How Many Mics on the Drums?
How many microphones do you use on drums when you record?
As late as the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon to record a group with no microphones specifically for the drums. At an Audio Engineering Society seminar in 2001, legendary engineer Bruce Swedien talked about a session he ran with the Count Basie Orchestra (with vocalist Big Joe Williams) in 1959. Swedien used eight microphones: one each for piano, rhythm guitar, upright bass, and lead vocals, with the other four mics used to capture the rest of the orchestra. No microphones were set up for the drums, but the results were absolutely stunning — Swedien played that recording for the attendees.
There were many sessions in the 1940s and 1950s that used one microphone — either 5–8 feet in front of the kit, or as an overhead. A little later, on the early Motown records with Bennie Benjamin or Pistol Allen playing drums, two mics were used — a kick drum mic and an overhead primarily picking up snare and high hat. The overhead did double duty, though; when Jack Ashford played tambourine on the session, the overhead mic was also the tambourine mic. If the tambourine wasn’t loud enough, Jack would move closer to the drums, and if it was too loud, Jack would back away. When both Bennie and Pistol were playing (yep, a lot of the early Motown records had two drummers), there would be a total of four microphones for two drum sets and a percussionist. Most of us know about Glyn Johns and the 3-microphone technique he used — most notably creating John Bonham’s drum sound on Led Zeppelin records. But by the early 1970s most engineers had settled on a similar drum setup, with an individual mic on the kick, snare, and high hat; a mic for each tom; plus, a left and right overhead. A kit with three toms would typically use eight microphones.
Remember that multi-track recorders had a limited number of tracks. Though a drum set may have eight mics, it doesn’t mean the drums used eight tracks on the tape machine. In the early ‘60s, drums would usually be recorded to one track, and they probably shared that track with other instruments like bass and rhythm guitar. Even after 16- and 24-track tape machines were introduced in 1968, the drum mics were usually bussed to a small number of tracks — if three tracks were used, engineers would put the snare mic on its own track, everything else on the other. When the drums used four tracks, kick and snare had their own tracks, with everything else on two more tracks. If a project had the luxury of six tracks for drums (in the ‘70s and ‘80s, 24-track machines had become the standard), the drum layout was typically: kick and snare on their own tracks, toms on a stereo pair, and everything else on a stereo pair. The practice of giving each microphone its own track didn’t come into its own until the advent of digital recording, when engineers realized they essentially had an unlimited number of tracks.
When the drum mics were bussed together to a limited number of tracks on the tape machine, the engineer had to mix the drums when recording. Panning, equalization, compression — those decisions had to be made when tracking, because it would be impossible to change the volume or the panning on one tom, for example, when all of the toms and overhead mics were on one channel. If the producer wanted reverb on the toms (but not on the high hat), the reverb had to be added at the recording stage. Once those decisions were made, they couldn’t be undone.
As the years passed, the drum mic setup grew. Some engineers started using a couple of room mics, then a second kick drum mic; one inside the kit, and one outside the kick. Then some folks started adding a mic under the snare drum, followed by microphones under each tom. A few engineers added a third overhead mic, so the overheads are panned left, center, and right. Finally, in addition to the room mics, when the room is large enough, some engineers will add an ambient mic at the far end of the drum room (often highly limited, to emphasize not the attack, but the sustain and decay of the drum sound). If you haven’t been keeping track, this means 17 separate microphones on a standard 5-piece kit. Is this the ultimate? Nope — if the kit requires it, some engineers will add cymbal mics, a sub-kick mic in addition to the outside kick, and any number of specials to suit the specific needs of a session. Here in the Sweetwater Studios, I remember seeing 18 mics on a drum set at one time, but I may have missed some.
From the 1970s to present day, as artists and producers came up with innovative sonic ideas for their projects, engineers developed the tools and techniques to make those ideas a reality. For some, those sonic ideas meant more microphones — and for some engineers, they’re using ever fewer microphones. The Glyn Johns 3-mic technique is still in use in studios around the world, even as setups using a dozen or more mics are used. As a producer and engineer, I’m happy with all these approaches. When an artist has a vision — whether that vision pushes the boundaries or captures an old-school vibe — producers, engineers, and studios will continue to find ways to help our artists achieve that vision.