Real World Gear: The Secret Life Of Instrument Mics
Plug in one of each, and you’re good to go

May 04, 2012, by Gary Gand


Ever heard of the Zagat Restaurant Guide? The Zagats (whom I’ve met) are a husband and wife team who sift through hundreds (thousands?) of forms sent in by diners (folks who eat at restaurants).

The resulting ratings are democratic instead of “demo-critic” (critics are often tainted by too much booze or bad attitudes) or “demo-vicious” (bad hair day taken out on the poor restaurant owner).

I look at this overview as kind of a Zagat Microphone Guide. The instrument mic selections have been compiled based upon what I’ve seen used most commonly (and have used myself) over the past 30 years or so, to present.

You can plug in one of each of the following models and have virtually every situation covered. A game show variation is to pick ANY four mics and do a gig. Come on, use your imagination! Do the gig in your head. Yep, you can get through it and even get paid!

These are the workhorse mics that allow most of us to get what we need. Many can be used on every instrument. Don’t tell me you haven’t ever seen a (Sennheiser) 421 or an (Electro-Voice) RE20 in a piano. Certainly, preference might be an AKG C414 B/ULS, which is why it’s also on the list. Read and rate.

Zagat does not rate many of the chain restaurants, even though most people eat at them frequently. Therefore I’m not including the ubiquitous Shure SM57 on the list. To the point: every musician should own his or her own personal SM57. (As should every sound person.)

Guitarists, fit an SM57 in your guitar case, one that’s not been dropped or whacked by a drum stick. This often knocks the diaphragm out of the gap, in turn making your $3,000 collection of guitar, amp and F/X boxes sound like #$%#! At gigs, simply pull out your personal ‘57 and you’re good to go. Drummers: do the same with your snare, for the same reasons.

You’ll find that many of the instrument mics I’ve listed can be used in combinations to produce exciting results. For example, my colleague Cubby Colby likes a (beyerdynamic) M88 and a (Shure) Beta 52 in the kick. He then puts an SM57 on top of the snare drum and a condenser mic underneath. This produces a real snap to the snare strainer without having to EQ a bunch of harsh high end into the top mic.

But beware the phase demon. Because the “underneath” mic is facing in the opposite direction as the “top” mic, the phase (or do you say polarity?) may need to be flipped. This is brand dependent because the standard for mic polarity is about as standard as console output polarity. The standard is “no standard.” Use your ears ­ that’s what you get paid for.

I’ve used a 421 and a (Crown) PZM in a smaller 20-inch kick to attain a punchy sound with a good beater click for ska music. Some engineers like a big diaphragm (AKG) 414 at the bass end of a piano and a small diaphragm (AKG) 451 at the top. This holds for acoustic guitar too.

When the going gets tough you can get away with many of these mics on vocals. I do a graduation ceremony using a hired voiceover talent, and nothing makes this guy happier than reading into an RE20.

Worst case scenario: Asian hip-hop festival. The rider asked for two turntables, a dual CD player and a headset mic. Five minutes before show time, the promoter says, “Oh by the way, we have 20 kids singing karaoke with the DJ. Did you bring any mics?” Mic “work trunk” to the rescue!

All of the mics I’ve listed are viable choices, but there’s a whole lot more out there. It’s up to you to look around, find what you like and can afford, evaluate, and then proceed to comfortably attain your desired results.

The following is intended to give you a good start down that path. Note that a couple/few of these models might be discontinued, but you can still get them for a good price at places like eBay.

Audio-Technica AT4033 CL

Description: Condenser with cardioid pattern intended for a wide range of applications. Operates on phantom power and comes with 10 dB pad and roll-off switches. Supplied with AT8449 shock mount, dust cover and protective case. Frequency response is 30 Hz to 20 kHz.

Gary Gand Take: The first large diaphragm studio condenser to go live (thank the Stones). Great overhead drum for harder edge attacks on cymbals. Also rocks on big guitar amps and brass if you have several in your drawer. Comes with sexy elastic shock mount that impresses clients.

Audio-Technica ATM25

Description: Dynamic with hypercardioid pattern intended for kick drum, tom-tom and other high-impact instruments. Supplied with integral stand clamp and protective storage pouch. Frequency response is 30 Hz to 15 kHz.

G.G. Take: Fantastic on toms. Gives a well-tuned drum with that “booowwww” sound we all want, with a good stick attack. Best used with a gate with variable decay time.

Neumann KM184

Description: Pressure gradient with cardioid pattern primarily for subtle acoustical instruments. Available in either matte black or nickel finish, supplied in folding box with windshield and two stand mounts that connect to the mix body or XLR connector. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Mandolin virtuoso David Grissman turned me onto these for live use. Great for “moist” sound on small bluegrass stringed instruments like mandolin, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and parlor style guitars. Buy the matched stereo pair in the cool mahogany “rat coffin.”

Audix D4

Description: Dynamic type with hypercardioid pattern, intended for applications such as drums and other percussion as well as wind instruments. Noted for its tight pattern and rejection characteristics. Supplied with MC2 mic clamp and zippered carrying pouch. Frequency response is 40 Hz to 18 kHz.

G.G. Take: This is the mic to use for accurate bass sounds ­ kick drum, timpani, and sax ­ when you want realism. The small size makes you think its for higher pitches, but no. I put this one on a kick drum when I want the actual sound of the drum itself. No coloration (which is sometimes good).



Description: Large-diaphragm with selectable cardioid, hypercardioid, omnidirectional or figure-eight polar patterns. Intended for a wide range of applications. Also includes switchable 10-dB and 20-dB pre-attenuation pads. Supplied with H100 spider-type suspension mount and windscreen. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Several models of this mic are available. This is the version I prefer for 6-foot to 9-foot micing on grand piano. Also handy for big vocal choirs (variable pattern) or stage wash where no mics can go (marching drum and bugle troops, singing dancers).


AKG C 451 B

Description: Condenser type with cardioid pattern C 451 B is ideal for percussion instruments and overhead micing, hi-hat, snare drum, and acoustic guitar. Includes switchable bass cut filter at 75 Hz or 150 Hz and switchable 10 dB and 20 dB pre-attenuation pad. Supplied with SA 60 stand adapter and windscreen. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: The classic hi-hat mic now available in a re-issued version for those of you who don’t have the time or bucks to ferret out an original. I always used a pair when I was mixing Leo Kottke on 6- and 12-string guitars. I’d put one on the sound hole and one below the bridge to get the deep bass off the top of his guitars. Each one was patched through a White 31 band EQ (the one with the knobs; faders were for sissies).

AKG D112

Description: Large-diaphragm dynamic type with cardioid pattern intended for kick drum as well bass cabinets and instruments like trombone. A narrow band presence rise at 4 kHz is intended to add extra “punch” in dense mixes. Comes with SA 60 stand adapter and windscreen. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 17 kHz.

G.G. Take: Everyone’s favorite reggae or British kick drum sound. Low down and deep. Great on the port (not speaker) of a bass amp speaker cabinet. Check the polarity with your bass DI for most bottom end. Cool ‘30s retro “Flash Gordon” look.

beyerdynamic M88 TG

Description: Dynamic type with hypercardioid pattern noted for its application versatility. When micing bass or kick drums, the company recommends that the optional PS 88 pop screen or WS 59 windscreen be used. Includes integral -20 dB humbucking filter. Supplied with 3/8-inch threaded mic clamp. Frequency response is 30 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Hypercardioid dynamic two words I love together, like surf n’ turf. I’ll use this one on anything and everything, including vocals. The front of the grill is already flat so they never appear “old” no matter how much use (abuse!) they take.

Shure SM81

Description: Unidirectional condenser type with cardioid pattern primarily recommended for acoustic instruments such as guitar, piano and cymbals. Operates on phantom power and includes three-position, low-end roll-off switch and 10 dB attenuator. Supplied with swivel adapter, switch lock, foam windscreen, and carrying case. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Best on high-hat, overhead, and percussion “toys.” Good for anything with a lot of metal that needs to be translated without harshness. Many use the SM81 under a snare for snap (reverse polarity with gate to avoid rattling between tunes).

Shure Beta 98D/S

Description: Mini-condenser type with supercardioid pattern primarily recommended for tom-tom, snare and percussion instruments. An optional cardioid cartridge allows easy adaptation for other applications. Supplied with the A98D drum mount with flexible gooseneck. (Also available without mount.) Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Clamps to the rim of toms on a tiny gooseneck. As the toms move, the mic moves with them, so your EQ doesn’t change as the drummer’s adrenaline increases. Can be squeezed between cymbals and rack toms without usual low cymbal ring associated with conventional mics.

Shure Beta 52A

Description: Dynamic type with supercardioid pattern, intended primarily for kick drums, bass amps and acoustic bass. Includes built-in locking stand adapter with integral XLR connector. Hardened steel mesh grille offers added protection from abuse. New wider base to accommodate larger range of stands. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 10 kHz.

G.G. Take: A big fat kick sound, with plenty of snap. Permanent sidewise mount makes mic stable on the end of boom stand. Great on bass amps with 10-inch speakers for some raw edge with your DI. Check phase for most mid range.

Crown PZM 6D

Description: Electret condenser type with hemispherical pattern when used on a floor, wall or ceiling. Operates with phantom power. For numerous applications. Includes dual-frequency response switch to select between “rising” or “flat.” Supplied with wired 15-foot cable with XLRM connector. Frequency response is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

G.G. Take: Gets extra snap out of a kick drum. Lay it in the bottom, on top of the pillow in addition to your fat drum mic. Check polarity please. I did the Talking Heads “Remain in Light” tour with three drum mics (total!) ­a PZM 6D between the rack toms (at their engineer’s request), another over the percussionist and then a 421 in the kick. The best bootleg board tape I ever made (of a well-known jazz group named after the state associated with sneakers) was from one PZM 6D taped to the lid of the grand piano on the tall stick on stage. It’s mono, but the balance and tone is unequalled in my career as a secret taper.

Sennheiser MD 421-II

Description: Dynamic type with cardioid pattern for a range of applications, generally lower-frequency instruments. Includes a five-position bass roll-off switch. Supplied with microphone clamp for 3/8-inch thread. Frequency response is 30 Hz to 17 kHz.

G.G. Take: Nothing sounds better for sax than a fresh one right out of the box. Great on kick drum and double bass fiddle (stuff it between the legs of the bridge wrapped in foam pointing up at the neck). Great to fatten up a Celestion loaded 412 cab in tandem with an SM57. Check polarity for most warmth. Be careful, as a lot of these were tom mics in a former life and have taken a beating, which can impact sound quality.

Sennheiser e609 Silver

Description: Dynamic type with supercardioid pattern. The flat-profile capsule is designed for extremely close micing of guitar cabinets. Also can be used for some drum micing, particularly toms. Supplied with MZQ 100 clip and protective pouch. Frequency response is 40 Hz to 18 kHz.

G.G. Take: In the ‘70s this was called a 409 and was the vocal mic of choice for Pink Floyd and the Doobie Brothers. The recent Evolution Series 609 version didn’t live up to everyone’s memory, so Sennheiser devised this popular new re-issue. The flat paddle design makes it cool for hanging over the front of a guitar amp without need for a mic stand. Techs have been doing this for years with various other mics even though the sound is blowing across the mic diaphragm for less than good frequency response.

Electro-Voice RE20

Description: Dynamic type with cardioid pattern, for numerous applications such as bass drum and other drum apps as well as wind instruments and piano. Includes bass roll-off switch. Supplied with 15-foot cable and stand adapter. Frequency response is 45 Hz to 18 kHz.

G.G. Take: My personal favorite for BIG bass drums. I recently mic’d a marching band and this provided the range that bass guitar would normally occupy. (They use sousaphones, which have no low end and can’t be mic’d as they’re a dance “accessory.”) Also a good choice for trombone and baritone sax. Mic a piano with heavy compression for that kitschy “elevator music” sound.

Electro-Voice ND468

Description: Dynamic type with supercardioid pattern, for numerous applications depending upon mic placement. Some applications include guitar and bass amps, brass instruments, tom-tom and snare drums. Supplied with soft, zippered “gig” bag and 311 mic clamp. Frequency response is 30 Hz to 22 kHz (close mic’ing).

G.G.Take: This is a relatively recent upgrade of the popular 408, one of the first clamp-on tom mics. It has a swivel yoke that some find more stable than the mini goosenecks used by others. Ball grill works well for outdoor gigs (lowers wind noise). Beware of older 408s ­—the foam inside the grill can deteriorate if the mic has been exposed excessively to high humidity and moisture.

Gary Gand has been a mix engineer for more than 35 years and is president of Gand Concert Sound in Glenview, IL. GCS has been on the forefront of large-scale audio since the 1970s and are known in some circles as the “NEXO guys.”

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Real World Gear: The Secret Life Of Instrument Mics