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  Secrets of Miking  

Rule #1. There are no rules. Where have I heard that before? (Check Secrets of Mixing.) But consider that the source of the sound is even more important than the kind of mic you use.

So even though great mics are helpful (and top-notch mic cables too), you can make a super recording even if you don't have the most expensive mics in town. If Bruce Swedien can use an SM57 on Michael Jackson (ref: an old R/E/P or Mix article), we know it's about tone matched with talent, not a name brand. Bruce has over 30 years of experience, and knows his monitors, so there is great depth behind his selection of microphones and any processing (or lack of processing) he uses. Once I bought some cheap AKG condenser mics that years later brought a hefty asking price because they sounded sweeter than 451's, so consider keeping around any mic that's in good shape.

Let's start on drums. I'm not going to go over the obvious stuff like the closer the mic is to the drum, the less cymbal leakage you'll get. I'd rather give you the insider stuff like Secret #1: The secret to a great drum sound is a great sounding drum. Either you or the drummer should know the ropes about tuning drums.

Here's what you can try: use new heads, preferably Ambassadors or Pin Stripe heads. Do not use those black DOT things! If the only drum heads you can get within 400 miles are dots, carefully take a straight edge razor (I know... I come from the times of analog tape splicing) and slip the blade under the dot and carefully peel it off the heads. Who thought of dots anyway? They mute the very part of the head that contains the most fundamental tones of the drum!

Next, put the drum on the floor and carefully stand on the head. Yes, you heard right. Assuming you have tightened down the head reasonably, you must stress the heads so that it won't stretch out when you're playing in the session and lose the tension that determines the tone. You'll hear a kind of cracking sound when you step on the head. That's normal. I'm also assuming you don't weigh 300 lbs. and you know that the drum isn't a trampoline. Less stretching is needed on the bottom heads.

Tighten the head some more, and stand on it again, carefully. Bounce a little just to exercise it. Now, put it on the kit, and tune each lug tapping with a stick by the lug you're tuning. Get them all to have the same pitch, higher than you ultimately want it. After getting them all the same pitch, de-tune one lug a lot, hitting the drum repeatedly in the center while you're listening to the pitch. You'll start to notice less of a 'boing' and more of a 'Kthummn' sound. If it doesn't quite work at first, tune that lug up and try de-tuning a different lug. Generally, pick a lug that isn't exactly where the mic will be. Some detuning of the bottom head (2 heads is better than one...except for the kic drum) can be cool, and generally the pitch of the bottom head should be higher than the top head...but...experiment. (I'm not a fan of small holes in the front of kic drums. I'd rather remove the front head than deal with a 2" hole to put a mic.)

Next, get some duct tape, and take a six-inch piece and curl it into a sticky-side-out donut. Stick the donut on the head about one inch or less from the rim, trying different places while hitting the drum. You may not even need padding like this, but often it helps. Floor toms sometimes need more padding (particularly on the bottom), like a small amount of cloth taped directly on the drum. Try to use the least amount of padding possible.

Snare drums are different in that you don't want to de-tune your lug a lot, and the two lugs surrounding the actual snare wires should be tuned higher than the other lugs on the bottom. Much of the snare tone (particularly the fundamental low component) depends on how loose or tight the snares are, so invest in a good set of them. Padding helps sometimes, and if one pad (or donut) doesn't do the trick, add another one. No padding on the bottom head of the snare.

Don't use those big foam tires to stick on the inside of the kic drum head. Just add a small or mid-sized pillow pressed up against the bottom quarter of the inside head and add weight to hold it down firmly.

Weren't we talking about mics? Yep.
Secret #2: The drummer is more in charge of mixing the drum sound than you are. In other words, if he/she hits the cymbals super hard and the toms super soft, guess what? You'll have a nightmare on your hands trying to get the toms to sound big and the kind of mic won't be that significant. The drummer literally should think of the attack volume applied to each instrument (like cymbal, hat, snare, kic) like a separate channel of a mixer. Physically raise the cymbals as high as comfortably possible, and hit the toms hard. Easy on the hi-hat.

Tip: Sounds that are mixed (acoustically or electronically) are RELATIVE TO EACH OTHER. Hitting a cymbal softer gets the same result as hitting a drum harder in the context of the whole kit. So if the toms aren't sounding loud enough, hit the cymbals softer - particularly the crashes. The "Teeter-Totter" principle is always at work here. The louder one thing is, the softer something else will appear - so again - the softer you play the cymbals, the louder your drums will sound. Extra bonus: live sound engineers will love you when you apply this technique!

Trick: You must be good at Zen. That is, to hit the cymbal softer and still have ATTITUDE and EMOTION takes experience and discipline. The best drummers in the world can hit a cymbal softly and love it and produce intensity just as much as if they hit it like a home run. If all else fails, don't hesitate to put duct tape on the cymbals to mute them a bit. I know. They won't sound as pure, but the toms, kic, and snare will almost magically come forward in the blend.

Ahem. Back to the mics.
Secret #3: Measure the distance from the center of the snare to the capsule of the left overhead mic, and then match the distance to the capsule of the right overhead mic. Chances are it won't look even, but the sound of the snare will be in phase in the overheads and the snare will have much more punch and clarity. <>

Secret #4:
What mics to use? SM57's are great for snare and toms (MD 421's are fatter in size and sound), any good condensers work for overheads, and large-diaphram dynamic mics are great for kic (EV, Shure, Sennheiser, etc.). CHECK IN MONO to be sure stuff is in phase! Then add hi's at around 12K, cut (peak mid-band) at around 400hz, and add bottom between 60hz - 120 Hz (peaking or shelving, whichever is fat but not whoofy) to the toms. Gate the toms slightly to taste.

Bonus multitrack analog tape tip archive: When using analog tape, bounce the toms to separate tracks. Then spot-erase all of the cymbal/kit leakage, leaving only the toms on the new tracks. If you've never spot erased before on multitrack analog, practice on something expendable first, or just be prepared to re-bounce those duplicate tom tracks. Spot erasing is when you take the tape out from the capstan and pinch roller, set the tape 1/2" in front of the tom attack, hold the reels, press play/record on the duplicate tracks and then pull the tape backwards, thereby erasing in front of the signal. After a couple feet of erasure, press stop and rethread the tape. Now you have a large punch-out window so you can erase the rest of the leakage in between the other tom hits.

You can also mult (DAW term: copy) the toms in mixdown and skilfully turn them on/off using (automated or non-automated) mutes... and you can even get pickier with the eq on those channels.

Back to DAW tips: More commonly when using a digital workstation like Pro Tools or Digital Performer, using volume automation or hard cut waveform splices, edit the leakage in between the tom-tom notes. Try leaving 50% of the leakage in before cutting it out completely. Some leakage can give character to the tone of the drum kit. There's no hard-fast rule here because every drum sound is different for different songs.

Secret #5: Experiment. Put up more mics than you're actually going to use (easier to do, of course, if you have a console). Start to take note of what mics sound better up close, far away, etc. Room sound can be your friend, even when you're going for a cool retro drum-booth-room thing.  I used to think that my small-ish drum booth was funky compared with a massive live room. Years later I heard some old tracks and man, that tiny room sounded great! It wasn't ideal for everything, but you'll be surprised when something "less than perfect" gives you character and personality to the sound.

Wild kic drum mic technique:  I liked using a Sennheiser 441 deep in toward the center of a kic drum, while at the same time I used an SM7 (large diaphragm dynamic) back about 9 inches and off-center about 6 to 8 inches. I then put the SM7 out of phase on the console and summed both mics to one track. The odd phase characteristic created a dip in the mid-bottom and a boost in the presence area. This came about by using Rule #1 (see above) and gave me a more unique sound. Sometimes a parametric eq helps find a sweet spot for the lows too<>

Added idea from Jeremy who wrote: "I just bought some Direct Sound Extreme Isolation Headphones and use them to monitor the drum sound, while moving the mic around until I find the sweet spot. I've done this for all the drum mics, and the guitar amp mic."

JV: sounds good!

More on mics: Some mics sound fatter than others, like a Sennheiser 421 is fatter sounding than an SM57. If your guitar cabinet has 4 speakers - put a dynamic right up to the grille facing into the mid portion of the speaker, not the very center. The warmth comes from the larger surface area of the speaker and the highs come from the center. Put another mic about a foot away from a different speaker, again, a little off-axis to the cone. Put another mic about 4 feet back from the cabinet.

Now, borrow 7 mics from your buds and put them anywhere you can imagine around the speaker, in the room, etc.

Once I had miked two amps side by side, and after one amp got taken away, I pulled up the mic that was left miking the air next to the remaining amp. Guess what? It sounded very cool, and I've used that trick many times. If you can, get another cabinet with an open back. A couple mics around the back, close, far, you name it, sounds cool and adds fatness (more lows come off the back of the speaker). In a word, experiment. Sum the mics to a stereo pair of tracks. Change the phase... be creative.

Q: John--I'm using two SM81s in a 20'x15' room (10' ceiling), fairly well acoustically treated, What is your preferred method of overhead drum miking? -Pete

This is somewhat hard to describe, since every set is a bit different, and some music calls for closer miking, and sometimes distance is cool. Generally, I set the overhead left (as the drummer sees it) 3-4 ft. above the snare, sort of aimed between the hat and left cymbal. The right side about the same height (measure capsules so they're the same distance from the snare) aimed between the ride and outside crash. I angle the mics out slightly for more separation.

Have the drummer set the cymbals as high as comfortably possible, and play them easily, unless you're doing thrash rock. As a general rule, imagine that the mic "sees" whatever it's pointed at (in cardioid), and just try to look at what it's going to pick up. Listen to the overheads soloed in mono and the whole kit in mono, and if the sound changes to much, or gets a mid range tone in mono, then there's phase problems. Aim the mics further away from each other, or separate them more.

I have almost never needed a hi hat mic using this set-up. Go closer in to get more pinpoint accuracy and up close sound, back away for more ambient sound. A room mic or two blended in slightly can be nice, but a lot of variables go with that.

Old school analog tape tip: Put the toms in stereo on tracks 1 & 2 (I know, it's not the popular thing), the kic on 3, snare on 4, overheads on 5 & 6. Why? When you think about it, the least stable track on 2" tape is #24, the next least stable track is 1, because they are edge tracks. Given that the kick is one of the most important elements of the mix, I think it stands to reason that it should get a more stable track. The toms are only hit on occasion so the stability isn't as big a concern.

On ADAT, same thing. the edge tracks are less stable, but the symptom is drop outs and glitches, not fading in-and-out high end (like analog).

I could have all the gear in the world and never could achieve such a full sound...until I followed these tips! I was blown away at the difference it made! The drummer just stared at me with the slack lug trick. But when he checked the playback, he was flabbergasted!! Thanks again for all you brought me to the next level." -Cory

Q: I am having problems getting a good guitar tone. I am using an Ada-mp1 guitar preamp; DigiTech 2101 effects unit in a Marshall cab... I use AKG and Peavey mics into a Mackie mixer. I go into my computer and use Free Filter to apply more eq, and I can always use the speaker simulator (though I find the tone the simulator lacks a lot of ambience). The tone sounds very processed, muddy and thin. Any suggestions? -Gerry

I come from the old school - Vintage Strat through a Marshall amp on 10 with a Fuzz Face. Less is more will help in this case - and I hope the Ada is a tube amp. Remember that part of an awesome rock guitar sound can come from the sheer volume level (and well-picked overdrive settings, either amp or pedal based), and this gives a sense of hugeness that you won't feel when you're listening through small powered studio speakers.

If you're used to a big guitar sound, it may help to get some bigger Tannoy, JBL or Adam monitors (preferably with a sub on both sides) so it feels more similar. Better yet, go to an audiophile stereo store and get some really accurate large-scale speakers and high-end power amp (more here) using great speaker cables.  Put the speakers a foot or so from the wall (or in the corners) and move your console back about 4-8 feet so that the low end has a chance to develop in the room. Put your favorite CDs on and move the speakers around adding low end traps to the room and some diffusers so that your CDs all sound good (along with the natural differences each one will exhibit).

Powered speakers also have a disadvantage that the amp is inside the speaker box where the electronics are getting vibrated all to shitake mushrooms. This blurs the image and tightness of the low end. I know. Buying a new monitor system may not be appropriate for your budget right now. Don't you just love it when someone has a costly answer to your question?'s more help:

Some newer guitar amp emulation devices (the Pod) are really cool, and just plugging in direct from one of those could help. But to get that sound of a real speaker cranked, think mics.

As far as the computer filters to simulate amp settings, let me go back... '54 Strat into a tube Marshall on 10 with a Fuzz Face.... Save the computer for a last resort - concentrate on the source first. Why simulate a speaker when you own one? Or rent some good mics and pre's for that all important big-name session.

Gear marketing tells you we can have a great studio in your bedroom. The truth is great sound comes from the player, the experienced engineer, and then the gear. You can get a great sound anywhere if you take the time to work on it. Just remember that most hit records/cds are engineered by people who have spent years working on getting that sound, and going through all the frustration that goes along with that process. If you want that sound, you may have to go through that time and frustration. If you allow for that ahead of time, it won't be as frustrating.

Helpful: Many engineers say "Less is more." and it's true in many cases. When I worked with Mark Kendall from Great White, 70% of the time we spent getting guitar sounds was spent at the amp. So before you even look at the computer filters and the digiwiz effects boxes, really listen to the source.

How can I get a more fuller, alive sound when miking my alto sax? -Ed

Use some nice warm sounding mic pre's, and mic from the front and from the right side of the sax (player's perspective). Try a dynamic in front about 6 inches or more away from the bell, and a warm condenser facing the side about 6 to 10 inches away. Blend the two sounds and compress if needed. I'd avoid effects processors till mix time, and if possible use really good mic cables.

Also helpful: check to be sure you cables all have correct polarity (no wires switching from positive to negative aka. XLR pin two with XLR pin 3). Here's a helpful web page from Rane on correct cable connector wiring techniques.

WANT BETTER DRUM SOUNDS? I cannot emphasise this principal enough. I have published the idea of hitting cymbals softer since 1998, and I still get mix after mix with LOUD crashes. Then in November 2003, I bought the DVD of "The Kids Are Alright" by The Who. It's a must-buy for any rock musician. This video confirms exactly what I have been saying for years. The late genius of Keith Moon dramatically illustrates this point - he's ALL over the drums and when he hits his cymbals, they barely move! He plays them so lightly it's almost like he only wants them there for a slight sparkle, in most cases. Yet he's known as one of the most powerful drummers in rock history. Give this DVD to your drummer and watch how the sound of your group is transformed. This is a major part of mix solutions, too.

Another excellent example of a drummer who plays his cymbals like musical instruments, not like therapy objects. In the early days of recording, engineers didn't multi-mic every single object that the drummer could touch. There were 3 or 4 mics and the drummer had to balance his set so that the playback of the drums sounded in balance with the cymbals, and the balance of the whole kit was in balance with the band. Pure genius. The secret to a great drum sound is a great sounding drum that is heard above the cymbals. No one in the audience will ever come up to you and say, "Gee you play great cymbals." Other drummers, maybe. Not the general public. Invest in this DVD like it's an important reference, and watch John Bonham's technique. It's no mistake his sound is still legendary to this day.

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