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. {pagebreak}

Miking Drums With One Head

Depending on the instrument and the playing style, a single-headed drum can be miked with a single transducer above the top head, with a mike underneath at the port, or both. For groups of drums, a single or stereo mike setup can capture the lot. It all depends on what you’re going for sonically and any limitations imposed by the number of inputs available and the sound of the space. Let’s look at a few common, basic forms of single-headed drums.

Frame Drums
Frame drums such as the Irish bodhran, the African tar, or Native American drums tend to have a lot of low-frequency content, so are best miked with a punchy large-diaphragm dynamic mike designed to accentuate the bass or a large-diaphragm condenser that has a high SPL-handling capability. Place the mike between 6"—18" from the rim, just off to the side, either behind the drum, or to capture more attack, from the front of the drum. Just be sure not to get in the way of the player if you opt for the frontmiking technique. If the low end is too boomy or muddy, employ a bass roll off, either at the mike if it features one, or at the console. Smaller frame drums and tambourines, like the riq or kanjira, can be miked similarly with a small- diaphragm dynamic or condenser to capture the subtleties of the zils and the bright attack.

Miking

Djembes
To capture the djembe, start with a mike positioned between 2"—5" from and angled toward the head to pick up the attack and tone. Adjust the angle to get a good balance of the highs from the edge and lows from the middle. To capture prodigious low end, try suspending an omni condenser mike just above and angled straight toward the floor, around a foot and a half from the drum (Fig. 1). You can ply this technique to take advantage of the low end from any similar single-headed hand drum.

Dumbeks
Dumbeks, which are usually held under the arm with the rim resting on the leg of the player, can be recorded with one or two mikes. Place a mike near the edge rim, about 2"—3" from the head and angled toward the center to get a balance of the tones and attack from the head. To add fullness and depth to the sound, you could opt for a second mike at the port, positioned a couple of inches below the opening to capture the boom emanating from the cavity. Remember to flip the phase on the bottom mike.

Miking

Congas
Congas are typically played in groups of two or three drums differing in diameter and pitch. The tumba is the largest and lowest of the three, the conga the mid-sized drum, and the quinto the smallest. A single mike could be used to capture two drums when placed between them, or a stereo pair of condensers in a coincident XY pattern placed about 1'—2' back from the drums, above the rim and angled at 45 degrees toward the heads to pick up a balance of the two drums (Fig. 2). For a tighter sound, place the mikes closer. For a roomier sound, back the mikes up about 10" or so. Each drum can be miked individually for a more powerful, deeper sound. It’s best to use a large-diaphragm mike for the tumba to accentuate its low-end oomph, but the conga and the quinto are best miked with a small-diaphragm dynamic with a midrange-presence peak. Place the mike above the drum, opposite the player, so that it is about 2" in from the rim and between 2"—6" from the head. For more attack, angle the mike toward the center of the head. For greater separation, angle the mikes away from each other so that each focuses more on its own drum. To pick up more low end, the drums can be miked from underneath. If the congas are resting on the floor, you can place a large-diaphragm condenser between the drums, a few inches from the shells. Angle the mike toward the floor at a height between 1"—4" (Fig. 2). This approach should net some pretty sweet lows. If the drums are stand-mounted you could place a large-diaphragm dynamic about 3"—4" from the port of the drums facing up at the cavity.

Bongos
Bongos are either mounted on a stand or suspended between a seated player’s knees. You can mike the drums from above with one mike, such as the Shure SM57, positioned between the two drums between 3"—10" back and angled at the heads. The bongos can also be miked from underneath with a single dynamic microphone angled toward the cavities at a distance between 5"—10". The advantage of the latter approach is more freedom of movement for the player. You may also opt to use one mike for each drum for dramatic stereo effect options during mix down. A brighter, more vibrant bongo sound can be achieved by recording in a live-sounding room and using a large-diaphragm condenser positioned about 6" from the heads.

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Timbales
A timbale setup often includes two timbale drums, a bell/block cluster, and a cymbal, and can be miked with a single microphone, or three of four, depending on the number of inputs and the sound you’re going for. A single, well-placed condenser overhead and slightly in front of the setup can capture the entire setup. Use a cardioid pattern if the timbales are being played in an ensemble setting, but if isolation is not a concern, try a figure-eight or omnidirectional pickup pattern to get some of the room reflections. A stereo pair of condensers in an XY array, placed about 18"—24" above the bell/block cluster will capture a good stereo image of the kit. You could also try a spaced pair of condensers or omnidirectional microphones about 12"—18" from the front of each drum, spaced about three feet apart. For a more focused sound, try close miking the drums with dynamic mikes, placing them about 3" from each drum and angled toward the head. You could also try small-diaphragm condensers about 1' in front of each timbale, angled slightly toward the head to pick up both the side sticking and the attack on the head. One or two overhead condensers can be used to capture the bell/block cluster and the cymbal (Fig. 3).

Tabla
A tabla setup can be miked with a single microphone placed between and above the two drums. Position the mike to capture the best blend. Two mikes, one on the larger and one on the smaller drum, can better work to capture their individual characteristics for mixing and processing options later on.

Timpani
These large kettle drums emit a wide spectrum of sounds, from intense low-end rumble to bombastically loud transients. They sound best when miked from a distance of 18" or so over the top of the drum with a large-diaphragm condenser. Timpani are usually played in sets of two to four, and a single mike can be used to capture a pair of drums. Place the mike between the two drums to get a balance of both.

Miking Drums With Two Heads

Double-headed drums can be cylindrical, hour-glass shaped, or barrel-like and tapered on one end so that one head is smaller than the other. For the tapered drums, such as the bata and dholak, both heads are usually miked because each elicits a different voice. But other drums, such as the surdo and talking drum, could get away with a single mike to capture their sound.

Miking

Bata
The Cuban bata have an asymmetrical-hourglass shape, with one end possessing a smaller diameter than the other. They are traditionally played in a trio of progressive sizes, from smallest to largest: the okonkolo, the itotele, and the iya. Each of these drums has two distinct voices of different pitch due to the two sizes of heads. Use a large-diaphragm dynamic mike designed for low-frequency sources on the larger heads of the iya and itotele, and a small-diaphragm dynamic mike on the smaller heads. Place the microphones about 3"—5" from the head at the edge of the drum and angle toward the head (Fig. 4). For the higher pitched head on the smallest drum, try pointing the mike more toward the center. Other asymmetrical two-headed drums, such as the barrel-shaped dholak from India, can be approached the same way when setting up mikes.

Surdo
The surdo is like a big floor tom with a deep, resonant sound. It can be miked similarly to a floor tom, with a large-diaphragm dynamic or condenser placed about 1"—2" in from the rim, angled toward the center of the head to capture the low end.

Talking Drum
A large- or small-diaphragm dynamic microphone placed relatively close to the front of the drum and angled toward the head will pick up the stick attack. The mike needs to be positioned so that the player can move freely. If you have the tracks, placing a mike at the back head, flipped out of phase, can add dimension to the sound.

Miking Things With No Heads

Idiophones abound, and for a percussionist, almost any found object qualifies. There are loads of delicious official percussion instruments of this distinction — far too many to cover here — but let’s take a look at a few examples to get the creative miking juices flowing:

Miking

Cajon
The cajon is a wooden box with a port at the back. A player sits on the box and plays it like a hand drum. This instrument is typically miked like a kick drum, with a transducer designed specifically for low-frequency instruments placed at the sound hole on the back of the cajon, pointing toward the inside of the playing surface. For more attack, a small-diaphragm dynamic or condenser microphone can be placed in front, off to the side and angled toward the playing surface at a distance of about 6" (Fig. 5).

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Berimbau
This idiophone has a variety of sounds, from the wire of the bow being struck, the resonance of the gourd attached to the bow, and the rattle of the caxixi, which typically accompanies the full setup. Place a small-diaphragm condenser about 1' or so in front of the player just above the level of the gourd. Angle the mike toward the gourd and listen to make sure you get a good balance of the stick, shaker, and gourd sound.

Small Percussion

Various blocks, shakers, claves, and bells can be easily miked with a single transducer. The best choice would be a small-diaphragm condenser that is geared toward capturing quick transients and high-end information. Unidirectional dyna-mic mikes also work well to tighten up the sound as they capture less of the room sound. Start with the mike about a foot in front of the player and adjust the distance to get the best sound. For shakers, like maracas for instance, try miking from the side to get a good blend of the forward and backward motion of the beads inside. Miking from the front in this case may overemphasize the forward sound.

Miking

Shekere
This gourd instrument, with its beaded net, broad, hollow base, and open mouth creates a spectrum of timbres. It emits a deep low tone from the opening, drum-like sounds from fingers slapping the base, and a sharp rattle from the beads hitting the side of the gourd. Use a single large or small diaphragm condenser about a foot in front of the player, level with his or her shoulders to capture a balance of all these sounds. A couple of mikes can be used for greater control if you have the inputs: a smalldiaphragm condenser out in front of the base area, and a large capsule condenser just above the op-ening of the gourd, out of harm’s way, angled toward the cavity to catch the low end (Fig. 6). Again, be sure to double check the phase coherency of the two mikes.

Mallet Percussion
Keyboard mallet instruments, which include marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone, are typically recorded with a couple of condensers spaced about 3' apart and positioned about 1'—1.5' above the bars to capture the full range of the instrument and get a really great stereo image. A coincident XY pair would also be effective, especially if phase coherency in mono is an issue. If a single mike is used, it should be elevated a few feet higher to capture a balance of the sound. Experiment with the height to get the best balance.

Onward

Experiment with different kinds of mikes to accentuate brightness or low end, or to tame it. Placement is key to capturing the sound you’re after, but equally as important is the number of mikes you decide to use. And remember, each situation calls for different sounds, so no one set of rules will cover everything. But armed with these basic guidelines, you’re ready to explore.