How To Record Drums With Only 4 Mics.

Last week we looked at how to record a full band in a live session with just 8 active inputs. The biggest question mark from that post was “How do I record drums with only 4 inputs?” This week I’m actually going to answer that question. In fact, I’ll go one step further and share with you how you can record a full, live drum kit, with only 2 inputs.

There are actually several recording techniques that allow you to capture the entire kit with just a few microphones, but today I’ll be focusing on one. This drum miking technique was created by Glyn John, a British engineer and record producer who worked with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, The Who and Eric Clapton just to name a few. Of course his drum miking skills were probably most renown for the monstrous tones of drummer John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). His minimalistic approach to miking drums is still being used today and is actually one of my personal favorites.

As I stated in last week’s post, most people think recording a live drum kit should involve loads of microphones, stereo pairs and “spot mics” mixed with complex placements and top secret techniques, all combined to give you one big natural drum sound. Sometimes this can sound great, but for the most part it just takes a pile of work and in the end, you likely won’t even use half the mics you’ve set up and tracked with.

All you need to achieve the Glyn John technique is 2 overhead mics, a kick mic and a snare mic (a great room and stellar drummer also help). For overheads you can either go with 2 large diaphragms or even 2 small condensers, just as long as they are a pair of something. I’ve used both and even use a pair of ribbon microphones – all with great results. The main idea is that the BIG HUGE drum sound comes from the 2 overheads, while the other 2 spot mics help to fatten up the kick and snare.

It all starts with the first overhead mic…

…which should be placed roughly 3 or 4 feet above the snare drum, right in the middle of the kit. Make sure it’s facing directly down at the snare and set the microphone to it’s cardioid pattern. Try recording some drums with just this microphone and it should give you an even balance of the entire kit. If you’re recording in a great room and you feel you’d benifit from hearing the room reflections, try switching the mic pattern to a figure 8 (if you have that option) and see what that sounds like.

Now take your other “overhead” mic…

…and place it to the right of your floor tom, roughly 6-8 inches above the rim but facing directly at the snare drum. Notice I put quotations around the word”overhead” and that’s because this microphone isn’t really acting as an overhead at all. It is however capturing a “side fill” of the kit which gives it a unique perspective and what I think makes the whole Glyn John sound. The crucial thing with this particular mic placement, is that it needs to be the exact same distance to the center of the snare drum as the first overhead mic. The easiest way to measure this is to grab a piece of string (or a mic cable), have your drummer hold one end of it tight to the centre of the snare and then you take the other end and pull it up so it’s touching the grill of the first overhead mic. Then, while your drummer is stilling holding his end tightly, you swing your end of the string over to where the second “overhead” mic is placed. If you’ve measured correctly, you should now be touching the front grill on the second microphone. If you’re not, move that mic closer or further away until the distance is the same. Doing this ensures that your overhead mics are phase coherent which ultimately makes or breaks that big fat drum sound your hoping to get.

With these 2 microphones properly in place, you can now pan them hard left and right and you’ll get a nice balanced image of the drum kit. The snare should crack right in the center, the toms should be punchy and in their proper placement and the cymbals should be present all around the kit as well. The kick will be there – BUT obviously lacking a little in the bottom end, so this is where your 2 spot mics come in.

Grab your kick mic…

…and place it a few inches inside the bass drum  (not too close to the beater).

Then take your snare mic…

…and place it roughly 3 inches above the rim pointing across to the opposite side of the snare. Feel free to play with the placement of these 2 microphones in order to capture different sounds and remember, they are there to simply “fill out” some of the bottom end or “weight” that’s missing from the overheads.

It’s essentially that simple and I can promise you, if you take the proper steps to make sure those first two microphones are in phase, you will be able to achieve a nice big, natural drum sound with just those 4 microphones. Adding in a little compression and eq to taste always helps and if your room isn’t the greatest, you can always give it a touch of reverb to help “loosen” things up.

So just to finish this off, let’s say you only have 2 active inputs and can’t afford even 4 microphones. No problem! Try experimenting with a 2 mic configuration, based on what I’ve shared here today. Your best bet is to use the first overhead (above the snare placement) combined with a spot mic on the kick. This gives you a nice balance of the kit with the snare right in the center and then the spot mic helps to fatten up the kick. Or you could try both overheads and tinker around with the eq to give you a more open, round and organic stereo image of the kit. I guess it just all depends on what “feel” you’re going for.

Give this a whirl and comment below with your thoughts. Feel free to ask any specific questions that I may have left out of the post.

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