As a percussionist, you spend many hours refining your art and coaxing a wide range of sounds from a particular drum or set of instruments. When show time comes, are you going to let a little thing like volume tromp all over the perfect percussion sound? Hell no. Well, how can hand percussionists be heard in a stage mix without overplaying and losing finesse and subtlety? That’s where a few choice mikes, a little sound reinforcement savvy, and a good intuitive sense of sonic behavior come into play.
With that said, let’s take a look at miking hand percussion for live performance situations. While it’s impossible to cover the entire scope of percussion instruments in detail over the following handful of paragraphs, we will endeavor to cover basic instrument types and offer a few essentials for understanding the best miking techniques for some of the more commonly seen hand drums and idiophones. Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to choose the most appropriate mike for just about any percussion instrument and find the best placement to get the most out of it sonically during an amplified performance. The rest is up to you.
The initial approach in selecting an appropriate mike and determining optimum placement for a particular instrument should always involve listening. Each type of hand drum and idiophone has its own distinctive sonic attributes such as timbre, pitch and how it projects sound. Listen critically to the instrument, both up close and from a few feet away, to determine its fundamental tonal characteristic. Cover one ear to mimic the monophonic pick up of a unidirectional mike. And while you’re thinking like a mike, locate the “sweet spot” where the resonance and projection is best. Most often this is where you’ll want to put the mike to best present the instrument through the speakers. The point is moot, but I’ll say it anyway: Be sure not to place the mike in such a way as to inhibit the range of motion required for playing the instrument.
Generally speaking, low-pitched instruments (i.e. tumba and bodhran) are often best represented by a mike that has a good low-frequency response, such as Sennheiser’s large-diaphragm MD 421. Smaller-diaphragm mikes like the Shure SM57 or Audix D2 best capture instruments with a higher pitch (i.e. bongos, dumbek and woodblock), because they can handle sharp transients and high SPLs (sound pressure levels) while still providing a full sound. In some cases, a micro-condenser clip-on mike may be the best bet if you need a mike to stay with an instrument when the playing technique involves a lot of movement. This option requires a suitable rim or ridge in order to accommodate the clip.
Let’s review a few fundamental live sound rules that are important to keep in mind when you embark on your miking odyssey. Sound reinforcement is a fickle beast. With lurking feedback gremlins, bleed from other stage instruments and things like phase cancellation threatening to mess up your sound, it’s important to understand a bit about the general nature of microphones and P.A. systems in order to avoid such phenomena. The things you should be aware of are: sensitivity of the mike, pickup pattern of the mike, distance of the mike from the sound source, position of other onstage mikes and placement of monitors and main speakers.
In most cases, dynamic mikes such as Shure’s SM57 and Sennheiser’s MD 421 are preferable for live sound because they are super durable and can handle high SPLs without distorting. This is an important consideration when miking percussion instruments. We are hitting things after all, and sometimes quite vigorously. Also, dynamic mikes are less sensitive than condenser mikes, and therefore are less prone to feedback. But there are a number of hardy condensers that can work for some onstage percussion applications. Suitable models include the Shure SM81, the Oktava MK012, and Neumann’s KM184, as well as the aforementioned micro-condenser clip-on mikes like Shure’s SM98a, AKG’s C418 and Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW (which are quite popular for their low profile and good transient response). Other manufacturers, including Audix, Beyerdynamic and Electro-Voice, also make excellent mikes for live sound reinforcement.
The mikes you use on stage should always be unidirectional – that is with cardioid, hypercardioid or supercardioid pickup patterns – in order to provide isolation of a sound source in a loud environment and, more importantly, to avoid feedback with the speakers. Be sure to put the mike in close to the sound source, as it will focus the sound and minimize bleed from other stage instruments or from closely placed drums if you’re using more than one mike to capture, say, a set of congas. Remember that even a unidirectional mike will not hesitate to get the system howling if it is positioned so that the address side is pointing towards a monitor or is out in front of the mains. So be aware of the position of speakers when you’re miking your instrument.
Single-headed drums come in many shapes. Usually one mike is used to capture the sound coming off the head. But if there are extra channels on the console, you can opt to use two mikes: one at the port to capture the resonance in the cavity, and one on the skin to capture a balance of attack and tone. Beware of phase cancellation when using this dual-miking technique. Phase cancellation is a sonic phenomenon that can make your instrument sound hollow and weird in the speakers. If you notice this odd midrange frequency emphasis affecting the sound of your instrument through the system, have the engineer flip the phase on one of the input channels. If this is not an option, then stick with one mike.
Here are a few examples of the different shaped single-headed drums along with a few suggestions to get you started. You should always establish the tonal character of the individual drum before you make your mike selection. Every drum is a little different, especially those with animal skin heads. If the instrument is high pitched with lots of sharp attack, a smaller diaphragm mike is often an appropriate choice, while a drum with a lot of low end and resonance may be better presented by a large-diaphragm dynamic to best enhance desired characteristics.