How to Record Drums in a Small Room


Drum kit with cymbals and sticks and mics for recording

Introduction

One of the most challenging aspects of home recording is having to record your drums in a small, often untreated room. 

Although having a large open room is going to give you a much better result more easily, gaining access to a suitable room just simply isn’t viable for most producers recording from home. Renting a large room is costly and isn’t easy to source.

Recording in a small untreated room with poorly placed mics will leave you with drums that sound small with the mics picking up a lot of short frequency reverberations. 

When you record drums in the right way in a small room, you can get big, punchy drums that sound amazing!

How to record drums in a small room

There is so much that you can do to make a smaller room work for you. You can set up various room treatments to drastically improve the acoustics of the room.

Once your room is treated, experiment with different positions and placements of your drum kit until you are happy.

Next, tune your drum to suit the room. Use your ear to listen for when each drum piece sounds the best in your room.

Finally, before setting your levels and starting to record, you need to place the microphones you are going to use in the best positions around your kit.

If you are limited in time or microphones, you can try the Recorder Man Drum Miking Technique where you place two mics above the kit, one from the front and one from over the drummer’s shoulder, both equidistant from the kick and the snare.

Let’s discuss in more detail how you can get around recording in a small room and still achieve an impressive drum sound.

Definition of Recording Terms

Before we go into the steps to record in a small room, there are a few recording terms worth understanding to help you along the way.

What is Phase Alignment?

A common problem when recording an instrument with more than one microphone is phase alignment. This is caused when two different audio sources have very similar waveforms – which end up partially cancelling each other out.

Take the example of a snare drum with two mics on it (top and bottom). Both mics are picking up a very similar waveform – so when the two recorded tracks are played back, they may partially cancel each other out – particularly the lower frequencies. This can result in a thin sounding snare tone.

To resolve this issue, the polarity of one of the tracks can be reversed, either in the recording phase if your mic preamp supports it, or in the mixing phase within your DAW.

Sometimes it can be harder to fix this problem by simply inverting the polarity – so the placement of microphones is important to minimise the impact of this on your recordings.

What is a Directional Microphone?

Not all microphones are created equal. Directional (or Uni-Directional to give them their proper name) microphones refer to any microphones that are set to pick up sound the best in a certain direction, including sound coming in multiple directions.

Cardioid microphones are the most popular. These microphones pick up sound coming from the front and some from the sides without picking up any sound from the back. These types of mics are good for close-miking drums like snare and toms as they reject audio from the rear of the mic – reducing bleed from cymbals and picking up less ambient noise from the room.

What is an Omni-Directional Microphone?

Microphones that pick up sound from every direction are called Omni-directional microphones. If you record a sound and rotate the microphone 360 degrees it will record sound equally all the way around. 

Omni-directional microphones are used in situations where you need to record a sound in the front and one in the back, for example, a live performance with multiple instruments.

Omni-directional microphones are not so suited for recording drums in a small room as they give less control over what sound is picked up.

Uni-directional microphones provide more control in a smaller space.

Steps To Recording Drums In a Small Room

Here are some steps you can take to sonically expand your drums and end up with great sounding tracks, even if you’re recording in a small room.

1. Choose The Right Room for recording

Every room is different and will never sound the same in recordings. Many at-home producers have little choice about which room they can use as a studio and may end up recording in a bedroom.

If you have some choice between rooms there are a few tips for choosing the best room. Remember just choose the best room available to you, finding a perfect room isn’t what we’re going for.

The bigger the better

Try to choose the biggest room possible. A bigger room allows for more people and instruments and the acoustics are generally a lot better with more space for sound to travel before reflections start coming back. (Reflections are another name for sounds bouncing off the walls. When recording in a small room, reflections can be picked up by microphones and muddy up the sound.

Avoid carpet

Carpeted floors absorb more high-end frequencies without affecting the bass much, completely unbalancing the acoustics of the room.

High ceilings

You want to try and choose the room with the highest ceilings and most asymmetrical walls to naturally have better acoustics. Just like having a large room, a high ceiling contributes to more space for sound to travel. For recording drums in particular, a higher ceiling reduces reflections from cymbals.

Minimal noise

If possible, try to choose the room in your house or building furthest away from things like noisy neighbors, roads, and even trees with a lot of birds in them. All of these sounds can make their way into your recordings and will make your mixing process much more difficult.

2. Set Up Room Treatment

Luckily, if your room is acoustically off you can set up room treatment to drastically improve your sound and absorb unwanted reflection, even if you’re on a budget.

The main three components of a well-treated room are foam panels, bass traps, and diffusers.

Foam panels

When setting up foam panels, the first thing to do is to find the reflection points in your room, which are the places where your sound is most likely to reflect off. 

If your natural recording has a lot of unwanted reverb, the goal is to set up enough panels to absorb a lot of this reverb so you can rather simulate reverb in your mixing stage.

Foam panels mostly absorb higher frequencies and not much bass as they are thinner and are generally stuck on the walls where these frequencies would usually reflect from.

Base traps

Now that your high-end frequencies are taken care of, another important room treatment that can make or break your recordings is bass traps.

Bass traps are foam wedges placed in the corners of your room. The corners are the most common places for bass to accumulate and resonate, causing a lot of trouble in your recordings. 

Diffusers

Many producers choose to leave out diffusers while setting up room treatment, but some swear by them for good recordings. 

Diffusers help to liven up a room by adding good reflection points that scatter rogue frequencies after the sound insulation has deadened the sound too much. 

You want to place diffusers where you have left gaps open on the walls. These allow unwanted frequencies to come through in recordings in a more colorful and controlled way.

3. Place the drums and cymbals in the best position

Now that your room is set up comfortably for optimal recordings, the next thing to do is place your drums and cymbals in the best position.

The most common place to start with a drum kit setup is in the corner of your room with the drums facing outward or perfectly in the center of a wall in your room, preferably one that isn’t shared with another instrument.

Start with one of these positions and once your mics are set up, test it out. If the drums don’t sound well balanced enough, try moving the kit around the room and doing test recordings until you find the one you’re happy with.

Once you find the spot, you can leave your drum kit there or leave a marker for yourself for next time.

4. Tune and prep the drums for the room

To get a good recording, you need a well-tuned drum kit. If your kit is out of tune, the effort of mic placement and room treatment won’t take you all the way to your desired sound.

The room your drums are in influence the sound of your drum and how they translate onto a recording. For the best outcome, you want to tune your kit according to the room. Use your ear to guide you while you listen to each sound and make adjustments. 

5. Choose your microphone setup

You can record drums with any number of microphones – even just one microphone placed correctly can capture a very usable and well-balanced drum sound. 

Most entry level audio interfaces have 2 inputs – so if you’re just getting started, recording drums with 2 microphones is a good place to start. One in the kick drum and one overhead mic to capture the rest of the drum kit.

The sky really is the limit and you can easily use up to 16 microphones to record drums if you are so inclined.

If you have the budget for a slightly bigger setup, recording drums with 8 microphones will give you a very good result. I recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 USB recording interface which has 8 microphone inputs (preamps) built in and using the USB 2.0 interface, it will work on just about any computer.

If you’ve got the ability to record 8 inputs, here’s a great mic configuration to start with:  

  1. Kick
  2. Snare Top
  3. Snare Bottom
  4. Hi-hat
  5. Tom 1
  6. Tom 2
  7. Overhead Left
  8. Overhead Right

6. Position your mics carefully to avoid phase issues

When you position your microphones, keep in mind that two microphones close together can cause a timing difference when placed in a way that they record in opposite directions.

You want to correct any phase or timing issues from the start via correct placement and your DAW. A good tip to avoid phase issues is to use two overhead mics in an XY configuration when you record. These mics act almost as the player’s ears and pick up sound from his optimal position.

You will need to do plenty of tests to weed out areas where there are phase issues and reposition your mics accordingly.

7. Place your kick drum microphone inside the kick drum 

Capturing your low end the way you want comes down to how you place your microphone. Most kick drums have a hole in the front that a microphone can fit into. 

Start by placing your mic halfway into the hole and testing it out. Experiment with the placement until you get the sound you’re after. Further into the drum captures more bass and more towards the outside captures a crisper sound with more snap.

Bass drum showing hole and microphone

8. Place your snare drum microphones

Getting the snare drum mic placement right will give you a great attack straight from the recording. A great recording will set you up for a much easier time mixing.

A good place to start with micing your snare drum is to position it pointing towards the center of the drum, held at a 45-degree angle. To suit your room, test the placement out, and make changes as needed. Try and angle it as far away from the hi-hat mic as possible to reduce bleed from the hi-hats.

If you’ve got a bottom snare mic, place it underneath the snare, pointing up at 45 degrees towards the snare wire and the middle of the bottom head.

White drums from top showing snare mic position

9. Place the hi-hat microphone

Place the mic for your hi-hat around 3” above the top cymbal and more or less in the middle from the edge.

You may find that your other mics do a good enough job of picking up the hi-hats and you may not need to use this mic at all. Mic your hi-hats regardless of your other mics to stay prepared if you need to use it. Point the hi-hat mic away from the snare drum if possible to reduce bleed.

10. Place the Tom microphones

Be careful not to position your microphones too close to your toms to avoid picking up unnecessary bass frequencies.

Microphones that are too close create a muddy result. Start with a higher position above your toms and make adjustments until you are happy with the clarity. Point them towards the centre of the top head.

Gretch Maple drum kit showing tom microphone

11. Place a Pair of stereo overhead mics

Stereo overhead mics capture a lot of the high end and act as overall mics to record the whole kit at once. 

A popular placement for stereo overhead microphones is called the ‘Stereo X/Y’ method. For this method, you want to place both mics slightly above the drummers head with the capsules on the front of the mics together, pointing outwards at about 45 degrees.

A second mic placement technique for overheads the ‘Stereo Spaced Pair’ position where two mics are placed above the drum kit in different locations. If you’re using this technique, measure the distance from each mic to the centre of the snare drum to align the timing of the snare hits.

Drum Overhead mic placement diagram

12. Experiment with room microphone placement

A room microphone is useful if you want to capture some interesting reverb that you may not pick up otherwise. The placement of your room mic is up to preference and how the sound is translating.

Experiment with different placements like in the center of the room, different heights, different distances from the kit, etc. You can even place your mic in another room.

13. Get an experienced drummer!

All the effort you put into setting up your room and your mics can go to waste if your drummer isn’t experienced enough.

Inexperienced drummers may hit the drums too hard when playing which doesn’t go well in a small room and creates a lot of unnecessary reverb and bass.

Get an experienced drummer who knows how to play precisely. A precise drummer will have good pressure control and adapt to your room size for the best recording.

14. Set your levels

Before starting to record, adjust the levels for each mic track. Each track’s levels should be under -6dB to avoid clipping or distortion. With digital recording, this will still give you plenty of headroom when you get into the mixing stage.

You also want to bring the levels up for tracks that aren’t loud enough. If you record with low levels you could end up with a lot of noise floor when mixing.

15. Hit record!

Now, for the best part, hit record and let your drummer play it out! Listen to the recording back before trying again so you can make any adjustments if needed. 

The Recorder Man Drum Miking Technique

If you are pressed for time or only have access to two microphones, this miking technique is a great alternative to miking every part of your kit.

Step 1: Place your first mic

Simply place the first mic around two drumsticks height above the kit, directly in the middle from the front pointed down at the snare. 

Step 2: Place your second mic

You could place your second mic over the drummer’s shoulder on the ride cymbal side of the kit. Point the microphone at the snare, or at the kick drum beater to pick up more bass.

Step 3: Measure your mic distances

First, take two drumsticks and measure out their length along a mic cable or a string for easier measuring. 

Use this measurement to measure the distance that both mics should be from the snare. Do the same to make sure both mics are equidistant from the kick drum as well.

Step 4: Test and readjust

Test your mics out and readjust them slightly where needed until you have a great recording intake without any phase alignment issues.

Conclusion

Always do what you can with what you have. Don’t let a small room discourage you from trying to record your own drums. 

Your first attempt may prove trickier than expected. If it doesn’t sound right at first just keep making adjustments wherever you feel is necessary and try again. It might take time but eventually, you’ll nail it in the room you have.

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