How to... mic' up a drum kit by Helen McCarthey.

Are you shure (yes, the pun's intended) you know what you're doing when it comes to microphones?

When miking up a drum kit in particular, you know that you're going to be using an assortment of different microphones and you need to know what type of mic is best suited to what drum. You also need to consider where your drummer is playing - are they slapping away on stage at a sweaty pub or laying down tracks in a state of the art recording studio in preparation for a new EP?

Here at ~wired for sound~ we've compiled a list of common industry mics tried and tested by our writers, and wannabe Chad Smiths' and Danny Careys':



Drum


Recommended microphone/s

Photo of a kick drum. Photo of an AKG D112 microphone.
Photo of a snare drum. Photo of a Shure SM57 microphone.
Photo of a tom drum. Photo of a Sennheiser 609 microphone.
Photo of a set of hi-hats. Photo of a Shure SM81 microphone.
Photo of 2 overhead mics (left and right) over an entire drum kit. Photo of an AKG 480 microphone.

Of course, these are the mics that most pros use, but if money's a bit tight you could just use a Shure SM57 on the toms, snare, hi-hats and the entire kit. However, it's good to have a mic that catches lower frequencies (like the AKG D112) on the kick (bass) drum.

You've also got to remember that these mics are specifically for recording purposes. If you're going to be gigging live, you're going to need a hardier mic that's going to handle being sprayed in beer and dropped a few times. In those cases, you're probably better off with a Shure SM57 or SM58.

Anyway, let's assume that you want to mic up a standard 5 piece kit for a right-handed drummer (just reverse it for a left-hander). This is what your standard kit looks like:

Photo of a standard 5 piece drum kit containing: a kick drum, a snare drum, 3 toms, hi-hats and cymbals (crash and ride).

Bird's eye view diagram of a standard 5 piece drum kit containing: a kick drum, a snare drum, 3 toms, hi-hats and cymbals (crash and ride).

After selecting the appropriate mic for each drum you need to position each one correctly. Let's take a closer look at where you need to place the mics for the:


Kick (bass) drum

Photo of a kick drum with a sandbag inside it.

When starting to mic up a drum kit always start off with the kick drum and try to anchor it with a sand bag (hopefully the drummer will have one with him).

Put the sand bag towards the back of the drum so that the bag is just touching the skin. This will absorb some of the nasty overtones but hopefully, not the good ones.

Ideally, you should place your mic inside the kick drum about half way, and point it towards the beater. Most kick drum front skins have an airhole for microphone access. Sometimes, drummers like the sound of no front skin which means easier access for mic placement.

If your front drum skin doesn't allow you access inside the drum, just place the mic in front of the front skin and centre it.

Photo of the kick drum with sandbag inside it, with the microphone positioned inside the airhole.
Photo of the kick drum with both skins on and the microphone positioned at the front of it, centred.

Once you have positioned your mic, you can move it backwards and forwards to hear the different tones and choose the one you want. You can even stick a pillow inside the drum to alter its tone.



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If you can, place a heavy blanket or quilt over the front of the kick drum this will help to isolate it from the rest of the kit.

Photo of a kick drum with a blanket draped over the front of it.


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Snare

The snare is relatively easy to mic up.

Photo of the snare drum with a microphone in between the hi-hat and the first tom.Place the snare microphone in between the hi-hat and the first tom. Position the head of the mic over the rim of the snare and about 2.5 to 5 cm above it. Angle the head at a 45 degree angle downwards, towards the centre of the drum.



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A common problem with snare drum miking is the drummer hitting the mics, so remember your mic placement needs to be out of the way of the drummer's strike. Speak to your drummer to check that it's not in the way.


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Toms

Miking up the toms is very similar to the miking of the snare drum.
Photo of the 3 toms complete with microphones.Photo of a tom being miked from the inside.

Place all three tom microphones exactly as you have the snare mic, only angle the mics to be about 5 cm in from the edge of the rim.

If you want to, you could take off the bottom skins and mic from the inside of the drum like the kick drum.


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Hi-hats

Photo of the hi-hats complete with microphone.No matter what you do, the sound from the hi-hats will always spill into your snare drum mic and vice-versa, but hey, you get that. By placing a hi-hat mic over the hi-hats, while it won't reduce spill, it will allow you to focus on the stereo positioning.

Mic the hi-hats in the same way as the snare and toms but position your microphone 8 to 10 cm away from the hats.


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Avoid miking over the bell area of the hi-hats as it makes the hats sound tinny and thin.

Avoid miking on the very edge of the hats, because when the hats close, the air that gets expelled from them can sometimes cause the microphone diaphragm to overload which will result in some weird sounds.


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Entire kit

Photo of an overhead mic in position above the crash and ride cymbals.Finally, you need to set up a couple of microphones to pick up the overall sound of the entire kit.

So use some overhead microphones.

Overhead mic placement can be a complex biz and there are heaps of different ways to set them up. One effective way is the spaced pair microphone method.

Place the overhead mics about 60 cm above the crash and ride cymbals and almost directly over the first and second tom mics (this will avoid any phasing issues).

Photo of the left and right overhead microphones pointing slightly left and slightly right.Angle the left overhead microphone (looking from the audience perspective) slightly to the left and angle the right overhead microphone slightly to the right.

This method should not only give you a good cymbal sound but also a nice kit sound as well.



All miked up and nowhere to go

So from the side and the top, your kit should look like this when fully miked.

Photo of the entire drum kit when miked up.
Bird's eye view diagram of the entire drum kit complete with microphones.

So now you know how to mic up a drum kit for a recording session. Having a bit of spare time on our hands, we've also been round the clubs, pubs and studios in our city and talked to some pro's about miking drum kits.


Photo of Will Davies, Studio engineer, Studio 7.

Will Davies, Studio engineer at Studio 7.

"My advice? When miking up a kit, always try and keep your cables neat. Try not to have cables dangling off the mic stands and use the cable clamps supplied with the stands or even tape the cables to the stands so they don't get in the way.

I always try and coil any excess cable near to the stage box to avoid it getting tangled or people tripping over the cables.

It's also a good idea to always check that your microphones and cables are working properly before you tape anything down. It's a real hassle having to untape things if your mics play up."

 

Photo of Chris Boyd, Head engineer at Soundwave Studios.

Chris Boyd, Head engineer, Soundwave Studios.

"Try and make sure that your drummer has access to headphones while setting up the kit sounds. You'll need to be able to tell them which drum to hit when getting levels.

Also try to listen for rattles and squeaks coming from the kit. I've found that simply going round the kit with a screwdriver and tightening things up makes the world of difference."

 
Photo of Sarah Mallently, Head engineer at Rocky Recordings.

Sarah Mallently, Head engineer, Rocky Recordings.

"Let's face it, if your drum skins are very old and dull they are going to sound old and dull through the mics (and the same goes for the guitar and bass strings).

Before getting anywhere near a studio, talk to your band and suggest they get new strings for their guitars and bass as well as new skins for the drums (if needed).

This not only improves the recorded sounds but also makes the world of difference when miking the instruments in a performance venue."

That wraps it up for another 'How to...' article. Now you should be able to mic up like a pro. Until next time folks.

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