Recording drums is not a simple task. Whether you are a studio recording engineer or a musician wanting to try your hand at home recording, it is a challenge. Overhead microphones are vital to the process of recording drums and finding the best drum overheads is key. In this article, we explore the top options including matched pairs, condenser, and dynamic microphones, and look at the merits of different mics for live use and studio use.
What Are Overheads?
As the name suggests, an overhead drum mic will be positioned above the kit (and of course the head of the drummer). Recording and live engineers often use a set of two overheads to get a rounded sound and an even representation of the sound of your drums. In the modern age, we can use a huge amount of mics to get the right sound for our recordings. Many studios will use 5, 6 or 7 microphones on the drum set and think nothing of it. The kick drum and snare will always be mic’d up, and often so will the toms, but overheads play an essential role in getting the sound of the high hats and cymbals and also the overall tone of the kit.
Overheads are nothing short of vital when it comes to a well-rounded drum sound, and even setups that use three or four microphones will use them in order to get the overall sound of the drum set, without them it can sound very flat with no atmosphere.
What Makes a Good Overhead Microphone?
So what are we looking for in an overhead? Mics are a complicated science and some will be far superior to others. This doesn’t just mean the more expensive the better, it means that certain types of microphone, sizes of diaphragm and frequency response will be better suited to different recording tasks. For example, the AKG D12 is the ‘industry standard’ to record kick drums due to its ability to pick up the low bass sounds. Similarly, there are certain microphones which are the best for overhead recording.
- Condenser microphones. You can use dynamic microphones but we recommend condensers, they’re a good balance between high detail and sensitivity but also durability. Condenser microphones are normally high quality and preferred for recording, whereas dynamic mics are preferred for live applications.
- “Matched Pairs”. Another choice you need to make is whether or not to go for a matched pair. Matched pairs come off the production line together, are worth more and have less of the indescrepencies two mics can have. This ensures the most detail possible. Some prefer matched pairs and some aren’t bothered.
- Diaphragm. This is also a big component when it comes to detail. Large diaphragm condenser microphones will give more detail than small and are therefore more highly recommended by
Our Recommended Models and Reviews
AKG Pro Audio C414
Is there anything the AKG C414 can’t do? I think it would be fair to say that this is possibly the most versatile microphones in the world. It is one of the favorites of audio engineers for vocals, guitars and of course drum overheads.
C414’s can be bought as matched pairs and this is potentially one of the best ways to record drums. It comes at a price though, especially if you do want a matched pair, but if money is not a big limitation for you then the C414 is probably the microphone I would recommend.
Being a large diaphragm condenser this very much fits the bill, but what this can mean with some microphones is that the sensitivity is too high and you can get nasty clipping and distortion sounds. Luckily, AKG have made this microphone with the facility to reduce the sensitivity by 6, 12 or 18 dB which is great for loud drum kits.
Nine polar patterns let you choose what you prefer for the drum kit, and also mean that if you do invest in a C414 (or a pair of them) you can use them for many different applications from vocals to guitars and more. A microphone which will go down in audio geek history, and definitely one to aspire too if you have the money.
The C414 has a little sibling, the C214, which is a more affordable option designed in a very similar way. We have made a C414 vs C214 comparison for you to see the differences and weigh up the pros and cons.
Rode NT5 Matched Pair Condenser Microphones
Rode are a wonderful brand name who offer a huge amount of microphones, from USB models to studio quality instrument mics. They aren’t known as a ‘budget’ range of microphones or as being one of the cheapest microphone brands, but the fact that you can pick up the Rode NT5’s at a far lower price than many of the competitors. Finding a matched pair at such a reasonable price is not something that happens every day, especially a set with so much quality.
The reviews over at Sweetwater and elsewhere online are hugely positive, with audio engineers being stunned at the value for money offered with the NT5s.
They’re small diaphragm condenser microphones and pick up a huge amount of detail, allowing a great overall, atmospheric sound. The pencil design makes them easy to suspend above the kit on a mic stand, and they come in a hard-wearing case. They’ve been used for everything from orchestras to field recordings, but using them on drums is a very common use whether you want a stereo drum recording or otherwise.
With a low impedance and extremely high build-quality, it is really hard to go wrong at the frankly impressive price. Although I understand some drummers and audio engineers will opt for the C414 due to the crazy amount of detail, the NT5 pair is a good competitor (and will save you some serious cash).
Neumann KM 184 Stereo Microphone Set
Neumann Microphones are world famous and industry-standard for high-end recording studios everywhere. Their “U87” mics are known as being the best vocal mics, but we’re looking for condensers with more ability as overheads, and the KM series is known as exactly that.
The KM 184s are sold as another stereo mic set. You’re able to ensure that you don’t get any feedback as they have a cardioid pick-up pattern (something also available with the C414). Used right, their sound quality is truly second to none. The level of pressure means they can handle an application of being used on percussion as well as wind and string instruments if you need to record these also.
Neumann is a name synonymous with quality, and listening to the results recorded with the KM 184 it is easy to see why. That said, the quality comes at a cost. For elite recording studios then the KM184s and their crisp, clear sound won’t let you down. There are alternative models which are much more budget friendly, but if you’re looking for the very best, look no further.
An immense amount of five-star reviews and glowing reports from audio engineers show what a well-received product this set is. Perfect for drum overheads.
I understand that not everyone who wants to get good quality drum recordings has the money to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on microphones. A drum kit can easily use 5 or 6 microphones and the prices can get ridiculous. We wanted to include a budget microphone which can do a pretty good job. Other products such as the Behringer C-1 will get you decent recordings on a budget, but the mics we recommend for cheap drum overheads are…
Sabian Sound Kit Overhead Microphones
Sabian are a drum brand, not a microphone brand. When they released their ‘Sound Kit’ range there were many sceptics, but some of their drum products such as these microphones can be bought for under $100, a truly amazing price.
The quality of these microphones very much surprised me, and a lot of the audio world when they were released. Sabian may not have the same history as the other brands but for such a good price their features are good. These are dynamic microphones instead of condensers, which does make them more robust and even a good option if you need live drum micing. Generally if your target is decent audio on a budget then the Sabian Overheads are worth your consideration.
This brilliant video shows the mic placement for the bigger Sabian Sound Kit set, but shows where to set up your overheads for the best results.
The difference in price between the cheapest drum overhead mic on this list and the most expensive is huge. Although they are all designed to give an atmospheric recording of the whole drum kit and particularly the cymbals and hats, the overheads all have their own differences and nuances. The key is learning how to record drums properly, and you can get amazing results even without spending thousands of dollars. A matched pair is recommended but not essential, though they will make your life much easier. Ultimately, the millions of opportunities for different recording setups should be seen as a world of exciting possibilities.
If you have any questions or opinions on recording drums or overhead mics, leave us a comment below.