Drum recording – how do I approach hi-hats?

We can do just fine with one microphone when recording vocals, guitars, bass and quite a few other instruments and sound sources but there’s a lot to know when one is about to record the drummer.

The modern rock/pop drumkit has a lot of noisy/loud parts in it (drummer included) and it is pretty clear that if we just put one single mic in front of it, the track will sound like a tool cabinet being shoved down the stairs. Therefore almost every percussion instrument (usually excluding the drummer) gets its own specialized microphone.

Localizing – creating the stereo image

The main reason we need and use mics on hi-hats is to gain control of the placement of the audio when it comes to the stereo image of the particular mix. Overheads go left & right while hi-hats usually reside either to the left or right.

Of course there’s no law against doing your own querky thing – placing hi-hats straight in the middle for some artistic reason, applying insane effects, playing with the tone etc. When being played, hi-hats can bleed a bit into the snare microphone therefore a separate microphone applied to hi-hats is suggested.

Closeness and mic placement

Distance in microphone positioning is very important when it comes to drums and really deserves a separate discussion, but regarding hi-hats – a separate, dedicated microphone will allow you to make hi-hats sound more persistent, closer and a lot more intrusive when you playback the whole mix.

Although you are free to turn up the volume for hi-hats as you see fit, you will find that mostly you’re just using the pan option the separate mic provides.

As for the bigger distance and its effects on the sound of hi-hats – if you place the microphone further away from hi-hats than usually, you will notice that a considerable amount of ambience, room/kit acoustics and other percussion units come into play.

This does not necessarily mean that the hi-hat track is ruined – it can actually just mean less intrusive hi-hats while still being able to dock them to the either side of the stereo image and having them do their thing.

You want to start around 5 to 6 inches from the hi-hat when looking for the right balance and overall sound. If closer more intrusive hi-hats are needed, place the hi-hat microphone about 2 inches from the rim and 2 inches up while positioning the capsule of the microphone exactly paralell to the surfce of the percussion unit. See if it works for you and adjust as necessary.

It is a good idea to start off with just the overheads for hi-hats. See how that sounds and then decide if you really want and can spare an adittional microphone and channel for that more pronounced hi-hat sound.

If you’re going for a classic more or les organic sound for the drumkit, ambience (in the right amounts) is your friend and ally. Be really carefull and pay attention to the volume of hi-hats. If you realise that you’ve spend alot of your time on getting the hi-hat sound right, take a break, then come back fresh, listen to the stereo image you’ve created and see if the balance is really the way you want it to be.

Find the right microphone & tone

Close microphone positioning will get you heavy sounding hi-hats. Be sure if that is really what you want because hi-hats are not generally considered to be a solo instrument.

Overheads will give you more airiness, high-end in frequencies and room acoustics, thus leaving the rhythmic aspect of hi-hats while not accentuating the roughness.

If you can’t decide about what kind of microphone to use – the classic choice is a small diaphragm condenser. Basic dynamic mics will, of course, also work.

Use your ears and see what sounds and feels right for the particular project and as was said previously – BE SURE to evaluate your volume for hi-hats.

A well deserved rest for ears & mind is highly suggested if you’ve spent alot of time on gearing up hi-hats. Come back with fresh head and a second opinion if avalable.