Pursuit Of The Perfect Drum Sound
Fig. 6 Sometimes you need to mike the beater side to get the attack you need. This is tough to do. I suggest a cardioid mike, which is nulled (pointed away from the snare) to reduce snare bleed. Your kick pedal needs to be in good working order, too. Otherwise you’ll be listening to squeak-smack-squeak-smack.
Application & Techniques
We’ve got good news and bad news about placing a microphone inside a bass drum. The good news is half the battle is won. You’re going to be able to get a clear attack sound. The bad news is that this can be difficult. Why? Other than a snare drum, no other drum mike placement is as sensitive to small changes than inside a bass drum. Once you’re inside that shell, even 1" changes in depth, height, or axis positioning can make an enormous difference to quality of the attack and the amount of low end captured by the microphone. There is more good news about being inside the kick drum, since the shell helps keep spill from other instruments to a minimum. Of course, any mechanical noise from the kick pedal will be obvious, but it’s a good trade off.
If there is no front head, you can place the mike just about anywhere inside. Avoid going straight in the middle or level with the bass drum beater. This is a blast zone of bad sound. Start with a place between the beater and the shell.
If the front head is ported, the port will by default choose your entry path. In general, how deeply the microphone enters the shell will affect the beater presence. You’ll capture more attack closer to the batter head and more tone as you move the microphone further away. If you find the optimal slap, but aren’t happy with the quality of the shell sound, you can adjust the timbre by adjusting the mike’s axis angle. Often you’ll end up placing the microphone either a third or two-thirds of the way in, especially if there is a ported front head. Having the mike smack in the middle can place it in a reflective node where the bounce-back from the resonant head collides with the attack of the next hit. This can lead to a warble and phase problems. Regardless of ultimate position, my main engineering secret is to take as much time as you need to find the best placement for the kick (and the snare). No preamp or post production will matter as much as a great setup. And having a great foundation from the bass drum makes all the difference. If you need to take a five minute break, grab a cup of coffee, or count to 100 – do it. This is not the time to hurry up to the finish line. This is one of the most important tasks you’ll do while recording drums.
Life On The Outside
A solid resonant head tends to provide the most sustained, round sound. However, miking at the front makes it difficult to pick up the beater, since it would be behind two drumheads, and external miking is subject to bleed from the rest of the kick. Some engineers place outside microphones lower to the ground – at least the rest of the front head blocks the other drums a bit.
Oddly enough, one way to get more articulation is to move the microphone further away from the drum. Of course, spill increases as you move back, which has led to a variety of contraptions and creations to give the distant mike a personal line to the kick. From extra kick drums to industrial fiber barrels to full-fledged pillow forts, this trick has been around forever. Done correctly, you can block much of the tom and cymbal spill while gathering a cannon-like explosion on every hit.
In rock circles, Butch Vig is famous for employing this technique on Dave Grohl’s kick on Nirvana’s Nevermind. A word of caution – make sure you’ve placed your close-mike or inside microphone where you want it.
Making adjustments is very difficult once the fort is constructed. I also suggest taking photos in case you want to recreate the effect for another project.
If you cannot achieve the slap sound you need, you may need to resort to miking the batter head (Fig. 6). I know – it sounds crazy, but it has been done. A small diaphragm condenser or sturdy dynamic mike (think Shure 57) with its rear pointing at the snare to reduce bleed can give you all the attack you need.
There are a couple limitations to using this technique. You need to find space to place the mike while keeping it out of the way, and the batter mike will pick up a slight amount of pedal noise and/ or squeak. Fortunately modern kick pedals are infinitely better than 1970s era models in this regard. Have some spray lubricant on hand if you try this route.
It’s common in drum recording to add one (or several) room mikes. Some engineers place this mike just about anywhere. They are trying to capture room ambience, not necessarily the kit. Let me suggest keeping the kick drum in mind as you place the room mike. Instead of going high or in a corner, walk as far as makes sense in your room, point the mike at the kick, and place it about 2' off the floor. A PZM mike, ribbon, or large diaphragm condenser are great choices for this application. This mike will get the shell, the room sound, and when combined with a closer mike, it can add to the impression of attack.
Fig. 7 Hard to imagine the basic old kick drum is so complicated to record. But all of these microphones are legitimate candidates for the job. And there are many that could be added to this list.
Recording a kick drum well can be a difficult proposition. Many engineers continue to struggle using trial and error, only to be confused when the method that worked last time becomes a bad approach on the next session. As a drummer, the main issues deal with the shell fundamental and the resonant head options. From there you can choose a microphone to complement the particular drum in your session. By working with the producer and artist, you can determine how much shell sound and batter attack are needed for a project. This is also a time when you can be creative with the second mike. Whether you choose an inventive solution such as the Yamaha Subkick or building a 12' kick tube of the apocalypse, do what best serves the song and the drummer. And the next time you see an Internet forum fight over the best bass drum microphone, you’ll know the real answer.