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April 24, 2023

Ken Scott Minimalist Drum Micing




Today, it’s common to record a drum kit in the studio with eight, ten or even 12 mics, each feeding its own track. But back in the early 1960s, engineers and producers had significantly fewer input channels and tape tracks to work with, yet could still get excellent-sounding results.

For example, in the early Beatles recordings in 1963 at EMI Studios (later renamed Abbey Road Studios), engineer Norman Smith used two mics on the drums, which were recorded to the same mono track as the rest of the instruments.

In the puremix video History of the Beatles Recording Techniques: Episode 2-Setting up the Drums, drummer Rich Pagano tunes and prepares the kit and former Beatles engineer Ken Scott places the two mics on it, just like it was done in those early 1963 sessions.

Prepping the Kit

Rich prepares the drums for the recording, similarly to how Ringo would have. He’s playing a Ludwig kit with a black-oyster pearl finish, which features a 20” bass drum, 16” floor tom, 12” rack tom, a 20” crash, an 18” ride and 15” hi-hats.

The idea is to make Rich’s Ludwig kit sound as much like Ringo’s as possible.

Rich explains how he’s tuning the drums. He says that drummers back then liked the front head of the bass drum to be quite resonant. To emphasize the resonance, he tunes the front (resonant) head slightly lower than the back (beater) head. He says that if you tune one drum head lower than the other, the sound waves will flow towards the lower-tuned one, in this case, the resonant head, thus emphasizing it more.

He also uses felt baffles under each bass drum head to dampen them somewhat. His kick pedal has a beater covered in hard felt, which he says is the type Ringo used. He tapes a cigarette pack to the side of the snare drum’s top head to dampen it, just like Ringo did for those sessions.

Rich says that in 1963, the Beatles weren’t using headphones in the studio. As a result, Ringo had to hit a little softer than he might have otherwise so his drums wouldn’t be so loud to his ears that they’d obscure the sound of the rest of the band.

Like Ringo, Rich tapes a cigarette pack to the snare head to dampen it.

The Microphones

The two-mic setup on the drum kit, which is the same as the Beatles used in those early sessions, included an STC 4033 cardioid composite mic on the bass drum. That mic, which the BBC designed, features both dynamic and ribbon mic modes and one that combines the two.

The combination setting with the ribbon and dynamic capsules (hence the term “composite mic”) produces a cardioid polar pattern that picks up from the front while rejecting the back. Ken set it up close to and facing the front head of the bass drum so that it wouldn’t get much bleed from the other instruments recording live in the same room.

The other mic is an STC 4038 on a large boom. The 4038, is a ribbon mic now made by Coles. As with most ribbon mics, it has a bi-directional polar pattern.

The placement of the two mics on the kit.

Ken places the 4038 at about a 45-degree angle, aiming between the snare and the rack tom. It will also pick up from the other side, facing the baffle behind the kit and away from the rest of the instruments.

This close-up of the vintage STC 4038 shows its placement angle.

The mic setup yields a clean and crisp sound that Fab is quite impressed with. The only tweaking that Ken does is to add about 4dB of high-end boost on the overhead mic using the EQ on the REDD console.

Going Small

In the modern DAW world, we have virtually no limitations on track counts, but most home studios have eight or fewer inputs on their audio interface. If you don’t have enough inputs for a more extensive drum mic’ing setup, you can get good results with a minimal one. You could do like the Beatles and use two mics, but three would be the minimum if you want stereo with a full-sounding kick drum.

The upcoming drum-recording examples were captured in a basement studio with four mics: kick, snare and stereo overheads. In all but the last example the snare mic is muted in the mix to show the sound of a 3-mic setup.

Use a pair of the same mic model for your overheads. Small diaphragm condensers are excellent for this type of configuration, although you could also use large-diaphragm mics, as long as both are the same. The way to think about the setup is that the overheads provide the overall kit sound, and the kick mic is supplementing the kick picked up in the overheads, adding thickness and punch.

The limitation of such a setup, compared to a fuller setup that uses a combination of overheads and close mics and maybe a room mic, as well, is that the drums other than the kick are not close-miced. and not only can’t be separately mixed and processed but don’t sound as fat, present and punchy. The advantage is a less complicated setup with fewer phase issues.

Start with the overheads in a spaced pair stereo configuration, with the mics a couple of feet or more above the kit. Grab a tape measure and ensure that both overhead mics are roughly equidistant from the snare. Otherwise, the snare may sound off-center in the stereo image.

Have the drummer play and record a test. From that, you can check the balance. You might hear an imbalance; for example, the crashes too loud or the hi-hats too soft. Try moving the mics until you find the balance you want. Make sure they’re still equidistant to the snare.

Lucky Three

Here’s an example of a kit miced with kick and stereo overheads. The overheads were recorded with an X/Y pattern which limited the width of the stereo image. In many situations, a spaced pair is a better approach because it yields a wider stereo image though you have to be more aware of phase issues with a spaced pair.

The tracks were processed on the drum bus with several effects inserted. Black Rooster Audio BlackAsh SC5 provided compression. 2getherAudio Rich Drums added additional compression, EQ, tape saturation and stereo widening. The UAD Hitsville USA EQ cut out some harsh high-end frequencies on the overheads, and the UAD Hitsville USA Reverb Chambers put the drums in a slightly larger space.

In addition, the individual tracks were each processed with an instance of SSL SubGen, a subharmonic synthesizer plug-in, to beef them up a bit.

The processing used on the drum bus in the examples.

Here are the two overheads by themselves.

This time, the kick is added. It makes a big difference to the fullness.

For the last example, we’ll add the snare top mic track into the mix to show what a 4-mic setup can yield. The snare track was processed by Waves Magma Channel Strip, which adds tube distortion and heavy compression to give it more character.