There are many different techniques you can use to record drums. In a recent post I talked about recording drums with just two microphones.
Today I want to discuss another popular technique, made famous by Glyn Johns who used this technique to record John Bonham and his massive drum sounds on Led Zeppelin recordings.
Glyn Johns started his recording career at IBC studios in the UK, where he worked as a tape operator on some sessions for The Beatles. He went on to produce, record and/or mix many iconic rock albums for famous artists including The Who, Eagles, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Eric Clapton and of course Led Zeppelin.
You can read his full discography here.
In fact, Glyn Johns has written a fascinating book called ‘Sound Man’ on his life and experiences working with many of these Rock ‘n Roll greats during the epic 1960’s.
What you need for the Glyn Johns Recording Technique
There are a few things that you’ll need to make the most of this technique. Firstly, you want a room that sounds good. Because you’re relying on the ‘overhead’ mics being reasonably far away from the drum kit, they’ll pick up a lot of reverberations and reflections from the room. Usually, this technique is best in a larger room with a high ceiling – at least 12 feet, so you don’t get too much slapback from the ceiling.
Another key ingredient you need for this technique is a well-tuned drum kit. Because you’re relying on the overheads for a lot of the sound, it’s much harder to fix up the sound of poorly tuned toms or snare in the mixing stage. I recommend you spend a while working with the drummer to get all the drums tuned very accurately if you’re going to use this technique.
You’ll also want to get rid of any rattles and squeaks in the drum hardware. You can use a little bit of oil on hi-hat stands and kick pedals if they are squeaking. It’s handy to have a roll of gaffer tape nearby for taping up rattly cymbal stands or tom mounts too.
The Glyn Johns technique uses four microphones – two ‘overhead’ mics, a mic in the kick drum and one on the snare drum. The unique positioning of the overhead mics is what makes this technique interesting and effective.
Placement of the first overhead mic
The first overhead mic is placed directly above the snare drum – the exact position that sounds best will vary for each drumkit, depending on the height of the snare and the position of cymbals. One recommendation is exactly 40 inches above the center of the top snare head.
The idea for this mic is to pick up a good strong snare sound while also getting a good balance of the cymbals and the rest of the kit. You’ll need to experiment to find the best spot – some suggestion are; – directly above the centre of the snare drum, directly above the front rim of the snare (the side away from the drummer), and above the drummer’s right knee (for a standard right-handed drumkit setup).
This mic will be panned to the middle of the mix (ie at 0).
Placing the second overhead mic
The second overhead mic is placed in an unusual position. If you’re looking from behind the drum kit (the drummer’s perspective), the second overhead is placed just to the right of the floor tom – looking across the floor tom towards the snare drum. This mic will capture the floor tom and the cymbals on that side of the kit, as well as an overall blend of the whole kit.
To get the phasing correct, the side mic needs to be exactly the same distance from the centre of the snare drum as the top mic. To measure the distance accurately, you can use a guitar cable – get someone to hold one end of the cable in the centre of the top head on the snare drum. Loop the cable over the top mic and run it to the side mic and adjust the position of the side mic until the distance is the same.
Watch out for the placement of cymbals
You’ll also want to watch out for the height of the cymbals with this technique. If the cymbals are placed too low (particularly a ride or crash near the side mic) then you’ll get unnatural dips in the sound of the cymbal, as it swings and the edge of the cymbal points directly at the microphone. Try and place this side microphone in a position where the edge of a cymbal can’t point directly at the mic. To get the best sound, this usually means raising the cymbals slightly. This enables you to keep the side mic close to the floor tom so that is picked up clearly. If the drummer is particular about having the cymbals very low, then you’ll probably need to raise the side microphone up higher to avoid the edge of the cymbals pointing at the mic.
You will want to play around with the panning of this mic to create a little bit of stereo separation – I recommend panning about 10-20% to the right.
For a four piece drum kit (kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom), this mic setup enables you to capture the whole kit pretty effectively with a good balance of the toms and cymbals coming through in the ‘overhead’ mics. The close mics on the kick and snare allow you to have more control over these elements to give them the energy and cut through they need in the mix.
Microphones recommended for the Glyn Johns Technique
For the ‘overhead’ mics in this setup, I recommend a large diaphragm condenser microphone like the Rode NT1000, or if your budget stretches a bit further the Rode NT2000 is an excellent choice. (The main differences between these two mics are; the NT2000 has an adjustable polar pattern – cardioid, figure-8, omnidirectional. The NT2000 also has a higher maximum sound pressure level (SPL) at 147db, compared to 140db on the NT1000.)
For the close mic on the snare, a Shure SM57 is a tried and true microphone that’s been used for decades for recording snare drums. You can also try the Shure Beta57a, which has a different polar pattern (supercardioid vs cardiod), brighter high frequency response and a fuller low-end response.
Another alternative is the Audix D2 – which is a compact lightweight microphone – easy to clip onto your snare drum.
Read our detailed comparison between the Audix d2 vs the Shure SM57 microphones
For the kick drum microphone, the Sennheiser E602 II is an excellent choice.
Well – there you have it. Hopefully this is a helpful guide to get you started on this iconic recording technique and produce some epic drum recordings!