My Favorite Microphones

Peter Erskine, Simon Phillips, Richie Gajate-Garcia & Rick Latham Discuss Their Faves

By David Weiss Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's June 2000

As the audio input devices that allow drums and percussion to be heard on huge stages as well as intimate studios, microphones are critical to communicating the exact feel that goes into a cymbal strike, snare stroke or conga hit. Miked correctly, the rhythms resonate through the recording, club or arena with maximum effectiveness; miked incorrectly, well, you know it when you hear it. Some drummers consider microphones equally if not more important than the drums themselves in self-expression, and a deeper understanding of these devices can be an important step towards a better knowledge of your own playing style and unique sound.

With home studios abounding, quality microphones becoming more affordable and our insatiable need for knowledge boiling to the point of bloodlust, DRUM! figured it was time to get a deeper perspective on miking from four top drum-mers. Peter Erskine, Richie Garcia, Rick Latham and Simon Phillips all clued us in to the ways microphones enhance their sound.

p>“Microphones are part of the crucial link between the realization of a musician’s inspiration and the audience’s perception of what it is we’re doing – they have a tremendous impact on the sound of our instrument,” says Peter Erskine, who stands among the top pros in jazz drumming today. “I think a few years ago we were more likely to be the passive participants in the creative or presentation process of the music. That’s changed. People are just more aware and hands-on about things.”

“With technology as it is, we’ve come to expect a lot from a performer, and when we perform, we expect our sound to be as good as it can or should be,” adds Rick Latham, drummer for the Edgar Winter Band, as well as active clinician and educator. “Drums are the only acoustic instrument on the stage. Everyone else has their personal sound with their amps. As drummers, we’re more into projection and volume. It’s important to know as much as you can about how to get your sound across.”

Acting as the ears that hear your instrument, carry that signal through the mike preamp, mixing console and on to the tape, microphones are a controllable part of the puzzle that can make up a player’s unique sound. Applied with some consistency, mikes can go a long way towards giving listeners a lasting impression of who you are.

“The more you know about how certain records were recorded, the more you learn what you like or don’t like,” Latham says. “Like John Bonham with Led Zeppelin: the sound was so much a part of that, and the engineer often made those records. I’d hear they recorded Bonham with three mikes, and I’d start to record stuff like that in the studios. I always knew guys who had studios, so I started experimenting and learning how you could ruin a sound – or make a great sound.”

If you’re a fan of a particular drummer’s sound, try a little research to find out more about the mikes that record them – session photos or album liner notes, for instance, just might reveal some clues. “Ever since I was a kid I was checking out photos on albums, and I was intrigued by the drum sound you would hear on the record,” says Erskine. “I would see the mike setup. For jazz sounds, it could be [famed jazz engineer] Rudy Van Gelder throwing one mike in front of the drummer’s face, and that would be the only mike on the drum set.

“The first recording that turned me around, sound-wise, was that second [self-titled] Blood, Sweat & Tears album. The presence from the drum sound was like, ’Whoa! How did they do that?’ It wasn’t a sound you get live – the recording process made something happen. So in that sense there are two distinct philosophies in terms of miking the drum set: are you going for a realistic photograph, or are you going for a more hyped-up, super hi-fi Technicolor kind of sound?”

Once you’ve got the curiosity about microphones, its time to start tinkering. Buy, beg or borrow as many mikes as you can. Even if all you have to record onto initially is a four-track at home, it will be a good start towards independence. “With all the technology you can have in a home studio, it’s important that you know at least the function of microphones,” notes Richie Garcia, a plugged-in percussion pro who plays with Phil Collins, among others. “I did my own project in my house, and from what I know about mikes, I was able to get a good sound. In any pro situation the engineer works with microphones every day, but by knowing something, you can give them some insight to help get a better sound. And especially because percussionists have so many instruments, we might have sounds that engineers don’t know about.”

Which brings up a very important note of caution: when working with an engineer, always wield your microphone knowledge with an eye for etiquette. “There is a large amount of professional courtesy involved,” Simon Phillips, the busy bandleader and session drummer, points out. “Remember, there are many ways to skin a cat! I think the best way is to let the engineer have his or her way, and if it is not working, then suggest alternatives. If it is working, however, you may have learned something new.” While it can be a nice ego-boost to have an army of microphones pointed at your kit, most seasoned drummers and engineers tend to believe that less is more. “I tend to go for simplicity,” Phillips affirms. “One mike per instrument. I don’t normally mike the bottom head of a snare drum. I usually use one mike on the kick drum. I prefer to use a stereo pair for the overheads and not an extra mike for the ride cymbal.

“Sometimes I really like the [veteran engineer/producer] Glyn Johns method of recording with four mikes for the whole kit: left kit, right kit, kick and snare, and then, of course, some ambience mikes. Mike placement is very important, especially when only using the four-mike technique.” Whether he’s live or in the studio, Phillips tends to go with practically the same setup of Shure microphones. On stage, kick drums get the Shure Beta 52, which is a supercardioid, dynamic unit. For snare drums Phillips will apply the SM57, a cardioid dynamic microphone that is widely acknowledged as one of the true workhorses of the industry – if you’re looking for one mike with which to start recording, the SM57 is legendary for its flexibility, especially around the drum kit. Hi-hats are captured with SM81s, a cardioid condenser mike. Another cardioid condenser microphone, the KSM32, serves for overheads. Shifts in the studio setup may include a change to the AKG C451 or 460 for the hi-hats, an AKG C12A for overheads and a Neumann U67 for overheads or ambience. “It really depends,” he notes. “The studio is an opportunity to experiment, and it also depends upon who you are working with.”

As a player who typically employs a large variety of rare and custom instruments, Garcia has to pay particular attention to which mikes work for the different parts of his setup. “I did my whole CD [Mis Tres Hijos] with Audix microphones,” he says. “I used what they call the D Series. These mikes were specifically designed for drums and percussion because they directly pick up the sound of the instrument. They have great separation; they have a great range. They’re designed to pick up the sharp sounds and the deep sounds of the bass drum or the udu.”

Audix D Series Microphones

(Left) Audix D-2 Microphone

For his congas, Garcia chose the Audix D-2 and D-3, both of which are dynamic hypercardioid mikes. Bongos get the D-1, another dynamic hypercardioid microphone. For his djembes, udus, bass drums and other low instruments, Garcia goes for the D-4, a microphone specifically designed to handle just such high SPL (Sound Pressure Level) instruments. His latest favorite, however, is Audix’s SCX-One for overhead applications.

“The SCX-One is like an overhead mike that picks up the room sound,” Garcia says. “I put a D-1 on the conga, than I put up an SCX-One and it makes for a great sound. That’s because for some instruments, what makes them alive is the sound of the room you might be in. If you go into a conga room and there’s no wood or carpeting, you need to put in some pieces of wood for some resonance.” By combining a D-1 positioned close up with the overhead SCX-One, which is a condenser, Garcia gets a combination of both the direct and ambient sound for a full picture of the sound of the conga and its environment. Using Sennheiser mikes, Latham seems to have some microphone choices that are set in stone, while other sections of the kit are more fluid. “Probably everyone knows the Sennheiser 421 that a lot of studios use on kick drums and toms, and that’s one of my favorites,” he says. “The EQ seems to work well on drums. It’s a dynamic mike. “I prefer dynamics on drums and condensers on cymbals. The dynamic mikes have a diaphragm in there that air actually moves, depending on how you hit the drum , to create the sound. Condensers are more electronic, which means you can overload them faster. A condenser will sound much brighter, while a dynamic will sound much fatter. You can still get a big sound with a condenser, but it’s still more conducive to delivering more high end than fatness.”

Sennheiser e604 Evolution Series

(Left) Sennheiser e604 Evolution Series

For his toms and snare, Latham likes Sennheiser’s Evolution series, specifically the drum-optimized e604. “It’s got a small profile, but it still gets a big sound.” Sometimes he’ll also reach for a Neumann FET 47, which is no longer made but is still accessible. For his hats he’ll select a K6 which is a … what? Right! A condenser mike. “It’s a really hot mike, the signal is very high,” Latham says. “It’s very crisp, very clean. I’ll use it in the studio and live.” The picture gets rounded out overhead with the aforementioned K6, or any number of Neumanns, including the U47, U67 or U87. Peter Erskine thinks he could make it all work with just one mike, but he’s happy to have others at his disposal. “Give me a Shure SM57 and I can move the world,” he says, only half-jokingly. “I was talking to an engineer, and he said, ’If I could have only one mike, it would be a 57. Because it can do everything.’ On a snare drum it’s great. The snare drums always sound like snare drums.” Since he does have a choice, for his snare he’ll usually use either the SM57 or the Beta 57A.

For his jazzy toms, Erskine names the discontinued SM98, which has been replaced by Shure’s Beta 98. Its low profile is as important a consideration for Erskine as its sound, since he can only fit small mikes into his tight setup. (Note that contrary to the general guidelines Latham laid out earlier, this widely used tom mike is a condenser unit rather than a dynamic, which just goes to show no rules are written in stone for microphone selection.)

Sennheiser MD 421 Microphone

Sennheiser MD 421 Microphone

For the bass drum, Erskine prefers the Shure Beta 91, a cardioid condenser mike, usually placed inside the drum, though sometimes it’s placed right out in front. A Beta 52 supercardioid dynamic mike also gets the call on occasion. “Sometimes for a bebop set, the right choice is a (Sennheiser) 421, since a lot of times I want the bass drum and the toms to have the same sound content,” Erskine notes. While Erskine has his standbys, he’s happy to maintain flexibility when presented with options. “A lot of times it’s the engineer’s or studio’s call,” he says. “If I go into a great studio and they have vintage stuff, sure, why not?”

Whatever combination of microphones you choose to work with, how you position them is as important as how you pick them. Even an incredible-sounding vintage mike can be undone by an overzealous setup. “A lot of times the engineer will have the most complicated mike stand configuration, which makes things rattle and buzz,” Erskine says. “Also, when you plug in a mike, never wrap it around the boom stand, because if you want to extend it, it binds. Just drape it loosely. If cables are taped down prematurely, you can’t move the mike without going though a whole big thing.”

“It’s important that you try different positions on the mike,” Latham advises. “A lot of times in the studio you can get more and less separation with placement – close miking as opposed to room/distance miking. I like the attack and presence you get from close miking, but I like to get the room, especially if it’s a nice stereo room sound.“In general – although it’s really dependent on the situation – the mikes are usually just three to four inches from the heads, and then, with the room mikes, it sounds really nice. Positioning the bass drum takes some time. In the studio a lot of times they’ll use a mike inside the drum and then outside for the attack. A 421 inside and a 602 more outside, with the 421 a little closer to the batter head. Plus, in the studio you’ll make these tunnels in the bass drum with blankets and stuff.”

Percussion instruments present their own set of challenges for positioning, due in part to their great variety. The time he’s spent playing and miking his tools has given Garcia a lot of clues on how to position for the right sounds. “On a set of timbales, for example, you have different issues you have to work with,” he says. “You have to know the size of the timbales. You’re dealing with cowbells and drumhead sounds. If you put a mike too close to where the cowbells are, you’ll pick up too much cowbell and not enough heads, and vice versa. You have to be aware. You need to have at least two mikes so you can pick up a balance of sounds in the area. If you have only one mike, the best place is to put it right under the cowbells. But not pointed at them, pointed down from there.”

Erskine points out that he gets better results by bringing the overheads down lower, especially in terms of capturing cymbal nuances. And sometimes, what seems like a drum issue could actually be a mike position issue. “An equally crucial thing is consistency from drum to drum,” he says. “Because you play each drum as an equal, you want to make sure each mike is positioned equally. Sometimes an engineer will get into the territory of, ’Can we muffle the drum a bit?’ I generally ask that before we go there, if we adjust the position of the snare mike. Generally, it’s too close to the head and the rim and getting too much ring.” Also keep in mind, however, that positioning multiple mikes improperly can also invite poor phase response, an unwanted effect that degrades clarity, localization and imaging.

In the on-the-fly atmosphere of live sound, you should expect to be more limited in applying your miking expertise. Depending on the situation, you simply may not have enough time to talk with the engineer to influence the setup, and from your position behind the drums you may not even be the best person to judge the sound quality out in the room. If you tour or play live regularly, however, you can positively affect the situation by bringing your own microphones to the gig.

“Live, I often come with my own mikes,” Erskine confirms. “I often consider having my own mikes more important than having my own drum set. At least with the mikes, if I know that they’re flat accurate, I know what I’m hearing on stage has the best chance of getting out front. If the mikes have a lot of coloring, then there’s no telling what’s coming out front.”

Other hardware factors that come in contact with the microphone also need to be considered. “How important are high-quality cables?” is an old audiophile argument that runs almost as hot as the Great Ringo Debate – just don’t spend too much or too little on cables. Pops or noises that don’t seem to have any other cause can spring from old or poorly constructed cables.

The microphone preamp, also known simply as a “mike pre,” will also come into the picture at some point. As the device that boosts the mike-level signal to line level, the mike pre is what allows the microphone to be mixed with other line-level signals. “If you’re using mike pres,” says Latham, “use good ones. I use Neve 1272s. They don’t make them anymore, but there are guys you can buy them from. It’s the old technology that sounds good. Most consoles now – for instance, I have a Soundcraft Studio 24x8 – have pretty good mike pres built in. I get a pretty good sound here at home with that. But if you really get finicky, you can’t beat the Neve or API.”

If there was a consensus from our distinguished panel, it was that even though learning good mike technique can take some time, effort and money, it adds up to a very smart investment. “I’ve found that miking has just opened my ears to other things, which I’d maybe not be aware of if I had let someone else take control,” Garcia says. “You learn more about your own instrument – you learn what it sounds like, which makes you better in tune with the kind of equipment that you have.”

“I think most musicians learn by experience,” Phillips agrees. “Especially as there is so much home recording now. Everybody makes demos in their bedroom, lounge or garage, and that is where you will learn more than anywhere. Most important, music comes first. Don’t get carried away with the technical stuff – a great snare drum sound does not sell records!”

Microphone Lingo

Entire books have been written about what goes on inside a microphone. The physics involved make it a surprisingly complex system, with multiple variations possible inside a very small space. Here’s a quick guide to some of the basic terms in this article.

Cardioid. A type of directional microphone. Depicted graphically, its polar pickup pattern looks like an inverted heart. This type of mike is most responsive to on-axis sounds.

Supercardioid. It rejects more sound from the sides than a cardioid microphone. It’s often used in live situations.

Hypercardioid. An even more directional version of the supercardioid scheme.

Condenser. A microphone that has a diaphragm suspended over a parallel back plate to form a capacitor. The vibrating diaphragm varies the voltage across the capacitor, producing an electrical signal that needs to be amplified by an internal preamp.

Dynamic. Another type of microphone with a diaphragm, which is attached to a coil of wire that vibrates within a magnetic field. The result is an electrical signal in the wire that corresponds to the incoming acoustic waveform.