Just Beat It

Drive 2008 Drum Kit

This post is largely in response to Bill’s questions about drum mic’ing in the vocal mic shootout post. Hopefully this can be another discussion starter because there are a lot of varying opinions on how best to handle drums. Here is Bill’s original comment:

Hey, while we’re talking about comparing mics, I’d love to hear your thoughts on drum mics too. North Point, by far, has the best sounding drums I’ve ever heard live. I was wondering what you recommend??? How important is it to have the top AND bottom of a snare miced? And how important is it to have a mic inside the kick drums and one pointed at the sound port? Finally, how about EQ’s and dynamics? Are there any secrets you can share??? Just an idea for a future post when you get time!

Thanks for the kind words on the drum sounds, Bill. First off, good drum sounds start with good sounding drums. Our kits aren’t the best sounding kits in the world, but they’re good, taken care of, and kept in tune and that can make all the difference. On occasion we’ll bring in a different kit such as the one pictured from Drive, but that gets done more because we can than out of need. It also helps that our drummers all bring their own snare drums that tend to be great sounding drums. Then, of course, there is a whole lot of drum sound that comes from a drummer’s hands. An unfortunate small number of folks really understand this, but there is a ton of tone in the way those drums get hit.

Once the kit is in good shape, mic placement on drums is HUGE. Changing the angle on a snare mic a centimeter or two can make a big difference. The center of the drum can give you more attack/crack, but going for something just outside the center can give you more tone. Positioning the mic higher so that it’s aimed more “down” at the drum can give you more crack and tone, but it can also give you more ring. Bringing the mic lower to be almost parallel to the drum head can help with ring and hat bleed and fatten things up a bit, but you can lose some of that crack doing this. Always remember proximity effect from directional mics when you’re mic’ing drums; the closer the mic, the more proximity effect. When we bring a snare mic almost parallel to the drum head, it’s getting closer to the source and bumping that proximity effect which leads to fatter snare, but the position makes it hard to get an angle with the right crack and tone. It’s all about compromise to get the best overall position for what we need, and you need to move the mic around to find what’s best. I don’t get super hung up on this because I have a general idea of where I want to point a mic to start, and if something’s not working I’ll go move it.

Now apply that to all the drums. I started learning how to mic drums when I was a studio intern; my boss would talk to me on a pair of headphones in the studio while I moved a mic as the drummer played until it was in the spot he wanted. It has just been years of playing around that got me to the point where I know when I need to move a mic vs. do something on the channel. Last Wednesday I went up during rehearsal and nudged the snare mic a hair and our drummer gave me a thumbs up from the immediate results he got in his ears. Mic placement on drums is a skill that everyone needs to learn if they want to get good drum sounds.

Going back to Bill’s questions. I don’t think a bottom snare mic is essential. We have one, and I do use it. However, here’s my take on snare drums. I’ve never seen anybody stand under a snare and listen to it in a performance situation. I don’t remember ever seeing a drummer work on how his drums sounded from the bottom; they get the heads in tune, but that’s not where they listen to the final results or spend most of their time. Anytime someone wants to listen to a snare drum, their ears are generally above the drum so I tend to go with that as a reference. All that being said, there can definitely be some advantages to having a mic on the bottom. I like the bottom mic for more detail stuff where I really need to bring out the sound of the snares. I also like having it because I know if the top mic dies, I still have a mic on the snare. BUT the bulk of what I’m going for from a close mic on the snare is the top mic to the degree that there are weeks where I don’t ever use a bottom mic.

Here’s my take on kick drums. Modern rock and roll kick drum sounds can’t be done by the majority of engineers without a mic inside the kick drum. It’s not impossible, but I highly doubt most guys could do it especially in a guerilla mixing situation. I’m not a fan of the one mic in and one mic out either. The outside mic–sometimes seen just outside the port–tends to lack any definition for me and ends up being just a whooooomph instead of a tight kick sound. I like taking that mic and putting it a bit in the hole instead. The kick mic’ing we’re doing is largely adopted from Chris Briley because I loved the way it worked when I came down here. We use 2 mics: Beta 91 and Sennheiser e902. The 91 gets used more for attack and the 902 is thump. 91 is positioned close to the non-beater head, centered in the drum on top of the pillow; too close can seem to get real clicky. 902 goes maybe 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 way in aimed at the beater head somewhere between the center and outside of the head; just not too far in is my rule. Remember the positioning with the snare mic now; center gets more of the attack which in this case can be click which we don’t need as much of because the 91 does that so well. Each mic gets EQ’ed to accentuate its strengths, although, I probably lean on the 902 for more of the sound. A nice advantage to the 2 mic situation with those mics EQ’ed for different stuff is we have a quick way to re-EQ the kick drum on the fly for changing stylistically diverse material. Another cool thing with the kick drum is we add weight to the bottom of it–maybe ten to twenty pounds. Buford Jones taught us this, and it can really help with making it punchy. I have a couple of dumbells in one kick and a couple of old mic stand bases in the other on top of the pillows.

As far as EQ. This all really comes down to the drums, but here are sort of general ballpark areas I’ll give our volunteers who are learning how to dial things in. 400 Hz area is the boxiness. 2-5k is attack. 100-200 Hz on the snare can help thicken it up. 80-125 on the kick is more of a “head” thing, the chest thump is much lower like 50 Hz. Again these are ballpark starting points and not where you should just arbitrarily set your EQ.

Dustin Whitt, audio director at Buckhead, taught me a little trick using Smaart to help find frequencies. Turn off all your processing on a drum channel and watch the spectrograph. The area with the most “heat” will probably be the fundamental of the drum. Now you can go after that or more easily find some harmonics.

As for dynamics, be careful. I don’t do much on the individual channels. I might do a whole post on compression one of these days, but here’s just stuff to think about. Slower attack times can fatten things up. Faster attack times can accentuate the transient/crack. I often try and go as slow as possible without losing any detail stuff. I don’t do hard gates right now. I tend to use expanders with a frequency specific key taking things down maybe 6-12 dB when the drums aren’t being played, and I ONLY use them on the toms. Every once in a while I’ll stick one on the kick if it’s feeding back.

Another thing I’ll do with dynamics is something called parallel compression where I basically double-bus my drums(no cymbals) to the master bus and a group that is also routed to the master bus. The group gets compressed a few dB(maybe 3-4 dB) and slid up into the mix to taste. Attack on that comp is as slow as I feel comfortable with and the release is generally more on the mid to fast-ish side, although I go back and forth here depending on mood. This can add punch and help the drums cut without giving the impression that the drums are squashed, BUT if the compressed group overtakes the original drums in the mix you can get into trouble if you’re not careful.

As for any secrets, I don’t have any because I stole everything from other engineers. But here’s one that is different for a lot of live guys. I personally really like using the Rode NT4 as a stereo overhead and relying on it for a lot of the drum sound and not just cymbals. I also am still delaying all my close mics back to the overhead which can be subtle some weeks and huge others; maybe someday I’ll demonstrate the difference this makes. For me, it can really help maintain my snare tone if I push the overheads which I like to do as much as I can. When I mix in our studio on Sundays, I always start my drum mixes with the overheads and the kick.

Here’s some inside information on our ride mic. The ride mic is more for “looks”. It gets used on occasion if there’s something the overheads aren’t picking up, but that mic is really there to have an extra channel available in case we add another tom or snare drum.

One last thing about our drums. I think a big advantage we have for drum sounds is the size of our rooms. Our rooms are big enough that we can/need to drive the drums in the PA up and over what’s coming off the stage. This gives us a lot of control on the drum sound.

I’ll wrap this up with a quick rundown on what mics we’re using right now:

  • Kick: Sennheiser e902, Shure Beta91, but sometimes a single AT AE2500(I like this on Country tunes…)
  • Snare: Shure Beta57 (top), Shure SM57 (bottom)
  • Hat: who really cares cuz…but if you do, it’s probably an Audix ADX51
  • Toms: Sennheiser 421’s or Shure KSM44’s
  • Ride: Probably the same as the hat or a Shure SM81
  • Overhead: Rode NT4, but sometimes Shure KSM44’s or KSM32’s–I also like AKG 451’s sometimes, but I don’t own any…
David Stagl

17 Responses to “Just Beat It

  • Jeff Seymour
    9 years ago

    Dave, great post. This is really helpful, especially the frequency thing.

  • As both a drummer and a sound tech, I completely agree with the point that the most important thing is still the drummer and his/her instruments. I’ve heard kits miked with nothing but a kick mic and a single overhead sound amazing if the person playing is on top of it. I’ve also heard great kits with great miking sound awful thanks to the drummer.

    I don’t usually like to use a lot of processing on drums… the less compression/gating/reverb/etc., the better. I think that allows more of the true sound of the drums through (sometimes we need to remind ourselves that until 60 years ago or so, miking live drums hadn’t really occurred to people)

    I also think you made a really good point about the size of your room… if you’re not in a room where you need to bring the drums up in the house system, then you should definitely be baffling. I know some people don’t like it, and as a player it can sometimes make me feel a little cut off from the rest of the band, but it’s worth it for the sound advantages. It’s definitely better to be able to play at a comfortable volume and leave the control of your blend with the rest of the band to the sound techs.

    Thanks for this post… we don’t talk about these things enough!

  • In a small room I’m actually not a fan of using baffling. In a small room I’m doing more sound reinforcement to help what’s not coming off the stage. Again, this is why the kit needs to sound good from the start. If I’m using a shield, it’s really more to help tame cymbals a bit in vocal mics, but I always go into a smaller room assuming I’m not going to need as much of the kit coming through the PA. If I can back the PA up to the backline, that will definitely help, though.

  • Sure, that makes sense. As a drummer, though… I definitely appreciate the baffling, because it allows me to play out even in a small room, which brings out more of the fundamental of the drum’s tone. I used to play in a small church with a worship area that only seated about 100 for each service. Having the baffling was a Godsend, both for me and for the techs!

  • Great post, do you think that if you have time in the future you could do a post like this on guitar amps, bass, vocals, and acoustic guitars?

  • Hey, Mark. I think I hit vocals here: http://www.diveproductions.com/goingto11/?p=167

    I’m sure at some point I could get around to guitars and bass, though, but for bass I really need Chris Briley to write it because he is the master.

  • Thanks for this Dave. It’s nice to see the nuts and bolts of what other guys are doing. (Yours is my favorite blog.) I’m jealous of the dynamic range you guys have to play in! My volume ceiling is relatively low.

    I agree that the bottom snare mic isn’t critical but it sure is nice, especially within a narrow dynamic range. The Audix i5 is the only top mic I’ve used that doesn’t make me miss a bottom mic. Some super-clean overheads (Earthworks in our case) with proper delay times set for close mics (a critical technique I learned from you) can bring out the whole snare just as well, only a little looser.

  • Scott Fahy
    9 years ago

    Dave,
    If you get an opportunity try out the Earthworks Kick pad on the E902 mic. It really does what they claim.

    Scott

  • Hey, man. Thanks for the details on drum mics. My next question was going to be about vocals, but I followed your link and… shazam, all my questions were answered there too. Double-bussing the lead vocal, huh? I’ve never considered that, but our console has 16 empty channels just waiting for a task just like that. Great idea!

    Dave, next question for you would be: Do you have any preferences for studio mics? I want to get a versatile one of great quality to get started. Anyone else got favorites?

  • Studio mics…I lean towards something good and expensive that I can get a deal on. 🙂 I’m assuming you’re asking about vocals. Neumann, Soundeluxe. Sometimes you can be surprised by some of the more “entry” level project studio mics like the AT4050. Check out stuff from Blue. Shure KSM44’s are nice….

  • Yeah, I demoed a KSM44 the other day, but the salesperson gave me a $40 pair of headphones to listen to it with. That definitely told me less about the mic and more about how bad the headphones were.

    I’d lean toward the TLM103 or U87. But the Blue Bottle would of course a great versatile mic too. For the price, though, a KSM44 would be a steal. I guess I’m wondering if anyone has personal experience with these mics and could recommend one over the others as a mic that works for most singers and gives good results. Do you all use any at North Point for overdubs and things like that?

  • I’ve used all of those at one point or another. We own several 44’s that mostly get used for live stuff and an occasional voiceover.

    The thing about the studio is the mic is only one part of the equation. There’s also the talent and the mic pre. I like Neumann stuff and would probably lean that direction. It also looks better on a gear list to prospective clients.

  • Believe it or not, I’ve never bought an outboard mic pre. (I know, I know, I’ll wait for the collective gasp from everyone reading to die down.) So I’m totally clueless about that. What’s the goal — to get the mic boosted to line level when you input it to be recorded? Doesn’t your sound board’s pre-amp still affect the sound as it’s inputed at that level? Anyway, any recommendations for favorite mic pres?

  • Yes, that’s the goal. The console pre won’t affect anything if you bypass it… I like Neve stuff or API.

  • Good stuff Dave. I would really love it if you would consider posting some audio of delaying your drum skins a bit. I might just try that today. What type of delay times are you applying to snare and toms?

    The point about tone coming from players is so true, but so sparsely understood.

    Just to touch on the bottom snare mic point. I’ve never really been a fan of them in years past. In past studio work, the bottom snare mic rarely stayed in my mixes. However, at my current church, we have 4 drummers who play very differently. I found that I didn’t have the diversity to really get the right sound from each drummer.

    The first reason to add the bottom snare mic was to combat a particular drummer who HAMMERS the hi-hat. By adding a bottom snare mic, I could use it to key the gate of the top snare mic, and combat some of that over the top hi-hat bleed.

    I had always gone with the typical dynamic mics in the past, but I had heard some good things about the 414 as a bottom snare mic (even though I usually don’t like the 414). I tried it, and sure enough it sounded great. I have it 6 inches or so off the bottom of the snare, in figure 8 with the null pointed at the kick drum.

    I really like BIG FAT drums. I know everyone says that, but most of the engineers I know tend to have pretty small/poppy snare sounds, with drastic hi-pass filerting. Anyhow, the 414 actually added a lot of great low end tone. I have a significant bump around 125-150 or so. As you touched on Dave, a lot of this has to do with the sound of the bottom snare skin. Luckily, the kit I tend to use produces really solid sounds from underneath.

    And of course, picking up some nice top-end rattle is great. It certainly helps to combat the problems of having a tight gate on the top snare.

    But I am really getting lots of use from the bottom snare mic, and if you already have one up there that’s getting little use, consider a 414, or a bright large diaphragm.

    Otherwise my drum set up is pretty similar to yours.

    Akg c460 on overheads: These are slightly brighter than the 451. I have used NT1’s as well, but prefer a smaller diaphragm in my current situation.

    E604 on snare top: I just started using this, and I am really preferring it to the sm57. Worth trying.

    E604’s on toms: I loved these on toms when I was running an Allen & Heath, but they don’t sound as good through venue. Looking for affordable suggestions. Something cheaper than the 421. 🙂

    Kick: SM91 and Beta 52. 91 in, 52 at the hole.

    I really like Impact the best on my compressed drum buss, as well as a bit of luster. What’s on your drum busses dave?

  • Great tips, thanks for posting! I’ll definitely try playing with our snare mic a bit this coming week.

  • Just a follow-up to my previous comment about double-bussing lead vocals… I was just reading in Mix Magazine about how they used that technique on John Mayer’s latest album… one dry channel and one crushed with a Fairchild 670. Very cool idea. Thanks for passing it along, Dave! You’re definitely on top of things and “in the loop.”

    By the way, I looked up the price, and why in the world would a Fairchild 670 cost $30,000? Isn’t all compression just compression? I know some have more options or less than others, but really… $30,000!?#! Holy cow!

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Just Beat It