RangeOfSounds.com is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.
Drums (the modern drum kit) are an important instrument for various music styles, from country to classic rock, pop to blues, and many other genres.
While having a drummer and drums in the band is not required, it can add many dynamics, layers, and options to a song or musical group that might not be able to be achieved otherwise.
However, just because you have drums in your song doesn’t mean it will improve a song. The quality of the drums within a song largely depends on the drummer’s skill and the drums’ tuning.
Further, a whole other set of considerations comes into play when recording and mixing drums. One of these considerations, which is of utmost importance, is how drums should be recorded.
In this instance, I am not talking about recording methods or types of microphones but rather how the drums are recorded within recording hardware and software. In particular, if drums should be mono or stereo.
So which is it?
Individual drum hits are typically recorded in mono. This allows the individual hits to be prominent within the mix. From there, many pieces of the drums can be panned to the right or left within the mix to create a stereo effect. However, in some cases, stereo recording can also be used.
Below we will look at the differences between mono and stereo and why this matters when working with drums within a recording.
Mono Vs. Stereo, What’s The Difference?
Mono audio means that the audio is coming from a single source. In contrast, with stereo audio, the audio comes from multiple sources and provides a right and left feeling to the audio. Mono audio will only send one audio channel to each speaker(s), whereas stereo will send two separate audio tracks, one going to the left and one to the right speaker.
In most situations when listening to music, stereo is preferred as it can add more depth and detail to the listening experience. This is especially true when mixing music and casually listening in the car or through headphones or home speakers.
While you might not always be able to hear these differences when directly in front of two speakers or listening to headphones, if you take one headphone off or move closer to one speaker, some of these characteristics of mono versus stereo become clearer.
In some cases, stereo is not the best choice, such as in rooms with multiple speakers like a restaurant, as this could decrease the audio quality through a process known as phase cancellation, which essentially means that audio waves with the same frequency interact and cancel one wave or reduce the overall signal.
In environments such as restaurants, it is best to use mono; even if the quality isn’t as high as stereo, it helps protect against issues like phase cancellation.
Now that we have covered the differences between mono and stereo, how does this relate to drums, specifically when recording and mixing the drums?
Should Drums Be Mono Or Stereo?
The modern drum kit is a unique and complex instrument. Unlike a guitar, bass, vocals, or other instruments, the drums are comprised of several individual instruments.
Further, drums are not pitched, meaning when you hit the snare, for example, it is not expected to be “in tune” with the other instruments. In the case of the guitar, if you play in the Key of G major, all of the notes would need to be from that major key (with some exceptions).
However, the individual toms must still should be in tune with each other. Check out my recent article covering this topic for more details here.
So if drums are complex and unique, should they be mono or stereo?
As the introduction stated, ideally, the drum hits you record for mixing in your music should be in mono. If you record in stereo, the same phase cancellation issues you might encounter in a restaurant or similar setting could happen with the drums.
In fact, very few instruments are ever recorded as stereo. These are predominantly keyboards or synthesizers, but even some of these have mono options.
Another reason drum hits are best to be in mono is that mono drum hits can often be mixed to sound much more powerful and clearly defined within the context of the song. Again, in stereo, the individual hits could be covered up or decreased due to phase cancellation issues or by competing with other instruments in similar frequency ranges.
Check out this video below that gives some great examples of mono and stereo sound differences.
Mono also allows much better control over panning, arguably the most important consideration when making the drums sound good in the mix and the differences between mono and stereo.
Panning is where a given instrument or vocals sits within the mix. Panning is a crucial component of all aspects of music, but here we will focus on its importance in the context of the drums. By the end of these descriptions, you will see precisely why having drums in mono is so essential.
To visualize this, think of half of a circle. Right in the middle of the rounded portion, we have the center. From there, you can go left or right; halfway to the circle’s edge would be 50% (or right). At the far ends, where the half circle is flat, would be 100% (or right).
Keep this visual in mind as I talk about where the individual parts of the drum kit sit within the mix.
I should briefly note that below, I am describing these as if each drum on the kit has its own mic. In my home studio, I currently have a mic for my kick, snare, each of my four toms, and two overhead mics for cymbals. If you do not have this set up, that is not a big deal, as many famous bands have recorded drums with far fewer microphones.
In my opinion, the kick drum (along with the snare and the Hi-Hats) are the most important pieces of the modern drum kit for most genres. After all, when you boil down the role of the drummer, the primary function is to keep time for the band. Yes, drumming goes beyond this, but it doesn’t matter how cool your drum fills are if you can’t keep time.
Since the kick drum is a central component of the drums, it makes sense that it should be recorded in mono and placed in the center. In other words, the kick drum needs no panning.
Because it is such a powerful element of the music, having the kick in mono and center ensures it will not lose any of its impact regardless of where you are listening to the song. For example, if you remove one earbud, you will still hear the kick loud and clear.
Next on the list is the snare. Like the kick, the snare is vital in the mix. When people are clapping along to a song, it is the snare hit with which they are generally in time with.
From my experience as a drummer in rock bands, the snare is the most critical piece of my kit for helping to keep the other musicians on time. The lead guitarist in one of my bands always pays attention to my snare hits to ensure he stays on track during our performances.
When panning the snare, there is some debate about where it should go, but what isn’t debated is that it should be recorded in mono. Some people like to have the snare exactly center along with the kick, while others like to have it slightly off-center but never exceeding 20% from the center.
If you are new to mixing, play around with where you have the snare within the mix until you find what you prefer, which might change from song to song.
Depending on your preference, there are a few different ways to pan toms within the mix. Again, the drum hits are best recorded in mono, but when you pan them, it makes a stereo effect, which can sound really cool during tom fills.
There are no set rules as to how wide to pan the toms within the mix, but there are two primary considerations that you should avoid. The first is to not keep all your toms in a tiny space in the mix, as it might make your mix sound too crowded. The other is not to pan your toms all the way to either side, as the wide spacing might sound odd (unless that is exactly the effect you are going for).
I have heard of Hi-Hats being recorded in stereo, but I have always recorded mine in mono and then panned them to give that stereo effect. Hi-Hats can be tricky to get right in the mix, and as with the snare, there are a few different views on where they should sit within the mix.
A good place to start is somewhere in the 20-30% range from the center. From there, you can increase or decrease that distance depending on what type of effect you are going for or the genre you are playing.
The wider you pan the Hi-Hats, the bigger stereo image you will create within your mix.
How many cymbals you have on your kit can factor into this decision. However, typically the other cymbals will sit in the mix somewhere between 20 and 45-50% from the center, with the ride cymbal typically being one of the farthest from the center.
I like to think of the ride cymbal as the counterbalance of my hit hats, so I always try to focus on how the ride cymbal sits within the mix.
There you have it! I hope you found this article helpful in determining how you should record your drums and where each individual piece of the drum kit sits within the mix.
Until next time, stay creative and keep on playing!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.