In the minimalist series, we’ve been looking at simple ways to make the most out of basic audio setups. We’ve already looked at streamlined PA setups for singer/songwriters and ways to record multiple singers using a single mic. In this post, I’m going to show you some techniques for miking drums with only two microphones. For many of us who have personal PAs or record at home, we don’t have 16 separate inputs to mic every inch of a drum kit. And sometimes, less is more—the legendary drum sound on Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks was the result of two overhead drum mics suspended from the rafters above the drum kit.
Before we look at the minimalist 2-mic setups, it’s useful for context to examine how pro engineers mic drums when they can use as many mics as they want. Professional engineers typically mic drums with ten mics or more, depending on the size of the kit. Spot mics are aimed at a particular drum (kick, snare or a particular tom), trying to pick it up with as little bleed (aka leakage or spill) from the rest of the kit as possible.
Overhead mics are placed above the drum set. Unlike spot mics, overheads are intended to capture the entire kit at once. Finally, in recording applications, there are often room mics (either a single mono mic or a stereo pair, or both), which are placed back from the kit to capture the sound of the drums interacting with the room acoustics. Room mics are used to add space to the drum sounds in the mix. All of these different mic types are run on their own tracks. The engineer then uses a combination of them to create a balanced and exciting drum sound. Drum kits are always mixed in stereo, unless a specific retro effect is desired.
Kick and Overhead
Let’s start our journey into minimalist drum miking with a 2-mic setup that features one mic as an overhead to capture the overall kit sound, and a second mic as a spot mic on the kick drum. This type of configuration offers good control over the sound and level of the kick in the mix, and a reasonable balance of the rest of the kit, assuming you’re careful with how you place the overhead mic. The downside is that it limits you to a mono drum mix.
Place the kick drum mic close to the front head of the bass drum, or even inside it. The closer it gets to the back (beater) head, the more of the snappy part of the kick sound you’ll capture, and vice versa. Experiment with positioning. If you don’t have a dedicated kick-drum mic (for example an AKG D112 MKII or D12 VR), it’s preferable to use another dynamic mic of some kind. For the overhead, use a condenser mic if you can, as it’s likely to give you crisper reproduction of the high end of the kit.
Experiment with placement of the overhead mic. Start with it on a boom stand above the kit, centered enough that it picks up an even blend of the snare, toms and cymbals. Try different heights, from a foot or so higher than the highest cymbal and lower. The closer the mic is to the kit, the less room reflections it will pick up, which, in home studios without acoustic treatment, is usually preferable. If the room acoustics are pleasing, try moving the mic back from the kit. The further back you move it, the more ambience you’ll pick up.
The other option for miking a kit with two mics is to use two overhead mics in a stereo configuration, recording each mic on a separate track. Depending on the style of music and with the proper placement, you can get good coverage of the entire kit, including kick, from two overhead mics. There are several tried and true methods for arranging the mics in a stereo miking application, each with its issues and benefits.
You could use what’s called a spaced pair configuration, which entails spreading the mics out on either side of the kit until you find a good balance of kit sounds and left-to-right image. But it wouldn’t be my top choice, because although it gives you a wide stereo image, it’s prone to phase problems, which can cause cancellation and distortion if the recording is heard in mono. These problems, known as comb filtering, result when the same sound (for example the snare drum) reaches two different mics at slightly different times.
To avoid phase problems, engineers over the years have developed several stereo miking configurations (Blumlein, ORTF, M/S, XY) that require a specific placement of the two mics in relation to each other. It’s generally best to use a matched pair of the same mics for these applications, to ensure that the left and right stereo tracks sound matched. Many manufacturers offer matched pairs of mics that have been factory calibrated to ensure identical performance.
To get the most from these techniques, you need to use a pair of the same mics, otherwise the differences in response will throw off the stereo image. If you want to really make sure the mics are as closely matched as possible, you can even buy matched pairs that have been factory tested to make sure that their specs are identical. AKG offers matched pairs of many of its mics including the C214, C313, C414 XLII, C414 XLS, and C451B.
XY is the simplest stereo-miking configuration. It consists of two cardioid mics, one above the other, with their heads aligned at right angles. An XY configuration captures a rather narrow stereo field, but the image is safe when summed to mono. With any stereo configuration, be careful with placement vis-a-vis the kit, so that you’re getting an even amount of level on each channel. Otherwise, one side will sound louder than the other in the mix, and you’ll have to compensate with your volume faders during mixdown to get it into balance.
Probably the best choice for a stereo drum-miking configuration is a relatively new one called the Recorderman method. It consists of two mics, one placed over the snare (about two drumsticks’ height above the snare head), and one over the shoulder of the drummer. The mic placement must be measured so the two are equidistant from the snare and the kick. Done properly, the Recorderman method yields a pleasing and well-balanced stereo image free of phase problems. For more information on the Recorderman method, check out this article.
Two is Enough
As long as you work carefully, and make sure you’re using the correct mic configurations, it’s definitely possible to get a good sound with two mics. If you can, I encourage you to experiment with the different methods discussed here, to see which one gets the best results.
Have you had success recording drums with a two-mic configuration? Share your insights in the comments section.