The Actual Secret To Recording Good Drums

Welcome back to the blog, I hope you’re all well! Today is the day that we disperse a very valiant and long standing myth within the smaller engineer circles online about recording drums and the minimum amount of mics needed to get a great sounding kit. 

Now, before we get into the real meat of this post, I will concede that this solution doesn’t apply for every single drum recording, for example; I can’t imagine a Doom Metal band or blastbeat heavy band getting much use out of this style of recording. However, for the other 80% of recordings, and especially for those starting out who are yet to build their mic lockers up; this will work almost all the time. 

So, Let’s dive in! 

4 Mics is Fine

Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a man called Gyln Johns who was an incredible audio engineer. In fact, he was so good at what he does, he was part of the reason why the many bands he recorded have influenced so many other musicians around the world to this date. Those bands include The Rolling Stones, The Who, Joe Satriani, and arguably the most popular reference specifically to his drum recordings, Led Zeppelin. 

Now, Zeppelin did also have an incredible drummer, which is the other part of why their sound is so recognizable; but between both Glyn Johns and the drummer John Bonham, the sound that encapsulates the Led Zeppelin records is something to really admire. And what's even more impressive about their sound, is that on those records there are literally 4 mics on the kit. 

I’ve definitely advocated in the past for multi-mic setups of 12 or more microphones in the past, and that's great for many reasons such as being able to have a more detailed image of the entire performance, as well as far more control over bringing up or down any specific microphones in general within the mix or automate certain ones to be higher or lower in the mix from song to song, part to part. However, this is very much derived from the same stance as what the Glyn Johns technique allows, and the simple fact is that if you want to add more microphones to this setup after you have it in place, then you can do - the main thing is that with just 4 mics you can get an incredible sound that has also won him a Grammy for Best Engineered Album. 

How to Set Up

Back when this was first introduced into the mainstream and interviews were done, Johns described much of the way he set up the mics in great detail. However, there are some parts that were described a little less desirably such as the overhead mic height being ‘just a little taller’ than he was. Now, I’ll be honest I’ve not personally gone out of my way to measure him or find someone who has - but that being said it’s quite easy to imagine that this wouldn’t be far from the typical way I have described setting up overheads in the past. 

I went for exactly 4 ft above the kit, with the mic aimed down looking somewhere between the edge of the snare, and the kick drum, just slightly off center. This gathers a very natural overview (no pun intended) of the entire kit, as well as a broad perspective of the snare and bass drum before they’re even mic'd up. 

I’ve taken a few photos of a quick setup I did the other day to better show the technique in detail so you to view as we go through all of the placements - note that there also isn’t a hi-hat stand in any of these, due to me being unable to find my one in a pinch so apologies for that:

Now that we have the single overhead in place, the second perspective of the kit is just as simple - place another microphone just behind the floor tom, looking across the kit towards the snare. Make sure that the microphone is again level; a good way to think about it is to try to imagine that between the microphones we’re aiming for an X and Y axis just like on a graph. 

Note that I’ve also chosen a pair of V11’s for this first couple of microphones; this entire set up demonstrates how by just using our incredible microphones alone, you can capture a perfect drum recording every single time!

Now that they are both in place, there’s really only one other mic according to Johns that is required, however, in my past experience I have always felt that 2 more is ideal to get a better depth of the kit in general. The kick mic is the most basic requirement, and below you can see that I have once again gone for my trusty V12 on the outside of the kick to exploit the beautiful low end and silky top end that it can deliver; this for me is ideal, but many have chosen to use a dynamic kick mic in its place, so listen while you place in order to get the best sound for the situation. Another trick you could employ is to mic the other kick skin next to where the beater is hitting with our HH1 along with the V12 on the outside to gather some extra click. 

And lastly, the HH1 placed on the snare, aiming away from the hi-hat or any other cymbals so as to get the best rejection. I’ve always preferred having the capsule guard off when placing my snare mics (as you can see in the photo below), but be wary that a drummer could hit the capsule if you don’t reattach the guard, which wouldn’t be ideal - so please be careful! 

The simple fact of the matter, is that if you were to add another mic or 2 such as the BH1S in a figure of 8 polar pattern, alongside this already incredible sounding set up, you’d be very hard pressed to find a better sounding drum sound while only using 4 (or 5 with a room mic) microphones, which seems criminal to say but it's genuinely true! Again, if you don’t believe me, go and have a listen to your favorite Led Zeppelin or The Who records, and listen to the drums on their songs; and if that doesn’t convince you, I implore you to simply give it a try. I promise you won’t be disappointed!