of Me; Jimmy Page & Robert Plant: Walking Into Clarksdale.
John Astley (SOS May 2005)
Eric Clapton: Crossroads, Just One Night; The Who: Who Are You.
Joe Barresi (SOS July 2005)
Queens Of The Stone Age: Queens Of The Stone Age, Lullabies To Paralyze; Tool: 10000 Days; The Melvins: Stoner Witch; Hole: Celebrity Skin; Limp Bizkit: Chocolate Starfish & The Hotdog Flavoured Water; The Lost Prophets: Start Something; Skunk Anansie: Stoosh.
Bruce Botnick (SOS December 2003)
The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds; Love: Forever Changes; The Doors: The Doors, Strange Days, Waiting For The Sun, The Soft Parade, LA Woman, Morrison Hotel; Tim Buckley: Happy Sad.
Billy Bush (SOS June 2002)
Garbage: Beautiful Garbage, Bleed Like Me, Version 2.0; Pat Monahan: Last Of Seven; Against Me!: New Wave.
Steve Churchyard (SOS September 2005, Behind The Glass)
The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl; Counting Crows: Recovering The Satellites; Celine Dion: Falling Into You; Ricky Martin: Vuelve, Almas Del Silencio, Sound Loaded; Shakira: Laundry Service; The Stranglers: La Folie, Feline; Big Country: Wonderland; Bryan Ferry: Boys & Girls; INXS: Listen Like Thieves.
Bob Clearmountain (SOS July 2006)
The Pretenders: Get Close; Bryan Adams: Into The Fire, Reckless, Cuts Like A Knife; Paul McCartney: Tripping The Live Fantastic; mixing for Bruce Springsteen (Born In The USA), The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Bon Jovi (These Days, Crush), Roxy Music (Avalon), David Bowie (Let's Dance), INXS (Kick), and The Corrs (Talk On Corners).
Jack Douglas (Behind The Glass)
Aerosmith: Get Your Wings, Toys In The Attic, Rocks, Draw The Line, Rock In A Hard Place, Honkin' On Bobo; John Lennon: Double Fantasy; Cheap Trick: Cheap Trick, At The Budokan, Standing On The Edge.
Geoff Emerick (Behind The Glass)
The Beatles: Revolver, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Clud Band, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road; Paul McCartney: Band On The Run, Flaming Pie; Elvis Costello: Imperial Bedroom, All This Useless Beauty; Badfinger: No Dice; Robin Trower: Bridge Of Sighs.
Dave Eringa (SOS April 1999)
Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Send Away The Tigers; Idlewild: 100 Broken Windows, The Remote Part.
Chris Fogel (SOS March 1997)
Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; Under Rug Swept.
Numerous Stax label releases by Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and Booker T & The MGs; Big Star: #1 Record, Radio City.
Ian Grimble (SOS June 1998)
Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours; Texas: White On Blonde; The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South; Siouxsie & The Banshees: Through The Looking Glass.
Mike Hedges (SOS June 1998, Behind The Glass)
Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours; Texas: White On Blonde; Travis: The Man Who; The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South; The Cure: Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Faith.
Peter Henderson (SOS July 2005)
Supertramp: Even In The Quietest Moments, Breakfast In America, Famous Last Words; Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti; Paul McCartney: Tripping The Live Fantastic, Flowers In The Dirt; Jeff Beck: Wired; Rush: Grace Under Pressure.
Tore Johansson (SOS March 1999 & June 2004)
Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand; The Cardigans: First Band On The Moon, Gran Turismo, Long Gone Before Daylight, Super Extra Gravit y.
Jon Kelly (SOS June 2004)
Kate Bush: Lionheart, Never For Ever; The Whole Story; Chris Rea: Road To Hell, Auberge; The Damned: Phantasmagoria; The Beautiful South: Gaze, Miaow, Painting It Red; Heather Nova: Siren; Paul McCartney: Press To Play.
Chris Kimsey (SOS April 2004)
The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers, Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, Undercover, Steel Wheels; Peter Frampton: Frampton Comes Alive!; The Chieftains: Long Black Veil; Killing Joke: Laugh? I Nearly Bought One, For Beginners; The Cult: Dreamtime; Marillion: Real To Reel/Brief Encounter.
Glenn Kolotkin (SOS June 2000)
Santana: Supernatural, Caravanserai, Borboletta, Moonflower; The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request; Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland; Janis Joplin: Pearl.
Eddie Kramer (SOS November 2005, Behind The Glass)
Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland, Band Of Gypsys, The Cry Of Love; Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II; Kiss: Alive!, Alive II; Peter Frampton: Frampton Comes Alive!.
John Leckie (SOS May 1997, Behind The Glass)
Pink Floyd: Meddle; Radiohead: The Bends; Muse: Showbiz, Origin Of Symmetry; The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses; The Verve: A Storm In Heaven.
Craig Leon (Behind The Glass)
The Ramones: The Ramones, Ramones Mania; Blondie: Blondie, No Exit, The Curse Of Blondie; The Fall: Extricate, Shift-work; Rodney Crowell: But What Will The Neighbours Think.
Ian Little (SOS July 2004)
Roxy Music: Avalon; Duran Duran: First, Seven & The Ragged Tiger.
Steve Marcantonio (SOS October 2002)
Rascal Flatts: Still Feels Good; Faith Hill: Fireflies; Keith Urban: Keith Urban; Brooks & Dunn: Hillbilly Deluxe; Kenny Chesney: The Road & The Radio; Tim McGraw: Not A Moment Too Soon; George Strait: Carrying Your Love With Me, Lead On.
Ken Nelson (SOS October 2000)
Badly Drawn Boy: The Hour Of Bewilderbeast; Coldplay: Parachutes, Rush Of Blood To The Head, X&Y; Paolo Nutini: These Streets; King Of Convenience: Quiet Is The New Loud; Gomez: Liquid Skin, Bring It On.
Gil Norton (SOS December 2005)
The Pixies: Trompe Le Monde, Bossanova, Doolittle; Foo Fighters: The Colour And The Shape; Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses; Jimmy Eat World: Futures; James: 'Sit Down'; Echo & The Bunnymen: Ocean Rain.
Thom Panunzio (Behind The Glass)
U2: Rattle & Hum; Deep Purple: The Battle Rages On; Black Sabbath: Reunion; Ozzy Osbourne: Live At Budokan; Bruce Springsteen: Tracks, 18 Tracks.
Alan Parsons (Behind The Glass)
The Beatles: Abbey Road; Pink Floyd: Dark Side Of The Moon; Al Stewart: Year Of The Cat; The Hollies: 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother', 'The Air That I Breathe'.
Bob Marley: Catch A Fire, Burnin'; Toots & The Maytals: Funky Kingston; Aswad: Aswad; AC/DC: Highway To Hell, Back In Black; Foreigner: 4; Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art Of Surfacing; Anathema: Eternity.
Bill Price (SOS September 2004)
The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks; The Clash: The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling, Sandinista!; The Pretenders: Pretenders, Pretenders II; Elton John: Too Low For Zero; Pete Townshend: Empty Glass; The Jesus & Mary Chain: Darklands; The Libertines: The Libertines.
Nile Rodgers (Behind The Glass)
Any record by Chic; Sister Sledge: We Are Family; Diana Ross: Diana; David Bowie: Let's Dance, Black Tie White Noise; Madonna: Like A Virgin.
Elliot Scheiner (SO S February 1996)
Steely Dan: Aja, Gaucho, Two Against Nature; Donald Fagan: Nightfly; Billy Joel: Songs In The Attic; Fleetwood Mac: The Dance; Roy Orbison, Black And White Night; John Fogerty: Premonition; Van Morrison: Moondance.
Al Schmitt (SOS October 2005, Behind The Glass)
George Benson: Breezin'; Steely Dan: Aja, FM (No Static At All); Toto: Toto IV; Natalie Cole: Unforgettable; Diana Krall: When I Look In Your Eyes, The Look Of Love; Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company; Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing At Baxter's, Crown Of Creation, Volunteers.
Jim Scott (SOS December 1999)
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication, By The Way; Dixie Chicks: Taking The Long Way; Sting: Dream Of The Blue Turtles; Johnny Cash: American Recordings, Unearthed; Foo Fighters: One By One; Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.
The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge; Ry Cooder: Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy; Stevie Nicks: Rock A Little, Trouble In Shangri-La; The Tragically Hip: Up To Here, Road Apples; Tom Petty: Long After Dark, Southern Accents, Full Moon Fever, The Last DJ; Roy Orbison: Mystery Girl.
Al Stone (SOS December 1999)
Jamiroquai: Return Of The Space Cowboy, Travelling Without Moving, Synkronized; Daniel Bedingfield: Gotta Get Through This; Stereo MCs: Connected; Bjork: Debut, Post; Turin Brakes: The Optimist; Lamb: Fear Of Fours; Eagle Eye Cherry: Sub Rosa.
Stephen Street (SOS July 1994 & January 2005)
The Smiths: Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead, Strangeways Here We Come; Morrissey: Viva Hate, Bona Drag; Blur: Leisure, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape, Blur; The Cranberries: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, No Need To Argue, Wake Up & Smell The Coffee; Kaiser Chiefs: Employment, Yours Truly Angry Mob.
Bill Szymczyk (SOS November 2004)
The Eagles: On The Border, The Long Run, One Of These Nights, Hotel California; The Who: Face Dances; BB King: Live & Well, Completely Well; J Geils Band: The Morning After; Joe Walsh: Barnstorm, The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get.
Chris Thomas (SOS September 2004 & September 2005)
Pink Floyd: Dark Side Of The Moon; Dave Gilmour: On An Island; Razorlight: Razorlight; U2: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb; Pulp: Different Class, This Is Hardcore; INXS: Listen Like Thieves, Kick, X; The Pretenders: Pretenders, Pretenders II, Learning To Crawl; The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks; Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Siren.
Chris Tsangarides (SOS July 2001)
Thin Lizzy: Renegades, Thunder & Lightening; Ozzy Osbourne: Blizzard Of Oz; Judas Priest: Painkiller; Black Sabbath: The Eternal Idol; Gary Moore: Back On The Streets, The Power Of The Blues, Back To The Blues.
Butch Vig (SOS March 1997 & June 2002)
Nirvana: Nevermind; Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream, Gish; Garbage: Garbage, Version 2.0, Beautifulgarbage, Bleed Like Me; Sonic Youth: Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star, Dirty.
Tony Visconti (SOS October 2003 & October 2004, Behind The Glass)
T-Rex: Electric Warrior, The Slider; David Bowie: Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Heroes, Low, Scary Monsters, Heathen, Reality; Iggy Pop: The Idiot; The Moody Blues: The Other Side of Life, Sur La Mer; Thin Lizzy: Bad Reputation, Live And Dangerous, Black Rose.
Alan Winstanley (SOS July 1998)
Madness: One Step Beyond, Absolutely, Seven, The Rise & Fall, Keep Moving, Mad Not Mad; Elvis Costello: Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World; Bush: Sixteen Stone; Hothouse Flowers: People, Home; Morrissey: Kill Uncle, Bona Drag.
Toby Wright (SOS December 2005)
Slayer: Divine Intervention; Alice In Chains: Jar Of Flies, Alice In Chains, Unplugged; Korn: Follow The Leader; Metallica: And Justice For All; Motley Crue: Girls Girls Girls.