Onstage Percussion Miking Tips

As a percussionist, you spend many hours refining your art and coaxing a wide range of sounds from a particular drum or set of instruments. When show time comes, are you going to let a little thing like volume tromp all over the perfect percussion sound? Hell no. Well, how can hand percussionists be heard in a stage mix without overplaying and losing finesse and subtlety? That’s where a few choice mikes, a little sound reinforcement savvy, and a good intuitive sense of sonic behavior come into play.

With that said, let’s take a look at miking hand percussion for live performance situations. While it’s impossible to cover the entire scope of percussion instruments in detail over the following handful of paragraphs, we will endeavor to cover basic instrument types and offer a few essentials for understanding the best miking techniques for some of the more commonly seen hand drums and idiophones. Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to choose the most appropriate mike for just about any percussion instrument and find the best placement to get the most out of it sonically during an amplified performance. The rest is up to you.

Use Your Ears

The initial approach in selecting an appropriate mike and determining optimum placement for a particular instrument should always involve listening. Each type of hand drum and idiophone has its own distinctive sonic attributes such as timbre, pitch and how it projects sound. Listen critically to the instrument, both up close and from a few feet away, to determine its fundamental tonal characteristic. Cover one ear to mimic the monophonic pick up of a unidirectional mike. And while you’re thinking like a mike, locate the “sweet spot” where the resonance and projection is best. Most often this is where you’ll want to put the mike to best present the instrument through the speakers. The point is moot, but I’ll say it anyway: Be sure not to place the mike in such a way as to inhibit the range of motion required for playing the instrument.

Generally speaking, low-pitched instruments (i.e. tumba and bodhran) are often best represented by a mike that has a good low-frequency response, such as Sennheiser’s large-diaphragm MD 421. Smaller-diaphragm mikes like the Shure SM57 or Audix D2 best capture instruments with a higher pitch (i.e. bongos, dumbek and woodblock), because they can handle sharp transients and high SPLs (sound pressure levels) while still providing a full sound. In some cases, a micro-condenser clip-on mike may be the best bet if you need a mike to stay with an instrument when the playing technique involves a lot of movement. This option requires a suitable rim or ridge in order to accommodate the clip.

A Few Basics To Make The Sound System Behave

Let’s review a few fundamental live sound rules that are important to keep in mind when you embark on your miking odyssey. Sound reinforcement is a fickle beast. With lurking feedback gremlins, bleed from other stage instruments and things like phase cancellation threatening to mess up your sound, it’s important to understand a bit about the general nature of microphones and P.A. systems in order to avoid such phenomena. The things you should be aware of are: sensitivity of the mike, pickup pattern of the mike, distance of the mike from the sound source, position of other onstage mikes and placement of monitors and main speakers.

In most cases, dynamic mikes such as Shure’s SM57 and Sennheiser’s MD 421 are preferable for live sound because they are super durable and can handle high SPLs without distorting. This is an important consideration when miking percussion instruments. We are hitting things after all, and sometimes quite vigorously. Also, dynamic mikes are less sensitive than condenser mikes, and therefore are less prone to feedback. But there are a number of hardy condensers that can work for some onstage percussion applications. Suitable models include the Shure SM81, the Oktava MK012, and Neumann’s KM184, as well as the aforementioned micro-condenser clip-on mikes like Shure’s SM98a, AKG’s C418 and Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW (which are quite popular for their low profile and good transient response). Other manufacturers, including Audix, Beyerdynamic and Electro-Voice, also make excellent mikes for live sound reinforcement.

The mikes you use on stage should always be unidirectional – that is with cardioid, hypercardioid or supercardioid pickup patterns – in order to provide isolation of a sound source in a loud environment and, more importantly, to avoid feedback with the speakers. Be sure to put the mike in close to the sound source, as it will focus the sound and minimize bleed from other stage instruments or from closely placed drums if you’re using more than one mike to capture, say, a set of congas. Remember that even a unidirectional mike will not hesitate to get the system howling if it is positioned so that the address side is pointing towards a monitor or is out in front of the mains. So be aware of the position of speakers when you’re miking your instrument.

Single-Headed Membranophones

Single-headed drums come in many shapes. Usually one mike is used to capture the sound coming off the head. But if there are extra channels on the console, you can opt to use two mikes: one at the port to capture the resonance in the cavity, and one on the skin to capture a balance of attack and tone. Beware of phase cancellation when using this dual-miking technique. Phase cancellation is a sonic phenomenon that can make your instrument sound hollow and weird in the speakers. If you notice this odd midrange frequency emphasis affecting the sound of your instrument through the system, have the engineer flip the phase on one of the input channels. If this is not an option, then stick with one mike.

Here are a few examples of the different shaped single-headed drums along with a few suggestions to get you started. You should always establish the tonal character of the individual drum before you make your mike selection. Every drum is a little different, especially those with animal skin heads. If the instrument is high pitched with lots of sharp attack, a smaller diaphragm mike is often an appropriate choice, while a drum with a lot of low end and resonance may be better presented by a large-diaphragm dynamic to best enhance desired characteristics.

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Congas And Other Barrel And Conical Drums

Conga, buleador, ashiko and other similarly shaped drums all project sound in the same way: attack and tone off the head, and low-end oomph from the open end. The typical approach to miking this type of drum is to place a mike 2" to 6" above the drumhead, about 2" in from the rim opposite the player. Angle the capsule down toward the head between 45º and 90º, adjusting the angle to get the sound you want. For more low end, move the capsule closer to the drumhead and angle it downward more steeply. This will boost the lows due to proximity effect, and also pick up more shell resonance. If you wish to capture more attack, move the mike back a little and angle it more toward the center where the player’s hands contact the head. A little EQ tip: hand drums can usually benefit from a little boost in the 2 kHz to 5 kHz frequency range to bring out slap and pop. If the attack still isn’t as prominent as you would like, you could mention this to the engineer – diplomatically of course!

Oftentimes, congas are played in sets of two or three, graduating in size and pitch. The larger low drum is called the tumba, the mid-sized drum is the conga, and the highest-pitched one is called the quinto. The low-pitched tumba is best miked with a large-diaphragm dynamic with good low-frequency response like the Sennheiser MD 421, while the two smaller drums may be best complemented by smaller-diaphragm dynamics like the Shure SM57 or the hypercardioid Audix D-2.

If using separate mikes to capture each drum, make sure to angle them slightly away from each other to enhance separation (Fig. 1, above). If you have the mikes and the extra channels, and the drums are mounted on stands, you could put a mike underneath the drum, facing up into the cavity to capture more lows and resonance. Conversely, if you’re short on inputs, you could use a single mike on a pair of congas to capture the balance of the two. Simply place the mike between the drums about 4" to 6" above them and angled toward the center region between the two heads.

Bongos

Bongos are played either mounted on a stand or supported between a player’s knees. The drums are commonly miked from above, with the mike positioned between the two drums and angled toward the heads at a distance between 3" to 6" away. An SM57, Sennheiser MD 421 or Audix D-1 would work well in this application. The drums can also be miked from underneath if the player is sitting down and a low-profile arrangement is necessary to keep out of the player’s way. Simply position the mike beneath the chair and angle it up at the underside of the bongos. The capsule should be 3" to 5" away from the drums and centered between the two ports (Fig. 2, left).

Tabla

Like the bongos, tabla is composed of two drums and can be miked similarly from above with a single mike strategically positioned between the drums to capture a balance of the pair. Unlike the bongos, however, tabla do not have open ports at the base and they are relatively quiet, so you will need to get the mike in a bit closer – between 2" to 4". Getting enough gain before feedback could be challenging in louder situations. Using a mike with a tight pattern is the best way to go, and the hypercarioid Audix D-2 is an appropriate choice as is the tried and true SM57 with its tight cardioid pickup pattern. If there are available inputs on the console, close miking both the large and the small drums individually would better represent their different tonal qualities as well as allow for separate equalization. Place the mikes about 2" from each head, angled slightly away from each other. Adjust the angle to get the desired tone.

Goblet-Shaped Single-Headed Drums

Goblet-shaped drums come in different sizes and are constructed of different materials, from wood to metal to ceramic. The tonal qualities also vary widely, from papery crisp with sharp highs and midrange resonance to biting attack with deep low-end chutzpah. These drums also require different playing stances and techniques. But all project sound in a similar fashion, with the definition and attack coming off the head and a substantial woof escaping a good deal of pressure through the cinched port at the base. So all can be captured well with a single mike on the head, and if desired and practical, a mike at the opening to catch the low end (Fig. 3, left). Let’s take a look at two specific goblet-style drums that have differing tonal characteristics and playing techniques: The Middle Eastern dumbek is a small drum played supported on its side with an emphasis on finger finesse. And the African djembe is played more vigorously with the entire hand and is either suspended from a strap, mounted on a stand or held between the knees.

The dumbek is held between the leg and arm of a seated drummer and is played primarily with the fingers. The sound is papery, with crisp slaps and ruffs combined with a low midrange tone. Your primary mike should be positioned about 2" to 3" from the head, angled toward the center region to pick up the full range of tones coming off the head. If a richer bass sound is desired and extra inputs are available, place another mike (such as the MD 421) approximately 2" from the rear port, pointing up inside the drum. This will get the low-end doum emanating from the cavity of the drum. But listen for phase problems if you take this approach. If you do have phase cancellation, try moving the top mike further away. If this doesn’t do the trick, reverse the phase on one channel at the console or just use one mike. For a crisper, more defined sound, go with the top mike. If the music requires more of a bass-y tone, go with the bottom mike.

Djembes have a sharp attack sound, but can really put out the low end depending on the size and construction of the instrument. If the drummer likes to move around a bit, clip-on mikes are a good choice because they stay with the drum and make it easier to close mike. But if the drum is dressed with bells or rattles, this approach may not work so well. A surefire method is to place a mike 2" to 5" from the head. The angle can then be adjusted to pick up the perfect balance of highs from the edge of the head and lows from the middle. If the drum is on a stand or supported between the knees, you can opt to put a mike on the rear opening as with the dumbek to catch the extra lows and resonance. The same cautions about phase cancellation apply here.

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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.

Two-Headed Membranophones

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.