How To Mike Percussion On Stage
Bodhran And Other Large Frame Drums
The bodhran is a large, Irish frame drum with a lot of low end. This sonic characteristic, as you know by now, is best accentuated with a large-diaphragm dynamic like the Sennheiser MD 421. Place the mike behind the drum, angled toward the head and off to one side to capture the lows. If you wish to hear more attack, you could put a mike in front of the drum as well, but go ahead and phase reverse one of the mikes to avoid phase cancellation. A similar miking technique can be used for other large frame drums like the African tar and some Native American frame drums. A muddy sound can be cleaned up a bit by cutting a couple of dB between 250 Hz and 350 Hz. If there is too much bass, you can ask the engineer to roll off the lows below 100 Hz with a high pass-filter. You could also try moving the mike back just a smidgen to reduce the bass boost caused by proximity effect.
Frame Drums With Jingles
Single-headed frame drums with jingles – such as the pandeiro from Brazil and the tambourine from Italy – come in a variety of sizes. The bass frequencies of the larger-sized drums are best represented with a large-diaphragm dynamic like the Sennheiser MD 421, while a smaller-diaphragm SM57 or a comparable mike works well to capture the smaller frame drums, like the South Indian kanjira and the Egyptian riq. Place the mike in front of the drum between 6" to a foot away to start. You can work with the distance while playing, leaning closer in for emphasis and backing off for less level. If you want more attack sound, angle the mike toward the center of the head.
Double-headed drums have many incarnations, from barrel-shaped or tubular to short and squat. Some are cinched around the middle with proportionate ends, like the talking drum, and some are asymmetrical. The drums in this category that are only played on one surface (i.e. talking drums, surdo and bombo) only need to be miked on the playing head. Two-headed drums that are played on both heads, such as Indian mrdangam and Afro-Cuban bata, should be miked on both ends because both heads project sound as two different voices.
Let’s look at the bata in particular. These drums have an asymmetrical hourglass shape, and therefore a small end and a large end. Bata, like congas, come in three sizes, graduating in pitch from low to high: the larger iya, the mid-sized itotele and the smaller okonkolo. The bata are traditionally played in a trio with three drummers interacting melodically. The large end of the iya and itotele are best presented by a mike specifically designed for low-end sources, such as the Audix D-4 or the large-diaphragm Sennheiser MD 421. The small end of these drums, and both ends of the okonkolo, can be miked with an SM57, Audix D3 or similar mike to best capture the high end. Position the mike about 3" to 5" from the large head, angled toward the edge of the drum, and the other mike about 3" to 6" from the small head, pointing toward the center (Fig. 4, above). You can extrapolate from here on miking other double-headed hand drums.
Let’s Talk Idiophones
There are many idiophones that range from the simple clave to thumb pianos, balafons and berimbau. Practically anything that can be struck and doesn’t have a membrane is an idiophone – including your kitchen sink, the dinner plates and the bottom of your sneaker. Small hand percussion such as cowbells, claves, wood blocks and shakers are relatively uncomplicated to mike for live shows. Simply place a mike (the SM57 is again a favorite) directly in front of the player so that a distance between 3" to a foot can be worked with to affect dynamics. Let’s review three slightly more complicated instruments that require a bit more technique.
Mbira is an African thumb piano that consists of metal tines mounted upon a resonating box that is often adorned with loosely attached bottle caps and shells that buzz when the instrument is played. To capture the buzz and rattle from the bottle caps and get a sharper, more defined sound from the tines, place a mike over the front top of the instrument, out of the way of the player’s hands. For more resonance, position the mike behind the mbira, facing the back surface at a distance of 2" to 4".
The berimbau has a wide range of sounds, from the metal wire being struck and resonating in the gourd, to the alternately soft and sharp rattling of the caxixi. There isn’t an awful lot of powerful projection from a single berimbau/caxixi setup, so a small-diaphragm condenser is a good bet to pick up all the subtle nuances. Possible candidates include the Shure SM81, Neumann KM 184, AKG C460, Audix SCX-1 or Audio-Technica’s AT3528. In a pinch, the SM57 will work too. To capture a balance of attack, resonance and rattle, place the mike about a foot in front of the berimbau, positioned about 6" to 8" above the level of the gourd. Angle the mike down about 45º with the capsule pointing to the area between the gourd and the caxixi. This will pick up the wire sound as well as the sound of the gourd being worked against the stomach, and the sound of the beads hitting the leather base of the caxixi.
Our friend the shekere can be a fairly boisterous chatterer. The sound of the beaded net slapping against the hollow gourd has sharp, high frequency transients while the low-end boom emanating from the mouth of the gourd as it is struck on the base is somewhat subtle. Your primary mike (good choices include the Shure SM57, Audix D2 or similar mikes) should be positioned between 3" to 6" in front of the shekere to start. This distance can be varied during the performance to achieve different dynamics. If there are enough inputs available on the console, you could opt to accentuate that delicious, melodic low-end boom by putting up an additional mike close to the opening at the top of the gourd, being careful to leave enough room to move around. Angle the mike strategically downward and aim it at the mouth of the instrument (Fig. 5, above). This technique is especially good for capturing melodic conversations between several shekeres.
Let’s take a gander at the cajon. How do you mike a wooden box? These square and trapezoidal wooden boxes typically have an opening at the bottom or a sound hole in the back. They project sound somewhat like bass drums and can be miked in a similar fashion. Take a mike that is designed to accentuate bass frequencies (a good tom mike like the Sennheiser E604, the MD 421, or a bass drum mike like the D112 come to mind) and place it just outside the opening or sound hole to pick up the lows. For smaller cajons, clip-on micro condensers like AKG’s C418 and Shure’s SM98 attached to the sound hole will have a lower profile and work well. If you want to capture attack on the playing surface, take a mike like the SM57 or a Beta 57 and place it about 6" from the top surface of the cajon, approximately 2" to 3" in from the edge. Angle it toward the playing action to pick up the slaps and tone.
On With The Show!
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to representing all the hand percussion out there. But it should give you a good idea of where to start with these instruments and others in similar classifications. Remember that ultimately your ears will be the best judge when it comes to miking anything. Use them, develop them, care for them and trust them. I’ve suggested a few good live sound mikes to use, but by no means is our selection comprehensive. Just remember to always use unidirectional microphones onstage and to be aware of sound system basics to avoid feedback (which makes everyone edgy). Diplomacy when dealing with your live sound engineer is always recommended. You want them on your side. Now go out there and be heard.