Calculating The Basics
So, you want to put microphones on the drums. The first question for you should really be: why?
Do the drums need to be louder? Do you need to record or broadcast them? Are you trying to change the way they sound? These are all legitimate reasons for amplifying the drum sounds. But before you get carried away and spend a whole bunch of money on microphones, take a minute to consider a few questions: Can other instruments be turned down, instead of amplifying the drums? Do you have enough unused input channels in your sound system? Is your sound system sufficient to handle the impact, dynamic range, and low frequencies that drums can produce?
Remember that for every microphone you place on a drum set, you need an input channel in your mixing console. Also, each additional microphone complicates your sound person’s life more and more. It is much better to start with a very basic drum microphone setup, and see if it will meet your needs before you go out spending thousands of dollars to put microphones on every drum and cymbal on the drum kit.
Before You Get Started
One warning – a good drum sound starts with a good sounding drum! A bad sounding drum, even with a professional grade microphone and amplified through a really good sound system, will still sound bad. Drums need to have drumheads that are in good condition, and be tuned before you start adding microphones. If the drums have too much of a “ringing sound” for your taste, commercially available drum muting rings (or “donuts”) are available from the major drumhead manufacturers (Aquarian, Remo, Evans). These simply rest on the top drumhead and reduce the overtones that produce the “ringing” sound. Work with the drummer to get the best sounding “un-amplified” sound you can before you start with the microphones.
The Basic Setup
Start with the kick drum. Generally, the kick will produce less volume than the other drums, and the dynamics of contemporary Christian music rely on a strong kick drum sound. Improving or amplifying the kick drum will produce the most immediate impact on the overall drum set sound for the audience. First, check to see if the kick drum has a front drumhead or not, and if it does, see if there a hole cut in the drumhead. This will determine how you can place the microphone. If there is a front head with no hole on the drum, place the kick drum microphone about 2” in front of the drum head, between the dead center of the drum, and the edge. Aim the microphone straight at the drumhead. If the sound is too “boomy” perhaps the drummer can place a blanket or some other form of muffling inside the drum to “deaden” the sound.
If there is a hole in the kick drum front head, life starts to get more interesting: you have more choices on microphone placement. Using a short boom stand, try positioning the kick drum microphone just inside the front head, with the microphone aimed at the point on the rear drumhead where the kick drum pedal hits the head. Listen to the sound. If the sound is not “punchy” enough, slide out the boom until the microphone is closer to the rear drumhead – approximately 2/3 or 3/4 of the way towards the back head.
Positioning the microphone here will increase the “impact” sound of the drum, and reduce the “boom”. You may want to experiment by moving the microphone from the front to the back to find the best sound. Take the acoustics of the worship space into consideration as well: if you are in a very “live” room (highly reverberant space), it may be better to emphasize the impact portion of the kick drum sound, than to add to acoustical confusion by amplifying the “boom”!
Once you have the kick drum microphone in place and are satisfied with the results, see if the overall result is sufficient before you start adding any more microphones. If the results are not satisfactory, the next step will be to add an overhead microphone to pick up the “overall” sounds from the remainder of the drum kit.
Most drummers with moderate skill levels are pretty good about balancing their own sound. They can hear how loud their snare drum is compared to their toms and their cymbals. They use their ears to dictate how hard they hit the various parts of the drum kit to keep the sounds in balance with one another.
If you place the overhead microphone in a location close to the drummers head, you can make use of their internal balance. Try positioning a condenser microphone on a boom stand so the microphone is just over the drummer’s head (or slightly to one side), with the microphone aimed at the center of the drum set – usually the spot where the drummers right knee will be (assuming the drummer is right handed). Have the soundperson adjust the “balance” between the kick drum microphone and the overhead microphone. If that basic setup works for you- great! If not, read on.
The Standard Setup
If the sound you get from the 2-microphone basic setup is not adequate for your needs, the next step will be to add dedicated microphones for the other parts of the drum kit. Start with the snare drum. The snare microphone should be positioned so that the microphone element is almost directly over the edge of the snare drum, between two and four inches above the drum head, with the microphone aimed at the center of the snare drum.
In some cases the snare microphone will also provide sufficient pickup of the hi-hat sound. If not, a condenser microphone placed to the side and slightly above the hi-hat, and aimed at the edge gap between the two cymbals should be sufficient.
Additional microphones can be added for each tom on the drum set. Dynamic microphones work well and can be positioned so the microphone element is slightly above the rim of the drum, aimed at a spot on the drum head about halfway between the center of the tom and the rim. Depending on how the drummer has his kit set up, it may be possible to place one microphone between two toms, instead of using two separate microphones. For example, a “six-piece” drum kit, with two toms mounted on the kick drum and two floor toms can be covered by one kick mic, one overhead mic, one snare mic, one mic between the two top mounted toms, and one mic between the two floor toms. Remember, the fewer microphones you can use, the easier it will be for your sound person!
Advanced Setup Ideas
If you desire additional control over the sounds of the individual drums, or if you are in a concert application, the use of additional microphones can be beneficial. For increased control of the kick drum sound, use a boundary-type microphone positioned inside the kick drum, resting on a pillow or other muffling device, and a second kick drum microphone positioned at the hole in the front head. This provides the soundperson with two separate sound sources – one providing more “impact sound” and the other rounding out the overall sound with the “boom”.
Larger drum kits may require two overhead condenser microphones to sufficiently pick up all the cymbal sounds.
Most microphone manufacturers, in addition to their professional-grade products, offer an inexpensive product series which can be perfectly acceptable for a lot of uses, especially for Houses of Worship with a tight budget.
Check with the manufacturer of your choice to see if they offer drum microphone package kits – both Shure and Audio-Technica offer low and higher priced packages which may include specialized drum microphone mounting hardware. Keep in mind that these are recommendations of two manufacturers- where there are many more to choose from with varying price points and sound qualities.
The techniques described herein should be considered guidelines. Feel free to experiment – some variations on microphone positioning may work better with certain drum/drumhead combinations to give you different sounds. Use your ears and listen to the drum before you start putting up microphones. Put your ear in the spot where you think you want to place a microphone and listen (tell the drummer not to hit too hard!). Have some fun with it, and remember to be nice to the drummer!!