There are two basic ways to think of drums, specifically the drum kit, when mixing them: is it a single instrument or many separate instruments? That question is the beginning of the difference between area-micing (traditionally used most often in jazz and related styles) and close-micing (traditionally used in just about everything else).
For area-micing, your primary microphones are your overheads and room mics (if in a studio setting), and the individual mics on any drums enhance the sound through those microphones. In close-micing, the primary microphones are the individual mics on the drums, with the room mic supplementing and the overheads focused on the cymbals.
Most of the time, the kick drum is quite literally the first channel on a console. While there used to be a good reason for this, nowadays it is a combination of tradition and a reflection of the kick drum’s importance to a mix.
The most common way to mic a kick drum is a speciality microphone (such as an AKG D112, Audix D6, Shure Beta 52, and many others) in a hole cut in the resonant or audience side head of the kick. Moving the mic closer to the batter or drummer side head will give you more attack, while moving the mic closer to the resonant head will give you more boom.
If the kick doesn’t have a hole in the resonant head, a microphone on the batter head just above where the beaters are will give you full sound with lots of attack, while one in front of the resonant head will give you a boomier sound more suitable for jazz or similar music.
For extra control, I like to use two kick mics, one on the batter head and one on the resonant head, and use each mic to give me a part of the sound I’m looking for. Make sure to check the phase relationships between the microphones, as one of them will almost certainly need to be “phase flipped”. Most mixers these days have a phase switch button, making this much easier today than when you’d need adapters on hand for these situations.
In the Mix
When mixing a kick, the low frequency (40~100Hz) is the “boom”, the low mid (~250Hz) is the “boxiness” and the high mid (~2kHz) is the “click” or beater noise. Boosting or cutting in these frequencies will create the sound you need for your mix. A short delay on the kick can also add a bit of “attack”, giving body to the high frequencies and reducing the low frequencies through phase cancellations.
The snare is usually what gives the “backbeat” of a song, happening on the “two” and “four” of a song. It’s what people will clap to if you’re in a situation in which people would clap to the music. With the kick drum, the snare usually comprises the foundation element of a mix.
The most common way to mic a snare drum is with one mic toward the edge of the drum pointed towards the center. For a snappier sound, add a second mic in the same position on the underside of the drum. As always when using two microphones on a drum, reverse the phase of one to avoid cancelling out low frequencies.
In the Mix
The body of a snare drum is around the low mid (~350Hz); the snap of a snare is in the highs (2kHz~6kHz). A short delay can add “attack”, much like with a kick drum, and reverb can give a snare some extra body. Another rather strange option, most viable in a studio, is to use a little bit of distortion on a snare to add some “fuzz” and fill out the snare sound.
Toms are most often used in drum fills, although they sometimes are used in a way similar to a hihat to move a beat along, either as a foundation or rhythm element. Toms generally come in two styles — mounted or floor — based on how they are supported. Floor toms have legs that sit on the floor, and mounted toms generally attach to stand or to a bass drum.
Like a snare, toms are best mic’d from the edge of the drum pointing toward the center. If they’re not tuned correctly, toms are most likely to have strange overtones to them. If the drummer allows it, a “RemO” ring or a bit of something called “Moon Gel” (or, in a pinch, one of those sticky hands from old school quarter machines) can cut down on the overtones.
In the Mix
Like the other drums, body is in the low mid (~200Hz for higher toms and ~120Hz for lower toms), and attack is in the higher mid (~2kHz). Toms are the only drums that benefit from pan to give them separation from the kick and snare whose frequencies they somewhat overlap with. Higher toms should be panned to one side and lower toms to the other, based around the side of the drummer they are on.
HiHats are will either be a foundation or rhythm element depending on their use. Hihats or ride cymbals often provide a regular pattern over whatever the kick and snare are doing.
While the hihats will generally get picked up quite well by overhead mics, it can be helpful to use a dedicated microphone, especially if the drummer does a lot of subtle playing on the hihats. A condenser mic (one requiring phantom power) is usually best for this, pointed down at the hihat about halfway between the bell and edge of the the hihat. Make sure the mic is high enough that when the hihats are open, the top cymbal doesn’t hit the microphone.
In the Mix
Hihats can easily sound like a metal trash lid with the wrong mic placement or EQ. To get a good clean “sizzle” without too much bleed, a high pass filter is very helpful, but not so high that the hats lose “body”: ~250Hz is usually high enough. Also make sure to pan the hihat to the appropriate side.
Rides are used similarly to hihats, giving a different kind of regular pattern depending on the style of music and section of a song.
It isn’t usually necessary to mic a ride cymbal, but depending on the style of music and the particular drummer. If you do, mic it similarly to the hihat, around the middle of the cymbal. For more “ping”, put it closer to the bell; for a “fuller” sound, put it closer to the edge. Don’t put the mic too close to the ride, as you will get an unpleasantly muddy sound from such a large cymbal.
In the Mix
The ride will be picked up by the overheads even better than the hihat, so you usually want this mic to not carry the ride’s sound, but instead to supplement what’s already there. The high-mid frequencies carry much of the “attack” of a ride, while the low-mid frequencies will give you more “wash”
This is one of the most complicated parts of micing a drum set, and also one of the most varied. There are many ways to set up overheads, and I’ll highlight some of the more frequently used methods. The actual mixing of overheads depends on the overall theory of how you’re approaching your drum mix: the overheads are either the meat of your sound, acting as way to collect the sound of the whole kit or primarily used to pick up the cymbals, allowing close-mics to provide the sound of the individual drums.
Here are a few of the more popular ways to do drum overheads; it’s best to experiment and find the one that works for you.
This is by far the simplest method. One mic, either omnidirectional or unidirectional, placed roughly over the drummer’s head. While you lose any stereo imaging, when in a situation of limited channels or equipment, or you just don’t need that much drum reinforcement, this is a great place to start.
The split pair is the next simplest. Two cardioid mics are used, usually of the same type, placed high above the drum set pointed straight down. The advantage is it’s easy to set up, but you can run into phase issues, especially with a kick and snare, as the microphones are different distances from those two sources. Each microphone can be panned to their respective directions to limit this effect, but it can’t be escaped entirely
This is one of the earlier methods of reducing the phase issues inherent in split pair micing. First, a microphone is placed directly above the snare (or above the kick beater pointed at the snare). Measure the distance between the center of the snare to the microphone, either with a tape measure, piece of string, or mic cable (in a pinch). Place a second microphone on the right side of the drumset, at around a 90-degree angle to the first microphone, exactly the same distance away from the center of the snare as the first microphone. This arrangement was first used to record Led Zeppelin by the legendy Glyn Johns, cutting down on phase problems while maintaining a good stereo image. (As an aside, on those Led Zeppelin albums recorded with this method, the only close mics used were a kick and snare mic.)
This method is about halfway between the Glyn Johns and Spaced Pair methods. Like in Glyn Johns, a microphone goes directly above the snare pointed down. Measure the distance between the snare drum, microphone, and the kick beater (a piece of string and a little bit of masking tape is great for this; tape the string to the snare and kick head and use the tape to mark on the string where the microphone is). Make an arc with this string so that it makes a 45-degree angle. Place the second microphone at your tape spot and point it at the snare drum. This method is a good balance between stereo image and sound quality, and is the one I tend to use when I use two overhead mics.
This is another method of reducing phase issues with two mics. Instead of careful measuring, the diaphragms (or, in layman’s terms, the grill-covered part that actually picks up the sound) of two microphones are set up as close together as possible without actually touching at a 90-degree angle to each other. The pair of microphones are placed in around the middle of the kit (roughly above the kick beater) such that each microphone is pointed roughly 45-degrees from “down”. This arrangement nearly eliminates phase problems, though the trade-off is a reduced stereo image. Note that the microphone on the left actually picks up the right side of the drumset, and vice versa.
This isn’t a very common method of micing drums, but it is my preferred method. It works best when the ride cymbal is placed closer in, as often happens with 4-piece drum kits. This method requires three microphones, and is similar to the Glyn Johns method described above. Add a kick mic, that’s all you need to get a solid drum sound. It’s only real downside is how complicated it is to set up, but once you get used to it, it goes a lot faster.
First, the center microphone (this works best with a ribbon mic, but any mic will work) is placed 3~4 feet over the ride cymbal in line with the center of the snare drum and the kick beater, pointed at the snare. Then take a piece of string and measure the distance from that microphone to each tom, making sure the mic is as close to equidistant between them as possible, while still being on that center line. Next, tape one end of another string to the center of the snare drum, stretch it with your finger to touch the center mic, and tape the other end to where the beater hits the kick drum.
Next place the second microphone directly over the snare, pointed down. Find its height by moving the string (still taped to the snare and kick) directly over the snare by letting it slide over your finger. This (and the next step) makes sure you don’t accumulate phase problems between the three microphones. Set that string aside and, with another piece of string doubled over on itself, measure the distance between the snare mic and the center mic. Tape one end to each microphone and either put a small mark on or wrap a small piece of tape around the exactly middle of the string. When you stretch out the string, you’ll get an equilateral triangle between the middle of the string and the two microphones.
Finally, take the snare/kick string and stretch it out with your finger. Slide your finger under that string and move it so your finger meets up with the center of the center-mic/snare-mic string. It will be a little bit lower than the other two microphones. This is where you’ll place the third mic, also pointed at the snare. Pan the snare mic one way, the third mic the opposite way, and the center mic in the middle, and you’re done.
For a video explanation, check out Drum Overheads – The Weathervane Method on YouTube.
In the Mix
If you’re using overheads as your the main microphones for your drum sound, there isn’t much that needs to happen. Usually a little bit of reverb is all you need and your drums are good to go.
If your overheads are mostly picking up cymbals, you’ll want a highpass filter (250Hz~500Hz) to get most of the drums out of them, and then dropping the high frequencies (~10kHz) down a bit to remove some of the apparent harshness that’ll leave behind. Then, as before, a little bit of reverb to fill out the sound.
When mixing live, there is absolutely no point to room mics, but in the studio they’re quite handy. If you have the luxury of recording drums in a room that sounds good, they’re essential. Even if the room doesn’t sound good you can “fake it” using something called a convolution reverb (which is beyond the scope of this reference).
Before setting up your room mics, make sure they follow the same center as your overheads. For example, if you’re using a spaced pair of overheads, the center is approximately the kick drum, but if you’re using the Weathervane method, it’s the line between the kick and the snare. Your room mics should be set up in stereo so that the sound of the drums is picked up along that ceterline, wherever in the room sounds best.
In the Mix
Room mics are meant to add some life to drums that are close mic’d so they sound more “live” on a recording. They’re more or less a natural reverb, so they’re best treated as such — they should be missed if they’re off but not noticed if they’re on. (Although, if you’re wanting to get a bit creative, room mics run through a guitar amp simulator and blended subtly back into the mix can make for an incredibly aggressive drum sound.)
Putting It All Together
Once each individual part of your drum sound is how you’d like it, it’s a matter of balancing it all out so that the sound of many individually mic’d pieces becomes one instrument. Because of how many parts are involved, drums can be very complicated at first, but like anything else, with practice they are a lot easier to deal with. Reverb, compressors, and gates can all be used to tie a drum kit together and get you to the sound you’re looking for.