We asked some of the world's leading engineers how they approach one of the most common yet complex instruments on stage: the drum kit.
Although the techniques for amplifying drums over a sound system are similar to those that an engineer would use in the studio, there is one key difference: in the studio, the engineer is trying to capture the sound of the kit (and often also the environment it is being recorded in), whereas in a live situation, the drums are being miked in order to reinforce their sound in the venue for the audience. The key word here is 'reinforce'. The audience is in the same room as the drum kit, and even in the largest venue they will be able to hear the drums acoustically to some extent or another. The trick is to add enough amplified drums to the mix to enhance the sound that is heard from the stage. Unlike in the studio, pulling the microphone fader levels down won't make the drums disappear, and in some cases it can make virtually no difference!
In a small venue, you only need to add a small amount of drums, if any, to the system, as the kit can be clearly heard already — often, it would help to be able to do the opposite and reduce the level! As the venue gets larger, or the band get louder, adding just a bit of kick drum can help underpin, and add a bit of weight to, the overall sound. At what point you move from acoustic to amplified drums depends on many factors: the nature of the music, the size of the venue and, in some waysthe most important factor, the type and size of PA system you have. Most small modern systems, if they have a separate sub cabinet, can handle a certain amount of drums, but the key is to not overdo things and thrash your system, as that will always be detrimental to the overall sound.
For bigger shows, miking up all the drums will become more of a reality. How many microphones you use is often constrained by the available channels on the mixing desk, but for club shows it is not unreasonable to set aside five or six channels for drums. A typical drum kit will have a kick drum, snare drum, a pair of mounted tom-toms and a floor tom. Cymbals on a kit of this size would normally include a pair of hi-hats, a ride cymbal and a pair of crash cymbals. A simple bit of maths will tell you that we already have more elements in the kit than available channels on the desk, and this is where the live engineer begins to compromise. "But In the studio”, I hear you say, "I can just put a couple of overheads over the kit, a mic in the bass drum, and get a pretty good sound!” This is where live engineering begins to differ...
Spill & Bellyaches
A pair of overheads placed high enough to capture the entire kit will usually be about four feet from the snare drum. However, on a small stage they will also be only about six feet from the guitar amp, five feet from the bass and 10 feet from the sound system. Due to the inability of microphones to know their intended purpose, the drum overheads have now become stage overheads, and will be happily picking up almost every other instrument alongside the drums. In some situations this is fine — if you have a reasonably quiet stage it can work well — but add a couple of Marshalls and you are on a slippery slope to audio hell. Therefore, on most stages, live engineers will rely on close miking for almost everything. Reducing spill helps tighten up the sound and preserve clarity. Placing a microphone inside the bass drum, for example, will cut down spill from the other drums, as well as give the beefy punch that will help underpin the sound. A mic on the snare, another between the mounted toms and one on the floor tom will leave you with a couple of spare channels for whatever other elements need it. And this is where listening to the drummer play is important. I will quite often not bother with a hi-hat mic if the drummer plays the hats hard, but will put a mic over the ride cymbal to help reinforce that.
It is also important to point out that any other microphones you have on stage are also going to be adding to your drum sound. Due to the pickup characteristics of all microphones, some spill is inevitable. The vocal microphones at the front of the stage, for example, will be picking up some of the sound from behind the vocalist, which is usually where you will find the drummer. Microphone spill is also not usually flat, and will instead be a toppy affair. The proximity effect that makes the vocal sound so fat and warm will be missing in the same microphone when it is picking up the drum kit from eight feet behind. Instead the mic will be producing a thin, cymbal-heavy sound that is virtually inescapable. Even on the largest stages this spill is always there to some extent. It was 'Big Mick' Hughes, Metallica's engineer, who first taught me to start the drum soundcheck with the vocal microphones on, as the sound from these will always add some treble to the overall drum sound. Joe Harling, who has been touring with Lana Del Rey, attests. "I had wanted to have a nice pair of high-up overheads, but the drummer was right in front of a video screen, so visually this was not possible. To be honest though, Lana's Neumann KMS105 vocal mic ended up also being the main 'overhead' mic!”
So you can often get away without overheads, even on some large stages; it's only where the on-stage volume is quite quiet that they begin to come into their own. We'll discuss overheads in more detail later, but we'll start with the basics: kick drums.
Can I Kick It?
Many microphones are popular for use on kick drums, and all have their fans. The first microphones to win general favour in this position started as vocal mics. The large-diaphragm AKG D12, introduced way back in 1953, was the first dynamic microphone to have a cardioid pickup pattern. It also boasted a special 'bass chamber' that boosted the low end between 60 and 120 Hz, adding fullness to vocals and, happily for engineers, low end to kick drums. Another popular choice is the Sennheiser MD421, which has found favour on kick drums for being robust and able to handle high SPLs. That mic began to appear around the drum kit in the late '60s and is still a favoured choice for drums despite being quite large and difficult to position, and having a clip that seems designed to deposit the mic onto the drum itself halfway through the drum solo.
The Americans were not to be out done by the Europeans, however, and the Electro-Voice RE20 still commands many fans to this day. Developed primarily for voice, it became the sound of US radio: smooth and deep with a closeness and intimacy that makes vocals sound reassuring. It features an internal shockmount, making it virtually free from vibration noise, and has a very smooth, predictable low end. Apart from the price, its only drawback is its weight, giving it a tendency to fall over if not mounted on a heavy enough stand.
All these mics have their fans, but these days we have a whole range of microphones that have been designed especially for kick drums. The most notable of the earlier designs was the AKG D112. This was an effort by AKG to cash in on the popularity of the D12, and it was restyled into an egg shape, and designed to have a more modern, percussive sound. This was popular for a while, although it was never a favourite of mine.
The choice of kick mic can be a very personal thing, but even for the same engineer the mic is liable to change from artist to artist. Alan 'Big Nobby' Hopkinson, who has mixed FOH for Tool and Joan Armatrading, explains. "I've been using the Heil PR48 recently, which is a big fat dynamic, for Tool's kick drum. Danny Carey is a well-respected drummer, and has a pretty wild set of tunings on his kit, but the PR48 has piles of low end and a bunch of crack if that's what you're after! For System Of A Down [the kick mics are] an Audix D6 and a Shure SM91, as it needs to fit in with their more straightforward punk style.”
In recent years, many manufacturers have developed microphones capable of withstanding the high-SPL and low-end requirements of the kick drum, and the market is now awash with models. You can get a run down of some of the most popular models in the September 2013 issue of SOS (/sos/aug13/articles/spotlight-0813.htm).
One recent choice for bass drums has come from the studio world. Somebody had the bright idea of using a bass driver from a Yamaha NS10 speaker, wired as a microphone and placed in front of the bass drum. This captured the low end of the drum extremely well and when mixed with a conventional microphone added new depth to the sound. Yamaha now market this idea as the SubKick, and it is appearing increasingly on many tours, looking strangely like somebody has accidentally left a snare drum on stage beside the kick. Joe Harling has been using one of these for Lana Del Ray's tour: "The kick drum was a combination of a Sennheiser MD421 mounted inside the drum on a Kelly Shu [an internal drum-mounting system] and the Yamaha SubKick outside, which works great as long as the resonant skin is tuned really low. I was also using a trigger to key the gate on the SubKick to keep it really in control. I have to say that this was my favourite kick sound that I have ever achieved.”
Kick Mic Positioning
As far as microphone positioning goes, the sound you are hoping to achieve is going to dictate your choice. For a tight, punchy sound a microphone inside the bass drum will give you more attack. For a warmer sound a mic just outside the drum will give a better result. If you do come across a drum without a hole in the front head then you can also try putting the microphone on the pedal side. I am always wary of this position, however, for two reasons. Firstly, drummers move their feet around and, like most of us, don't always look down when they do, so will occasionally kick the microphone out of the way. Anyone who has had the misfortune of trying to reposition a drum microphone mid-gig will know that it is a risky and not entirely pleasant experience. Secondly, kick-drum pedals are prone to noise, with a tendency to squeak or rattle, and this can easily be picked up by the mic.
Mics For Snare
For snare drums there has been one microphone that has pretty much dominated for almost 50 years. The Shure SM57 dynamic has held on as most people's go-to snare mic, as it adds just the right amount of weight, while its slight presence peak adds some crack to the drum. Its only drawback is its slightly fragile windshield, which can easily be knocked off by a wayward drumstick. Shure came up with a more durable design in the Beta 57, but the sound was never quite as popular. The new Beta 57A seems to tick most people's boxes, though, and retains much of the sound of the original 57.
The Beyerdynamic M201 has also always been a popular choice, and still retains die-hard fans, of whom Joe Harling is one. "I always use 201s for snare,” he explains. "I think their spill is much more forgiving than it is on a 57, and their midrange is incredible.” The M201, along with the slightly more bulky Sennheiser MD441, has a reputation for having many of the high-fidelity qualities of a condenser but in a dynamic mic. Both have been around a long time and are still manufactured to this day. They both have hypercardioid pickup patterns, and so are great for rejecting spill from hi-hats and other nearby drums. Other microphones have come in to challenge these, though, and all the major manufacturers have come up with new varieties of dynamic and condenser microphones for the purpose. Shure released various short-bodied variants of their dynamic mics, and the current catalogue offers you the Beta 56A, which has its XLR socket placed at 90 degrees to the body, making it possible to get the mic into as close a position as possible.
The preference for a dynamic mic on the snare has always been dictated by a combination of durability (they are usually very rugged and can handle high SPLs) and price (they tend to be quite cheap). However, various condensers have found a home on the snare. The Neumann KM84 and KM184 are often favoured snare mics. Being compact, pencil-type mics, they are often used as snare bottom mics, where their detailed top end helps to capture the snap of the snare wires.
In recent years the influx of cheaper pencil condensers has led to them being much more commonplace live — a £100 mic is more likely to find it's way on stage than a £500 Neumann. AKG may well have led the way with the C451, which still finds it's way onto many channel lists, but these days companies like SE Electronics are making very robust mics that are filling many of the roles of their more expensive forebears.
As far as positioning goes, I have always approached the snare from a combination of aural and practical points. I tend to mic about four inches away from the snare, which gives the sound from both sides of the drum to chance to be heard, and also places the microphone a reasonable distance away from the stick danger area. As well as keeping the mic safe from stick hits, giving the mic a bit of distance will help you avoid getting a dull, choked-off sound. Dave Swallow, who has mixed artists including Amy Winehouse and La Roux, agrees: "It is surprising to see how many people still think the sound of the drum comes from the skin. The skin is only part of the drum, so it only makes part of the sound. Placing your mic a mere few millimetres from it will just create a flat, uninteresting sound with no depth or life. Moving the mic a little further away will capture more of the drum and lend itself to a far deeper, richer sound.”
I will, on occasion, mic up the drum from the side of the shell, near the air hole. All drums have a small hole that lets pressure escape from inside the drum, and this can occasionally work to your advantage.
Provided overheads are needed, a stereo pair of mics over the left and right sides of the kit, and equidistant from the snare drum, is the most popular technique. This has the advantage of giving good coverage and a degree of stereo imaging, as well as being easy to set up with two tall boom stands either side of the kit. A coincident pair above the kit can give better stereo imaging, but is harder to practically achieve in a gigging situation, as it normally requires a boom stand that is able to take the weight of two microphones, and which is also tall enough to get to the centre of the drum kit. Most regular stands are not up to the job, and there is nothing worse than seeing a stand topple into the drum kit mid-show.
The choice of overheads is very much dependant on the way they will be used. If you are able to get them in an optimum position — above the kit and capturing the drum kit as a whole — then a matched pair will reward you with a very coherent picture of the kit. Large-diaphragm mics such as AKG C414s and Shure's KSM44 are very popular, as are smaller 'pencil' condensers such as Neumann KM184s and SE Electronics' SE4s. The choice is huge, but having the best pair of microphones you have in this position can really pay off. I was once talking to a mic manufacturer who seemed surprised that live engineers would use top-end microphones on stage, but there is no substitute for a great microphone when you are trying to reinforce the sound of a drum kit. This is not to say that you cannot achieve good results with even the most budget microphones, though — as long as you take care with placement and EQ.
Keep It Cymbal, Stupid!
Hi-hats and ride cymbals can often get lost in the mix, and these can often need miking up. Sometimes I will dedicate channels to these before I make room for overheads, and if overheads aren't necessary I will use the mics I would have used over the kit to spot-mic these two important cymbals instead. They make up part of the standard trinity of rhythm (bass drum, snare and hi-hat/ride), and are part of the driving force of most beats. The snare mic can often pick up enough of the hi-hat, but the ride can often be lost. A microphone placed near the ride and any crash cymbals on that side of the kit can help the rhythm sound gel. They can be placed six to 12 inches away for close miking, but be careful to check the movement of the cymbal: heavy hitting drummers can quite often knock the cymbal into the mic as it swings up after a beat, producing an unattractive 'thwack'!
As with overheads, condensers are again generally the best choice for capturing the frequency range of cymbals. Small-diaphragm mics are often the easiest to sneak in unobtrusively, but any microphone with a good top-end response will do. It is worth mentioning ribbon microphones at this point. In the studio they have remained a very popular type of microphone for overheads and cymbals as the precise, open top end can really help capture a detailed sound. Live, however, they are much less common. This comes down to issues of practicality. Ribbons are notoriously fragile, while gigs and tours are brutal environments in which to work. The cost and fragility have until recently meant that ribbon mics have rarely been seen on stage. However, with a wide range of cheaper microphones coming from the East in recent years, they are beginning to make an appearance and, if looked after, can produce very pleasing results.
Tom-toms present another problem. I think for most people the best tom sound can be achieved with a dynamic microphone like a Sennheiser MD421. This great microphone has a roll-off switch, which when clicked one step from Musik (music) to Sprechen (speech), gives just the right amount of bass roll-off. However, as mentioned before, their bulkiness means they have fallen out of favour. When people started using the diminutive Shure SM98 condenser on toms, Shure made the sensible move of releasing a drum clamp and gooseneck adaptor for it. At last you could position a tom mic where you needed it, however crowded the drum kit was. The SM98 mics also had the advantage of an extended high end, and toms began to have a greater attack to them than before. This was not liked by all engineers, but treble can always be rolled off, and the mic has gained huge popularity.
Sennheiser in Europe and Audix in the States countered this, with stubby, short-bodied dynamics. The D range from Audix and the MD504 from Sennheiser, with its handy drum mount, have both found favour. All these mics are still around, with Shure upgrading the SM98 to a Beta version and Sennheiser now offering the E604 and E904. A mention must be made at this point of another thing that has improved drum miking, but which isn't a microphone. Musical instrument makers Latin Percussion make a handy mic holder called the Claw. This has a Z-shaped bar that can be secured to almost any drum or stand using its mini clamp or claw, allowing mics to be attached to drums in a secure and convenient way, without the use of boom stands. Also, they are rugged enough to take almost any microphone.
The debate between condensers and dynamics on toms is ongoing, and both have their fans. Condensers can provide a very open, clear sound, having a more pronounced top end and attack that can be very useful. Detractors will, however, accuse them of being toppy, harsh and thin-sounding, and with a tendency to pick up cymbal spill. Of course these are also characteristics that can be seen as positives! Dynamics, having a more weighty but less responsive sound, can help add depth to a tom without picking up too much spill. Larger drums can benefit from a larger dynamic capsule capable of capturing the high SPL and extended low end produced. However, some drummers aren't looking for thunderous low end on the toms, and the more detailed sound condensers can be much more suitable. Once again, it comes down to listening to the drum kit and finding out from the drummer what style and sound he is looking for.
The mics you choose should depend not only on the sound you're after, but also on the drums themselves. A bright metal snare, for example, may lend itself to a slightly duller dynamic with a bit of proximity effect to add some weight, whereas a deep, wooden snare can cry out for a detailed condenser on the bottom head.
The drumming style should also play a part. Brushes require a sensitive microphone capable of picking up the delicate touches, so a capacitor might be best on the snare. A drummer who plays in a very open jazz style may not even need a snare microphone, with the sound being better picked up with a pair of overheads, or a central spot mic placed mid-kit that can pick up the snare, hi-hats and some of the toms. "Last year I was working for an artist called Michael Kiwanuka,” says Harling. "His drummer was a wonderful jazz player, and his kit sounded really interesting. His kick and toms were tuned high and ringy, and his cymbals were really dry and dark. This made the whole kit sound like one cohesive instrument, rather than a collection of disparate parts. It was inappropriate to rely on individual close mics for this kit, so I toured with a pair of Audio-Technica AT4040 large-diaphragm condensers, which we used as the main drum mics.”
Loud thrashy drummers, on the other hand, tend to need the durable approach — mics that will help the drums cut through the mix, but which are also physically up to the task. Contrast Harling's minimal approach with the technique Martin 'Arnie' Annables uses for Motörhead: "For toms I tend to use Sennheiser mics — usually E604s for the high toms and E901s for floor toms. I have built an internal tom-mic mounting system to help with faster setup time, and to cope with the stupid volume of the drum fill. The snare, again, has Sennheiser mics (an E902 on top and E604 underneath), and we have also been using an internally mounted E604, just for the monitor sound. At the moment I am using Shure SM91s for hi-hats and ride, positioned close for minimal spill. The kick mic is an internally mounted E901, again on my own mounting system and, unusual as it may sound, it is mounted at the top of the shell facing down. Overheads are modified Beta 98s, and these are again positioned very close to the cymbals.”
As with all these things, though, there are no hard and fast rules — it is just something that you have to experiment with. Explaining to the drummer what you are doing and hoping to achieve always helps, though: most drummers want their kits to sound as good as possible and are happy to be patient and experiment. Other musicians may not share your enthusiasm, however, so I do recommend being as fast and decisive as possible!
One Mic Or Two?
As we have seen, some engineers choose to use more than one mic per drum, and as you begin to get larger desks and more available channels, this becomes an option. Beyond the single-mic-per-drum approach, a bottom snare microphone is most people's first choice. The sound of a snare drum is a combination of two things: the sound of the stick hitting the batter head, which produces the drum sound, and the crack of the snare drum made by the wires stretched across its bottom head. These move away as the drum is hit and then slap back against the head to produce the distinctive snap of a snare drum.
Capturing the overall sound of the drum can be difficult with just one microphone, and while a single mic placed at the top but to the side of the drum is a good start, a second microphone placed underneath can be useful in capturing the sound of the snare wires themselves. But because one mic is looking down on the drum and one looking up they are both receiving the same waveform but from different angles. The microphone underneath will be getting a waveform that is approximately 180 degrees out of phase from the other microphone. If the two sounds are mixed together as they are, the signals from the two mics will cancel each other out at some frequencies. Typically, this is most noticeable in the lows and mids, resulting in a thin and hollow sound. By reversing the phase on one of the microphones they will be more in phase and the cancellation will be a lot less noticeable. Ways around this will be covered in next month's article.
The two-mic debate for snares can be influenced by the type of snare and how it is played. A deep snare such as an eight-incher can be difficult to capture with just one microphone, whereas a thin piccolo can have a very present snare sound, where one microphone is all that is needed.
Another popular drum to double mic is the bass drum. The phrase 'in and out' is becoming particularly prevalent, with the use of a boundary mic, such as a Shure Beta 91, inside the drum, and a large-diaphragm dynamic, like a Shure Beta 52, on the outside, usually pointing into the air hole in the front head. This combination helps to overcome the relative shortcomings of each mic type and position. A boundary mic inside the drum is great for picking up the sharp attack of the beater on the drum head but can lack body and warmth. The advantage of this mic is that you can get a very tight sound that is easy to control, and since it is inside the drum it is relatively free of spill and not prone to low-end feedback. However, I know many engineers who hate the sound. A microphone just outside the drum, or at the air hole, will give a much fuller sound, albeit with less attack.
One microphone position that is favoured by some engineers is the 'trash mic'. I first came across this many years ago when working with Jim Warren on Radiohead. He would have a dynamic mic like a Shure SM58 and place it in the centre of the drum kit. From here it would capture something of the sound of the whole kit. This technique has its fans, including Joe Harling, who used one on Michael Kiwanuka's tour: "I'd have a 'trash mic' in the middle of the kit, which was generally a Sennheiser MD421 or 441. This was used just for special effects, such as crazy, heavy pumping compression, or even flanger in the very proggy bits.”
As we've seen, techniques differ but the objectives remain constant. The idea is to reinforce the sound coming from the stage so that all the instruments sit nicely in the mix. How the drums sit in the mix is very dependant on the style of music: they can be the backbone and power, as in rock or dance music, or they can be an accompaniment, such as in jazz. It is easy though to let the drums or aspects of the kit overpower the mix, and I have often heard bands where the most dominant instrument was the bass drum, usually to the detriment of everything else. I believe that the whole kit should be given equal standing in the mix so that the bass drum, snare and toms are balanced with the cymbals, but all taking place in a way that is balanced with the other instruments on stage. Remember these words of caution: I have never heard anyone walk out of a gig commenting that, "We couldn't hear the singing, although it was more than made up for by the fantastic bass drum sound!”
As Craig 'Bozz' Porter, FOH engineer for Papa Roach, Machinehead and Megadeth, has learned, it's important to try these techniques out for yourself. "Experiment and read! Don't be afraid to try new things, that is what soundchecks are for. Read articles by solid and respected touring engineers so you can get different opinions and perspectives — but keep in mind that everyone has opinions. Take it all in, play with the techniques, and make them your own.”
Next month, we will be looking at tightening up your live drum sound, using outboard compressors, gates and effects, as well as EQ and phase manipulation.
In a live concert stereo imaging isn't as important as it is in recording. In fact, too much stereo information can be a negative. With speakers either side of the stage, stereo sound is possible, but it can only be fully enjoyed by those who are central to the two stacks. Since many of the audience will be watching and listening from the side of the venue, half of the stereo image will be missing. It is important to consider this when doing extreme panning. I have, on occasion, stood at the bar only to hear half of a drum fill, as the toms disappear to the other side of the PA and away from my listening position. I was once even asked by an artist to pan the bass drum hard right and the snare drum hard left to create a vibe... Not really very fair for anybody either side who would only be getting half the kit, and needless to say I compromised!
It is well worth having a few handy cables in your engineer's kit. The first of these is the Y-combiner cable. This is a cable where a male XLR connector is wired to two female XLR connectors. This is a handy way of combining two microphones passively into one channel on the desk. You need to have two microphones of the same type though, and they need to be on similar sources, but for multiple toms it is a real boon as you can put up a microphone on each drum and combine them, using only one channel of the desk. The next handy cable is the phase reverse cable. This is an XLR cable with the signal cables reversed, ie. with pins 2 and 3 swapped at one end. This reverses the phase of any balanced source it is connected to, and can be useful where this option is not available on the mixing desk. A typical use is where you have two microphones on the snare, one on the bottom head and one on the top. In most cases the signals from these will be out of phase from each other as they will be looking at either side of the waveform, and when combined one of the microphones will need its phase reversing for the two signals to sum correctly.
I think as an engineer it is very important to actually spend a few minutes listening to the kit before approaching it with any microphones. I will sometimes get the drummer to quickly play a few beats so I can get a feel for the sound of the kit, and this is also Joe Harling's preferred approach. "In general, I like to try and start with the drummer playing time [a beat], rather than individual drums,” he says, "but if you are using completely different gear each day then this is not always practical.”
It's worth asking the drummer a few questions during soundcheck about how he plays, too, as this will often save you lots of time and energy later on. Some drummers rarely play their toms, for example, while for others it can be the basis of their style. This knowledge will help you prioritise how you arrange your channel list. A quick inspection of the heads will reveal the tell-tale marks of where the drummer strikes them, allowing you to know how safe it is to get the microphones in close, and sometimes just hearing a drummer smack the snare will make you realise that microphones will not be needed on it at all!
Soundchecks are also a good opportunity to sort out any tuning issues, as Dave Swallow explains. "Producing the right kind of sound from a drum is reliant on two people: the drummer (or drum tech) and you, the engineer. Nothing beats the sound of a well-tuned drum, and as with any instrument, the source sound is the most important thing.”
Joe Harling agrees: "Tuning is obviously the most important factor with drum sounds, so to be honest I'd rather spend time getting that right than trying to EQ the hell out of a drum that sounds bad. Always listen to the drums acoustically, ideally before you start the tour, and decide what approach will work best.”
Stands Or Clips?
For me, as a live engineer, one of the biggest considerations with microphone placement is making sure that the mic will stay in position during the show. I spend a lot of time getting microphones, cables and stands into a position where they are not going to get knocked during the show, either by other musicians or the drummer themselves. The increased choice of clip-on microphones available for drums is a great benefit to engineers, although not everyone is a fan. "I have never really been a fan of clip-on mics,” explains 'Big Nobby' Hopkinson. "Matt Bianco, who have a smooth jazz sound with some Latin touches, use loads of percussion, and when we changed from SM57s on stands for the bongos to clip-on SM98s, a lot of noise from the impact of the hand on the drum came through the mic, not actually giving a true representation of the sound.”
However, the decision over sound quality can sometimes be outweighed by the fact that, while a mic may not be the best sounding, it will be the easiest to get into position and the most likely to stay there. Take care over how stands are placed, and how likely they are to fall when knocked or vibrated out of position. A drum kit on a riser moves an awful lot, and well-placed overheads can easily slowly bounce out of position and occasionally end up on the floor. I hate running on stage during a show to adjust microphones, and often that just isn't possible, so placing microphones securely is paramount for me.
Tech Me Your Ways
Working with the drummer or, in the case of artists who have one, the drum technician, is vital. Simon Jayes, drum tech for the Who, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kasabian, explains: "Placement is very much something that I would get involved in, both in studio and live situations. This is as much about getting the right sound from the drums as it is ensuring nothing is in the way of the drummer. Years of experience helps develop a natural reaction to where the mic should be in relation to the setup of the drum as well as how the drummer is striking the drum, hard hitters being a good example of where extra care needs to be taken on placement so as to avoid too much attack and choking of the drum's natural tones.
"It's important to ensure that the mics are placed where they are not going to get damaged (through being twatted with a rogue stick hit!), where they are going to get the best from the drum, and where they are not going to get loads of spill.”
But sonics isn't the only thing to consider when miking up a drummer: "I hate ugly cables being draped all over my kits, which I've taken hours to clean and make look their absolute best. Cables don't need to look messy! I always ask to carry the drum loom myself so that I can hide the cables within the setup of the kit. Whilst mics are of course a necessity they can be made to look like a part of the kit rather than a load of ugly bits that have been thrown on.”
This advice comes with a word of caution, however. "I toured with Prince for a couple of years, and during one soundcheck I'd moved the snare mic a couple of inches around as it was inhibiting the drummer during a couple of tracks. No one passed comment, FOH were happy, I thought there was no issue. Prince walked in, stopped the first track two bars in, and said, 'What have you done to the snare drum?' I promptly and discreetly moved the mic back to its original position and guess what? Suddenly, 'The snare sounds fine!' Do not underestimate some people's ears!”
Communicating with the drummer or drum tech is obviously important, but engineers should be careful not to overstep the mark. "Engineers commenting on tone and pitch can be an invaluable help, as the sound you hear on the kit is not the sound you hear out front, nor what the mics hear. However, an engineer who wants to give me tips for getting the best sound from a drum, or how they think tuning should be done, is not something I or any tech wants to hear! We don't walk to front of house and tell tales of how reducing the 10kHz in a mix can give you this, that or the other!”