Drum Heads: The 1, 2, 3 of Classic Drum Miking

I’ve always loved the simplicity of using just three mics to record a drum kit. In a lot of today’s pop music, it might sound like mixing suicide to narrow your options down so much, but 40 years ago, three mics was “the way.” The method still has merit, because it’s based in committing to the sound of the drums and the drummer. To illustrate this point, I’ve enlisted engineer/producer Bruce Botnick (Doors, Love, MC5)—a man who lived through the time when “three was king”—to help detail a trio of three-mic setups.
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“Back then, consoles didn’t have a lot of inputs, so you could only put so many mics on the drums,” says Botnick. “In fact, many early-’60s engineers used just one overhead, and some of those recordings sound astonishing. There’s a lot of ‘crack’ to them, and this was because the drummer made the sound.”

Botnick’s Basic Three Way

Mic Positions: Overhead, snare (under), kick (inside).

Technique: “I used to position the overhead mic like a periscope—you could almost lean into it with your forehead,” says Botnick. “Both the overhead and the snare mic were Sony C37s, set to unidirectional patterns, and I always positioned the snare mic under the snare. The idea was to blend in the underneath microphone until you got the crunch. The kick mic was an Altec ‘salt shaker’ 633a that was normally used in airports to announce flights. I put a blanket over the kick drum to help isolation, and we’d also remove the front drum head, but it was basically about letting the drummer do his thing.”

The Glyn Johns Method

If you’ve worked around studios and engineers, chances are you’ve heard some of them mumbling about a “Glyn Johns Mic Technique,” which is sometimes accompanied by someone claiming, “Dude, we got the Bonham sound!” (Which is, by the way, totally impossible as the key ingredient of that sound is John Bonham, and, chances are, you didn’t get him on last week’s session.) Johns engineered for Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, and crafted some pretty classic drum sounds.

Mic Positions: Overhead, floor tom, kick (outside).

Technique: Johns captured a stereo image with the overhead and floor tom mics. The overhead was not positioned as low as Botnick’s “periscope” method, and it was not necessarily pointed at the center of the snare drum. The floor tom mic typically pointed across the kit towards the hi-hat, and each mic was then panned to create the stereo field. Don’t be afraid to place the mics where they capture the best sound for the song you’re recording. 

“I’ll hang the mics where I think they’ll sound good,” says Botnick, “and ten times out of ten, I end up moving them after I listen to the drummer play.” 

The kick drum mic is actually a kick/room mic, as Johns would usually position a condenser outside the kick. Experiment with how high or low you set up the mic, as well as the distance from the kick drum. Just listen and trust yourself.

The Quickie

Mic Positions: Stereo overhead, kick.

Technique: The stereo mic is placed behind the drummer’s head, and tilted at the drums. Feel free to vary the angle and the height, but try to keep the stereo image balanced. The kick is up to you. If you put a mic inside the kick, it’ll be punchy. If you put it outside, the sound will be looser and more ambient. Listen to the mics by themselves, and then all together. If anything sounds strangely thin or just weird, the mics may be out of phase. To correct this, simply move the mics until the sound is as full and punchy as you want it.

Final Tip

I’ll say it again—nothing is set in concrete. Any technique that serves the song is valid. Here’s some wisdom from Joe Meek, who was perhaps the world’s first independent producer (he produced “Telstar” in his home studio in 1962): “If it sounds good, it is good.” And Bruce came up with one I liked, too: “Don’t think. It’s dangerous.”