Microphone Placement for Drum Overhead Mics
I was recently asked to provide a few insights on my way of mixing drums live. After thinking about it for I while, I thought it might be interesting to share my thought process for microphone placement when capturing the sound of a live drum.
Do I Really Need Overheads?
In a world of live audio where close miking is the most used approach for capturing sound of just about anything, this question can sometimes be quite valid. In small bars, tents, and clubs where the confined space pushes the sound of the drum kit towards the audience, leaving little room for anything else to live in that area, the HF spectrum of cymbals can be overbearing. So the general rule of thumb is to just mic up kick and snare, maybe an occasional tom, but leave the condenser mics for the overheads in your mic case, because you are getting enough of that sound from the acoustic source. And from a strictly FOH point of view that is justifiable. But remember that live sound is not just about mixing for the crowd. Maybe a band member is using IEM monitoring system and needs to hear those cymbal accents. Maybe you are also running a recording session where not placing overheads would be a huge mistake, leaving the drum recording lifeless and missing a huge piece of the puzzle. So I tend to consider all those facts and place and connect overhead microphones in just about any situation, even if I am almost certain that I could do without them for FOH mixing. Having them connected can also give you an option of using them on certain songs only - maybe brushes will be used or you need to bring out a roomy sound of the kit for a special effect. Having that as an option is always a great tool. And considering the fact that I think of overheads as my main source of a drum sound for just about any genre, I would rather be missing a tom mic than overheads.
Getting the sound right from the top down
Placing overhead microphones is almost a separate artform, as it involves making an informed decision depending on the type of music, the sound of the drum on its own, the way a musician hits those drums, the physical properties of the venue, and what you are trying to achieve sonically in your mix. So right off the bat - I don’t believe there is one proper way of placing overhead microphones. Learning about different techniques and how they sound allows the sound engineer to respond to a number of variables, helping him to shape the sound of the drum along the way. But as I see it, there are two major approaches to OH mic placement. The first approach is having the OH mics capture just the cymbals. The goal here is to try and isolate the cymbals as much as you can from the rest of the drum kit and have them as “close mics” for the cymbal hits. The second approach is to get as much of the sound of the drum from the overheads as you possibly can, considering all of the elements of the drum that might bleed into the overhead microphones and then place and process them in such a way that covers as much of the sound of the drum from just those (usually two) microphones as you can.
Rotating the plane
The overheads microphone placement I used on the last Siddharta acoustic tour originated in the latter approach. I wanted to grab as much of the drum sound from the overheads as possible, using the other microphones of the kit just to fill in the sonic gaps and boosting certain elements of the kit, complementing the overall sound. When doing so, my initial thought does not go to the sound of the cymbals, but to the sound of the snare in my overheads. Making sure that snare is centered and in phase between the two overhead microphones is crucial, as it can make or break the sound of the drum kit if not taken into account. Having said that, I also capture a lot of the kick drum in the overheads and I want to make sure that the kick is in the center of the image as well. So instead of placing the overhead microphones above the cymbals, almost parallel with the front of the kick as usually done with close miking, I rotated my point of view by imagining an invisible line going through the center of the kick and the center of the snare, then making sure that the overhead microphones are equidistant to the snare, perpendicular to that invisible line. To achieve that, I measure the distance from the centre of the snare to each OH microphone, making sure they are the same. In this case both snare and kick are in the center of the sonic image, and I have no issues with the most essential kit elements being out of phase in the overhead mics. This is a well known studio recording technique which I use when tracking drums quite often - I was also reminded of this particular mic placement for live sound by Dejan Radičević, Siddharta’s producer and a great studio engineer on his own.
Benefits of rotating your overhead microphones
Besides having your kick and snare in the center of your stereo image, there is also one more benefit that I find very helpful. The overhead microphone, which is closest to the hihat is in this placement moved further away from the hihat, which can be a lifesaver if the hihat is a bit overbearing when played hard - since there is less of it in the overheads, it makes it easier for you to control with a close mic. The same holds true if you have your drummer listening to a wedge, placed on his left side. There is just less bleed from those sources that might compromise your sound, making your job easier.
There are as many approaches to miking drums and the reasons behind them as there are engineers. As I mentioned previously, deciding on microphone choice and placement has to take into account numerous factors. Besides sharing this technique that serves me well, I can also suggest one major step that should not be overlooked: walk up to the drum kit, have the drummer play a few bars while you simply listen to the sound of the drum. That will give you all of the information you need to know about the kit, the microphones, and a course of action you need to take to translate that sound to the audience. Having more info on microphone placement techniques might simply get you there faster.