Study Hall

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Bang On The Drum All Day

A fresh look at drum kit microphone techniques; taking a less conventional approach...

Pros & Cons

Like anything in audio, using underhead cymbal mics has its downsides (zing!). For starters, there’s likely the need for more inputs, as close-miking necessitates a mic for each cymbal or small group of cymbals. If the drummer has a gargantuan kit, this might be a concern. There will also be more open mics, but gain before feedback actually seems to improve with this approach. Here’s why.

Let’s say a standard overhead mic is 3 feet from the cymbal, and our underhead mic is 1 foot away. That 3:1 advantage in SPL translates to 10 dB less gain needed at the preamp to get the same level in the mix. We’ve effectively attenuated room noise by 10 dB, increasing the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). This is the mechanism that drives the close-mike approach to isolation, which dominates our live sound strategy.

Also be aware that under-miked kits can be harder to mix. Since an overhead picks up everything, it naturally preserves the balance of the drummer’s performance. With close mics, a lot more attention needs to be paid to making sure the elements of the kit are balanced in the mix. This can be a lot to juggle.

Finally, be aware that the “close-miked sound” is not appropriate for all styles of music. For example, often with jazz a single overhead is the only drum mic, relying on the player to balance the sound.

TNT, I’m Dynamite

Speaking of which, let’s talk about kick drum EQ for a minute. Imagine you’re at a rock concert. What does the kick drum sound like? OK, now imagine how the kick drum might sound at a hip-hop show. Then picture a jazz band. You can see that any across-the-board advice on how to EQ a kick drum should be looked upon with suspicion.

There must be a consideration of the genre of music, as well as the expectations of the audience. Fans at a Chick Corea concert would be extremely upset if the kick drum sounded like some sort of explosive device detonating. Fans at a Five Finger Death Punch show would be extremely upset if it didn’t.

Having just advised against any blanket statements regarding kick drum EQ, I’m now going to make a blanket statement regarding kick drum EQ. Here’s a little trick that I have been using for yours before I discovered why it worked. So let’s start there.

Although you’d be excused for not having seen it in a live setting, the Pultec EQP-1A is a mainstay in recording studios across the globe. Examining the front panel reveals a curiosity: each EQ band has two gain pots: one for boost and one for cut, a head-scratcher for sure.

A Pultec EQP-1A with pots for both boost and cut.

What’s really going on is that the attenuation frequency is intentionally offset from the boost frequency by about 100 Hz. If you set the EQ to boost kick drum resonance at 60 Hz, the attenuator pot would add a cut around 160 Hz. This creates a gentle yin-yang shaped curve that makes the boost sound bigger that it actually is, which really “tightens up” the sound and makes some room for the bass guitar. So if you like to use LF boost at the kick’s fundamental frequency (usually 50 to 60 Hz), you can emulate the Pultec curve by adding a gentle cut a little further up.

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Additional Matters

By the way, that 18-inch sub behind the drummer? Yeah, the one that he keeps asking you to turn up? Kick drum transients push the drum sub loudspeaker cone outward – towards the kick drum head – which can sympathetically resonate the drum head, like pushing a kid on a swing. Flip the polarity on the drum sub and its excursions are now opposite those of the drum head, which can actually damp the head a bit and buy you a few extra dB of gain before feedback. You know, so you can turn it up more.

Finally, it may be worth having a conversation with the drummer about his mic preferences. I asked a drummer buddy about this, and he said, “I don’t care as long as nothing’s in my way.” He also told me that he’s particularly sensitive to “too much going on” in the space between the hi-hat and snare drum. Good things to know when I go to mike up his kit! A quick chat with the drummer can streamline the process and prevent having to make changes later.

Ask 10 drummers – or 10 sound engineers – and you’ll get 10 different suggestions for how to mike a kit. And that’s fine. Ultimately, let you ears be the judge. If it sounds good, go with it!

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