It’s a fair assumption that some recordists are challenged by tracking drums in their homes or rehearsal spaces. Even if noise isn’t a particular concern (whether that’s incoming or outgoing noise, or both), decisions over how many mics to use—and which mics to use where—in order to capture the most powerful drum sound can be daunting. After all, a clean, clear, and mammoth drum sound drives your track, and it also provides a healthy chunk of the song’s tonal and dynamic foundation. If you blow the drum sound, you can seriously damage the power and seductiveness of the entire production.
But what if you didn’t have to stress out over the placement of multiple mics? What if you used just one mic?
I’m not trying to be crazy or provocative. The one-mic approach could actually be a fun and viable approach for recording explosive drum tracks. Years ago, I was reading Dick Clark’s autobiography Rock, Roll, and Remember, where he talked about recording late ’50s and early ’60s rock and roll singles. Back then, one mic often recorded everything, and the trick was putting that mic where it documented all elements—from drums to vocals to guitars and piano—clearly and cleanly. Clark described a session for Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” where the drum kit was set up on a rug, and if the drums were too loud in the mix, the technicians grabbed the rug and moved the entire kit further back from the microphone. If the drums needed to be louder, they tugged the rug until the kit was closer to the mic. This certainly sounds hilariously prehistoric by today’s studio standards (or, heck, even 40 years of yesterdays), but if you listen to classic ’50s ravers such as “Train Kept-A-Rollin’,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and “That’ll Be the Day,” you can absolutely hear every swack, boom, crash, and sizzle of the drums. There may be genius in simplicity, here!
Whether you record drums with one mic or 20, you need to ensure the acoustic environment where the kit will be recorded is as sonically pleasing as possible. As we’ve said many times, one can’t expect a home studio to offer the same level of marvelous acoustical spaces as a big-buck commercial facility, but you can at least check your room for obvious anomalies such as flutter echoes, weird slapbacks, low-end resonances, and dead zones. If any sonic gremlins threaten to tank your drum sound, either move the kit to a better-sounding space, or start laying absorptive materials (blankets, pillows, rugs, commercial absorptive foam, etc.) around until the room starts sounding more transparent. Try to avoid positioning the kit too close to adjacent walls as you’ll risk forming sonically problematic standing waves within the close acoustic quarters. Hard surfaces such as tile floors or picture windows can produce amazing reflections, or they can blitzkrieg your tracks with tinny pings and other tone killers. Listen critically to test recordings before deciding whether you’ve put the drums in the best possible environment. Don’t be lazy. Any time spent crafting a great acoustic space for your drums will be rewarded with fabulous sounds. The quickie, I-don’t-care approach may deliver nothing but rather unusable cacophonies of percussive foulness.
Once you have the drums set up in a reasonable acoustic space, you can agonize over where to place that single microphone. Um, just kidding! It’s easy to move one mic (and mic stand) around your kit, and it’s fast, too. You’re not worried about skewering phase relationships by placing multiple mics too close to each other, or sweating over optimum stereo perspectives, or even getting tangled up in mic cables. Bliss.
The mic. Any model should work fine. Condensers tend to be more detailed than dynamics, and ribbon mics typically deliver more organic tones, but if you place any mic in the sweet spot, your drums will rage.
Mic placement. There’s no wrong move—just whatever sounds good to you. Some positions I’ve used include:
• Large-diaphragm condenser ten feet back from kick drum, and positioned to the height of the drummer’s chest. Nice thud and boom from kick, a meaty snare, and tight cymbals.
• Small-diaphragm condenser positioned drummer’s head at about ten feet high, centered between floor tom and hi-hat, and pointed down at snare. More highs and cymbal sizzle, bright snare, and snappy attack on kick drum.
• Dynamic mic placed a foot behind drummer’s right ear, pointing toward hi-hat side. Great mids, nice rumble to toms and kick, punchy snare.