A Beginners Guide to Mics for Acoustic Drums
Music is incredibly nuanced and detailed, regardless of what the genre is or of where the actual music originated from. A big part of building these dynamics in modern recorded music is to pay attention to the subtle tweaks one can make during the recording process. These dynamic changes could be anything from adding effects to your desired instrument, enhancing the equipment for better quality or lessening it for more of a lo-fi quality- which is kind of a trend these days with modern indie and trap rap bands- or manipulate the setting in which the instrument is being recorded.
Throughout the article, we will look into a lot of the latest mics and techniques that are used to record drums and how they could affect the sound of the final recorded product. Throughout the article, we will take a look at how you will go through the process of mic’ing your drums properly piece by piece, the proper equipment for each piece and how to manipulate it for your own sound construction.
Over Head / Room Mics
The main purpose of overhead drum microphones is to help the drum recording sound fuller and more realistic. Stereo means that the sound is full and surrounds the listener and does not need any form of double tracking or anything of the such because of the thickness you gain from adding room ambience and such.
As for the nature of the microphones, most overhead drum microphones are condenser mics which are the same type that are used in recorded vocals. Another element that needs room ambience for thickness and to add natural feel to it. These condenser microphones have the highest frequency response out of all the microphone types that exist in the market. In layman terms, this means these types of microphones can actually capture every little nuance in the room and every little noise.
Using these mics can prove to be a huge advantage because it is a good way to pick up every little sound in the room and to get all of the parts down instead of going through the hassle of having a single area for each drum part, such as the kick drum mic or snare mic.
The best recommendations I could give for condenser microphones for this type of recording are the Neumann KM184 pair, AKG C414 XLII Stereo Set and Neumann U87 Ai Stereo Set. All of them are quality equipment and can get the job done perfectly.
The only downside of this style of recording is that it is pretty expensive. I would recommend using this if you have the benefit of studio support. If you are on a tight budget though, I would recommend using other methods of recording.
Kick Drum Microphones
The drums are the heart of any band, as they lock the band in a central and uniform rhythm and tempo. In most band settings the drums lock it by using the kick drum and it is more than just crucial that the whole band gets to hear the kick drum properly to lock into, and to be tight in both the studio and live settings.
For this purpose, one might need a quality kick drum microphone which will pronounce the kicks and make it sound not just heavy, but clean as well. You know the feel of this! Remember the last time you were in a concert hall or any venue and you felt the kick physically? That’s a sign of good kick drum mic’ing. It makes the kick drum pronounced and powerful on both recording and live.
One of the shortcomings of using a 2 track recording using the room mic’ing technique is that the kick drum gets drowned in the mix and in the recording. This problem could be solved by recording the kick drum on its own in a 3 track recording setup. The reason for this issue is that the kick drum, like any bass instrument, has different dynamic qualities and clashes with the overall drum sound during a room recording.
An advantage you get with these kick drum microphones is that the top-end equipment, such as the AKG D112, Shure Beta52A and others, are relatively cheap. Like with most of these equipments, you will probably pay nothing beyond two hundred dollars, which is quite cheap compared to condenser microphones or microphones for other drum parts.
One of the hardest things to do while recording drums is to get the right sound for your snare. It is quite an enigma between sound technicians and musicians alike. It is the holy grail of proper drum tone. This is because you need a strong microphone that will pick up the frequencies to add the punchy sound of a snare that you tuned your drums so hard to get.
With mic’ing and setting up your snare as mentioned before, you will need a mic that will pick up the frequencies properly because your snare tone not only needs to stand out in the mix, but it also defines your drum tone. Now there is a saving grace to this dilemma, and that saving grace is there is really only one option for microphones, which is the Shure SM57. This option is great for home studios.
The microphones are designed to do five things to ensure a good tone for your snare that will cut through the mix. First of which is they have high max SPL That is designed to handle loud volumes without distortion. This is practically the best way to handle clipping and issues with high volumes that could potentially ruin your audio. Another feature in the device is the tight cardioid pattern that is designed to stop the snare sound from bleeding onto other drum tracks, and also they are designed to handle extra gain issues. And finally, durable casing which is designed to sustain a heavy touch on the snare without killing the sound and tone.
In regards to the recording and mic’ing of cymbals, the hardest of all to record are the hi-hats for a range of reasons. They usually need a microphone that captures high frequency sounds and at the same time the recording process needs something that could reject off axis sounds that could meddle with the quality.
Usually during recording hi-hat parts, it is best to have a microphone dedicated to the hi-hat alone to fill up all of the above requirements. Most people would look for something that is similar to the condenser microphones we talked about earlier with overhead/room recording. Usually, these microphones do pick up the high frequency noises needed for a clean hi-hat recording. These condenser microphones will also pick up some of the noise produced by the snare that will bring some ambience to the sound. Thus, you might end up with a bigger and more stereo sound. So, a condenser microphone is more than key here because it picks up a fairly large area of sound and adds the ambience needed for a fuller recording.
The down side is the same as that of the overhead/room recording process, which is the fact that it is fairly expensive for most home studios. Most condenser microphones start out at relatively high prices that could only cater to professional studios. If you have the budget for these types of condenser microphones, then I would recommend the highly esteemed Neumann KM184, which is probably the best microphone condenser for hi-hats you can buy right now. If you have a tight budget and cannot buy a proper condenser for your hi-hats, then I would recommend some of these cheaper options such as the Audio Technica AT2035, the Studio Projects B1 and the Rode NTI- A which fill up the same functions of a condenser microphone and have filtering options which is useful for a cleaner recording.
Toms are a peculiar case in recordings because of the divide in the music tech community over how one should treat their toms. Should it be recorded separately? Should it be done with overhead/ room mic’ing? Most engineers and sound technicians go for not recording it at all and depending on overhead mic’ing because the condenser microphones already pick it up pretty well. There are few reason for that actually. Mic’ing toms is not only a very tedious and expensive process but also it is deemed unnecessary because even the act of mic’ing the drums is just unfeasible. It would over crowd an already overcrowded situation. But along with your kick drum and snare, the toms add a lot to the overall warmth and depth of your drum sound in the final product. Also, since fills are an important part of any popular song, it might seem like a good idea to use tom microphones instead of only using overheads and treating the toms as an afterthought.
If one wants to mic toms though there are a wide range of options available for home studio owners. The most popular choice, mostly because of the price, is the SM57 but there are other options as well that are price conscious. Another option would be to use dynamic mics such as Sennheiser MD421, Sennheiser MD441U as they really capture the sound quality of the toms properly and give them life, and they are very cheap. The problem though is the set-up which was mentioned before. However, there is another option which is a mounted microphone called the Sennheiser e6o4 which solves a lot of these issue, but isn’t as good as the old school microphones.
Mic’ing The Rest of the Cymbals
Just like with the toms situation, the rest of the cymbals are not usually recorded separately, but are rather picked up by the overhead/room microphones in the room. It usually seems easier and less of a hassle for most musicians to do if they have the funds for overhead/room condenser microphones. But as we already know, most home studios would think these microphones would be more of a luxury than a necessity, so they would go for cheaper options, like mic’ing each cymbal on its own, as tedious as it sounds.
There are a good range of options available in the market that can get the job done. Most of these options are small diaphragm condenser microphones which could be looked at as a cheap alternative to using overhead condenser microphones for recording. They do show a lot of promise, are much cheaper than their superior version and can get the job done for most home studios.
Yet again, it should be mentioned that overhead condenser microphones work MUCH better in that setting and are less of a hassle to record when it comes to mixing and mastering than recording everything separately. Also, you get a lot of ambience from overhead condenser microphones which you might not get with the lesser version. Yet again, the pricing of overhead condenser microphones is not for everyone and the other options work great as well.
To conclude our music production odyssey, recording drums could be seen as a hassle and tedious, but with the right equipment, all of these efforts are quite worth it when you hear your properly recorded tight drum track. We have looked at every drum piece in a basic 6 piece drum set and how one could record each piece and tricks to add more life to the track like adding room ambience or by recording things separately. Also, we looked into which microphone is good for which situation and how one can maximize their sound even with a tight budget. With this guide, I hope you find your best drum sound for your project.