Recording drums right could use a set of 10-12 microphones and 10-12 separate tracks. Getting a full drum mike set with as many microphones and a mixer with as many tracks is not expensive nowadays. You can find a good drum mike set for as little as $200. Still though, it is possible to record drums with a lot less expense.
Using a full set of drum mikes has two definite advantages. First, you will get mikes that are designed to record certain instruments and you will get better sound. Your kick mike, for example, will differ from your snare mike and from the overhangs for the cymbals. Second, using several mikes means that each mike can be recorded separately, which in turn means that you have more control over the mix after the recording session. I recently recorded the drums for a song using only two mikes: one on the kick drum and the other for everything else. I ended up with two tracks, one carrying the kick drum and the other carrying everything else. As it turns out the snare on the second track was too loud and it was overpowering the hihat. There was nothing I could do to fix that, short of manually taking down every snare hit, which is a daunting task. Had I miked the snare and the hihat separately, I could have easily adjusted the mix after the recording. The advantages of using many mikes are obvious, but it is still possible to mike drums with fewer mikes. It is just that you have to be a lot more careful about your setup.
I should say that I do not actually own a drum set. I used to spend a lot of times programming drum loops in various software applications, which is a lot of fun, but cannot replace the real drummer for the type of music that we want to play. Since I could not replace the real drummer, I experimented with recording real drums. The first time I did so was for the purposes of creating samples that I could use in my drum programming. The end result was not very real sounding and so I finally resorted to recording full drum tracks for our songs using a real drummer.
Here is our drummer’s drum setup:
Kick – Yamaha Power Tour Custom 24 x 18 in
Snare – Yamaha Recording Custom 14 x 10 in
Soprano Snare – Yamaha Stage Custom 10 x 5 in
Tom – Yamaha Power Tour Custom 10 in
Tom – Yamaha Power Tour Custom 12 in
Floor Tom – Yamaha Power Tour Custom 14 in
Floor Tom – Yamaha Power Tour Custom 16 in
HiHat – Zildjian Z Dyno 13 in
Crash – Zildjian 8 in
Crash – Zildjian 12 in
Crash – Zildjian 16 in
Crash – Zildjian 17 in
Ride – Zildjian Rock Ride 21 in
China – Wuhan 12 in
China – Wuhan 16 in
China – Wuhan 18 in
Our drummer does use other percussion instruments (bongos, cow bells, etc.) and he does own a second drum set, but this is his most common setup.
Note that, on top of being a complex set, this is very much a rock "power" drum set. It sounds great on stage, but it is very overpowering when recorded in a small room. Here are some of the problems that we ran into: 1) the snare is too powerful and deep, but not accented enough; we dealt with this problem by replacing the snare with the soprano snare; 2) the kick is also very deep and has a long ring; we would normally fill the kick drum with blankets, up to half of the drum, being careful not to overdo it as this makes the kick very "poppy" and removes its bass qualities; 3) the toms, especially the floor toms, have a very long ring; we do not have a very good solution for this one; blankets help sometimes, but in general we have resorted to asking my drummer to control his floor tom use; and 4) large cymbals, especially large chinas are too loud and over reverberated; for all practical purposes we have ignored those.
It is difficult recording this specific drum set in a small room, although we did not have much of a choice. The first time I recorded these drums was for the purpose of creating samples for "drum-machine" applications. I used the Shure SM57 and close-miked every single instrument. I wanted each sample clean and independent of the rest of the samples. I was happy with each instrument, except maybe the kick, which came out either hollow or poppy, or both. I had an issue with some cymbals as the frame and cymbals rang when recording certain instruments – all problems that could be solved by placing blankets on top of the cymbals when recording other instruments.
Recording each instrument independently is very different from miking the whole drum set. Incidentally, at the time I recorded the drum samples I also experimented for the first time with recording the whole drum set with a single mike. I played a song that our drummer had never heard before and said: "Play whatever". I miked the whole drum set by putting a Rode NT microphone directly in front of the drum set centered between the kick and the snare and about two feet away. I took only one take for the fun of it, but the take surprisingly came out beautifully. The Rode NT picked up each instrument and the small room reverb very nicely and gave the drums a very nice lively natural sound. The only issue that I had with the recording was that that the large crashes and the ride were too loud. Тhe ride was loud because it was basically too close to the microphone. I think that the large crashes were just too loud for the small room. If I was to re-do this recording session I would probably just ask the drummer to control his ride and crashes.
This same drummer records his demo tracks using a similar setup but with a Shure SM58 microphone. I listened to his tracks and I found a couple of problems: First, the snare was too loud compared to the kick; and second, the hihats and cymbals were too quiet compared to the snare, kick, and toms. I am guessing that first, the SM58 is just that – it does not do a good job on the cymbals. Second, our drummer likes (I think), very kick and snare heavy mixes with less of the hihats and cymbals. Third, it is possible that the snare is too loud just because of where he positioned the mike.
Obviously, if you use one mike, you cannot just use any mike. You cannot mike the whole drum set with the Shure SM57 for example. The SM57 is a directional mike and will pretty much pick up only what is directly in front of it. If you point it towards the kick you will get a recording of the kick and very little of everything else.
I recently went through a recording session in which all drums were recorded with three Shure SM58 mikes. The end result was very professionally sounding. We used the first mike on the kick drum, the second mike was placed on the snare, and the third one was placed between the two floor toms. Тhe first microphone picked up only the kick. The second microphone picked up the snare, hihat, ride, toms, and small crashes. The third one picked up the floor toms, large crashes, and chinas.
When using three mikes you have to be very careful about their placement. When you place three mikes in the middle of the set you have to experiment with their exact position to pick up a balanced sound from the instruments that each mike is positioned to record. In this recording session placing the first mike was obviously easy. We placed it directly on the hole of the kick drum. (You can obviously move that around: closer or farther from the kick drum; closer or farther from the center, etc.) Placing the second mike is trickier. It has to balance the sounds coming from the snare, hihat, and ride, and the way those are played may depend on the song that you are recording. The third mike was basically placed at the place where the rims of the two floor toms meet. I was not actually very happy with that one, as it picked up too much ring from the floor toms and not enough cymbals, but for some reason that is where it stayed. We recorded two songs with the same mike placement: the first song was a slow sparse bluesy song with a kick, rim shot, hihat, and an occasional ride. The second one was a complex rock beat song that utilized a lot more. I am pretty happy with the recording of the first song as all instruments are very well balanced. The first thing I noticed in the second song was that the snare and the hihat were no longer well balanced. What had happened was that we moved from a rim shot to a heavy snare, but we did not experiment with the mike placement between the first and the second song.
In retrospect I probably would have moved the third mike away from the floor toms and would have tried to use it to balance the second out (i.e., I would have used two mikes to mike the snare, hihat, toms, and ride). I would have also liked to use another mike as an overhang to get more of the cymbals and the room. The Rode NT would have done a fine job.
What I am now beginning to realize is that, if I want to mike each instrument in the drum set separately, I could just restrict the number of instruments that I have to deal with. I just sat through a recording session in which the drummer used an Amati drum set with the following setup: kick, soprano snare, low tom, hihat, ride, crash cymbal. And that was all. All we had to do was mike each instrument separately, which was easy enough: Shure PGDMK6 drum mike kit, with PG52 mike for the kick, two PG56s for the snare and tom, and two PG81s for hihat and overhead. I guess we could have just used a bunch of SM57s and SM58s. The engineer did mention to me later that he would have liked to use a good room mike (in addition to the PG81s), but he did not have anything on hand that could pick up high frequencies well enough. The Shure PGDMK6 kit could go as high up as $400, but it is well worth this price.
Drums are a complex set of instruments. I have always thought that the hihat is perhaps the most versatile instrument in all of music. All this does not mean that recording the drums have to be complicated. You would do well to think about simplifying both your drum set up as well as your recording set up. Finally, careful and thoughtful placement of your microphones will improve the quality of the recording regardless of the number of microphones used.