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Depending on what source you’re recording, there’s a million different ways to mic it up to reach the final tone you’re looking for. The kick drum is no exception, and in most music genres, it’s one of the most important elements within any song.
Every drummer has a different way of setting up their kick drum. Variables like the drum's diameter, batter head, resonant head, port or no port, style of pedal and internal dampening will determine what microphones to choose and techniques to use.
In this blog, I’m going to go over a few examples where the miking technique changes depending on the resonant head on the kick drum. I’m not saying these techniques are the gold standard, but something to have in your back pocket if a situation arises where the drummer has a setup you’re unfamiliar with.
As a tracking engineer, it’s always best to adapt to the musician’s setup, this will make them feel much more comfortable during the session. I’ve heard horror stories of engineers cutting port holes into a vintage kick drum head so they can put a mic inside. Needless to say, those sessions didn’t end well. Hopefully, these techniques can save that from ever happening to you.
Inside Mic / Attack Mic
Putting a microphone inside of the drum pointing at the beater will help capture the mid range and attack of the drum. By having a microphone dedicated to these areas of the overall tone, you can EQ the key frequency of the attack and dial it in to taste. A fun thing to do in the mix is to lower this microphone in the verses for a softer attack, then crank it up in the chorus for more attitude and punch.
If the drummer has a pillow or a blanket inside of their drum, you can rest the mic on top of them as long as it has a clear shot of the beater, just make sure that the vibration of the drum isn’t affecting the sound of the microphone. For the best results, place the microphone on a short boom stand and angle it in through the porthole, move the mic closer to the beater for more attack, or towards the resonant head for a softer feel.
Sometimes the port hole will be positioned in an awkward way, making it difficult to get a stand inside there. If this is the case, try laying the mic inside the drum before asking the musician to change the setup on their head. If they don’t have any treatment inside the drum, make sure to ask them before putting anything inside, and try to use something like a small towel or pillow that doesn’t change their tone or feel.
Just about any mic with attention to detail in the low end and mid range will do the trick, but some great choices for an inside microphone are the AKG D112, Shure Beta 52A, Shure Beta 91A, Sennheiser 421, EV RE20 and Audix D6. Running the inside microphone through a solid state preamp like a Neve 1073, API 512C, Solid State Logic or Shadow Hills GAMA will help exaggerate the attack and punch, you can also slightly overdrive the input for some pleasant harmonic distortion.
If the drum has a closed resonant head without a port, position a microphone on the batter head pointing at the beater. One thing to be aware of with this mic placement is bleed from other drums like the floor tom and snare. Try to get it as close to the beater as possible without being uncomfortable for the drummer. This will help pick up the most detailed attack and allow for a tighter gate when mixing.
A small diaphragm dynamic mic is usually the ideal choice for this, they will capture the mid range and attack from the beater without over-exaggerating the bleed from the floor tom, snare or cymbals. I’ve had some good luck with a Shure SM57, Sennheiser 441 and Telefunken M80. Although it’s a ribbon, the beyerdynamic M160 is also a great choice.
Outside Mic - Large Diaphragm Condenser/Ribbon
The second mic in this set-up goes on the outside of the drum pointed towards the resonant head. The resonant head generates the pitch and tone of the drum and the impact of the beater makes it vibrate and move like a speaker. This causes air to constantly move the diaphragm of the outside microphone. This also helps capture a nice picture of the low end.
Whether the resonant head has a port or not, position this microphone in the center of the head about 3”-5” away. This will give you the most thud and natural sound of the drum. Moving the mic closer will increase the proximity effect and provide more low end information. Moving the mic farther away will reduce the low end and create a tone closer to how the kick sounds in the room.
If you want more pitch or tone with less thud, move this microphone closer to the rim. Just like the other drums on the kit, the attack and impact happens in the center of the head, the tone and pitch resonant around the rim.
Try positioning this microphone in line with the inside or batter head microphone, this will help with the phase relationship between them. Before you start recording, make sure to check phase when using multiple microphones. Although most of the time it can be fixed down the road, it always helps to get it right at the source. Sometimes the two mics being out of phase ends up being a cooler tone and you stumble upon a happy accident. “Correct phase” is subjective, but that’s a whole other blog topic.
Blend this in with the inside microphone for a full picture of the kick drum. The outside microphone will have all the tone and low end, the inside microphone can be dialed in for the perfect amount of punch and attack.
I’ve found it best to use a large diaphragm condenser or ribbon for this microphone. The LDC captures the best overall picture of the drum due to its wider frequency range and quick transient response. A FET condenser tends to have more clarity and tone in the higher frequencies, but lacks some depth in the low end. A tube condenser will provide more low end and a much smoother tone overall. It also tends to add some nice vibe and grit. The transient response of a LDC works well with capturing the “slap” of the resonant head.
A ribbon microphone is a great choice when you want the most low end possible. It’s exaggerated proximity effect can help capture some series low frequencies. Ribbons also have a quick transient response, so you can still manage to get a nice amount of slap, but a bit smoother sounding than the LDC. A ribbon is the ideal mic choice where the natural sound of the drum is exposed and not competing with layers of electric guitars.
Any large diaphragm condenser or ribbon mic will do the trick, but I’ve had some great results with a Neumann U47, Neumann U87, Neumann 47FET, AKG 414, Audio Technica AT4050, Coles 4038, Royer R-121 and Mesanovic Model 2.
When I can, I like running this microphone through a tube preamp like a Universal Audio 610, Manley VoxBox, Tube-Tech MEC1a or Tree Audio Tree Branch. The tube preamp helps add more color and vibe while tracking, also seems to soften up the transient.
If you have access to an EQ while recording, it can save a lot of time in the mix to carve out some unnecessary frequencies during the tracking process. There’s so many great EQs out there for drums, but some of my favorites are the API 550A, API 550B, API 560, Neve 1073 and Neve 1081. All of them are easy to use, each band is fixed and very musical, making it easy to choose a frequency and decide whether to boost or cut. If you can’t get your hands on the hardware, the plug-in models from Universal Audio and Waves can get the job done just the same.
The inside microphone should be focused on the mid-range frequencies, so don’t be afraid to shave off some low end below 70Hz. A little bump around 80Hz can help add some impact, for additional punch and clarity try boosting a couple dB around 3kHz. For more snap and attack on the transient, try boosting a couple dB around 7kHz.
The outside microphone EQ will depend on the diameter of the drum and what type of head is being used, but most of the time some tasteful subtractive EQ can make a world of difference. Some problem frequencies tend to be between 300Hz and 500Hz, a couple dB cut can help open up the overall tone of the drum and take away some of the boxy sound. If this mic starts to have too much rumble, use a HPF to roll off some lows below 50Hz.
A sub kick is a great tool to have if you do a lot of drum tracking. It’s not always necessary in the final mix, but sometimes it can be that magic ingredient that takes the final drum tone to the next level.
Essentially, a sub kick is a speaker wired in reverse to be used as a very large diaphragm microphone. The original design utilized a Yamaha NS10 speaker, it’s paper cone, speaker diameter, the fact they were cheap and just about every studio on the planet had a pair at that point in time made them the ideal candidate.
The sub kick came out of necessity when engineers needed to capture more low end than anything in their mic locker could handle. The large diameter of the NS10 speaker helps capture the ultra subsonic frequencies of the source.
For quite some time, no major company manufactured the Sub Kick, each one you saw was some kind of makeshift design but still got the job done. Nowadays, there are brands like Solomon, who make the LoFReQ Sub Mic, a pre-assembled version of this handy studio tool.
The sub kick is placed on the outside of the resonant head somewhere between the center and the rim, placed as close as you can get it without touching. You want as much proximity effect as possible with this microphone, as it’s only dealing with frequencies below 100Hz.
Blend this microphone with the other two to add weight and power to each hit. The sub kick will really get the speakers moving, adding more impact to the drums and excitement to the overall mix. When mixing, hit it with a gate or transient designer to dial in the perfect length of decay on the sub frequencies.
With the combination of these three microphones, you can control the weight and impact with the sub kick, get the tone and overall picture from the outside mic and achieve attack and punch from the inside or batter head mic. This will allow you to manipulate the feel of the kick drum within each section of the song for added dynamics or dial in the perfect blend so it cuts through the entire track.