Common microphone choices for drums

One of the most popular questions that beginning recording enthusiasts ask is “What microphone should I use to record _blank_?”, where blank is an instrument or voice or whatever it is they want to record.  In this series of articles, I’ll cover some of the more common or “standard” microphone choices that you’ll find in professional studios that are used for your typical rock/pop instruments.  This first article will cover drums.

The one thing you need to remember above all else, is that there is no right or wrong way to do anything in the recording business.  Feel free to experiment and use whatever you have available to you and try to come out with a sound that works for you and the song you are recording.  While the microphones I’m going to list below are some of the more common choices for drums, they certainly are by no means the only choice, and the type and quality of the drums, how the drums are set up and tuned, the skills of the player, and the sound of the room are going to have much more of an impact on the sound than anything else.  Also, what works for one drummer and kit in a particular room for a particular song, may sound totally wrong in another situation.  So, keep all that in mind!

DRUMS:

Kick Drum:  Choice of kick drum microphones depends largely on the style of music and the sound you are thus shooting for, as well as the type of kick drum and head configuration.  For a standard rock/pop sound on a kick drum that has a hole cut in the front head, you would typically stick some sort of dynamic microphone in through the hole, and aimed at the beater.  How far into the drum, is a matter of taste and also depends on the microphone used.  Popular big studio choices are some of the microphones designed specifically for kick drum and bass cabinets, such as the AKG D-112, or even the older AKG D12 (no longer in production).  Other good choices include the EV RE-20 or even the Sennheiser MD421.  In many pro studios, they’ll use those microphones I just listed more inside of the drums to get most of the attack of the beater on the kick drum, and then they’ll stick a large diaphragm condensor microphone a foot or so away from the head, outside of the kick drum, to get more of the low end and overall tone of the drum.  Another great trick for capturing a huge low end is to use a woofer speaker wired up to act as a microphone, and place that out in front of the kick drum.  This has become such a popular technique, that Yamaha has pre-packaged a woofer in a special shell with a stand and all ready to be plugged into a microphone preamp.  It’s called the Yamaha Subkick.  If you don’t want to mess around with wiring up an old woofer yourself (and finding a way to mount it to a stand), then definitely check out the Yamaha Subkick.

Snare Drum – Top:  By far the most popular microphone used on snare drums is the ubiquitous Shure SM-57.  It’s a dynamic microphone that just seems to work well for the majority of pop/rock type snare drum sounds.  It’s also very rugged, and can stand up to being whacked by the drummer, or dropped, or just about any other torture treatment.  Relatively cheap, and great for both live and studio use, and every studio needs at least a couple of these microphones!

Snare Drum – Bottom:  Whether or not you choose to use a microphone on the bottom of the snare drum is a matter of personal choice, and also depends on the situation and the sound you are going after.  When I worked in the big studio, I rarely ever used a bottom snare drum microphone because I was always happy with the sound from the top microphone as well as what I was getting from the overheads and room microphones.  Using a bottom microphone just adds one more signal to the drum mix, which can add more phase and bleed problems.  But, when you are not getting enough of the snap or buzz of the snare drum with just a top microphone, then you can add a bottom microphone to get that buzz/rattle from the snares themselves.  Some people like to use the same microphone they use on the top, e.g. the Shure SM-57, to keep the overall sound curve of the two snare mics roughly the same.  Others want to use something brighter like a small diaphragm condensor microphone to pick up more of the high-end detail of the snares.  Popular choices are the AKG C 451 (with a pad inserted with the capsule), and similar microphones.  That would be my choice if that’s the sound I wanted while I was working in a big studio.  For my home studio, I would instead use the more affordable Audio Technica AT-4031 (no longer made) or AT-4041.  I usually also have to put an inline pad in the path when using the AT microphones since the signal is usually too hot for microphone preamps that don’t have their own input pad.

Toms:  The most popular microphone choice for pop/rock drums in the big studios is the Sennheiser MD421.  These, again, are rugged dynamic microphones that can stand up to a beating from a drummer, and still continue working.  Although you’ll often need to apply some EQ, they deliver a strong and punchy tom sound that you’ve heard on countless albums.  These were always my first choice in the big studios I worked with, and I bought four of them for my home studio as well.  While not cheap, they are a great value for the money since they have many other uses as well.  In some situations you may only use the Sennheiser MD421 microphones on the rack toms, and then want to use a large diaphragm condensor microphone on the floor tom to try to get an even bigger sound for it.  In most situations, though, I’ve been just fine with using the Sennheiser MD421 on all the toms.  Some pros will also put microphones on the under side of the toms (in addition to the top microphones), but that can be overkill, adding more phase and bleed issues, and I’ve never had a situation where I’ve personally felt the need to do that.

Hi-Hat and Ride Cymbals:  For these, you usually want to use a small diaphragm condensor microphone to bring out the detailed high end sizzle of the hi-hat and ride cymbal.  In the big studios, the common choice again is often the AKG C 451.  For my own home studio, and for those on a tighter budget, pretty much any small diaphragm condensor microphone will work… I use the AT-4041 in my own studio.  However, I’m personally not a big fan of really bright and loud hi-hats or ride cymbals, and I find that I usually get more than enough hi-hat and ride cymbal signal from my overhead microphones, as well as the bleed into the other microphones.  I’ll almost always put up the hi-hat microphone, and less often the ride cymbal microphone, just in case the drummer does something really intricate or subtle on a song that I really need to bring out, but probably 95% of the time I have those tracks turned off in the final mix, or turned down VERY low compared to the other drum tracks just to add a little bit more definition to the hat and ride.

Drum Overheads:  This is the one area of drum microphones where there isn’t as much of a set standard that most pros will use.  It’s more of a personal taste thing, as well as what is available, and what the room sounds like.  In the big studio, I would often use a pair of the older series Neumann U-87 large diaphragm microphones, or B&K 4006 Omni-directional small diaphragm microphones (now called DPA).  These microphones are a bit too expensive for most personal home studios, though, especially for a matched stereo pair.  At my own home studio, I’m recently liking a pair of AT 4047 microphones when I want a kind of vintage-vibey type of large diaphragm condensor microphone sound.  I’ve also used a pair of AT 4050 microphones for a more “standard” large diaphragm condensor sound for the overheads in other studios I’ve worked at (don’t have a pair of my own yet, but they are on the list!).  For smaller diaphragm microphones that fit a home studio budget, I again like the AT-4041 or AT-4051 microphones.  With the big resurgance in ribbon microphones over the last several years, many people are liking the sound of ribbon microphones over a drum kit when they want a bit more of a smoother high-end and “warmer” tone overall.  I’ve used my AEA R84 as a single, mono, overhead microphone for drums with good results (sometimes blended in with my pair of AT 4047 microphones).

Room:  You really need to have a good sounding drum room to get good sounds out of a room microphone.  If you don’t, then you might have better results with just making things fairly dead and using the close microphones only and adding some artifical room reverb later.  With room microphones there is even less of a “standard” than the overhead microphones.  Basically try out whatever you have available, and experiment with placement.  If you want a big trashy room sound, use any microphone you have available and use massive amounts of compression on it (to the point of distortion, if desired), and mix it in to taste when mixing.  If you want to capture more of the natural room ambience, then try a pair of large diaphragm condensor microphones at different places in the room to give you a nice “stereo” vibe.


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