Glyn Johns Drum Miking


Introduction

I really enjoy the Glyn Johns method for miking drum kit. Because the kit is often multi-miked nowadays, with spot mics on every element, recording drum kit can seem daunting to amateur recordists who are working with a limited mic selection. If that’s you, then the Glyn Johns method can be your saving grace.

The method’s minimalism might make it seem more like a budget compromise than a full-fledged professional recording technique, but keep in mind that its elegant simplicity emerged from Glyn’s applied experience recording world-class drummers like John Bonham. It’s not like he was just hurting for more channel inputs; rather, he recognized the merits of the coherent, focused sound that could be achieved by using only a handful of mics on the kit.

More aggressive metal and hardcore styles demand the hyperreal sound of a fully spot-miked kit, but I’ve had great success using the Glyn Johns method for rock, jazz, breakbeats, and indie pop. When well-executed, it yields a very lively, natural sound.

If you’ve got twelve mics on a kit, phase issues are unavoidable, and you end up having to work against them. The Glyn Johns method sidesteps this issue thanks to its low mic count, and with it, you can achieve a realistic image of the kit that needs only minor finessing to fit into a final mix.

In recent years, the resurgence of the Glyn Johns method has given rise to similar variants on the technique, such as the ‘Recorderman’ and ‘Weathervane’ approaches. While these have their own distinctive merits and drawbacks, the Glyn Johns method has worked so well for me that I haven’t felt the need to experiment with them.

Overview

Glyn Johns is an asymmetrical stereo miking configuration. This stands in contrast to symmetrical configurations like X/Y and A/B, which are often used for the overhead mics in full-fledged spot-miking approaches. Because the Glyn Johns setup is asymmetrical, you don’t necessarily need to use a matched microphone pair, and you can experiment with different mic combinations to shape the sound.

Here’s a simple description of the technique. You’ll have one mic placed above the kit, pointing down at the snare drum. This 'overhead' mic is then augmented with a second ‘fill’ mic, set lower and off to the drummer’s side, looking across the floor tom at the snare and hi-hat. Together, these two mics capture a stereo image of the entire kit. They can be reinforced with a few spot mics if desired.

Caveats

Come mix time, the Glyn Johns method gives you less control over the final sound than you would get by spot-miking everything, so it’s very important that you take the time to get things sounding as good as possible at the recording phase. For this method to work, you need a good drummer, playing a well-tuned kit, in a pleasant-sounding room. If all of these things are spoken for, you might be surprised by the results you can achieve with such a simple setup. On the other hand, if you’ve got issues with the sound you’re hearing in the room, the Glyn Johns approach will prove unforgiving.

You won’t be able to adjust the balance of cymbals to drums after you record, so if your drummer is a cymbal-basher, you’ll want to take steps to minimize cymbal pickup; after all, few things are worse than a drum recording where the cymbals drown out the drums themselves. Try using cardioid or figure-of-8 mics, taking care to angle them so that the cymbals are mostly off-axis.

Phase

In most descriptions of stereo overhead miking techniques, care is taken to position the mic capsules equidistant from the center of the snare drum head. In theory, this ensures that the snare drum is in phase.

Consider that the drum kit is comprised of several sound sources spread across a relatively large physical space. Zeroing in on the phase-coherence of one element of the kit necessarily requires that the rest of the elements be shifted out of phase to accommodate. You can’t have it all, and the closer the snare gets to being perfectly in phase, the further out of phase the kick and other elements will be shifted.

I try not to worry so much about the center of the snare drum, instead trying to get both the snare and the kick reasonably in-phase, while accepting that neither will be perfect. I’ll start by getting the snare in phase, and then begin shifting the mics slightly, in an effort to shift the kick more into phase without throwing the snare’s coherence totally out of whack. Because phase discrepancies tend to affect the lower frequencies more drastically, this approach is a reasonable compromise in genres where the low-end power of the kick drum is important, like rock and pop. It’s less important if you plan to use a spot mic to reinforce the kick drum.

Setup

The overhead should capture a balanced picture of the kit that sounds complete on its own, before you introduce the fill mic. This is crucial to the success of the Glyn Johns technique. Forget about everything else, and focus on getting the best sound that you can from the overhead mic alone. You might start by placing it about 3 feet above the kit. I like to position it more or less above the rack tom, pointing towards the center of the snare head, so that it’s looking ‘across’ the rack tom on its way to the snare.

Now it’s time to add the fill mic. Start by placing it off to the side of the floor tom, raised about 6” above the rim. Point it so that it’s looking across the floor tom and snare heads, at the hi-hats. At this point, you should listen to how both mics sound together, and experiment with moving them around a bit to see how it changes the sound before you settle on a final position.

Once you’ve settled on a satisfactory sound, you’ll want to use a tape measure or a length of cable to ensure the mic capsules are equal distances from your chosen reference point - generally the center of the snare head. Adjust the mics as necessary to bring the overall sound into phase as much as possible. If you end up making further adjustments to the mic positions for tonal reasons, you’ll want to double-check that you haven’t adversely affected their phase relationship before committing to a final mic position.

Spot Mics

I recommend taking the time to achieve the best possible sound using only the core mic pair, and from there, you can start adding spot mics as needed. I usually use a spot mic on the kick, and am generally happy that I did. A snare spot mic is less crucial; I often set one up to be safe, only to discard it at the mixing stage. Spot-miking the toms is unnecessary, and I’d argue if you do so, you’re not really using the Glyn Johns method anymore. The overhead and fill mics should capture plenty of toms. Same so for spot mics on cymbals and hats; I find that the core mic pair gives me more than enough of these. I do recommend adding a distant room mic if you can! When placing spot mics, be mindful of the same general considerations that go into any drum-miking scheme.

Kick

In a Glyn Johns context, the role of a kick spot mic is mostly to reinforce the kick’s deep, low-end boom; the overhead and fill mics should already be capturing plenty of the drum’s attack and overall tone. I usually try a large-diaphragm dynamic on the resonant head, starting at a distance of six inches to one foot; I find that I capture more low end if I give the drum some room to breathe.

If you’re still wanting more transient snap, you can add a second spot mic a few inches from the batter side of the kick, aimed at the center of the head where the beater strikes it. I like to use an SM57, as its upper-midrange ‘presence’ peak helps to accentuate the beater attack. If you do end up miking both heads, you’ll want to try flipping the polarity on one of the mics to make sure they’re in phase with one another.

Room

I highly recommend adding a more distant room mic to your Glyn Johns setup. Walk around the space while the drummer plays, looking for a ‘sweet spot’ where you really like what you’re hearing, and place the mic there to start. You might try a large-diaphragm condenser. A ribbon or dynamic mic will give you a darker sound. I really enjoy the Electro-Voice 635A, an omni dynamic, as a room mic for loud rock drums.

Mixdown

While mixing, you’ll pan the overhead and fill mics to create a stereo image. The overhead should be panned 50% to one side, and the fill panned 100% to the opposite side. This will give you a distinctive stereo image that depends on both frequency and time-of-arrival differences between the microphones; it sounds characteristically different than the image that you get from other stereo mic techniques like X/Y, A/B, and mid/side. When poorly executed, the Glyn Johns technique can cause the kick or snare to drift from the center of the stereo image once they’re panned out, but if you take the time to listen and adjust before committing to the recording, you shouldn’t have any issues. If you use spot mics on the kick and/or snare, and keep them panned to the center, they can help to center those elements in the stereo image.

Conclusion

I recommend the Glyn Johns method to amateur recordists who only have a couple mics to work with, and to seasoned recordists who enjoy elegantly simple solutions that force them to commit to their sounds during the tracking phase. If you prefer to micromanage during the mixing phase, Glyn Johns probably isn’t ideal for your process. It produces the best results when you’re already in love with the sound you’re hearing in the room, and want to capture that sound transparently and with a minimum of fuss.