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Covering All Angles: Studio Miking Percussion

Miking

The world of percussion encompasses a staggering assortment of toys that can be struck, rubbed, scraped, or shaken using bare hands, mallets, sticks, bows, whisks, toothbrushes, chainsaws, or whatever else you can imagine. That’s why capturing the tonal character and subtle nuances of different percussive instruments for a recording is an adventure, one that should not be undertaken lightly. It begins with microphone selection and proper placement to achieve the desired sound. There’s really no one set way to go about it, but some basic guidelines offer a springboard from whence to commence your fantastic voyage into recording percussion.

When making decisions on mikes and placement techniques, the timbre and pitch of the instrument and the way it projects sound should be the initial factors you consider. Player dynamics are another biggie. The microphone(s) you choose should be able to handle high SPLs if the instrument is particularly loud. Consider the sound of the room — does it enhance the overall sound? Or should it be minimized? The overall requirements of the musical style should influence approach as well. Does the music call for a spacious ensemble sound or is a tighter, more produced sound in order?

Close miking individual sources results in a more focused, intimate sound, while area miking can be used to capture a group of instruments. The latter is a good way to go if inputs are limited or a more natural blend is desired. Room miking is a great way to capture an ensemble, or a particular instrument for a more expansive, open sound with reflections from the space (provided the room sounds good to begin with). If you have the inputs, a combination of close and distant mikes will give you mixing options later on. As always, when incorporating a dual-mike technique to capture a broader spectrum of tones from a drum, you may have to flip the phase on the bottom mike to avoid phase cancellation issues.

Meet The Mikes

In the controlled environment of a recording studio or a facsimile thereof, your choice of microphones expands. Live sound situations typically require unidirectional dynamic mikes and tight-pattern small-diaphragm condensers in order to control feedback and bleed. Stalwarts in this arena include models like the Shure SM57 and Audix I-5 small-diaphragm dynamic mikes, the Heil PR series, the Sennheiser MD421 and ElectroVoice RE20 large- diaphragm dynamics, and small-capsule condensers such as Neumann’s KM184, Shure’s SM81, AKG’s C 451, Rode’s NT5, Oktava’s MC012, and Audio-Technica’s 3031. Studio recording opens up the palette to include the exciting possibilities offered by multiple pickup-pattern small- and large-diaphragm condensers, tube condensers, and ribbon microphones.

A mike with an omnidirectional pickup pattern picks up the sound source and the reflections from the room without off-axis coloration, and it is free from the proximity effect (a low-end boost) that results when close miking with a unidirectional mike. Some examples of small-diaphragm omnidirectional condensers include Neumann’s KM183, Oktava’s MC012 with the omni capsule, and Earthworks’ TC20. Multiple pickup pattern options allow for creative stereo miking techniques for capturing the room, a group of instruments, or an ensemble, such as Blumlein (two coincident bi-directional microphones to capture a direct stereo image and reflections), spaced pair, or mid-side (a cardioid mike paired with a bidirectional “side” microphone to capture a focused center image and an adjustable spacious room sound). AKG’s C 414, Rode’s NT2, and Audio-Technica’s AT4050 are examples of multi-pattern large-diaphragm condensers.

Condenser microphones tend to pick up lots of crisp detail and are very sensitive, therefore picking up more sound from the room than a unidirectional dynamic mike normally would. Tube condensers, such as Audio-Technica’s AT4060 and Mojave Audio’s MA200, are often associated with a “warmer” sound.

While there are exceptions, ribbon microphones are typic-ally bi-directional (figure eight pickup pattern) and will pick up the sound source and the reflections from the room behind it while rejecting sound from the sides. This type of mike often has a smoother, more natural sound than condensers, which tend to have a fairly bright top end, so if you’re trying to mellow out the sound of a bright or harsh instrument, a ribbon may be a good choice. Royer and Coles are notable ribbon mike manufacturers, and models are also available from Beyerdynamic, Cascade, Samson, and Nady, just to name a few. Keep in mind that the ribbon can be easily damaged by a burst of air or by SPLs that are too high, so be careful.

Breaking It Down

Generally speaking, percussion instruments can be broken down into several characteristic designs, and within those general categories are myriad forms, each embodying its own subtle character. Single-headed drums range from frame drums, like the bodhran or the pandeiro, to elongated or goblet-shaped versions, such as the conga or the djembe, to pot/kettle type models without ports, like the tabla or the timpani. Double-headed drums vary widely, too, including such shapes as bata, talking drums, and surdo. Then there is the overwhelming realm of idiophones, which ranges from claves, shakers, bells, marimba, berimbau, cajon, and everything in between. It’s best to try to capture the most natural representation of a particular instrument possible for the given situation, and save all the tweaking and processing for later on in the mix. You’ll need to do your own experimenting to get the sound you want, but following is a basic springboard from whence to once again commence this front-end journey to a great percussion recording.

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