Recording Drums – How to Mic Snare Drum
One of the most dominant sounds in modern recording is, of course, the snare drum. Panned right up the center, and second only to the lead vocal … well, at least most of the time. The ways in which we mic our snare drum can be responsible for shaping not only the drum sound in a mix, but the entire mix itself.
In this tutorial we will look at microphone types, some of the most popular microphones for recording snare, different approaches towards mic placement, the resultant sound from each approach, and how we can apply them to a variety of recording situations.
The Number 1 Rule of Recording- There are no rules!
The variables involved within capturing a drum sound include the room your recording in, the drum and drum heads being used, microphone selection, recording gear (pres, interface, DAW, plug-ins), and ultimately, the drummer themselves.
Every audio engineer has their own technique when recording, and they'll swear by them. This doesn't mean that their individual methods are the only way to capture an instrument, it's just what works best for them … in their room, with their gear, with their ears, etc.
Find what works best for you and your ears. Who knows, maybe you'll invent the next "big thing" for recording drums. As always, the possibilities are endless.
Snare Drum Mics
The benefit of using a dynamic microphone on snare is it's ability to handle high SPL (Sound Pressure Level). If you ever hold your head next to a snare and have someone wail on the head, you'll have a better appreciation for what these mics go through (Not recommending that you do this of course). These are very rugged mics and can quite literally take a beating, but contrary to their title, their range is less dynamic than that of their counterparts. Dynamic mics tend to have a "softer" top end and a "less weighty" bottom end, making them better suited for "warmer", high volume sources.
Small Diaphragm Condensers-
Small diaphragm condensers (SDC) microphones unfortunately can't handle the high SPL that dynamic mics deal with on a routine basis, but if you have access to padding or output attenuation, these mics can render some pretty awesome results on snare. SDC's generally capture a very accurate and neutral sound, and have a much "brighter" top end than dynamic mics. When used on the resonant side of a snare drum, they can provide "sheen" and "sparkle" that you just can't achieve with other microphones.
Large Diaphragm Condensers-
Large diaphragm condensers (LDC) share the improved high-end detail as with the SDC, but being that they're larger, this mics low-end accuracy is uncanny. These mics can literally pick up footsteps from two stories above or below. As with the SDC, padding or output attenuation is necessary when using these mics to capture snare, but the amount of detail you can achieve is really astounding. These are probably the least likely used mics for snare, but in a more subtle performance (when using brushes for example) they can be a perfect fit.
Let's take a look at some of the more popular microphones used in today's industry for snare drum recording. We'll list these by price, in ascending order.
Audix I5- $ 99.00
The Audix I5 is a fairly new mic, but has quickly become a favorite for snare drum recording. It is tailored to be a multi-purpose dynamic microphone and has a very pleasing boost in the upper-mid frequency range.
Shure SM57- $ 99.99
You can't have a list of snare mic's without the SM57. It has been the industry standard for ages, and is one of the most versatile dynamic microphones available.
Rode NT5- Single- $ 219.00 / Matched Pair- $ 429.00
If you're looking for more "drum" than "head", a small diaphragm condenser like the Rode NT5 could be just what you need. With an SPL rating of 143db, this mic can take a beating and still deliver a unique, polished snare drum sound.
AKG C414 XLS- $ 999.00
On the high-end of the mic spectrum lies the AKG C414 XLS, which is a large diaphragm condenser renowned in drum recording. This mic opens the frequency spectrum wide open and allows for a very "real" interpretation of your snare drum.
These are just a few of the many microphones that are used for recording the snare drum. Depending on the sound you're going for (and your budget) any of the above examples can provide an excellent snare drum sound.
Now that we have some options, let's take a look at positioning the microphones.
There are an endless amount of ways to mic the snare drum, none necessarily being better than the others. The approach you take is dependent upon the sound you want to achieve, and the resources available to you.
Keep in mind, the drum set is the most dynamic instrument we have to record, and it requires several microphones to capture its full sound. These approaches focus on close micing the snare, but they are not the only mics listening in. Every single mic used on a drum take plays its own part in the end result.
Simple, Yet Effective-
The most commonly used method for recording snare in a home studio is a single microphone, (usually dynamic) pointed halfway between the rim and center of the top head, set approximately at a 30 ° downward angle just an inch or so above the head.
This method provides a nice balance between stick definition and the actual overtones of the batter head. This is why a 30 ° angle is used. As the mics "ear" crosses over the head, its periphery captures the drums body, while its focus (where the mic is pointing) captures the stick definition at the head.
By manipulating this angle, we can adjust the balance between the two. If the mic is angled more towards the rim of the drum, the overtones are accentuated (more ping). And, if pointed more towards the center of the head, we get more stick definition with less body.
If you find you'd like to hear more of the drum and less of the head, you can place the mic further away. Instead of just an inch from the head, aim for three to six inches. The further the mic is from the drum, the less "snap" you will capture, but in return, more body will be achieved.
When using just a single close mic on the snare, furthering the distance from the head can really help define the drum sound as a whole.
So far we've got a great representation of the top head, and the overall "crack" of the snare. The only issue with this method is the lack of snare wire captured from just a single mic.
Let's see what happens when we add a mic to the resonant side of the snare.
Top & Bottom-
This method involves two microphones which capture both the top and bottom heads of the snare drum. This allows us to use the top microphone to focus in on the "head" and "stick definition", while the bottom microphone focuses on the "snare wires" and "body" of the snare. In combination, we can achieve a sound that resembles what our ears actually hear when playing a snare drum.
The same practice discussed in the single microphone method is used for the positioning of both top and bottom microphones. Each mic is aimed between the rim and center of their respective heads, at a 30 ° angle, anywhere between an inch to six inches away.
The only difference to this approach involves the positioning of the bottom microphone. Try to mirror the positioning of the top mic with the bottom mic as best you can (the focus, the angle, and the distance from the head), this will allow for a more accurate phase coherency between the two.
Again, we can manipulate the angle, distance, and focus of each mic to adjust the sound each mic captures.
When using this method, it is important to make sure that the phasing between the two microphones correlate with one another. If our top mic is in phase with its source, then the bottom mic's phase must be reversed in order to accommodate the other. Remember, microphones are like ears, and in this case we have two "ears" pointing in opposite directions. In order for both "ears" to capture the snare at the same time, we must trick one of the ears into "hearing in reverse". To reverse the phase of a particular mic, you can use the mics preamp phase reversal button (if available), or a phase reversal within your DAW
The major benefit of micing the resonant head along with the batter, is that you now have two separate sources that you can blend to taste. If you find the snare is lacking "buzz" you can increase the gain of the lower microphone. Or, if your snare is lacking "pop" and "definition" you can increase the gain of the top microphone. Having the ability to adjust the gain, eq, and even compression of the mics individually increases your flexibility when mixing the snare drum.
Next, let's experiment with the style of microphones used on both the top and bottom heads of our snare.
Top & Bottom Hybrid-
To broaden our snare "sound palette" we can use any number of microphones and configurations to get just what we're after. Dynamic mics, small diaphragm condensers, and large diaphragm condensers each have their own unique character. By playing a bit of mix and match with our microphones, we can highlight those characters to our liking.
Lets examine the different sounds we can achieve with different combinations of microphone styles. We'll stick to common applications, but feel free to experiment.
Dynamic Top & Bottom-
This is the most common configuration when recording a heavy-hitting snare drum. It results in a tight, focused, and dry snare drum sound which yields an aggressive tone with lots of "pop".
Dynamic Top & SDC Bottom-
This combo can be used to capture an aggressive sound as well, but provides more "sheen" in the upper mid frequencies. In this configuration, the SDC does a great job at bringing out the "buzz" of the snare wires and is well suited for capturing intricate stick work such as rolls, ghost notes, etc. The SDC may sound a bit thin in comparison to a dynamic mic on the resonant head.
SDC Top & Bottom-
This dual SDC configuration is great for capturing a very bright snare drum sound. Not only will it compliment the "buzz" of the snare wires, but will also bring out the "ping" of the drum and add more stick definition (especially for lighter playing). It may not be the go-to method for a heavy player, but its results may surprise you.
LDC Top & SDC Bottom-
With a LDC on the batter head, you can really open up the drum. Be mindful of transient peaks and SPL when using this method. You can capture some great results by moving the LCD further away from the snare and aiming it more towards the shell of the drum. This will add some extra "beef" to the low-end, while still capturing the crack of the batter head. Keep in mind that LDC microphones will need extra attention when positioning, as they can create off-axis anomalies, and are prone to bleed from other pieces of the kit. Overall, this combo will result in a very "live" sounding snare, that is big and bright, but will most likely require gating, and subtractive eq.
Again, these are just a few of the configurations you can implement when recording your snare drum. If something isn't working, experiment with the mics available to you, and you just might stumble upon something great.