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Studio Tips: How To Capture Your Kick

Tavaglione feels that a two-person tuning team is the best way to tweak. From the drummer’s vantage point, it’s nearly impossible to know what the kick drum really sounds like from the position that counts: out front. “It takes two people to do this, one guy playing and one guy tuning, maybe even switching roles,” he explains. “The differences in the room with how a kick sounds is enormous, and it’s not apparent to the drummer performing. There is some sweet spot on that resonant head that not only makes it in tune with the drum itself, but also in tune with the room, if you will. When that resonant head is tuned right — and we’re assuming that we have a good beater and beater pad — then it seems like almost any microphone choice would work.”

While tedious, all of this detailed preparation is a must for great kick drum recordings. “If the drum doesn’t sound good, no kind of microphone, EQ, or compression is going to make it sound good going to tape,” concludes Plotnikoff. “It’s just like you can’t get a big Marshall guitar sound if you’re miking a tiny Champ amp.”

Kick Drum Microphones

It’s relatively easy to choose an appropriate microphone for recording bass drums. Bass drum microphones, in general, should be directional (cardioid), which helps to reduce bleed from other sound sources such as cymbals, toms, and snare drum. Directional microphones also have a tendency to cause proximity effect — or bass boost — when used at “close-to-source” distances, which can be quite desirable considering a kick drum’s sonic characteristics. Appropriate microphone choices are largely dynamic models (as opposed to condenser microphones needing phantom power) because of the generally high SPL output of a bass drum. Larger microphone diaphragms are preferred to better capture low-end frequencies. There are a variety of great microphone choices from various manufacturers, and while each mike offers slightly different aural characteristics, most moderately priced (between $200-$500 MSRP) microphones designed for kick drum can sufficiently capture desired results.

“Pretty much any of the large diaphragm kick drum mikes made specifically for kick drums are great,” offers Tavaglione. “There isn’t a single one of them that I don’t like, whether it’s a Shure Beta 52, AKG D112, Audix D6, or a Sennheiser e602. They’re all great.”

While recommending the AKG D112, Webb also reveals that he has used the fairly low-cost, yet impressive Audio-Technica ATM25 ($275 MSRP) on many recordings with remarkable results. “I’ve used them since the Limp Bizkit Significant Other record — that was an ATM25,” he explains. “It’s like an Electro-Voice RE20 — also a great mike — but it’s cheaper and slightly ’scooped’ frequency-wise.”

After investigating the many available bass drum microphone options and still finding nothing to suit a restricted budget, both Webb and Cobb agree that you can’t beat a ubiquitous Shure SM57. “I use SM57s on a lot of stuff,” says Cobb. “It’s a $100 microphone and I’ve used it everywhere: on kick drums, overheads, toms, snares. They’re just great.” If purchasing a microphone (or several) specifically for recording kick drum, however, don’t overspend. “Don’t get a $1,000 kick mike and not be able to buy anything else,” advises Webb.

When miking a bass drum with a single microphone and a ported resonant head, a good starting point is to position a boom-mounted mike inside the kick drum with its diaphragm off-center and a few inches from the batter head. Moving the mike toward the batter head can add fullness to the sound, and moving it back can add some high-frequency snap. When closer to the center of the head, or nearer to the spot of beater impact, punch can be emphasized, while moving it away increases the presence of shell tone. Since small moves can lead to large sonic differences, all adjustments should be made carefully.

Another internal, single-mike option is the use of a boundary or PZM (pressure zone) microphone, which can be simply set inside the drum. “The one that comes to mind most readily is the Shure Beta 91,” says Tavaglione. “There are two things that you can do with it that are great. One is to put in inside to get some nice click and attack off the beater, which might free you to use another mike outside the drum to get some long decay. Or, if you’ve got a rock guy with a drum that has no hole in the head, the Beta 91 is great. Simply remove the resonant head, place the Beta 91 on his pillow or blanket, and run the tiny, narrow cable it uses through a vent hole. Then you can put your resonant head back on, still getting a nice, sealed, resonant sound with some beater attack.”

It’s advisable to attempt to get a great kick sound using only one microphone first. If you can get a great bass drum sound with one mike, then further experimentation with multiple microphones, positions, and other tricks are icing on the cake. For Webb, two mikes per kick is generally his modus operandi. “I’ll put one inside — closer than normal to the batter head — and the other on the outside, out front,” he explains. “The one on the inside is for the high-end of the kick drum, the other’s for low end. With the outside mike, I may even roll off the high-end so that you’re not getting bleed from cymbals. Then I blend that with the other mike, which gives you a fuller tone.” This technique works well with either a dynamic or PZM microphone inside, as well as with ported or solid resonant heads.

Another blending technique endorsed by Mark Trombino — engineer and producer for such acts as Jimmy Eat World, Finch, and Blink 182, among others — is simple and commonly used, largely relying on overhead microphones for a natural, roomy kick sound. “Sometimes it’s good to be conservative with the number of microphones you use. You can even start with a three-mike thing: two overheads and a kick mike. It depends on what kind of music you’re doing, but on what I do, it’s preferred to have fewer mikes and have it more roomy-sounding anyway. Listen to the room mikes first, then add the kick mike until it’s balanced.”

However, when getting a bass drum sound with an overhead/kick microphone combination, be sure to keep signal phase in mind. “Usually I flip the overheads out of phase because they’re usually out of phase with the kick drum anyway,” offers Plotnikoff. “You’ll be able to tell — once you put your kick drum in with the cymbal mikes, you might lose a bit of your bottom end from the kick mike, or you’ll think you need to turn the kick up. That’s how you’ll know. Usually putting the cymbals out of phase will correct the situation.”

Needless to say, bass drum miking combinations and positions are limitless, and nearly everyone knowledgeable of the subject would encourage experimenting with positioning. However, there’s one guideline that’s always worth following — the 3:1 distance rule. In order to maintain phase integrity, the distance between two microphones must be at least three times the mike-to-source distance. For example, if an internal kick mike is 6” from the batter head, then an exterior or secondary kick mike must be 18" or more from the first mike. By following this rule, phase cancellations — often “hazy” or “shallow” sound qualities — won’t plague your bass drum tracks.

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