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September 2, 2020

Drum overhead mic placement | Matt Ross-Spang




Sometimes the simplest setup is the best one, as you’ll see in this excerpt from Start to Finish: Matt Ross-Spang - Episode 1 - Setting Up The Live Room & Getting Sounds. Working at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis, TN, Matt discusses the mono overhead mic he’s using on the drums, one of only three mics he’s got on the kit.

Matt in the live room of Sam Phillips Recording

Going “Old School”

He says he usually uses vintage mics, but here he’s opted for an Upton 251, a modern copy of the vintage Telefunken 251. He loves how it sounds, and points out that one of its attributes is how it captures low end from a distance—an essential quality for a drum overhead mic placement. The Upton is a tube mic, so it’s got a smooth high-end response, which works well with the cymbals that it will pick up. Matt also likes how it reacts to transients.

The Upton 251.

He faced an envious choice between the Upton 251 or a Neumann U67 for the overhead mic. The U67, also a tube condenser, is also smooth on the top and picks up drums well from afar. But this time he went with the Upton.

It won’t be far from the kit in this instance, as Matt will be placing it quite close to drummer Ken Coomer (formerly of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo). Matt says that he tends to mic drums closer than most people. He says, referring to the drummer, he likes to put the overhead “right in their face.”

As he’s moving the boom for the OH mic, he explains that he’ll wait for Ken to arrive and be seated at the kit for final placement of it. Ken and Matt have worked together quite a bit and Matt refers to him as one of his “all-time favorite drummers.”

Because Ken doesn’t typically hit super hard, Matt is confident he can put the mic quite close without risking a stray drum hit damaging the Upton (which costs close to $5,000). Interestingly, Matt likes the sound of drums better when they aren’t hit too hard. While there isn’t as much attack, you get more overtones and notes. Plus, he points out, a drummer can still sound big while hitting quietly.

With only one overhead mic, placement is critical for capturing an audio picture of the whole kit.

He says Ken doesn’t flail around when he’s playing, making it possible to place the overhead pretty low. He usually puts it roughly even with Ken’s forehead.

Bird’s Eye View

With Ken now in the drum booth, Matt explains that he set the Upton to its cardioid pattern, which is wide enough to capture the hi-hat, the snare and the rack tom. The ride cymbal cuts through the most, so it works out well that Ken has it set up relatively far to his right. If it was more to the middle, it might overpower the other kit elements in the overhead mic.

Depending on how the balance sounds, Matt will aim the overhead mic to point a little more at any drums or cymbals that aren’t getting picked up by it. Sometimes he’ll just tilt it to get the balance he wants.

The capsule of the Upton points directly down at the kit, at the height of Ken’s forehead.

It helps a lot that Ken plays in a balanced, under-control fashion. Because of that, Matt can get away with just three mics on the kit. Besides the Upton, he’s using an AKG D-25 on the kick and a Shure SM57 on the snare.

Why Go Minimal?

You might wonder why Matt would use so few mics on the kit. The answer is that he’s trying to get a similar result to the drum recordings on old Al Green records. With a mono overhead as the focal point of the drum sound, he’s not going to be able to create a stereo drum mix. But clearly, he thinks an authentic vibe is what’s most important for this artist.

It would probably be more challenging to pull off a recording of this type in a home studio because you likely wouldn’t have access to the high-end mics and pristine studio acoustics of a commercial studio, particularly one like Sam Phillips Recording.

Still, if you’re very careful about how you set up the mics on the kit, and your drummer is talented, you can do it. A kit recorded with only a few mics sounds sort of “old school,” by its nature, particularly in comparison to modern recordings where the drums have 7, 8, 9 or more mics on them. If you opt for such simplicity, make sure your overhead mic placement gives you an accurate and balanced representation of the kit. You can then use the kick and snare mics to beef it up.

“Vintage-ize” Your Drum Mix

But what if you have a kit already recorded, but later decide it might be a cool thing to go for a more vintage drum sound? You could employ some mixing techniques to help you do that, some of which we’ll demonstrate in the following audio examples.

We started with a blues/R&B tune featuring a “modern” kit recorded with a relatively conventional miking scheme, including individual mics for the kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom. There was also a stereo pair of overheads and a mono room mic. The snare has a reasonable amount of reverb on it, as well as parallel compression applied via an aux bus.

The UAD Ampex ATR-102 provides realistic tape tone to tracks or busses.

For the “vintage-ized” version, the tom and room mics were muted and the overheads panned from stereo to mono. (Overheads don’t have to be mono to sound “old school,” but we followed Matt’s example from the video.)

The snare and kick were EQed to sound thinner. You’ll hear a lot less reverb on the snare and the parallel compression removed from it. A UAD ATR-102 tape emulation plug-in was put across the drum bus, as well. The overall level of the drums to the rest of the mix was also made lower to match what was the norm in older mixes.

Example 1: In the first four bars, you’ll hear the “modern” drum mix and when it repeats, you’ll hear the “vintage-ized” drums.

Example 2: This time, the instruments are in along with the drums to give you context. Like in Example 1, the first four measures feature the more contemporary drum mix and the second four the faux “vintage” treatment.

Although the drums were changed considerably between the “contemporary” and “vintage” mixes, the instruments were unchanged. If you were really going for a complete vintage vibe, you’d want to change their mix properties, as well. Here’s a thought exercise: What could you do in the mix to make the instruments more “vintage” sounding?