Hand Drum Miking Tips

When miking hand drums, the first important things to consider are the type of drum and the sound you need, as well as the context in which it’s used. This will determine whether to use one or two microphones.

Membranophones — like the djembe, frame drum, conga, dumbek, or any that have a skin on one side and an opening on the other — offer two distinct sounds. The surface provides a brighter, more articulate, skin-on-skin texture, while the back, bottom, or hole of the drum gives a much darker tone and more of the lower frequencies.

Studio Miking

(Above) Fig. 1

So if you were playing in a trio with kalimba, flute, and djembe, you would need one microphone for the playing surface and another for the bottom of the drum. When I recorded djembe in a similar context for my studio album Salma Har, I used a large diaphragm cardioid, like the AKG 414, on top and a good kick drum mike at the opening of the sound hole (see Fig. 1). That way I could get the lush, beautiful sounds of the drum and support the absence of low-end in the other instruments.

Studio Miking

(Above) Fig. 2

Within an ensemble with bass, keyboard, and/or other instruments that are able to cover the lower register, you can get away with using only one mike for the surface of the drum (see Fig. 2). Live, I suggest the ERT by AMT for djembe, or the AKG 409 for frame drums. For recording all the types of hand drums mentioned above, I always recommend the two-mike approach.

On drums without sound holes, like tabla, bata or mridangam, one can only capture the sound that resonates from the skin surface. Because tabla drumheads are side by side, you can use one good mike like the Astatic 910B in between, a few inches above. This will represent both bayan and tabla well, especially for live performance. For recording and/or more specific detail, use two suitable mikes to represent each drum.

Studio Miking

(Above) Fig. 3

Since bata and mridangam have no sound hole, and feature skin surfaces on opposing sides, it is crucial to use two mikes, one for each, to insure accurate, sonic representation (see Fig. 3). Even though these two-headed drums come from vastly different cultures, they share a similar design concept. One head is larger and produces lower tones and the other is smaller and brighter. I suggest using two different mikes that are appropriate to articulate these differences.