A Primer On Choosing Recording Microphones


Tipping The Hat

The overhead mikes usually capture the hi-hat quite efficiently, but for some styles of music, a hi-hat mike is warranted to enhance the stick work and foot action. A small diaphragm condenser is hands-down the best choice for this application because it captures crisp detail and usually exhibits excellent transient response. Examples include AKG’s C451 and 460, Neumann’s KM 84 and 184, Shure’s SM81, Audio-Technica’s AT4051 and AT4031, Audix’s SCX-one, and Crown’s CM700.

The CM700 is somewhat darker sounding, while the SM81 stays on the bright side of the spectrum. If you have crusty old hats that sound dull and clanky, you may want to toast them up with the SM81. If your hats are edgy, you may want to smooth the hackles with a CM700 or the smooth sounding KM184 or C451.

Aerial View

When it comes to overheads, condensers take the cake for their extended frequency response and sensitivity, and the sky’s the limit with the options available. Condensers that have a selectable attenuation pad are generally preferable because a drum kit can get pretty loud. If you want to mike primarily the cymbals while capturing the rest of the kit with close mikes, then small diaphragm condensers in a split overhead configuration may serve you best. If you want to capture a blend of the entire kit for a jazz recording, for instance, then you may want to go with either a single, broad-pattern mike, or with a coincident stereo pair of large-diaphragm condensers in an XY pattern. If you want a warmer sound, try some tube mikes.

An amazing sounding kit could benefit from representation by small-diaphragm omnidirectional microphones, which have a flat, extended frequency response and are very accurate. Because these mikes pick up sound from all sides, you’ll want to use them in a good sounding room that is isolated from other sound sources. Examples of these mikes include Earthworks TC30K or QTC1, Neumann’s KM183, and the B&K (now DPA) 4004.

For picking up a blend of the entire kit, versatile large diaphragm mikes with switchable patterns give you options. These include the Neumann U87, which is fairly bright with a smooth response, AKG’s C414, which has an excellent low end and is bright around 8kHz, making it good for picking up cymbal wash and definition on tom hits, and Audio-Technica’s AT4050. Other mikes that do well for this application are: the AKG C3000B, Blue Dragonfly, Shure KSM32, Neumann TLM103, and M49, just to name a few.

To capture cymbals, the Oktava MC012 offers good definition, and has a full, bright sound with warm lows. Other examples of small-diaphragm condensers that are popular as overhead mikes are AKG’s C451, Neumann’s KM184, Shure’s SM81 (which is fairly bright), and the Audix SCX-one. Vintage tube mikes such as the Schoeps M222 can give your cymbals some warmth without sacrificing detail.

In some circumstances, a carefully placed, more robust model of ribbon mike could be appropriate if you have a good sounding room and you’re looking for excellent transient response and a smooth, soft high end without the sizzle-y characteristic of condensers. The pickup pattern of most ribbon mikes is bi-directional (a.k.a. figure 8), so both source and reflected sounds will be picked up from the front and back of the mike, but not from the sides. Royer’s R121 or SF12 stereo mikes are well-suited for this application, as is the British-made Coles 4038, which Ringo has used as an overhead.


A Room Of One’s Own

A single mike can capture the room sound, or a stereo array can be used for a more expansive and versatile sound. High-end large diaphragm condensers, tube or otherwise, are often favored for this application, such as a Neumann U87, or U67 tube mike, or a TLM103 for more focused punch. AKG’s C12 is also popular, and a C414 would give you some exaggerated brightness if you were looking for more definition. For stereo miking, AKG’s C24 and Neumann’s SM69 stereo tube mikes are excellent. If there’s one on hand, a Calrec sound field mike with its polyhedron capsule array will give you plenty of mix options. PZMs are also an interesting way to get a room sound without worrying about phase cancellation issues. Crown makes some popular models, and MBHO makes the C622 for drums, a unique OSS-style stereo PZM based on the Jecklin disk design.

In The End, You’ve Got Sound

To summarize, there are many different mikes available, and the ones you choose to mike your drums for a recording session depends on your kit and the sound and vibe you want to achieve. It’s up to the engineer, and to you. A little savvy can give you a starting point from which to shape your sound with microphones. Save yourself extra work at mix down by tuning your drums up right, practicing your ass off, and picking the mikes that will best represent your sound. There is no “one way” to mike a kit. Hopefully this diatribe has given you a starting place from which to launch your exploration into the world of microphones to capture your own special drum sound.


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