As Few Mics As Possible

Daily Blog - May 26th 2021

I love a great challenge. And one of the best challenges you can try for yourself is to record a complex instrument, like a drum kit, with as few mics as possible.

Please note: The following advice is a great challenge and exercise for any genre. However, if your genre is modern metal, any kind of fast and technical heavy music, "radio rock", pop punk or any "polished" sounding rock genre then you probably need more mics (or programmed drums) in your final recording, in order to get all the detail and the punch required for that. Anything organic, dirty, noisy and even a lot of pretty heavy rock stuff will benefit most from the minimalistic approach described in this post.
As Few Mics As Possible

Limiting yourself to as few mics as possible forces you to listen more carefully and really learn your instruments, room and gear.

And the best part is: If done right, it can even sound better than a giant multichannel setup! Here are three reasons why:

  • The more mics, the more phase issues you'll have
  • The more mics, the more bleed will come from all the different channels, messing with the image and clarity. 
  • Less mics give you a more realistic, organic sound

An example of what this could look like for drums:

  1. Choose a great sounding room. It all starts there.
    Find a room, that's as lively and ambient, as you want it to be, that sounds balanced, not boomy or harsh and then find the perfect spot for the kit in that room.
  2. Set up a mono room mic.
    Drums are actually pretty mono. If you're standing in a room, listening to a kit, it all pretty much comes from the same direction. It's not one tom 30 feet to the left and the other 50 feet to the right. 
  3. Find the perfect spot for it that gives you a great balance between shells, cymbals and room ambience.
  4. Add something to capture the low end energy.
    A "front of kit" mic on the floor, a couple of feet away from the kit, for example. This will capture the low end of the kick drum and maybe some additional tone and body from the toms.
  5. Listen again, find a good balance, make sure the phase is right between the two mics before you move on and then add whatever is still lacking.
  6. If you're missing stick attack detail and transient clarity, add an overhead mic.
    Maybe over the shoulder of the drummer, pointing at the kit as a whole. Or right above the snare drum, pointing straight down. Find a position and angle that captures a good balance between the snare and toms.
  7. Listen again, get the phase right between the three mics, rebalance and then move on.
  8. If you want more cymbal clarity and separation, add a pair of overheads.
    Try XY, ORTF, or a spaced pair. This will give you a stereo image and all the shiny top end from the cymbals.
  9. Listen again, get the phase right between the five mics, rebalance and then move on.
  10. If you now want that same image in the ambience and a wider overall picture, add a second room mic (XY in the exact position of the first one), or an additional pair of room mics somewhere else in the room.
    Remember: Keep it simple and natural sounding! 
  11. Listen again, get the phase right between the 6-7 mics, rebalance and then move on.
  12. And finally, if you really need more transients, attack, punch, etc. from the shells, add a kick, snare or tom mic wherever you need it.
    Blend it with what you already have. Never forget that with this approach your main sound is the room mic, followed by everything above. You're just enhancing whats lacking, not relying heavily on the close mics. The whole point of the challenge is to get as far as possible without any close mics. 
  13. Listen again, get the phase right between all your mics, rebalance, pan and enjoy your minimalistic, yet exciting, organic and huge sounding drum kit.
    Make notes of everything you've discovered along the way, so you can use that knowledge next time you set up a kit. This will help you make better decisions, even in more detailed, bigger setups for modern, punchier genres.

Stop and ignore the rest of the steps, as soon as you think it sounds amazing! You don't need all of those! That's the whole point. You should end up with anything between one and maybe 10-12 mics max. Depending on your needs and goals.

I love exercises like that. There's so much to learn from this challenge and it works just as well with any other complex instruments or groups of instruments.


PS: I often post videos to these daily blog posts in my Instagram Stories: @benedikthain

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