How to Mic and Equalize Your Drums (Old School)

I remember it like yesterday: Live and studio work. My favorite things: mixing, and great sounding drums. There are a lot of bad sounding drum kits that could be improved by tuning and drum quality, and there are great sounding drum kits that sound terrible due to microphone placement and equalization techniques.

In the day, we had Shure SM57’s for toms, and Shure SM81’s for cymbals/hi hat. For the kick drum, my favorite was the AKG D12. There were other kick drum microphones to choose from, such has the EV RE20 or the Senheiser 421. If you had the money, the Sennheiser 421 was great for kick and toms. The old joke: If you put a Shure SM57 on the toms, and they didn’t sound good, get new toms.

Placement of the microphones is crucial for good results. Since drummers don’t start out in the studio, they pick up bad habits with the location of their toms and cymbals. No one starts in the studio, but learn as you go. It is the Sound Guys job to use the proper techniques to end up with a good sounding result.

Microphones do not know the difference between one drum or another. The closer the microphone is to the drum, the more isolation from other sound it acheives. In other words, the microphone picks up the drum it is pointed at, and not so much the ambient sounds, reducing bleed. Also, the proximity effect of the microphone closer to the head will naturally give you more low end. Using drum claws or mic stands to achieve the best position makes a big difference in studio and live performance.

If you look at the way a studio session drummer sets up, you will notice his cymbals are raised fairly high, compared to live drummers. They have learned that the tom microphone will not pick up as much cymbal, since they are farther away. This is appreciated when setting up the gates on the drums.


Kick Drum

The kick drum sound can make, or break the entire mix. I like the drum head tuned somewhat loose, and I prefer a wood beater over the felt. The looser head moves more, air which equals more low frequency impact. The wood beater adds more tack to the top end, which gives the kick drum more definition. The microphone location is key to the results. Best scenario is that the front kick drum head has a 7” hole to allow movement of the microphone in and out. Try moving the location of the mic for best results. Different sound are achieved by moving the microphone closer, or farther from the back drum head. When it comes to EQ, the key frequencies are 60hz and 4khz. Use your sweepable EQ, and take 400hz completely out. Add back into the mix to your liking. This will clear up the vocal range and tighten the drum mix.


Snare Drum

I like the snare microphone as close as I can get it, and off axis to the hi hat. Keep to the outside rim, or the drummer will hit it with his sticks. Again, use your EQ to take out 400hz out to your liking.


Hi Hat

I like the microphone located near the outside, farthest point from the drummer. The Microphone should be straight down, again to keep off axis of the snare drum. You might tweak 8k and roll off the lower freq 400hz and below.


Over Head Cymbals

I like the microphones 1 ft over the cymbals, no more than two, left and right sides for stereo separation.


Ride cymbal

Again, off axis from the floor tom, close to the middle of the cymbal. Roll off 400hz and below.

After microphone placement and EQ you can use compressors and gates for high quality drums. Gates prevent the pick up of unwanted noise. Adjust the threshholds to only let through the specific drum the mic is pointed at. Compressors can be used to even out the volume of each hit. They can also add impact, but just as easily can be overused to create a flat mix that lacks dynamics. Remember that impact is wanted when adjusting the compressors.


Make sure the drummer understands that he needs to hit the drums consistently through the entire song. His dynamics (hit them soft then loud) will make it difficult for you, the sound guy, to keep a consistent mix.

If all else fails, get a pad kit. Just kidding, those are almost as much work to make sound great.


Denny Phillips
CTS, Leed AP,  OSG (Old Sound Guy)

Related Links:
How to Operate a Sound System Mixer


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