Choosing Drum Mikes For Live Performance
Good drum sounds don’t simply impact your tone – they inspire your performance. The better your drums sound, the better you play. But even the most meticulously tuned drum set can sound horrible under the wrong microphones. I’ve suffered this indignity many times, and in response have become one of those odd drummers who actually brings his own mikes to a live gig. I’m familiar with them. I like how they sound on my drums.
As for what mikes to buy, fortunately, there are a gaggle of microphone pre-packs available from almost every mike manufacturer, at all price points. I suggest buying the best-quality pre-pack you can afford, with more mikes than you think you need, so when you need more mikes, you already have them. If you go nuts and get microphone fever, make sure you get an appropriate tom mike for each of the toms you have, both mounted and floor.
There are many different ways to approach mike setups and microphone choice for live performance. The examples that follow have consistently worked for me. These setups range from just a single kick mike to a microphone on every surface, plus a couple of stereo overheads. I suppose you’re not going to plug the mikes into your own mixer and act as front-of-house sound engineer as well as drummer. Instead, you’ll most likely plug into an existing band or venue sound system – hopefully one that sounds good!
When it comes to choosing the right mikes, most of us don’t have the luxury of auditioning different types and models, so I’ll also discuss microphone frequency-curve charts and how they relate to drums. But first, a review of microphone basics.
A condenser mike acts as a capacitor, which has two metal plates with voltage applied between them. One of the plates is thin and acts like a diaphragm. When sound energy vibrates the diaphragm, capacitance is changed, thereby altering the voltage output of the mike. Condenser mikes require voltage to work, which is most often supplied by sending “phantom power” through the mike cable from the mixing board. Less frequently, a condenser mike may use an internal battery to supply the needed voltage, eliminating the need for phantom power. Condenser mikes are most useful on instruments that have a lot of high-frequency content, like piano, acoustic guitar, and cymbals, as these mikes inherently reproduce these frequencies better than dynamic mikes. Condenser mikes come in “large-diaphragm” and “small-diaphragm” varieties, with small-diaphragm condensers being the most common in live sound reinforcement. These mikes tend to be more delicate and expensive than their dynamic brethren.
These are the most common mikes used in live sound. It’s easy to see why – they’re super durable and relatively inexpensive when compared to other types of mikes. They use simple electromagnetic principles to work: A diaphragm attached to a coil is placed over a magnet. When sound-wave energy reaches the diaphragm, it moves the attached coil over the magnetic field, creating electrical current. This current, measured in volts, is amplified by the sound system. Think of a dynamic mike as a speaker in reverse. Because of this design, dynamic mikes, unlike condenser mikes, do not require phantom power to work. Dynamic mikes are also very versatile, and are equally at home on vocals, guitar amps (like they need to be louder), bass, and most parts of the drum set.
A Pattern Develops
Microphones can be designed to pick up sound in four different ways or “patterns.”
This pattern, known commonly as “omni,” picks up sound equally from every direction. Because of this characteristic, they are infrequently used in live sound. Most mikes fall into the directional category. Directional mikes come in two basic patterns: cardioid and hypercardioid.
As the name implies, these mikes have a heart-shaped pattern. A cardioid pattern rejects sound from the rear of the mike and, to a lesser extent, from the sides.
Mikes with a hypercardoid pattern reject even more sound from the sides, making them very directional. These are often referred to as “shotgun” mikes, and are used when you need to capture a single sound in a noisy environment. These are used extensively to record individual voices in film and video. They’re usually covered in a big furry windscreen called a “blimp.” Used properly, directional mikes can reject unwanted sound within a drum set, like cymbals bleeding into tom mikes, and the snare drum from bleeding into the hi-hat mike.
Also known as a bidirectional pattern, it will pick up sound equally from the front and the rear while rejecting sound from the sides. There are few instances in which you might use the pattern on drums.
Buy top-quality mikes the first time around. A great quality mike can give you a lifetime of service. While pre-packs are an easy option for building your mike collection, there is nothing wrong with adding one mike at a time. The suggested mike setups that follow begin with just one mike, and increase in number until almost every part of the drum set is covered.
The First Mike
If you plan to buy only one mike, get one designed for use on a kick drum. Take this mike with you to every gig – even if you don’t think you’ll need it. As stage volume rises, the kick is the first part of the drum set to sonically disappear. Much of this is physical, as most of the sound energy of the kick shoots out the front of the drum, away from your ears. When I can’t hear and feel the kick drum, I begin to hit too hard, and my “finesse chops” go out the window – I hate when that happens!
Don’t skimp when purchasing this mike. It is the one you’ll use most frequently, and creates the foundation for your drum sound. There’s a microphone specifically designed for the kick drum available from almost every manufacturer. These mikes are designed to accentuate the frequencies that most often make kicks sound better, and to scoop out those that are less desirable. In a sense, these mikes are pre-EQ’d, helping make up for a sound system that lacks advanced channel EQ – or for an inebriated sound engineer.
A frequency-curve chart is available for every microphone you’d want to buy. If a microphone doesn’t have one, don’t buy it. This chart graphs the microphone’s frequency-response characteristics. The x-axis (horizontal axis) plots the audible frequency range of humans – low to high, left to right – in Hz (cycles per second), about 20—20,000Hz. The y-axis is (vertical axis) shows sound level in dB (decibels). Anything above the 0dB mark shows an increase to the decibel level (i.e., a frequency boost). Anything below the 0dB mark shows a decrease to the decibel level (frequency cut). The 0dB mark indicates that a frequency is neither boosted nor cut. It is said to be “flat.”
Every mike is designed to accentuate and diminish its sensitivity to certain frequencies. This is done through diaphragm design and choice, internal circuitry, and the design specifics of the physical case in which all this is housed. A microphone’s shape is not purely cosmetic – it greatly influences the final look of the frequency-response curve. Without ever hearing a mike, you can get a sense of what the mike will ultimately sound like by analyzing its frequency-curve chart.
Let’s look at the frequency-curve charts of three popular dynamic kick mikes: The Audix D6, Shure Beta 52A, and AKG D 112 (Figs. 5—7). Although they peak at slightly different frequencies, all three mikes accentuate 3.5—5kHz, which brings out the beater slap against the head. However, since the D6 has the most pronounced frequency bump at a whopping 9dB, coupled with the additional bump well above 10kHz, it offers the most beater slap of the three mikes. This is an important trait when trying to cut through a wall of guitar sound.
“Flat” would best describe the mid-range frequency curve of the AKG D 112. For better or worse, the mike provides plenty of mid-range, which is where a lot of sonic content is found in music – especially live music. To help combat mid-range muddiness, both Shure and Audix have substantially scooped out the low-mids, centered loosely at 500Hz – a great thing for live music, in my experience. Low-end frequencies, 50—100Hz, are boosted in all three mikes, giving a big bottom end to any kick drum.
Before choosing a mike, talk to other drummers and the people doing sound on your gigs about the mikes they like and dislike, and why this is so. Often, this is the most honest source of information available. Also, pay attention to the sound of different kick mikes as you listen to live music. There isn’t a substitute for your ears; you’ll know what you like when you hear it. I personally own at least one of each of these three kick mikes.
TIP If you want to go the extra mile, permanently mount your kick mike with an internal mounting system like the May Internal Miking System or the Kelly Shu Kick Drum Microphone Mounting System. These systems make it possible to place the mike in the optimum position, and keep it there over time – plug and play miking.
One Plus One Equals Two
Miking the kick and snare is perhaps the most common live setup using just two microphones. Although a small-diaphragm condenser mike could be used on the top of the snare, multi-purpose dynamic mikes such as the Audix i5 and ever-present Shure SM57 are most common. Even though these are not expensive mikes, they are equally at home on the stage and in the recording studio. If need be, you could mike every instrument on stage with a bunch of either of these two mikes and have it sound great. You could also use either to rough frame a house and they would probably still function as a mike afterward (although, I’m positive that would void the warranty!). These are as durable as microphones come.
The frequency-curve charts, as with the kick mikes, show you what to expect from these two mikes before even plugging them in. The chart for the SM57 (Fig. 8) shows why it’s so versatile – a tight bottom end, and then a flat frequency response until a 6dB bump around 6.5kHz. Then the high end gradually tapers off – just enough sizzle without a boomy bottom.
Compared to the SM57, the Audix i5 (Fig. 9) is a relative newcomer. It’s a lot like the SM57, except it has a little more sizzle on the high-end, and some added punch at just the right spot due to the broad 5dB bump at 150Hz. For me, this is the “extra special little something” that the SM57 has always lacked. I remember once, while tracking drums in the studio with the i5 on my snare for the first time, an engineer said over the cue mix, “Where can I get one?” every time I hit the snare. As he’s engineered sessions for Prince, I thought that was a ringing endorsement for the i5.
Three To Four Mikes
With the kick and snare covered, I’d then add one or two small-diaphragm condenser mikes as overheads. Just a single overhead mike can adequately capture all your cymbals and toms. But, by adding a second overhead to make a stereo pair, you can more easily position the overheads to capture a balanced blend of toms, crash, and ride cymbals, as well as the hi-hat. As a bonus, if the sound system is stereo, it is possible to hear the drums with a stereo image.
For mike placement, I’ve found over the years that an X/Y pattern doesn’t work for me in a live situation. I center-spread out the overheads about three feet, focusing one on the hi-hat, cymbals, and first mounted tom, and the other on the floor tom and cymbals. When using overheads to catch both cymbals and toms, I tend to set them about a foot farther away than I would to capture just the cymbals. Experiment with some different positions – every drum setup is unique.
Once again, let’s refer to the frequency curves for a few popular small-diaphragm condenser mikes often used in live-sound reinforcement: the Shure SM81, Audix ADX51, and AKG C 451 B (Figs. 10—12). All three of these mikes have a built-in roll-off switch for the low end (it’s a good idea to cut at least some of the low end in a live setting).
The Shure SM81 has a somewhat flat response, and so does the AKG C 451 B, which also features a nice and smooth bump on the high end. The additional high-end bump at around 10kHz on the Audix ADX51 gives a lot of point to the sound, especially when relying on just overheads to handle most of the drum set.
Four And More
To complete your set of live-performance mikes, let’s add a hi-hat mike as well as one for each of your toms. Even though dynamic mikes are used on hi-hats in live situations, you really should use condensers, because they inherently reproduce the desired frequencies. This is most important when playing music that relies heavily on the hi-hat for its feel, such as pop, rock, and funk. The tighter the pick-up pattern the better, as this will minimize the amount of snare drum bleed.
For toms, it’s most economical to use a good dynamic mike, like the Audix D2 (Fig. 13). Its pronounced frequency bump between 2—6kHz gives toms added stick snap and a fat bottom end while leaving room in the mid-frequencies for other parts of the music. The Audix D4 works well on floor toms, as the frequency bump that accentuates the stick snap is centered a little lower (Fig. 14). Of course, the other obvious choice for toms is the Shure SM57 (Fig. 8). It’s been used on toms, and everything else, forever.
If you crave more high frequencies from your toms, try the AKG C 518 M (Fig. 15). Being a high-quality, clip-on condenser mike, it’s a different animal than the three mentioned dynamic mikes. It has a classic small-diaphragm condenser-mike curve, gradual roll-off of the lows, flat mids, a smooth boost from 5—12kHz, then quick but smooth cut to 20kHz. You’ll be happy with any of these mikes.
TIP As with the internal kick miking system and snare drum mike clip, if you want to make the sound engineer your friend, also get mike mounts that attach to your tom hoops. These make getting them on and off much easier.
There you have it, four different microphone setups for live performance – from one mike to one for every drum – chosen by the numbers. When it comes to microphones, the frequency-curve charts tell all.