When talking about recording toms, it’s probably not really necessary to yet again make mention of my “use only one mic” M.O. There was a time when miking the top and bottom heads of toms was popular, but it’s not quite as common these days. In any case, using only one mic is indeed the way to go. As is placing the mic just like the great engineers who came before us do. It works.
Most of the work in getting a good tom sound is actually in the tuning and dampening of the drum-not necessarily the miking (as a matter of fact, this is true in recording the entire kit). No mic placement can make a badly tuned drum sound good.
I recently came across a great video on tuning toms via the Audio Geek Zine blog: Tuning Drums Part One-Basics (from Spectre sound). Don’t be thrown off by the hard rock/metal aesthetic of the video. Their tips for tuning toms can and should be applied to all styles of music.
Once you get the drum properly in tune, put some gaffer’s tape or moon gels around the rim of the tom in various places to suppress the pitch and ring a bit. I usually don’t like to have any pitch or ring present in the tone of the drums-especially the toms. If you really want to suppress the pitch (like me), try placing some gaffer’s tape in an “X” in the center of both the top and bottoms heads.
For rack toms, placing the mic a few inches from the head, at the 12 o’clock position (from the drummer’s perspective), and angled towards the center typically does the trick. Placing the mic around the 1 or 2 o’clock positions (again, from the drummer’s perspective), a few inches off the head, and angled towards the center is ordinarily where you will find the sweet spot for floor toms. Also, tucking the mic underneath the ride cymbal, and aiming the mic such that the polar pattern rejects as much of the cymbal as possible helps in taming ride cymbal bleed into the floor tom mic.
Synopsis of recording toms:
[I was aiming to post every day this week, but alas I've been in crisis mode since Monday. I'm Back from a fatal hard drive crash that nearly took me completely out this week. I got REALLY lucky-I recovered nearly all my files. In any case, below is the post I had planned to publish on Monday...]
If you’ve been reading my recent posts over the last couple weeks about recording individual parts of the drum kit, then I bet you can guess what I’m going to say about recording drum overheads…
The best approach to capturing a great, well-balanced overhead sound is the most simple, quickest to set up, and phase friendly miking method. You guessed it, this means using only one mic.
This mono approach to capturing a drum overhead sound I learned all about from a great friend and mentor, who is a very talented engineer. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of using only one mic to capture the overhead sound of the kit, but once I tried it and really dug in, I was very pleased with the outcome.
As I’ve explained before, the less mics you have on a source, the less phase issues you come up against. And the less phase issues there are, the more hi-fi the sound of your recordings. You can’t be any more phase accurate than one single mic.
From a mixing standpoint, using just one mono overhead, condenses and centers the kit within the overall mix of the track. When placed directly in the center of the stereo spectrum this way, the drums are set up to have a nice punchy impact that supports the mix in a natural way. It’s kind of like the primary pillar of a an architectural structure that supports the whole building.
Additionally, a mono overhead simplifies the aspect of recording the cymbals. An interesting observation that my mentor pointed out is that when you record drums with multiple overhead mics, often the cymbals can cause momentary phase-like anomalies that sound a bit ugly. Using one overhead eliminates this, as there’s no chance for timing discrepancies between multiple overhead mics.
So here’s what I recommend:
Start with one well-placed mic centered over the twelve o’clock and six o’clock positions of the snare and rack tom respectively (from the drummers viewpoint), and anywhere from one to five feet in hight over the kit. This gives you a balanced sound from all the elements of the kit in relation to the cymbals. Next, listen and adjust depending on certain specific factors, such as the player, the style of music, and the aesthetic of the band and song. The initial placement should get you 90 percent there, and the adjustments you make after listening will fine tune your sound the rest of the way.
But what about the stereo image of the drums? If you’re worried about sacrificing the stereo image of the drum kit on account of this mono overhead approach, here’s a couple things to consider:
So that’s my favorite approach to recording drum overheads. I certainly still employ other overhead techniques from time-to-time, but this mono overhead technique has indeed done me well. Give it a try sometime. I bet, just as I was, you will be pleased with your result.
Just like Recording A Kick Drum, I recommend employing the simplest, quickest, phase-friendly, and easiest to mix method. Again, that means using only one mic, and positioning it in the same place countless other hit-making audio engineers have-between the rack tom and the hi-hat (at the 10 o’clock position from the drummer’s perspective).
What point is there is over-thinking it, attempting to change a proven method, when so many other talented people have already done the hard work for you, and figured out such and effective technique?
Bonus: small tweaks go the longest way, and through the course of observing what’s helpful for some of the other engineers I’ve worked with, I learned that moving the snare mic to the 9 o’clock-ish position, helps tremendously in rejecting hi-hat bleed into the snare mic. This isn’t always possible because of the way some drummers set up their kits (typically a very low hi-hat), but luckily, most of the time there is plenty of room to get that snare mic under the hat.
The one that is the most minimalist, basic, and straightforward… the one that you have seen work well for someone more experienced than you.
You don’t need a ton of mics to properly record a drum kit and make it sound huge. Glyn Johns didn’t when he recorded John Bonham’s kit.
You would be surprised how much you can do with even just two or three 57′s, no matter what genre of music you’re working in. I’ve recorded folk-rock/americana records, post-punk records, and even prog-rock records, all only using four or five mics to record the drums.
To be honest, I’d even go so far to say that the less mics you have on the drums, the bigger they will sound. When you place a lot of mics on an instrument, you introduce a more complex phase relationship. And when microphones are out of phase, that’s the number one reason for a recording sounding small. So the less mics, the less phase discrepancy, the bigger the sound.
Two take-away’s here:
Next time you record drums, start with just three or four mics at first, and only introduce more mics into the equation if you feel like something is truly lacking. But make sure every time you add a mic, you reevaluate the phase relationship of everything.