Snare drum recording guide – Microphone shootout and placement techniques

We’re back with part 2 of our ‘how-to’ guide on drum recording: Snare drum recording. Did you miss part 1? The one about beefy bass drums? You can read it here.

We sent our resident recording experts – Gavin Wiltshire and Guy Perchard – out to The Sound Cafe recording studio near Penicuik to record a monster series of Red Dog Music drum recording tutorial videos with our little drummer boy Cammy Sinclair. Our aim is to help you to record drums to the best of your ability and demonstrate what techniques and equipment might work well for you. We’re not going to talk about effects and dynamic processing as everyone likes different sounds, but we’re here to give you a few useful pointers on what works, what doesn’t and what microphones you should use. Of course, we’re not going to TELL you what to think, you have to decide for yourself!
Shure SM57: The industry standard for snare drum recording

Enough chit-chat, let’s get on with part 2: The snare drum recording guide!

Microphone choice

It’s well known that using different microphones will yield different results, but HOW DIFFERENT? Well, stick with us and that’s exactly what we’re going to find out. It would be a crime against the music industry not to include the Shure SM57 in this battle considering it’s the most commonly used instrument microphone on the planet, but we’re going to also include a very similar microphone from a different company: The Audix i5. How will these cardioid dynamic heavyweights compare against the lesser known hypercardioid dynamic, the Beyerdynamic M201. So that’s the magnet-based microphones we’re going with, but what about some trusty condensers to compare them to? The RØDE NT5 is a small-diaphragm stalwart of the recording studio arsenal and a common choice when it comes to acoustic guitars, pianos and more delicate material but how will it cope with a loud, abrasive snare? We’ll also compare and contrast the sound of a small diaphragm condenser with its large diaphragm cousins: The AKG C414b and the sE Electronics X1.

It’s worth mentioning that the audio clips in these videos are entirely unprocessed. No compression, EQ or limiting has been applied, but depending on the quality at which you watch these videos at there may be some noticeable quality loss. We recommend you view them in HD where possible.

What we thought

Shure SM57 – It’s hard to be super-analytical when listening to an SM57’s signal, the way they pick up seems so familiar that they intrinsically feel ‘right’. The SM57 strips away most of the crisp high-frequency detail that defines a lot of the snare drum sound but reveals a strong impact with good bass detail. This sound focus is very useful for most applications as overheads and room microphones will usually capture the brightness from a snare, but the snare-specific microphone needs to capture the power of the attack.

Audix i5 – This microphone performs in such a similar way to the SM57 that it would be hard to tell the difference in a blind test. It has a very slightly brighter sound and maybe a little less sub detail, but that’s about the only difference in terms of their ability to capture a sound source. One benefit the i5 has over the SM57 is – due to its smaller form – it can be more easily positioned in busy drum setups.

Beyerdynamic M201 – This hypercardioid dynamic microphone has a similar tone to the i5 and SM57, but because it has a much more focused pickup pattern it naturally rejects a lot of the resonant ‘ring’ from the drum. This also gives the added benefit of less noticeable bleed from the other drums making processing and effecting the isolated sound much easier at the mixing stage.

Røde NT5 – This small diaphragm condenser gives a fantastically bright, detailed sound that gives a very accurate reflection of the tonal characteristics of the snare drum. Unusually for such a small microphone, it also seems to pick up a good portion of bass response and transient striking detail that you normally associate with dynamic microphones.

AKG C414b – This microphone gives a wonderful clear tone without too much abrasive high-frequency detail but seems to lack the power you’d expect from a snare drum mic.

sE Electronics X1 – This microphone seems to give the most accurate ‘how the drum actually sounds’ response of all the microphones we tested. It picks up the high-end clarity and sizzle, the powerful punch and also seems to focus the sound away from the low-mid ring.

The C414b and X1 share a couple of downsides, however: They capture a lot of spill from the rest of the kit and they are very vulnerable to being hit with drum sticks. The first issue isn’t such a problem if you’re going for a more natural feel in your recording, but if you want to – for example – heavily compress your snare to give it some artificial ‘snap’, you’ll also be compressing the hi-hats, kick, a bit of the toms and quite a lot of the cymbals, too. The second problem is a little more serious: One powerful knock in the wrong place can put these microphones out of action permanently, so use at your own risk.

Microphone placement

Still with us? Excellent. You’ll have probably made some opinions on what microphone you think is best up to your job by now, but where should you place it to get the exact sound you’re wanting? This is what we’re going to explore next. As the Shure SM57 is so ubiquitous in the music industry, we’ll use that as our point of reference for all the position tests so you can truly get a feel of how the different angles and distances affect the result.

What we heard

Rim / Aimed at edge – We positioned the microphone a couple of centimetres over the drum head (enough to stick a couple of fingers between the skin and the head of the mic) and about the same distance in from the rim of the drum, aimed 45° down towards the outer edge of the skin. This position yields quite bassy, ringy results but with excellent power and separation from the rest of the kit.

Rim / Aimed at centre – In the same position as above, but aimed more towards the centre of the drum skin. This still has the issue of a prominent ringing, but gives a less exaggerated bass response and a bit more bite on the attack. Again, because the microphone is so close to the sound source it will give you excellent separation and less bleed from other drums.

Under hi-hat / Aimed at centre – Depending on how high your drummer likes to position his hi-hat, this position can give you very natural sounding, good all-round results. Place the microphone underneath the static underside of the hi-hat and aim it at the centre of the snare drum. This gets rid of quite a lot of that unpleasant ring but does allow a little more spill from the rest of the kit.

Beside drummer’s knee / Aimed at shell – By placing the microphone in front of the drummer’s hi-hat leg and facing the outer shell of the drum, you can capture the tone of the drum without the powerful strike, attack and high-frequency detail. This is a nice element to add if you’re using a multiple microphone set-up, but be wary about using this as your only option.

Underside / Aimed upwards – Never really used on its own due to the buzzy, rattly harshness but this position is commonly used to add a bit more bite to a ‘top’ positioned snare signal.

That’s all for now, folks! The key point to remember is that there is really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about recording your drums. We’ve given you some pointers here on how to capture the snare drum sound you want to hear, what you do with this advice is entirely up to you! Stay tuned for more tutorial sessions at the Sound Cafe, including: Mic choice and placement for hi-hat, toms, overheads and room sound, as well as a head-to-head between Gav and Guy in THE ULTIMATE DRUM RECORDING SHOWDOWN. There will be blood.

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Guy Perchard

Digital editor & recording specialist at Red Dog Music
As well as being the marketing man-about-town at Red Dog Music, Guy is a busy, award winning record producer and mixing engineer. He is also partial to a chorizo stromboli for elevenses.

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