In The Studio

Seeing Sounds Part 5: Specialty Mics

by Donny Gruendler

in the studio 1In the first four installments of this series we discussed very broad ideas for achieving stylistically appropriate drum sounds, from pop-rock to traditional jazz. Each setup employed different drums, head selections, and tunings, and we used miking techniques that ranged from spot mics on each drumkit voice to just two overheads and a bass drum mic. In this final article we’ll add sonic depth and personality to those previously discussed tones, with some strategically placed room mics.

In order to capture the drums as they sound in real life, many engineers use a mono room mic. This simple and effective texture is achieved by employing a single large-diaphragm condenser microphone in order to capture the entire frequency range of the drumkit. Place it, with the capsule facing forward, approximately 6′ in front of the kit. For a direct, punchy tone that focuses mostly on the drums, position the mic no higher than 4.5′ to 5′.

By raising the mic, you can achieve an airier room tone with more cymbal wash and less kick and snare drum attack. In your digital audio workstation (DAW), mix in a small amount of the room mic to taste. Not only will this blend a natural, live-in-the-room sound with the kick, snare, tom, and overhead mics, but it will also help you play more dynamically when you record.

In order to get that larger-than-life bombastic room sound in your fi nal mix, apply a plug-in compressor to the room-mic channel. As compression lessens the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal, the effect will squash the audio captured by the room mic and make the kit sound as though it was recorded in a large, loud space. Many plug-in developers have presets that allow you to dial up various levels of distorted, squashed, and pumping compression. These usually have names like Room, Pump, or Squashed.

If you’re lacking space or depth with the mono room sound, or if you’d like to apply some extreme panning to your final mix, try placing two bidirectional large-diaphragm condensers in front of the kit to form a stereo Blumlein pair. One of the mics should be placed upside down, directly over the other mic, with its capsule facing 45 degrees to the right. The bottom mic should be turned so that the capsule faces 45 degrees to the left. The top mic will pick up the front-left and back-right sounds of the room, while the bottom mic will capture the front-right and back-left.

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Since we’re treating these two mics as one capturing device, using a matched pair is ideal; at the very least, use two of the same make and model.

If you don’t own two identical mics, you can enlist a single X/Y stereo mic. A stereo mic has two separate capsules placed within one housing. It allows for easy transport and placement but may have a smaller stereo image.

If you’d like to add a softer midrange “gush” to your room tone, place a large packing blanket between the drumkit and the room mics. This can be accomplished by extending the boom arms of two cymbal or mic stands to form a half rectangle. The stands should be 12″ to 18″ above the mic capsule, with the blanket being placed like this:

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This technique will retain the body and fundamental tone of the drumkit while taming the high-frequency cymbal wash.

In order to capture a wide slap effect, try placing a spaced pair of small-diaphragm condensers in the opposing corners of your room, with the mics facing away from the kit. The mics should be positioned 5′ to 8′ high, with the capsules placed 6″ from a hard surface, preferably a gypsum, concrete, or brick wall.

To obtain more wash and less of the slap effect, raise the condensers into the far corners of the room. The capsules should be placed 2′ to 3′ from where the back wall meets the side wall and ceiling. Point the mics directly at the junction of the three surfaces.

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Should there be an ugly low or midrange rumble in the sound captured by the spaced pair, you can remove it by adding a plug-in EQ within your DAW. A simple four-band EQ works best. Select the lowest band and drag it downward to -12dB. Gradually move the band to the right and listen for the moment when the drum sound becomes more articulate to your ears. If some low or midrange rumble is still present, repeat the previous steps with the additional low-mid, mid, and high-mid bands.

in the studio mixer

In order to create lo-fi loop textures, many producers like to place a harmonica mic directly above the kit, with the capsule pointing at the bass drum beater. To avoid phasing issues, you shouldn’t use this microphone in conjunction with normal overheads. Rather, treat its signal as an audio effect to be used in a particular section of a song. To really dirty up the sound this mic captures, apply a harmonic distortion plug-in, such as Avid’s Lo-Fi or SansAmp PSA-1.

We’ve discussed some very specifi c room-miking techniques in this article. Think of them as a starting point for your own sessions. Each approach will continue to be a work in progress and will take time to fully master. And before you can use any of these methods in an actual session, you’ll have to spend some time getting to know the sound and idiosyncrasies of your room. I suggest that you concentrate on one of the room-mic placements at a time.

Thanks for reading this series. Should you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me via [email protected].

Donny Gruendler is vice president of curricular development at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rick Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit