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Q. Should we mic up the drums when playing live?

We are a small band playing venues with capacities of around 150-250 people. My question is: should we mic up the drums when we play? If so, what microphones should we use?

Sam Taylor, via email

SOS contributor Jon Burton replies: This is a question I'm often asked, but usually the other way round. At smaller shows, people will ask why I have put microphones on the drums as "surely they are loud enough already”! This can, indeed, be the case and deciding how to proceed always depends on the size of room you're playing in, as well as the size of the PA system you have to use.Miking up a drum kit on stage isn't always necessary or possible in small venues. However, if the size of the room and the PA system can handle it, even a single mic on the kick drum can really contribute to the live mix.Miking up a drum kit on stage isn't always necessary or possible in small venues. However, if the size of the room and the PA system can handle it, even a single mic on the kick drum can really contribute to the live mix.

There are no hard and fast rules, but the first questions you ask should be "does the sound need it?” and, "can the sound system handle it?”. If the answer to either is no, your problem is solved! If, however, you have a PA system with any kind of separate subwoofer speaker, the sound can usually benefit from adding some drums to the mix. Extra weight from the bass drum and toms, and a bit of reverb on the snare, can add dimension and depth to the overall sound. I rarely worry about the cymbals, as they are usually picked up by any open vocal microphones on the stage.

How many microphones you put on the kit very much depends on the number of available mixer channels. If you can spare four, I would put one on the kick drum, one between the rack toms and one each on the floor tom and snare. As for choice, I would ideally choose dynamic microphones. They tend to be more rugged and better able to handle the peaks produced by drums. If this scheme takes up too many channels, just one mic in the kick drum will still help to bolster the live mix.

You can achieve surprisingly good results with most reasonable dynamic mics; in fact, many of the microphones that are now standards for use with the bass drum started as vocal microphones, including the AKG D12, Sennheiser MD421 and Beyer M88. The Shure SM91 was a boundary microphone more suited to lecterns and lecture tables before someone wondered what it would sound like in a kick drum! The answer is to experiment with what you have.

If you decide to invest in some dedicated drum microphones, most of the manufacturers now have great budget ranges featuring convenient built-in drum clips that save on mic stands and space. Remember, though, not to let your new-found enthusiasm for drums dominate. Your priority, in my opinion, should always be the words and melody!  

Published June 2013