While experimenting with ‘minimal’ drum‑miking setups during a recent lockdown, the author found them really inspiring and captured some great drum sounds. So is it time you re-evaluated the decisions you make when recording a kit?
The history of record‑making is littered with great recordings that were shaped, in part, by how artists and engineers worked around technical obstacles, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper being a prime example. Sadly, I can’t claim to have recorded a seminal album in the last few months, but I have enjoyed some recording experiments driven by technical limitations.
A room here at Half‑Ton Studios became vacant during the Covid‑19 lockdowns and, rather than attempt to let it again, I took the opportunity to turn the room into a dedicated drum‑recording space, in which I could keep a kit permanently set up and ready to record should inspiration strike. This ‘new’ space initially had only four XLR feeds into the studio’s main control room (I installed more later, of course), so while learning to get the best sound in this room I was forced to experiment with ‘minimal’ drum‑miking setups, using no more than four mics.
These experiments turned out to be really inspiring. In fact, I captured some great drum sounds, and it got me thinking about the decisions I make when recording a kit. Like many engineers, I typically record drums using several mics, with close mics on every drum, overheads, room and a few ‘character’ options. While this approach can work very well, it’s not always helpful. For one thing, having all those options to play with can lead you down a certain path when it comes to mixing; I can’t be the only one who’s spent ages working to construct a punchy, full drum sound only then to spend an age with several plug‑ins working to make it all sound more lo‑fi or retro! It obviously takes more time to rig and position so many mics. There’s also a risk that the complexity of such setups encourages the engineer to focus on the tools and the processing at the expense of the sound of the kit and the feel of the performance.
In this article, I’ll explore some of the minimal drum‑miking techniques I’ve used recently, and encourage you to try them too. I’ve also prepared some audio examples so you’re able to listen and compare the results, and you’ll find these on the SOS website at https://sosm.ag/two-mic-drum-recording.
I haven’t the space here to explore every setup I tried; four mics can be used in so many different ways. So, instead, I’ll focus on five techniques that employ only two microphones — though I’ll also consider whether they lend themselves to being augmented with other mics.
With the digital processing and sample‑triggering we all have available in our DAWs, we often find ourselves compensating for a less than stellar‑sounding drum kit at the mixing stage. But when recording with just a couple of mics there isn’t anywhere to hide! Thus, the relationship between the drummer and the sound of the drums themselves is even more important than usual: you must find a way of working that involves listening to how the kit is being captured, and then manipulating the instrument and mics to sound good with whatever material you’re working on.
Drum tuning, damping and the acoustic space lie at the heart of this approach, and I’ve touched very briefly on a few things that I find useful in the ‘Dressing The Drums’ box. Something else to consider, which can be harder, is how to work with a drummer who has difficulty balancing the sound of a drum kit themselves. Unless you have an experienced player who already does this, it can be a challenge to get a drummer on board with not hitting the cymbals too hard, or evenly hitting the toms on fills. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though!
We’ll start with one of the most well‑known drum miking techniques. Engineer/producer Glyn Johns reportedly stumbled upon this one by accident in the studio and then used it to great effect throughout his illustrious career, engineering for the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, to name but a few. It’s a quick and simple technique that can work well on its own, but it can also be augmented easily with a few close mics if needed. It employs a pair of large‑diaphragm cardioid capacitor mics, with one positioned directly above the snare drum at a height of around 5‑6 feet. The second mic is positioned lower down, looking across the floor tom towards the snare. Key to the technique is making sure that the two mics are close to being equidistant from the middle of the snare — this ensures sounds from the snare arrive at both mics at the same time. Glyn Johns also explained in a recent demonstration of his technique that he liked to drive the preamp stage of certain analogue consoles that he worked on to get this technique working optimally.
I’ve used this technique a few times over the years. It gives a very solid snare sound and a surprisingly balanced picture of the whole kit. It can take a bit of fine‑tuning to make the snare sit firmly in the centre; typically you’d pan the centre mic slightly to one side and the lower mic a bit wider. You hear a great sense of stereo movement when a drummer goes around the toms, and there’s plenty of bottom end from the kick drum.
The Recorderman technique is broadly similar to the Glyn Johns method, in that it begins with a single cardioid mic above the snare drum pointing down at that drum, though it’s somewhat lower in height — a touch higher than the length of two drum sticks above the snare is a good starting point. The second mic, again a cardioid, is positioned above the drummer’s right shoulder (player perspective) and pointing down slightly, so that it is ‘looking’ at where the beater hits the kick drum. My understanding is that this technique was initially developed using ribbon mics but I’ve found that it works well using capacitor mics too. The key to a successful result is measuring: the centres of the kick and of the snare drum must be the same distance from both microphones. This can be a bit tricky, but it is possible.
If I were in a ‘real’ session I’d probably use a close kick mic too, but I’ve been very impressed by how complete the sound is that comes from just the two microphones. In my recent experiments, the snare had a solid, full sound and the kick also sounded nicely focused. The tom positioning was also impressive when sitting between the speakers; it felt more natural to me than the Glyn Johns technique in this respect. That said, I prefer the sense of cymbal spread delivered by the Glyn Johns method. Some people like to hard pan the two mics but I found myself liking them evenly spread at around 50 percent. Even if you do prefer to hard‑pan the mics, though, the snare still feels nicely centred in the stereo image. It’s also easy to use close mics to augment the Recorderman setup, which could provide a great option for an overhead pair.
I don’t know if this mono technique officially belongs to producer/musician Eric Valentine, but I adopted it after seeing him describe how he likes to record drums in his home studio using just two mics. It’s a simple concept from a recording engineer’s point of view, but it does take a disciplined drummer and some additional mixing tricks to really make it sing.
The majority of the sound comes from a single mic (Valentine uses a Beyerdynamic M160 hypercardioid ribbon mic) positioned in front of the kit, pointing at a slight angle towards the snare drum. The second mic is used purely to reinforce the low frequencies, ensuring there’s enough power from the kick drum. This cardioid mic should be set back from the kit, in an area of the room that captures the low‑end nicely — a corner of the room, for example. This channel is then low‑pass filtered at around 100Hz. When this signal is combined with the main mic, your ears should be greeted by a lovely low‑frequency bloom from the kick.
I’ve used this technique to great effect on some recent sessions. If the drummer doesn’t hit the cymbals too hard and you apply a little judicious EQ and compression, you can get wonderful results. Interestingly, I’ve found it tricky to augment this technique with close spot mics on the kick or snare; they seem very difficult to integrate. So this one really is about embracing the limitations!
The name of this other mono technique is a little tongue‑in‑cheek, but I recently stumbled upon it when tasked with putting down some quick ‘scratch’ drums on a client’s songwriting session. As is often the way when you ‘throw stuff down’, we ended up liking how it felt so much that we wanted to keep it in the final production.
Again, it revolves around a single cardioid mic looking down at the kit, but this time central to the whole kit rather than being focused on the snare. On the session in which I used this setup, I wanted a quick way of filling out the tom sound, so I positioned a figure‑8 ribbon mic between the two toms, with one side of the mic focused on each drum. Together, these two mics capture a very usable mono image of the kit. You have to listen carefully when tweaking the position of the overhead mic, but you can get a very respectable drum sound that can hold it’s own in a busy track. You should get plenty of ‘weight’ from the tom mic and, again, it’s an ‘overhead’ technique that could work well as part of a bigger drum recording setup. One word of caution: there’s a decent chance of your mics getting a whack from a stray drum stick!
I remembered reading about this final technique in SOS several years ago (http://sosm.ag/daptone). That article describes how Daptone Records engineer Gabriel Roth takes a very minimal approach to recording drums. It typically involves just one mic (but sometimes two), positioned low down, pointing towards the kick and snare drum — the photo explains this rather better than I can in words! Roth also described how working with minimal microphones encourages the musicians to create the necessary sound and balance for their instrument, which is the key to getting this whole concept to work.
I experimented with a few different mics from my collection, and settled on a combination of a Sontronics Delta 2 ribbon mic and a Shure SM7 cardioid moving‑coil dynamic, positioned closely together and pointing towards the lower part of the snare drum.
I was pleasantly surprised at just how well this setup worked. It gave me a very different perspective of the kit than the other techniques I tried. The kick drum sounds full and punchy, thanks to the ribbon mic, and the dynamic delivers a crisp top end from the snare, capturing lots of the snare wire sound. With my own drum setup, I could hear some ringing from the shell of the rack tom, and found that the floor and ride cymbal needed to be played a little louder to get the whole thing to feel nicely balanced. That’s the key to success: put plenty of the drum sound in the drummer’s headphones, so that they can tailor their playing accordingly!
Minimal drum recording won’t suit every genre, especially dense, modern production styles in which the kick and snare need to be ‘larger than life’. It’s also relatively cheap and easy to have a number of recording channels at your disposal these days. So was all this effort worth the bother?
Yes, I believe it was. First, for those styles where minimal miking is an option, it’s possible to get great‑sounding results quickly — you spend less time setting up the mics, waste less of the drummer’s energy checking the levels in a million mics, and fewer mics means fewer phase relationships to contend with, so the results often sound really punchy. Second, even if you work in genres where you’re unlikely ever to record drums like this, it’s still a great learning exercise in understanding how to manipulate a complex acoustic instrument; the experience will help you get better results however you like to record your drums.
Finally, who can argue with adding another skill to your toolbox? You never know what you might end up working on next as an aspiring engineer.
I’ve prepared some audio examples so you’re able to listen and compare the results, and you’ll find these at https://sosm.ag/two-mic-drum-recording.
If you get into this minimalist style of drum recording you’ll probably find yourself paying closer attention to the sound of the kit in the room, and to the tuning and resonances of the individual drums.
For a detailed walkthrough of the basics of drum tuning and damping, check out Matt Seymour’s article in SOS August 2010: http://sosm.ag/drum-tuning. But it’s also worth me pointing out that setting up the drums entails both understanding what’s physically possible from a particular drum, and having a fairly clear idea of what you’re aiming for. The latter might be some musical coherence between the drums and the track you’re working on, or just something that sounds pleasing to your taste.
I’ve always found toms slightly more challenging to tune than the rest of the kit, but in practice I find that you can get close fairly easily by working out what part of the top drum head is closest to the sound in your head and then trying to make the tension even at every lug. You then just have to decide if the resonant head sounds better a little lower or higher than the beater, following the same technique of making the lugs even. There are also some great apps now which make this a lot easier; I like to use iDrumTune Pro.
When your miking options are limited, you’ll notice the natural resonances of a drum kit much more and want to exert some control over them. It’s good to keep handy a selection of damping tools, like Moongel or leather strips. I also have some heavy weights, which I can use to reduce the ringing of the floor tom or kick drums, either by hanging them from the side or placing them on top of the kick drum (obviously with some packing blankets to protect the drum shell).