How To Mike Drums Onstage Like A Pro

What would happen if you took a bunch of omnidirectional condenser microphones, set them up around your onstage drum kit, routed the signal to the mains and the monitors, and cranked up the level? Well, for starters, the resultant howl would instantly flatten the inner-ear cilia of every person present, including you. In seconds flat, the din would send folks fleeing or effectively throw them into convulsions of head-gripping agony. Suffice it to say, this may not be the best approach for representing your live drum sound ... unless, of course, you’re into chaos and destruction.

All jest aside, having a firm grip on appropriate mike selection and placement will serve you well on a live gig – whether you’re doing it yourself or trying to convey your needs to the sound engineer at the venue. Awareness of room acoustics, system dynamics, musical genre, and your drum set’s individual characteristics also come into play when plugging in. Let’s explore the fundamentals of getting a good onstage drum sound.

Minding The Demons

Before beginning, arm yourself with general knowledge about microphone characteristics. Impish demons known as Feedback, Stage Bleed, and Phase Cancellation menace your pristine sound at every turn, so a modicum of savvy helps keep them at bay.

Consider microphone sensitivity and pickup pattern when selecting the appropriate transducer. A directional microphone is what you need: Either cardioid (tight), hypercardioid (tighter), or supercardioid (tightest) pickup patterns give you a focused sonic image of a sound source and necessary rejection of other instruments on the stage. The tighter pickup pattern also offers defense against feedback, but you must make sure the address-side of the mike isn’t pointing toward any monitors or loudspeaker mains or the fearsome demons will be loosed to rob you of your full spectrum hearing. That’s right. A P.A. can be a portal to Dante’s inferno if you forget your P.A. etiquette.

In most cases, dynamic mikes are favored for the live arena because they’re hardy and can handle the sound pressure levels without getting crunchy. Popular models include the Shure SM57 and SM58 as well as the Sennheiser MD421 and ElectroVoice RE20. Less sensitive than condensers, dynamic mikes are typically less prone to feedback. But in situations where greater sensitivity and detail is desirable, unidirectional condensers with a tight cardioid pattern can work just fine for certain applications. Widely used models include Shure’s SM81, AKG’s 451, and Neumann’s KM184. Clip on minidirectional condensers such as Shure’s Beta 98, Audix’s Micro-D, and Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW are low-profile options for stealthy miking of toms and snare drums.

Listen Up

Let’s get down to the drums. Comprising at least a snare drum and a bass drum, most kits also employ hi-hats, a ride, one or more crash cymbals, a number of rack and floor toms, and other goodies such as blocks, bells, splashes, and special effects. The trap kit is going to take more than one microphone to make it stand out in a mix. A dizzying number of changing parameters create different sonic signatures: The size of the drum, the material it’s made of, the number of pieces in the kit, the configuration and type of heads used, the character of the cymbal array, and the way the kit is set up will influence decisions about mike selection and placement. The size and acoustics of the room, the genre of music and style of playing, and the microphones and channels available at the venue will also determine the final setup.

To capture the best sonic qualities onstage, you must be somewhat hip to sound reinforcement, true, but most important, you must listen to the way in which an instrument projects sound in order to best represent it through the system. Choosing the right mike and finding the sweet spot on any instrument involves listening, up close and from a distance, to determine its projection dynamics and its fundamental tonal characteristic. Try covering up one ear and using the other to mimic the way a unidirectional mike picks up a sound. Put the open ear near the instrument and move around to find where the attack and resonance sounds best. This sweet spot is most often where you’ll want to place the mike. Start there and make adjustments to get the sound you want through the speakers.

Decisions, Decisions

In general, lower pitched instruments – such as floor toms and bass drums – are often best represented by a mike with a good low-frequency response. Large diaphragm dynamics such as Sennheiser’s e902 or MD 421, Shure’s Beta 52, AKG’s D112, Audio-Technica’s AT2500, or ElectroVoice’s RE20 are a few suggestions. Snare drums and rack toms have a midrange to higher pitched character and are best captured by smaller-diaphragm mikes like Shure’s SM57, Sennheiser’s e904 or e604, Audix’s i-5, D1, or D2. These dynamics can take transient attacks and high sound pressure levels while still providing a round, present sound with detail on the top end. Clip-on condensers also work well, such as Audix’s micro-D, Shure’s Beta 98, Sennheiser’s e908, or Audio-Technica’s ATM35xcW.

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For metals and percussion toys such as cymbals, bells, and blocks, small-diaphragm directional condensers and some large diaphragm models succeed in picking up high-end detail and shimmer due to their sensitivity. Good examples of these mikes include the Shure’s SM81, Audix’s SCX-1, Oktava’s MC012, AKG’s 451, Sennheiser’s e914, or Neumann’s KM184 for the small capsule versions; and for the large, Shure’s KSM32 and AKG’s C414 B-ULS are common choices.

Kick Me

It all begins with a punchy bass drum sound with a lot of beefy low end. To enhance this essential driving force, you could opt for one or two mikes. Quite a few are designed specifically for bass drums, including the AKG D112, Shure Beta 52, Audix D6, and Sennheiser e902. Other mikes such as the Sennheiser MD421 or ElectroVoice RE20 are viable choices. A couple of unusual options include Earthworks’ TC25 small diaphragm condenser with the Kickpad attachment and Audio-Technica’s AT2500 dual capsule microphone that features both condenser and dynamic elements. Each mike will do its best to capture the lows and offer enough detail for the kick to stand out. But where to put the mike you choose?

Usually a bass drum will have a hole in the front head. If you go with one mike, start with the mike about 2" to 3" inside the port, pointing toward the beater. For more attack, move the mike closer inside by increments and aim it directly at the beater. For a fuller, rounder sound with less attack, draw the mike back a bit farther and angle it slightly away from the beater. If you have a bass drum with no hole in the front head, start with the mike about 2" to 4" in from the rim and point it at the head, adjusting the angle to get the desired sound. Have someone play the bass drum: Listen up close to find the spot where it sounds the way you like, and put the mike there. Refrain from placing the mike at the very center of the drum – that’s the fwappy dead spot.

If you want to go to town, you could opt for the old boundary- microphone-inside-the-drum trick to catch the click of the beater and more definition and punch. Shure’s SM91 and Sennheiser’s e901 are great to this end. Put the mike inside the drum on the padding, pointing at the beater head. Pull the outside mike back a bit to capture the resonating frequencies and mix this with the sensitive boundary microphone for a well-rounded, defined, and punchy bass drum sound.

Fair Snare

What do you want from a snare drum? A fat but crisp sound of course! It could be perky, could be thick, but always the detail and body should be represented. The ubiquitous Shure SM57 is the workhorse for capturing this essence for many venues, but the Audix i-5 is a smashing choice as well. Shure’s Beta 58, ElectroVoice’s 408, Sennheiser’s e905, and other such dynamics can also sound very good on snare. The clip-on minicondensers such as Sennheiser’s e908, Shure’s Beta 98, and Audix’s micro-D can work really well – especially for capturing extra detail and crispness. Place the mike at about 11 o’clock from the player’s perspective, between the hi-hat and the rack tom, about two fingers in from the rim and about 2" or so above the head and angled toward it. For more lows, point the capsule more toward the head to take advantage of proximity effect; for a crisper attack, move the mike slightly farther from the head and point it more toward the center of the drum.

Usually one mike is sufficient to capture the sound coming off the head, but if you want to get some extra sizzle from the strainer and you have an open channel, you can position an additional mike on the bottom head, about 2" from and pointing up at the wires, angled at about 45 degrees. Use a dynamic that has a lot of high end, such as Beyer-Dynamics’ 201. You may need to flip the phase on the bottom head if you find that your drum sounds hollow and weird in the speakers when the two mikes are mixed together. Phase cancellation can be a problem when using two mikes on one source. If flipping the phase at the console is not an option and you’re experiencing comb filtering, then ditch the bottom mike and stick with the top one.

Punchy Toms

Miking toms can pose a challenge if the setup is tight and access is stymied by a forest of cymbals and stands. The option of the aforementioned clip-on condensers (I’m a fan of Shure’s Beta 98 – tight and punchy) as well as mike-mounting clamps for low-profile dynamics offers a convenient solution for fastening tom mikes in place and neatly out of the way. Good tom mikes include the Sennheiser e604 and E904, the Audix D2 on the smaller side, and the Shure SM57 and Beta 57. The Sennheiser MD421 is a favorite on floor toms for its low-end response. Some engineers like to use a kick drum mike, such as AKG’s D112 or Audix’s D4 or D6, on the floor tom for extra low-end oomph.

Place the mike about 2" above the drumhead, about two inches in from the rim opposite the player. Angle the capsule down toward the head between 45 and 90 degrees, adjusting the angle to get the sound you want. For greater 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 stick contacts the head.

If using separate mikes to capture each drum, make sure to angle them slightly away from each other to enhance separation. If you’re short on inputs, you could use a single mike on a pair rack toms to capture the balance of the two. Simply place the mike between the drums about 3" to 4" above them and angled toward the center region between the two heads to capture a blend of the two.

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Metal Moxie

Overhead mikes are often employed for capturing the cymbals and sometimes the overall kit sound. One mike on a small setup through a small P.A. can do the trick, though a split pair configuration is common to adequately pick up both sides of the kit. If the cymbal setup is extensive, it is not unheard of to use three microphones judiciously spaced to capture a balance of the entire spread. Condenser mikes are ideal for overheads because of their detailed high-end and natural transient response. Examples are Neumann’s KM 184, AKG’s C451 and C560, Audix’s SCX-1, Sennheiser’s e914, and Shure’s SM81 for the small diaphragm condensers, and AKG’s C414 B-ULS or C3000 B and Shure’s KSM32 on the large capsule side.

If you have only one overhead, place the mike centrally over the kit and move it around to compensate for the playing style and the kit’s characteristics (quiet ride cymbal, loud snare, lots of hi-hat, and so on). It is recommended that you keep the mikes in close – about 8" to 10" above the cymbals to minimize stage bleed. Be sure to keep the overheads out of the monitors to avoid feedback.

If the hi-hat needs more bite, place a small-diaphragm condenser mike a few inches above the hi-hats at the edge, angled at the area just below the cup and off axis from the whoosh of air that emanates from the closing cymbal edges. If the ride needs some chutzpah on the bell side of things, try placing an SM57 on the bell, about three to five inches from the cymbal, offset from the bell but angled toward it. If the space is too tight, you could try coming up underneath the cymbal, pointing the mike at the underside of the bell from about eight to ten inches away. Angle it nearly straight up to avoid snare and floor tom bleed.

Break A Stick

Armed with this knowledge, you should have a good sense of where to begin when miking a drum set onstage. The system and the limitations of the venue’s choices will affect your decisions, but ultimately your ears will tell you what to do. While a selection of microphones has been recommended, there are many other fine mikes from various manufacturers available for the purposes listed in this article, including microphone prepacks specifically designed for drum set. Do a little research and embrace your inner gear junkie. Just remember to always use unidirectional microphones onstage and to be aware of sound system basics in order to evade common live sound problems such as trudging through swampy sonic sludge, blowing out everyone’s eyeballs with shrieking feedback, and getting all tripped out on psychedelic phase issues. While that may sound like good times, your kit sounding great is the best adventure of all.