What would happen if you took a bunch of omnidirectional condenser microphones, set them up around your onstage drum kit, routed the signal to the mains and the monitors, and cranked up the level? Well, for starters, the resultant howl would instantly flatten the inner-ear cilia of every person present, including you. In seconds flat, the din would send folks fleeing or effectively throw them into convulsions of head-gripping agony. Suffice it to say, this may not be the best approach for representing your live drum sound ... unless, of course, you’re into chaos and destruction.
All jest aside, having a firm grip on appropriate mike selection and placement will serve you well on a live gig – whether you’re doing it yourself or trying to convey your needs to the sound engineer at the venue. Awareness of room acoustics, system dynamics, musical genre, and your drum set’s individual characteristics also come into play when plugging in. Let’s explore the fundamentals of getting a good onstage drum sound.
Before beginning, arm yourself with general knowledge about microphone characteristics. Impish demons known as Feedback, Stage Bleed, and Phase Cancellation menace your pristine sound at every turn, so a modicum of savvy helps keep them at bay.
Consider microphone sensitivity and pickup pattern when selecting the appropriate transducer. A directional microphone is what you need: Either cardioid (tight), hypercardioid (tighter), or supercardioid (tightest) pickup patterns give you a focused sonic image of a sound source and necessary rejection of other instruments on the stage. The tighter pickup pattern also offers defense against feedback, but you must make sure the address-side of the mike isn’t pointing toward any monitors or loudspeaker mains or the fearsome demons will be loosed to rob you of your full spectrum hearing. That’s right. A P.A. can be a portal to Dante’s inferno if you forget your P.A. etiquette.
In most cases, dynamic mikes are favored for the live arena because they’re hardy and can handle the sound pressure levels without getting crunchy. Popular models include the Shure SM57 and SM58 as well as the Sennheiser MD421 and ElectroVoice RE20. Less sensitive than condensers, dynamic mikes are typically less prone to feedback. But in situations where greater sensitivity and detail is desirable, unidirectional condensers with a tight cardioid pattern can work just fine for certain applications. Widely used models include Shure’s SM81, AKG’s 451, and Neumann’s KM184. Clip on minidirectional condensers such as Shure’s Beta 98, Audix’s Micro-D, and Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW are low-profile options for stealthy miking of toms and snare drums.
Let’s get down to the drums. Comprising at least a snare drum and a bass drum, most kits also employ hi-hats, a ride, one or more crash cymbals, a number of rack and floor toms, and other goodies such as blocks, bells, splashes, and special effects. The trap kit is going to take more than one microphone to make it stand out in a mix. A dizzying number of changing parameters create different sonic signatures: The size of the drum, the material it’s made of, the number of pieces in the kit, the configuration and type of heads used, the character of the cymbal array, and the way the kit is set up will influence decisions about mike selection and placement. The size and acoustics of the room, the genre of music and style of playing, and the microphones and channels available at the venue will also determine the final setup.
To capture the best sonic qualities onstage, you must be somewhat hip to sound reinforcement, true, but most important, you must listen to the way in which an instrument projects sound in order to best represent it through the system. Choosing the right mike and finding the sweet spot on any instrument involves listening, up close and from a distance, to determine its projection dynamics and its fundamental tonal characteristic. Try covering up one ear and using the other to mimic the way a unidirectional mike picks up a sound. Put the open ear near the instrument and move around to find where the attack and resonance sounds best. This sweet spot is most often where you’ll want to place the mike. Start there and make adjustments to get the sound you want through the speakers.
In general, lower pitched instruments – such as floor toms and bass drums – are often best represented by a mike with a good low-frequency response. Large diaphragm dynamics such as Sennheiser’s e902 or MD 421, Shure’s Beta 52, AKG’s D112, Audio-Technica’s AT2500, or ElectroVoice’s RE20 are a few suggestions. Snare drums and rack toms have a midrange to higher pitched character and are best captured by smaller-diaphragm mikes like Shure’s SM57, Sennheiser’s e904 or e604, Audix’s i-5, D1, or D2. These dynamics can take transient attacks and high sound pressure levels while still providing a round, present sound with detail on the top end. Clip-on condensers also work well, such as Audix’s micro-D, Shure’s Beta 98, Sennheiser’s e908, or Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW.