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Alternatives To The Ol’ Ball & Stick

A variety of microphones and approaches for challenging live sound situations...

When I began working in pro audio, I pretty much copied what everyone else was doing when it came to microphone selection and placement – “ball” mics for vocals and “stick” mics for instruments and amps, with hardly any “studio” mics on stage except when live recording was being done.

Then came a show with an older soundguy who proceeded to mike the stage in a very strange way, or at least it was strange to me. He put a ball mic on snare and toms, and then grabbed a 1940s-era RCA Varacoustic, set it to a figure 8 pattern, and positioned it a few feet away from the congas and bongos, pointing the rear of the mic off stage.

I asked him about both approaches. He replied that the ball mics could take a beating from errant drumstick hits better and that the ball could be easily replaced, unlike the head of the most popular stick mic.

And he showed me how the figure 8 setting picked up in a very narrow pattern front and rear while providing very good rejection at the sides, with the rear pickup pattern pointed where it was quiet, so now he would hear only the percussion in that one mic.

It made sense to me, and sure enough at sound check, the drums sounded as good as I’d ever heard and the percussion mic worked like a charm.

The experience encouraged me to think outside the box (or more accurately, outside the ball and stick) and really focus on the end result rather than defaulting to the most common way of doing things. Over the years I’ve discovered (and “borrowed” from others) some approaches that are particularly useful in challenging situations.

Sometimes it’s all about placement, but there are also several unique mics that can help get the job done. Let’s take a look.

Heil Sound PR 31BW

Larger & Smaller
Want a large diaphragm dynamic but the size of a standard unit is too big? Take a look at the Heil Sound PR 31BW, a shortened version of the PR 30 developed in collaboration with Bob Workman, the front of house engineer for the Charlie Daniels Band (hence the “BW” designation).

The two models both have a large element, humbucking coil, and share the same specs, but the PR 31BW is only 4 inches in length, perfect for mounting to drums, placing underneath cymbals, or even inside a Leslie speaker cabinet. Heil also makes the Handi Pro Plus that’s again just 4 inches long, so it can come in handy (see what I did there?) in many tight-space applications.

Electro-Voice N/D468

The Electro-Voice N/D468 dynamic supercardioid instrument mic has a swivel head that provides a wide range of placement options, perfect for drums, horns and guitar amps. The large (2.05-inch) diaphragm delivers across a very wide frequency response of 20 Hz–22 kHz and can handle high SPL.

Telefunken has a shorter version of the M80 called the M80-SH. Both have the same low-mass capsule and super-thin capsule diaphragm that offers a wide frequency response of 30 Hz–18 kHz. The smaller SH version also ships with an XLR cable with right angle plug to further reduce length, so it’s a choice for drums, percussion and vocals, and specifically, could be applied for singing drummers who don’t want a lot of bulk behind a vocal mic that can get in the way of their playing.

DPA d:vote 4099

DPA Microphones offers a range of very good solutions for tough situations. The d:vote 4099 condenser is a very small supercardioid that fosters quality capture of drums and percussion instruments, capable of handling high SPL. It’s so low profile as to be almost invisible, with a flexible clip-on system providing fast, stable and repeatable attachment and a flexible gooseneck that can be positioned at different angles to fit different drums and allow a variety of sound nuances.

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And by detaching the clip from the gooseneck and re-mounting it turned 90 degrees, the number of mic positions is doubled. Note that this mic is also a solution with a variety of other instruments, such as string and wind instruments, and piano, with a variety of tailored mounting options offered.