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Boom, Siss: The Art of Miking Drums

Amplifying acoustic drums is like drilling a hole in a submarine. Yes, it can be done and there are certainly correct ways to do it, but why would you choose to do so at all? There are legitimate reasons to mic and amplify drums (beside trying to get the drummer fired) that turn a clear prohibition into an encouraged action. Among these are: the need to record the service accurately with the drum aspect intact; the increased presence and immediate tone of miked drums, and the occasional redressing of balance among the various acoustic drum levels. Additionally, some churches just want the drums louder.

Achieving the goal of a good reproduced drum tone is a combination of art and science that, while open to interpretation, does carry some basic rules of engagement.

The first aspect of successful drum miking is the realization that close miking techniques are necessary in the typical high ambient environment of a church. Secondly, there must be a comprehension of the dramatic tonal shift inherent in close miking techniques. That is, no one listens to a tom-tom with their ear two inches from the drumhead, so the sound derived from a mic in that position will yield different results than the same tom-tom heard from ten feet away. Fortunately, we are used to hearing close- miked drums on virtually every pop recording of the past twenty years, so our reality, though skewed, parallels the sound we need to make in church. Let’s look at an example of close miking techniques that work in most situations.

In the accompanying photo, Carl Albrecht, the official worship drummer, is shown with his kit miked in a successful manner. Carl regularly plays for Paul Baloche, Don Moen, Tommy Walker, and Lamar Boschman. In situations where local assemblies do not desire loud drums or when the room acoustics do not permit excessive levels, Carl moderates his playing to accomplish the goal of tempo with unity. Using dynamics to vary his emotion, Carl adds intensity when appropriate and silence when necessary to convey the moment of worship. Carrying Carl’s emotive operation to the congregation falls to the audio engineer. The first step in reproducing drum tone is to listen to the original production, that is, what do the drums sound like by themselves in the room? Does that sound please the ear or grate the nerves? Beginning with clear, defined tones is essential to prevent a muddy wash of rhythm from sweeping the stage.

According to Carl, drummers tend to tighten the kick drum lugs more than is necessary and overstuff the shell with lightweight materials. He suggests lowering the kick’s pitch and placing smaller amounts of denser fabric into the drum.

Snares present further issues since they are loud by design. As cadence calls during artillery barrages, snare drums by their nature are meant to be heard above the din of battle. Quelling the snare’s voracity is no mean feat, but Carl comments that a smaller diameter stick, or better yet, Hot Rodds or Blastix can help the situation since they produce less force on the head.

Toms can be tuned to D above, A-440, and E below to fit into the musical landscape.

Cymbals can be kept in close proximity to the drummer to lessen the severity of the blow that can be delivered. Once the sounds are right, miking them becomes a pleasure.

Kick drum mics are usually large diaphragm dynamics that can withstand massive SPL (Sound Pressure Levels). Examples include AKG’s D-112 and their classic D-12, Shure’s Beta 52, Audio Technica’s ATM-25, and the EV RE20 and its offspring. Some genres of music do well with the mic placed near the front head’s opening or inside the hole six inches from the beater head, directed toward the beater. An alternative is to place a boundary condenser mic, such as the Shure Beta 91 on a cushion on the base of the kick.

Board EQ for these setups may include a roll-off below 40Hz, a 3dB boost at 80Hz, a 6 dB cut at 200Hz, and a 2 dB boost at 3KHz. Naturally, the best approach is to position the mic around the drum until the desired sound is achieved, then add EQ as flavoring on a great entree.

Snare miking is as unique as the snare in question. Ludwig Black Beauties are never treated in the same fashion as a DW snare. However, almost everyone agrees on a mic for the application, the Shure SM-57. Placed on the edge of the snare drum at a thirty-degree down angle, two-inches off the head, oriented on a boom mic stand positioned in the hole between the snare and the high tom, the tone is universally approved. Perhaps a roll-off at 90Hz, a boost at 315Hz, and a reduction at 5KHz (to reduce the “cut”) can tame the savage drum beast and bestow some majestic “body” to the backbeat.

Hi-Hats are critical to the overall mix, not just the drum mix, so laying a clean tone to the team is of prime importance. Small diaphragm condensers work well, with the AKG C451 being a classic favorite. Placed away from the edge, but with some orientation toward the air produced by the closing of the hats, an eighty-degree bent on a straight mic stand produces a usable tone.

Toms are the “punch” of the kit, and need to pop through the proceedings. To that end, a noise gate is a marvelous way to control the problem of tom mics picking up the drums used more often in a song. Standard tom mics include the EV 408, the Shure Beta 98a, and the Peavey PVM46i. Placed one inch from the head at a forty-five degree angle, the tone produced is instantly recognizable. EQ tips revolve around using the mid-frequency sweep to find the resonant frequency of the tom and then reduce that frequency by several decibels to prevent ringing. A slight boost in the 4KHz region may help propel the “snap” of the tom into the audience. Roll-offs just below the lowest frequency of the tom are a great assistance toward clean tones.

Cymbals are difficult to mic individually, but respond well to area techniques. Thus, the ubiquitous left and right positions are certainly usable. However, a trick from classical recording venues may be a better approach. Placing a single high quality small diaphragm condenser two feet above the drummer’s head will yield a tone that is akin to what the drummer hears and strives to achieve. The EQ keys are a roll-off at 200Hz, a cut at 3.15KHz, and a potential small boost at 12KHz. Good mic choices include the Neumann KM184, the Shure SM-81, the Audio Technica ATM-37, and the Peavey PVM-480.

An alternative miking approach is the simple-as-better school of a kick mic, a snare mic, and a single overhead mic without roll-off of the low frequencies. In the words of esteemed audio consultant Bill Thrasher, “If it works, use it.”

Drums contain tremendous dynamics and their peak to average ratio is extremely high, so it is wise to set the gain stage with plenty of margin for headroom. As Carl says, “Worship is expressive and my expression varies according to the aspect of God we are contemplating. By engaging, yet never overpowering the moment, I can be a part of the ushering in of the congregation and not an impediment to their journey.”

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