Miking Drums

Miking Drums

Microphone placement on a drum set is one of the most commonly debated techniques in the industry. The reason for this is essentially that it is all a matter of taste–musical style, desired timbre (pronounced “tam-br”), and available mics/budget all change how one approaches the subject. I am not a drummer, but there are certain things that I have picked up from drummers over the years that can help get someone going in the right direction.

First, we’ll look at the drum set itself. The simplest common setup is a mere three pieces, with a kick, a snare, and a hi-hat. This is most often found in front of a jazz drummer. The other end of the spectrum can be found in rock drummers such as Neil Peart. A frequent setup for him would actually be a hybrid, made up of an acoustic set–physical drums with skins and cymbols–and an electric set. His set can extend to a full 360 degrees. But no one reading this will probably ever work with a set like his, so we will stick to the usual trap set, another name for drums. A typical drum set is made up of five parts: a kick drum, a snare, a hi-hat, toms, and cymbals.

The Kick Drum

The first thing you need to know is that a microphone that can handle low frequencies is the choice for a kick mic. There are all types of microphones that handle all sorts of frequencies. Another thing you need to know is that kick drum mics need to be able to take high sound pressure levels (SPL). Sound pressure could be described as the atmospheric pressure caused by sound waves.

Imagine if you are standing in front of a gigantic bass amp at a concert. When the bassist plays, you can feel air moving over you, right? The amp is quite literally “pushing” air in order to make sound. The sudden pressurization of air can be felt as it spreads, just as it sounds, like a wave. The problem with high SPL is that it can easily damage certain microphones. One type of microphone is called a ribbon microphone, and they typically cannot handle high SPL, so they are not usually recommended. Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, can usually take high SPL. Some common dynamic kick mics are Shure Beta 52A ($189), AKG D112 ($199), and the Electro-Voice RE20 ($449). Some condenser mics also do a great job with low-end frequencies, such as the Shure Beta 91 ($239). A specific recommendation of mine would be to pick up a Yamaha SKRM-100 Subkick ($400). It is a very unique mic, as it is actually a speaker-turned-microphone. It looks like a small snare m mounted sideways on a stand, and it fits with the general look of the drums because of the drum shell housing. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but I can certainly attest to its sound. It is often used in conjunction with an Audix D6 ($199).

INTERESTING FACT: Many mics can be used for multiple applications, but still have specialties within those applications. the AKG D112 is used a lot for miking low-end instruments, but it is also used a lot for capturing the male voice. It has been used by Thom Yorke of Radiohead for much of his vocal work. If you have it in your budget to buy one of these more pricy mics, it may well be worth it. Make sure it is a wise investment, though, and make sure your kids don’t get ice cream on the grill.

Should you place the kick mic inside or outside? If inside, should it be just inside the hole–if there is one–or close to the beater (the hammer hooked up to the kick pedal)? Different places will get you different sounds. Outside or just inside the sound hole will get you more of the “woosh” of the kick drum, while placing it farther inside and closer to the beater will get you the “pop” of the kick. It depends a bit on which sound you want. Maybe your drummer has a plenty hard stomp, so you need to capture more of the woosh. Maybe your drummer has weak legs and needs some help on the impact. What bands do you listen to? Probably more common is putting the mic closer to the beater rather than outside, though the camp is very split on kick mic placement.

The Snare

If you walk into one church and look at the snare, you may see a completely different-looking mic than the last church you visited. Sometimes people will get a drum miking kit, and those usually have clip-on mics for the snare and toms that look similar. I have seen people purchase such a kit, then drop the one for the snare in favor of a Shure SM57 ($99), a common dynamic instrument mic. This microphone is in many ways legendary, having been used for everything from guitar amps to snare drums to vocals to woodwinds. On a lower budget, a couple of these microphones will do you wonders in terms of their diverse applications.

For percussion in general, however, some have switched from the SM57 to the Beta 56A ($159) because of the pickup pattern and reportedly more natural-sounding tail (how long the sound rings out before dying). The Audix i5 ($99) is another well-received dynamic mic for snares.

But what about placement? If you place the mic above the snare, you get more of the stick impact and ring from the snare drum. If you place it beneath the snare, you get a lot more of the rattle from the snare wires. If you have the mics for it, you can do both and blend them to your taste — don’t all sound engineers wish they had a plethora of mics at their disposal! You want the mic facing the skin fairly close to the rim, in general. Experiment some with the placement — do you and your drummer like it better half an inch from the skin or two inches away? Do you want it as close to the rim as possible or do you like it a few inches in? Listen for the differences in how much pop you get and how much ringing you get to help you decide how you like it. If you mic the bottom of the snare, set it pretty close to the snare wires, since that’s why it’s down there. As I said before, there’s a bit more of a ring to the top and more buzz and rattle from the bottom.

The Hi-Hat

The first thing you want to think about with hi-hat mic placement is how much bleed you’re getting with the other instruments and their mics. If you’re using two overheads for your cymbals, you are probably getting a good chunk of your hi-hat through the stage left overhead, so that will have to be considered. The proximity of the snare and the hi-hat can also be a problem in miking the set, because you don’t want a lot of bleed from the snare into the hi-hat mic or vice versa. If you place the mic just a few inches away from the hi-hat, you can keep the gain/trim pulled back a bit more and keep some of that bleed from occurring. A gate on each channel will do a lot for isolating the signals as well and is common practice.

The Shure SM81 ($349) is a good mic for the hi-hat as well as for overheads. The AKG C460B (roughly $200-400 used, with a capsule — unique design, requiring a capsule on top that can be bought separately) is an older mic that was a part of a unique line of modular microphones, but it seems to be fairly popular among drummers. The C451 was the precursor to the C460 but used transformers, and the C480 followed up the C460 with improved transformerless electronics over the C460.

The Toms

Treat these in much the same way that you would treat the snare, minus the extra mic on bottom since these have no snare wires. You can orient the mic more toward the middle of the drum head for a boomier sound if that’s what you would like. Again, the SM57 comes in as a popular choice for the toms. Another choice is the Sennheiser MD421-II ($349), which beats out the SM57’s high end response by 1K (1 kilohertz; how many times a sine wave completes revolutions per second is 1 hertz) and has been quite popular for many years. The Shure Beta 98A ($199) and the Beyerdynamic M 201 TG ($299) are a few more options for tom mics.

The Overheads

These mics are going to be a bit different than the rest. While the kick, snare, hi-hat, and tom mics will all be close to their respective kit pieces, the overheads will be placed a foot or two above the entire kit. This means that they need a larger diaphragm (pickup pattern, not stomach muscle) than the others. They also need to be able to handle high end frequencies well since the cymbals are primarily in the upper range.

You can get by with just one overhead if you need to, but it is common practice and suggested if you have the microphones/budget to have a stereo pair above the kit, one for the right side and one for the left. In general, the distance of the mics from the cymbals will range from a foot-and-a-half to two feet, but the dynamics of your drummer can lead to a necessary adjustment. The SPL is what comes into play here, both in placement distance and in mic selection. Softer drummers will have a lower SPL, so more sensitive mics are fine. If your drummer plays the cymbals especially hard, however, you need to make sure that your overheads are not going to blow up when he hits them going into the first chorus this Sunday.

Another thing to watch for with the placement of these mics is the volume difference between the ride and crash cymbals. The ride and ride bell will generally be quieter than the crash cymbal(s), so you may want to adjust your placement to favor the ride a bit. The Shure SM81 ($349) is a common choice for overhead mics. A pair of Neumann KM84s ($700-900) are used sometimes as well, and they have a pretty flat frequency response (minimal boosts or cuts in frequency). The KM184 ($850) is the newer version of the KM84, with a boost in the highs and less noise. One thing to check when troubleshooting these two mics is the phantom power. Without that, they’re dead in the water. They also work well for acoustic guitars and other acoustic instruments.

Extra Thoughts

When mixing your drums, make sure that you are using the appropriate processors. Gates will help a lot in cleaning up your sound and keeping hiss to a minimum, though if you want tail on your drums, back off a bit. Gates tend to give the drums a tighter, sometimes electronic sound if you have them set high enough. A compressor will help even out the kick, too, keeping it consistent and tight-sounding.

Whenever you’re placing the mics on the drum set, make sure that they are mounted in such a way that they will not be hit by the drummer. Even solid dynamic mics can wear out fast if they’re being smacked around every week by someone using heavy gauge drum sticks.

If your church does not currently have a set of drum microphones and you’re looking into purchasing some, shop around. Talk with your Sweetwater representative or several of the salesmen at Guitar Center. I’ve had better experience as far as knowledgeable staff at Sweetwater, but there are definitely some smart people at Guitar Center too. They can help you decided whether a drum mic set is what you need or if you should buy your mics a la carte.

Also, what does your budget look like? Can you afford a couple of Neumann overhead mics that run $800 apiece, or do you need to drop it down to about $300 apiece?

Can you purchase some mics that will be able to pull double-duty? This is a great way to save money in the long run and get good, quality equipment, though it will cost a bit more in the short run.

Used mics can also be just as good as new mics, though they will probably not look as good. Hop on forums, check Craigslist, etc. You can often get a better quality for your money if you buy used, but buy smart and don’t let yourself get ripped off.

And buy a balanced kit; don’t buy a $20 mic for the kick drum and a $400 pair of mics for the overheads–it’s just not good to mix and match quality like that.