Low-Dough Drum Miking Shootout & Tutorial

Miking

Many drummers are interested in miking their drums for gigs or for recording band demos in their basement but are hesitant to drop thousands of dollars on a professional microphone kit. Is it possible to get a decent result with a small investment and not a lot of know how?

The answer is yes.

In fact, you may get much better results than you’d think possible for a very small investment. In this article, we’re going to check out a few inexpensive drum-miking setups and hopefully you’ll pick up a few tips along the way. The DIY approach will teach you a great deal about sound and what your drums really sound like. After recording, you may find yourself rethinking your tunings and head, stick, and cymbal choices.

Want to become a noticeably better drummer in a month? Start recording yourself today. You’ll identify issues with your drumming that you’ve never noticed before. Think of it like a visit to the dentist. Recording might not be completely pain-free, but it’s ultimately in your best interest.

The microphones we’ll be checking out have two different pickup patterns: cardioid or omnidirectional. A cardioid pickup pattern is similar to a flashlight that illuminates mainly what is in front of it. An omnidirectional pattern is more like holding a bare lightbulb in your hand in that it illuminates in all directions.

The overheads in this roundup are condenser microphones that require Phantom (P48, 48V) power usually supplied by your mixer or interface.

The Gear

For this project we’re going to check out a pair of sub-$300 drum-miking kits from KAM Instruments and Karma Microphones, along with a pair of ridiculously cheap omnidirectional condenser mikes from Karma. Both kits include seven mikes; four snare/tom dynamic cardioid mikes, a dynamic cardioid bass drum mike, and two cardioid condenser overhead mikes. Both kits include the same type of plastic clamps common to many miking kits to attach the mikes to your hoops (the overheads include microphone clips to attach to a stand or stereo bar). The hoop clamps have a slot to move the mikes closer or further within about a 3" range to further tweak the position and sound.

Dynamic mikes often exhibit a trait called proximity effect. That is, when you bring a mike very close to a source it often boosts the lower frequencies, adding fullness to the instrument. Radio DJ’s love to use that effect. You can take advantage of this trait much like an EQ. If an instrument sounds thin, moving the mike closer can make it sound fuller and if it sounds a little muddy, pulling it away can add clarity. That’s another reason cardioid dynamic mikes are often chosen to close mike drums.

Both of these kits include enough mikes to cover a 5-piece drum set, or, as I used them, a 4-piece kit with both the top and bottom of the snare miked. Miking the bottom snare head may not be necessary but I like having the option to add a little extra crispness.

*Tip: When miking the bottom of your snare, engage the phase-reverse button on your mixer or your software. Otherwise, the drum will sound very thin and weak.

Miking

Karma DM7

Street Price: $250—$290
There are two versions of this kit: one with and one without a large case. I was sent the version without the case, which is $40 cheaper, but it did include individual plastic cases for the five drum mikes and a nicer case for the two overheads. There are four mikes for snare and tom duties (K-TDM), a bass drum mike (K-BDM), and the two overheads (K10) are small-diaphragm cardioid condenser mikes. The Karma kit thoughtfully includes lightweight shock mounts that can help isolate the close mikes from vibration.

Karma also sent me a matched pair of its K-Micro “Silver Bullet” mikes to use as overheads. Amusingly, these tiny omnidirectional mikes came in the same clear plastic packaging that might otherwise house a two-pack of small flashlights. These mikes have lightweight miniature clips, which I’d take extra care of to avoid stripping their threads. This K-Micro pair costs just $35. Yes, that’s for both mikes.

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KAM Instruments D7 Kit

Street Price: $275
Other than the sonic differences of the microphones, this kit is quite similar to the Karma kit, except it includes one large and strong plastic case. It includes four snare and tom mikes (ST2), another model for bass drum (BD2), and a pair of cardioid condenser overhead mikes (i2). A couple of differences are that I was also sent KAM’s optional and inexpensive metal clips. These came in handy when trying to attach the mikes to my mounted tom’s suspension band that was too narrow for the plastic clips to grab securely, which was also blocking access to the small tom’s hoop. I was able to clamp the mounted-tom mike directly to the metal band. I had to use an LP Claw to attach the Karma mike to the small tom on the test kit.

The other and more important difference is that the KAM i2 overhead mikes come with two sets of capsules: a cardioid pair and an omnidirectional pair giving you two sets of sounds and pickup patterns. To switch capsules just unscrew them and replace with the others.

The KAM i2 also has a 10dB rolloff switch – useful if you’re sending too much signal to your mixer – and a low-cut filter to remove lower frequencies, making this quite a versatile pair of mikes. Some engineers prefer to remove lower frequencies from their overhead mikes and have the close mikes provide them.

Recording Method And The Low-Tech Advantage

Though there are many different ways to position overhead mikes, we’re going to use a very popular one: the XY configuration. In this configuration, the mikes are usually positioned at least several feet over the kit with each pointed downward and toward each other – one pointed to the left side of the kit and the other to the right – and are panned accordingly. This gives a sense of space when used with directional (cardioid) mikes. Omni overhead mikes offer much less of a stereo image when panned and often sound somewhat monophonic, so your stereo image will be provided by the panning of the drum mikes.

You’ll also need a pair of mike boom stands, or to save money, a stereo bar, which allows you to mount two mikes in an XY configuration from one stand.

*Tip: Simply lay a common barbell weight against the bottom of an inexpensive boom stand to keep it from tipping over and destroying your mikes.

Rather than record into a DAW or recording interface, I went low-tech and recorded a stereo mix of these mikes directly to the video camera, much like I was mixing a live gig. This forced me to create a mix and commit to it. Both drum miking kits’ sound could be improved with EQ, compression, gating, and effects, but to keep with our low-dough and low—know-how theme, and to accurately judge these mike’s raw sound, I captured everything dry. For this test, we were taking a jailhouse snapshot, not creating a portrait.

The low-tech advantage is that it saves you time and money and encourages you to make test recordings, experiment with mike placement, head choices, and muffling prior to recording, learning as you go, rather than try to “fix it in the mix.”

Miking

The Karma K-TDM and KAM ST2 go head-to-head.

Listening Tests

Snare: For this test, I compared the Karma K-TDM and the KAM ST2 to the industry standard Shure SM57 on a snare drum. The SM57 is known for having a strong midrange that adds body, helping a snare cut through a mix. The KAM ST2 shared a resemblance to the SM57’s sound, but with more top and a little less midrange fullness, offering a clearer sound than the SM57. The Karma K-TDM sounded darker, lacking the high end of the other two mikes. Also, its strong midrange made the mike sound a little dull, so I’d brighten it with EQ.

While it’s hard to beat a SM57 on snare, the KAM ST2 had a very good articulate sound without EQ and can function without needing a bottom snare mike. In fact, the KAM ST2 sounded consistently good on snare and toms throughout the tests, never requiring EQ, and I’d venture to say it can compete with industry standards costing many times more. I preferred it to the Karma K-TDM.

Bass Drum: For this test, I compared the Karma K-BDM and the KAM BD2 to the industry standard AKG D112 on a bass drum. The D112 has hyped attack, scooped mids, and enhanced low end that soundmen love or hate, depending what they’re going for.

The Karma K-BDM had a strong attack with a low boost that was centered at a higher frequency than the KAM BD2, giving the Karma mike a hard-sounding chest punch. I’d probably add some deeper lows to this mike.

The KAM BD2 mike had a fuller low end but less attack than the Karma mike. I might scoop the mids a bit, but I’d rather have the extra low-end gut punch this mike offers for the rock pop stuff I generally play. I’d probably boost 4K to add more attack.

Overheads: My room is very dry with carpeted floors and Auralex panels around the kit. The Karma K10 is a very good-sounding pair of inexpensive overheads that extended reasonably low, making the whole kit sound punchy and present. The K10’s didn’t add any ambience and a touch of reverb might help these in my room. Overall, I liked these a lot.

The KAM i2’s with the cardioid capsules might have a slightly wider pickup pattern and seemed to add more room to the sound, making the kit sound smaller than when using the Karma K10’s. I didn’t use the pad or low-frequency roll-off switch on the KAM i2 since I normally wouldn’t.

While both kits offer value for the price, I prefer the Karma K10 for its greater presence and smoother sound. Either can give a good overall kit sound and the addition of a kick mike would enhance both.

Switching the KAM i2 to the omni capsules resulted in a nice and fat kit sound with some additional room ambience, so the drums sounded a bit further away. The omni capsule’s low end sounds similar to pushing the loudness button on a stereo.

The Karma K-Micro “Silver Bullets” have smaller diaphragms than the i2 capsules and didn’t pick up nearly as much low end as the KAM i2 microphones did. It’s not as smooth as the other mikes here but sounded reasonably good for an investment of just $35!

Full Kit: I was pleased with the sound of both kits. The KAM ST2 offered clearer toms with both top and bottom, which worked well for busier jungle-type grooves that sounded a touch muddy with the Karma kit.

The full mids of the Karma kit helped bring out the toms’ sustain and sounded fine for slower fills (no reverb necessary), though I’d be tempted to add some top to these mikes.

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A stereo bar allowed us to mount these Karma K10 overheads in XY configuration from a single stand.

Philosophy

A musical engineer will make choices based on what the music needs, how the drummer plays, and how the kit sounds. A mike you don’t like may not be a lousy mike; it may just be the wrong mike for that particular situation. As popular as the Audix D6 bass drum mike is, it won’t complement a light jazz drummer. That mike works great for rock and metal styles that desire a very hyped low end with a lot of attack. Similarly, a flat Earthworks omnidirectional TC30 condenser microphone may not complement a metal drummer who doesn’t want a true picture of his kick’s sound, but instead needs a hyped sound that will cut through the din of 7-string guitars chugging away. These are both great mikes but can easily be misapplied.

You can indeed get a good drum sound from either the KAM Instruments or the Karma Microphones drum-miking kits. They offer different overall sounds, the KAM being clearer and the Karma being fuller. Individually, the Karma K10 overheads and the KAM ST2 and BD2 instrument mikes are standouts offering great value, especially for novices just starting out.

I think the overall drum sound I got from each kit was surprisingly good, and believe it or not, in some cases better than tones I’ve received when recording in pro studios using $15,000 worth of boutique microphones in a custom room – mind you, by a mediocre engineer on a mediocre-sounding kit.

Don’t just take my word for it; check out the video at drummagazine.com and see if you agree. As always, let your ears decide.

Miking

The KAM BD2 targets low end.

Low-Dough Tips

1. The number-one thing you can do to create a quality recording is to make sure your drum kit actually sounds good. That’s it. Do that and you’re halfway there.
2. You can protect your snare mike from accidental hits by duct taping a common fork or spoon over the capsule. That’s usually enough to deflect the damage.
3. Since clips that mount on your drums’ hoops receive vibration as you play, they can loosen up mid-performance, causing the mike to slide down onto the drumhead. If you clamp them crazy tight, you might damage them. Instead, try putting a rubber washer from your local hardware store between the mike and the clip to help keep them from loosening.
4. Make test recordings. Listen carefully for any problems and make adjustments, then repeat. Don’t skip this step; you may encounter permanent problems later that could have been easily solved earlier.
5. When mixing, don’t touch your channel EQ until after you listen to the overhead mikes, since they usually add brightness and attack to the drums. Some engineers EQ individual drums while listening to the overheads to keep their adjustments within context of the overall drum sound. When EQ’ing, it’s often better to cut frequencies than add them to avoid a harsh-sounding mix. Need more lows and highs? Try cutting the midrange and see if that works.
6.Reverb adds a sense of ambience and space to the sound of a recording. Long reverbs work better for slower songs and shorter ones for quicker tempos. Most beginners overdo the reverb level. A little reverb can make the kit sound like it’s in one environment and tie the kit’s sound together, but overdoing it will make your drums sound distant and washed out.
7. Lastly, don’t clear the room. Furniture, bookcases, and carpets can help to tame a lively room by absorbing and dispersing sound waves.