Updated: Oct 10
Recording acoustic drums is one of those things that people seem to think is difficult but is also one of the most fun. I’ll cover recording kick and recording snare comprehensively in other posts, so today will cover the various overhead mic options you have when it comes to getting those drums down in style.
What mics should you use? My advice would be a pair of the best mics you own, probably condensers, though ribbons also work really well l as long as you have a bit of ceiling height. Ribbons are figure of 8 and shoving them up near a ceiling isn’t helping anyone.
Most of those old 60’s records had one single overhead placed up high somewhere over the snare. Wherever works. Maybe that's what you need sometimes! If you think that’s minimalist I’m gonna raise you one, or well…lower you one - none. A lot of other records were made with one ribbon mic located down low below the snare, next to the kick capturing the kick, snare and hat balance. The rest of the kit? Meh..it’ll be in there somewhere! This was also used on a lot of those 2000’s retro-sounding records. Think Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. Throw a wallet on the snare for extra authenticity. I stole this from Mark Ronson, who apparently stole it from Salaam Remi as I set it up on a session I tracked for Salaam, and those were the first words out of his mouth! Not sure whom HE stole it from, but hey - now it’s your turn!
In this configuration, a matched pair ( ideally, or two of whatever you have if you don’t) is placed in a V facing towards each other as close as possible at 90 degrees up above the cymbals. This puts the capsules in effectively the same place which avoids any phase issues and creates a nice, clear, very stereo picture. You also see this technique with the mics facing outwards ( also called NOS - mic capsules 30cm apart) and sometimes physically crossing in an X at 90 degrees ( also called DIN technique) There are also a few mics designed with two capsules that use this technique ( Royer SF12, Rode NT4) for stereo recording.
This basically means two mics spaced apart, pointing down at the kit to capture an overall picture of the kit. Place the mics for the best cymbal balance, and check the phase.
This was developed by the legendary Led Zep engineer and was to capture the maximum tone for the minimum mics.
Mic 1 - directly above the snare up, over the drummer's head, height-wise.
Mic 2 - At the same distance that Mic 1 is from the snare to the right of the drummer (assuming they are right-handed, if not, reverse) at shoulder height or so looking over the floor tom.
Feel free to NOT roll off all the lows in your overheads, and pan wide to around 45 degrees left and right for rock & roll goodness.
This one’s less common. I worked with John Leckie as an engineer and the one thing he changed in my drum setup was to move the mics to close mic each cymbal. Yep, that’s right - one AKG 414 about a foot above each cymbal with the pad and LF roll-off engaged. We also had a Coles ribbon above the kit pointing down, but that was for more of an all-over kit vibe. This unsurprisingly - gives a very fast and direct sound.
Got a low ceiling?
Got a crappy-sounding room?
Don’t have enough inputs for hi-hat and ride mic?
This one doesn’t even have a name, so I’ll call it the Baldy, after myself! In a crap room, try A/B but placed to the left and right of the drummer's ears at head height sightly facing in towards the kit coming from behind. The only other thing to do is make sure they are the same distance from the snare. There will be a ton of high hats, you’ll hear the ride, the toms will sound slamming and I’m sitting here wondering why I haven’t done this in a while.
What looks right sometimes isn’t what sounds right with mic placement, and this is common with AB. Listen to your overheads, and pay attention to where the snare is. For me, I like it in the middle and tweak overheads accordingly so it’s in phase. I’d rather have the cymbal balance compromised slightly than my snare sounding crappy. Also, don’t decide to roll off the low end by default. Use your head, and decide what’s appropriate. One of the beauties of recording is one size doesn’t fit all, so feel free to experiment and try all of the techniques when you are next recording - your mixing engineer will thank you! Let me know how you get on, and happy recording!
Want a free ebook all about recording drums? How To Record Drums