Room Mic placement and mixing for drum recording


Drum kit in a dark room

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This article provides a helpful overview of the techniques for placing room mics when recording drums.

Drums are a tricky instrument to record with so many aspects to take into account, such as mic placement and position, choosing the right mic for each drum, and the size of the room you record in. 

A common problem that many producers face when recording drums is an over-processed, sometimes dry drum sound that lacks dimension.

Setting up room mics to record the reverb and character of the room you record in can increase wetness of your drum track and make it sound a lot more natural and full.

Room mics are microphones that you place further away from the drum kit in various places around the room to pick up the drums from a distance without losing the natural sound of the room. They capture some of the natural room ambience.

Some of the top ways to place your room mics include, placing a matched pair of room mics, a spaced pair, an X/Y pair, parallel room mics, and a mono room mic. Each has its own effect and can be used to accommodate the room you are recording in.

A matched pair of room mics are two Omni-directional condenser mics taped on the floor in an equilateral triangle with the kick drum. The kick drum is the top point and the two room mics are an equal distance from the drum as well as each other.

A spaced pair of room mics are two microphones placed on either side of your room, equidistant from your drums, one panned hard left, and the other panned hard right.

An X/Y pair of room mics are two microphones placed at a 90-degree angle, almost touching each other. Either the two mics face each other, creating a “V” shape, or they’re overlapping each other, creating a point.

Parallel rooms mics are two microphones placed around 6-10 feet away from your drums and 10 feet apart from each other, one at either side of the room. The mics are parallel from each other and must both point past the outer cymbals on either side of the drums.

Lastly, a mono room mic is a single microphone that is most commonly placed directly in the center of the room at various distances and heights from your kit. There is a lot of room for experimentation with this mic to find which position is subjectively best.

Most room mic placements are open to adjustments to better suit your room and the style you are going for.

Let’s discuss a few valuable tips and techniques for recording and mixing room mics on drums to improve the natural impact that your drums can have.

Definition of Drum Room Mics and Related Terms

Before getting into the steps to mic placement and mixing of room mics, there are a few types of drum room mics and terms worth understanding.

Stereo Image

The term Stereo Image refers to the perception of the spatial positioning of a sound. You can affect the stereo image that a sound has through microphone placement and techniques, as well as mixing effects like delay, reverb, ambient effects among others.

Condenser Microphone

Also known as a “capacitor microphone,” condenser microphones translate mechanical sound vibrations into electrical vibrations using two small metal discs close to each other within the mic called a capacitor.

Condenser mics can pick up a much wider spectrum of sounds, including more high overtones, compared to dynamic microphones due to the speed at which the metal discs are able to vibrate.

These microphones are much more sensitive, and function best in a quieter environment, like a studio, because of this ability to pick up the slightest of sounds.

Cardioid Polar Pattern

Firstly, the polar pattern of a microphone is the space surrounding the microphone where it is the most sensitive to frequencies. The larger the area of the polar pattern, the more sensitive it is in this direction. 

A cardioid polar pattern is in a “heart” shape around the microphone’s capsule, meaning that it is highly sensitive in the front, less sensitive on the sides, and has no sensitivity from the back at the center.

Omni Polar Pattern

Now that you understand what a polar pattern is, an Omni polar pattern is in a sphere shape around the microphone’s capsule, meaning that it is equally sensitive 360 degrees around the capsule.

Placement Of Room Mics For Drums

Room microphones help add dimension and natural elements of the room you are using into your drum recordings.

There is no perfect formula for picking up the perfect drum sound. Every producer or drummer’s taste is different and needs to cater to the genre of music the drums are for.

There is a lot of room for experimentation to get the best sound for your drums and your room. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of room for ending up with a muddy drum recording if your mics aren’t placed properly.

Let’s go through some steps for tried and tested microphone positions that will get you results off the bat.

1. Place a matched pair of room mics on the floor

A great start to capturing a good room tone, and especially getting a big kick drum sound, is to place a matched pair of microphones on the floor in an equilateral triangle.

Use two small diaphragm, Omni-directional condenser mics for this room mic positioning, with the kick drum as the top point, and the two microphones as the bottom two points of the triangle. 

Make sure you place your microphones at an equal distance from the kick drum and between each other. Tape the mics down in their positions to avoid them moving out of place. 

2. A spaced pair of room mics

A common mic placement with a lot of flexibility for your sound is placing a pair of spaced room mics equidistant from your drums, one panned hard left and one panned hard right.

With this technique, you can play around with different distances and heights of your mics until you are happy with the outcome. A good place to start is to have your drummer play while you walk around with your mic finding the spot that sounds best to you.

A good rule of thumb is that the more distance you get from the drums, the more room sound you will capture. 

3. XY Pair of room mics

A highly popular room mic placement for capturing a great stereo image of a room is the X/Y positioning of two room mics.

This technique is the best for reducing phase issues as the mics are so close together that they pick up the drums at the same time. Your microphones must be so close that they are almost touching.

There are two ways to perform X/Y positioning:

  • The most common way is to place the capsules, or diaphragms of your mics at a 90-degree angle towards each other, forming a “V” shape towards your source. 
  • The second way is to place the capsules, or diaphragms of your mics at a 90-degree angle overlapping each other, forming a point or corner towards your source.

Both methods are correct and considered the X/Y technique. You can use figure-8 microphones or cardioid microphones for these techniques, however, cardioid microphones are generally used for the second way of performing X/Y positioning.

4. Parallel room mics

This room miking technique may seem strange as if you are recording the wall behind your kit but it is highly effective for recording your drum sound and picking up a good room tone.

Start by placing two room mics six to ten feet away from your kit and approximately 10 feet apart from each other. You want your mics to point past the left and right cymbals of your kit and be parallel to each other on either side of the room to reduce phasing.

To determine the exact distance to place your mics, find where in the room your drums are most balanced.

5. Mono room mic

A great final touch to add body to any drum track is to blend it with a mono room mic recording of your drums. There is a lot of wiggle room for the distance and height that you place your mono room mic.

A good place to start is directly in the center about six to ten feet away from your kit. From here, experiment with the placement until you feel that it is adding the extra vibrance to your drum recording that you’re hoping for.

The closer your mono room mic is to your drums, the more direct sound you’ll get, and the further away you place it, the more room tones you’ll achieve.

How to Mix drum room mics

Once you’ve figured out your favorite mic placements and have gotten the best recording of your room down, there are a few useful tips you should know for mixing them into your main drum track and blending them smoothly.

1. Set up a Room bus and send the room tracks and OH tracks to it

Now that you have all of your separate tracks from each room mic and your separate track from your overhead microphone in your DAW, channel each track into a single bus and call it your Room Bus. 

Make sure that all of your tracks are aligned and that there aren’t any phase issues so that you can apply mixing techniques to your room bus without running into problems with muddiness.

2. Add EQ

Your main aim when EQing your room mics is to blend them into your overall mix smoothly by removing muddiness and bleed between the separate tracks.

Start your EQ on your room bus by using a low pass filter to remove any unwanted cymbal bleed, a common problem causing chaos in your drum mix.

Next, remove any muddiness that you hear, and reduce the flatness. Generally, you will find the most muddiness around 200-400Hz, and you can reduce flatness by cutting down around 600-800Hz.

Finally, once your track is sounding more smooth and crisp, boost your low end at around 100Hz to bring it all together nicely.

3. Add Compression

A vital part of mixing before you can blend your room bus with your drum track smoothly is to add a good amount of compression. Compressing your room bus adds the vibrance and color that your drums need. 

You want your attack to be on the quick side and your release to be slower. A ratio between 4:1 and 8:1 is ideal. Play around with your attack and release speeds depending on how punchy you want your drums.

When it comes to compression, many producers go quite heavy for drum room mixing because the room mics are meant to add the color and vibrancy, not be the main show.

After you have reached your compression sweet spot, go back for some more EQ if needed in case your cymbals are coming through too much again.

A pro tip is to use side-chain compression to keep your cymbal wash low while having the rest of your drums nice and colorful every time the cymbal isn’t being played.

4. Add some light tape or tube saturation

Apply some tube saturation or tape saturation to taste for a more natural-sounding room. This kind of saturation brings out a lot of much-needed warmth that drums, especially in a small room, can lack. 

A big problem with recorded drums is the difficulty to translate the size of your drums through the recording, especially if you listen to your drum track without your room mics and reverb, or if you are recording in a small room.

This type of saturation works wonders because it is modeled after the vintage analog equipment that is used to add a lot of natural warmth in recordings. This warmth brings a lot of life and color back to recorded drums.

5. Add Reverb

Your room bus is there to express the natural reverb of the room you recorded in. Sometimes if you are limited to a small room, fewer mics, or your room reverb is just not cutting it, you can simulate room reverb in your DAW.

If this is the case, add reverb to your drum track and blend it in with your drum room to fill out your drums better and give them a much bigger sound where your natural room sound is weak.

Conclusion

The best thing to do when recording drums is to make the best of what you have and make it work for you. 

If you’re stuck using a small room, get around it by trying out different mic placements, adding more or fewer room mics, and experimenting with effects and techniques in your DAW to simulate the sound you need.

If you’re lucky enough to have a big room to record your drums in, make good use of room mics to fully capture the epic sound you can create.

Keep on rocking and experiment to find what works for you in your unique setup, sound, and style.

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