How to Record Drums on a Budget
August 7, 2017
I get it - you want a killer drum sound for your latest recording project. You want the drums to hit hard, drive the beat, and sound professional.
But there are two roadblocks to this goal that go hand in hand. Recording drums is not only notoriously a challenging endeavour - it is an expensive one.
With all of the microphones, preamps, cables and stands one would need for the “modern” 12+ mic approach, the costs creep up pretty quick!
Today though, I want to share with you not only the most affordable way to record great drums, but the simplest way.
Wanna know the secret? Use only one microphone! Just because many people use a lot of microphones to record a drum kit doesn’t mean it’s the only (or best) way to do it.
In fact, a strong case can be made that the fewer mics you involve the likelihood of your recording sounding better is higher. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Recording drums with one microphone
Today I want to share with you four reasons why recording with the fewest mics possible (i.e. one mic) is a great way to work.
Absolutely Zero Phase Issues
Did you know that anytime you have more than one microphone capturing a single source (acoustic guitar, piano, drum kit) you introduce potential phase issues?
Phase cancellation is really the problem – and it means a chunk of your sound waves are being cancelled out, leaving you with a thin and un-fulfilling sound. Not cool.
Obviously, with careful consideration of mic placement and some strategic polarity inversion, one can get a relatively phase free drum recording with multiple mics (I’m not trying to scare you away from using more mics), but the simple truth of the matter is that a drum recording that involves only a single microphone will by definition have absolutely NO phase cancellation whatsoever.
That is a wonderful thing because it saves time, hassle, and it works as a hack – a guarantee of no phase problems, no matter where you put the mic.
An Instantly Punchy Sound
Drums are inherently punchy. And yet many of our attempts of home drum recording with 6+ mics leads to a very NON punchy sound.
Why is that?
A huge reason is the above problem of phase cancellation. What sounds good to us in the room can get cancelled out with multiple mics.
The other reason is that we can overthink mic placement and have very un-natural sounds (maybe too close to a drum) that just doesn’t sound like what we all know drums to sound like in real life.
If you only have one microphone, by putting it anywhere near the kit, you can’t help but get a punchy sound because the drums are by their nature, punchy.
What your ear hears, the microphone hears (tonally maybe not quite the same – but we’ll touch on that next). It’s that simple.
Using only one mic can guarantee a punchy sound from your drum track
Easier To Find The Right Balance
When using multiple mics on a drum kit, it takes a lot of time and effort to get just the right balance.
You have to balance the overheads to the close mics to maybe even the room mics – all to get that perfect picture of the kit.
But with one microphone balancing becomes super simple. Put the mic somewhere, listen back, and assess what you hear. Too much cymbals? Move them closer to the other drums. Too little kick? Find a better position and angle to “see” the kick more.
You place it, record, and listen back. Each time you hear what is good and what is missing you only have one mic to adjust to find that balance.
Now, obviously the one mic option limits your tonal balance (you can’t get the sound of the inside of a kick AND above the cymbals) but it also forces you to make quick compromises allowing you to land on a great sound faster.
Super Fast To Mix
The fourth and final reason recording drums with one microphone is so powerful is that when it comes time to mix your music, things go super quick.
With no phase issues to work through, and no individual drum mics to process, you simply have to take your one drum track and wield it the best you can.
This saves a ton of time and brainpower. Get a good sound (fix any EQ problems, give it some more smack with a compressor, and maybe use a touch of reverb to widen it up) and then move on to the rest of your mix.
This was how mixing went many years ago – fast and to the point. Seems like a good dream if you ask me!
What Kind Of Microphone?
With all this talk about recording drums with only one microphone, you might be asking a pretty obvious question: what kind of microphone should you use?
I have more good news for you - just about any mic will do!
The two main choices would be a condenser microphone and a dynamic microphone. While both will work great, my preference for this type of thing is a large diaphragm condenser, and here’s why.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamics. What this means for you is that they will capture a lot more of the nuance of the cymbals - which can be a great thing when you’re trying to present the entire kit with one mic.
And at the same time it will represent your kick, toms, and snare just as well as a dynamic.
If I were you though, I would simply start with whatever microphone you already own. There is no need to go out and buy something new for drums.
Your current vocal or guitar microphone will get the job done for drums as well. The key is as we mentioned a moment ago, finding the right place for the microphone - not which microphone you use.
A condenser mic can help to capture a lot more of the nuance of your cymbals
Give One Mic Drums A Chance
Why am I harping on this one mic drum recording thing?
Well for one, if you’re a band or singer/songwriter that is getting into your first home studio setup, you might only be able to afford one mic. And I’m here to tell you that you can do an entire full band production with that thing!
And two, I believe there is much to be gained by focusing on simplicity, minimalism, and an overall “less is more” approach to recording. In recent years we’ve veered to the “more is more” approach.
More plugins, more tracks, more mics, etc.
I’m of the mind that going back to a more focused and simpler setup and approach can be both liberating and sonically satisfying. What say you?
How many mics do YOU typically use to record drums? And have you ever tried just using one? Let us know in the comments below!
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