We’re back at the middle of the month, and this week we’re looking at the pros and cons of multi-mic setups for drums. As this is the crux of our focus for this month about Engineering Drums, there’s much debate regarding just how many mics are needed for a ‘good’ drum recording.
However, there’s not one answer, and it’s very much reliant on the situation, as well as the band, drummer, context of genre, and more. So today, we’re going to explore the Pros and Cons of setups higher than 5 or 6 mics, as well as those much, much higher!
So, let's dive in!
The main downside when it comes to having more than 3 or 4 mics in a set up such as the Gyln Johns technique we discussed last week, is the inherent phase issues that are completely unavoidable. When using 2 microphones, it can be rather easy to align the phase relationship between both mics, however, 3 microphones is where the main issues arise, especially when it’s regarding overhead placement of mics.
But aside from phase, another major detraction from using many mics to capture a drum performance is having to balance those many mics in a way where they work together. One of the biggest problems when balancing those mics is that the more you have placed on the kit, the more chance of building up bleed from the rest of the kit in the recordings. When you’re panning your Tom mics, for example, unless you’ve gated the noise, there will be a huge amount of the cymbal bleed from those mics right in the center image of the drum sound as opposed to out wide where you would hope to listen to it from the overheads.
Another con would be the simple fact that it’s incredibly easy to overthink or overdo the setup of the kit and the mics placed simply for the sake of doing it. The simple truth is that you can get a really good sound from just one microphone placed in the right place on a well tuned kit, played by a great drummer. When you know that you’re going to only have 4 mics maximum within the overall setup it really gives you a sense of clarity when choosing which mics to use.
While I was writing this blog, I found a very interesting take from Justin,at SonicScoop, in a video I’m genuinely surprised has taken so long for me to find by accident! He has some very similar takes on why a simply setup is better than a over thought menagerie of cables and mics placed on the kit which I’m sure will reiterate the simple fact that you can get a great sound from the simplest of setups:
Now, to play devil's advocate, there are also a number of really good reasons to use various assortments of mic setups in a session. The main one for me is more control in the detailing of the kit. This is pretty genre specific, but if you are working with some genres you’re going to need spot mics for the parts of the kit that may get overshadowed by other parts; such as splash cymbals, a second hi-hat, some kits have 4 or 5 Toms, there maybe a bell cymbal or smaller china/stack cymbal that needs attention brought to it.
All of these on a kit along with the usual needs of the kit can start to bring your total of mics into the realm of maybe 14 to 18 mics in one sitting. And again, this is pretty genre specific so don’t feel that this has to be applied to absolutely every band, I’m thinking more in terms of the heavier end of the spectrum of music where this would be more appropriate. But this brings me to the main point that the more mics you have, the more chance you have at bringing out far more detail in the elements you’re looking to highlight perhaps a little more; and yes, that means there’s going to be the same issues as I mentioned earlier regarding phase and bleed, but if you can find ways to make it work, it really can be worth the extra effort.
For me, the biggest benefit of having more mics, is the potential of just what you can do in terms of depth of the sound. Personally, I prefer having 2 pairs of mics just at different distances within the room, each with a different technique being employed to achieve the sound I hear in my head. Not only does this give me more options later down the line when it comes to mixing, but it also means I’m always practicing my approach to drum recordings, and trying out new techniques every time or at least a slight variation.
In terms of adding more flavors to the pot, another good example of when 2 pairs of mics rather than one, such as for room mics, would be overheads. Many producers will use 2 sets of mics above the kit in a couple of intervals with different capsule types (typically large and small diaphragm condensers) to capture the sound of the shells and the cymbals separately This again, gives much more control when it comes to the mixing stage.
There’s really no right or wrong answer to how many mics you should use - it’s always session dependent and based on the situation placed before you when planning the session. Whatever amount of mics you choose to use within your sessions, make sure that the amount is always based on the needs of the overall song, the band, genre, etc. before you decide. Once those parameters have been established, then you can make a more informed choice regarding just how many mics you’re using or your own creative process.