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How To Ruin A Mix: Stop – Enough Already With The Cymbals!

Maybe death metal engineers can get away with the constant drone of metallic hash noise, but for everyone else, please continue to read on...

By Michael Fay August 8, 2019

Image courtesy of Nadine_Em

This morning I sat in church listening to a wonderful 150-voice choir, an 8-person front-line vocal team, a 40-piece orchestra, and a tight rhythm section that included a grand piano, Hammond B3, electric and acoustic guitars, electric bass, and a full acoustic drum kit.

Because there were so many acoustic instruments and voices being miked, the drums were in a fully enclosed plexiglass booth. The sanctuary stage is not an ideal acoustic environment for all this sound in close proximity, but it’s workable for most arrangements.

However… Today, for some reason, the house engineer was running the overhead drum mics way too hot in the mix. What a waste of amazing talent. So, what’s my problem?

The problem was the constant drone of metallic hash noise coming from the ride, splash and crash cymbals. Why are you (you know who you are) miking and routing those cymbals to the main mix bus? Well, maybe death metal engineers can get away with it, but for everyone else, please continue to read on.

More Harm Than Good?

Having spent a good deal of my pro audio career in the studio or behind a front of house console, I’ve never understood the fascination with overhead drum mics. In the studio, sure, I get laying down discrete overhead tracks that can be carefully used in the final mix. But for a live mix, not so much.

I love a good sounding drum kit and have long felt that when properly tuned and mixed, a great-sounding kit can make any combination of other instruments and voices sound better than the sum of the parts. But I think the ride, splash and crash cymbals do more to ruin an otherwise good mix than any other class of instrument.

In my humble opinion, allowing overhead mics to pick up and amplify these cymbals ruins the mix, and here’s why: the upper mid-range tonal spectrum gets too crowded. Cymbals occupy a wide swath of the audible frequency spectrum (Figure 1). And when hit hard, they contain a significant amount of transient energy (Figure 2), and decay much more slowly (Figure 3) than all drum heads.

Figure 1: Frequency response of a Zildjian 20-inch ReZo crash cymbal. Notice the energy density between 100 Hz and 10 kHz. The magenta spectral line is the peak volume at the initial crash. The yellow trace is the sound level two seconds afterward, so the yellow line shows the decay. [1]

Amplifying cymbals is particularly bad because of how the tonal spectrum masks other, more deserving sonic content, specifically vocals. Cymbals just raise the noise floor of the overall mix for no good reason. You might as well just feed pink noise into the output bus and raise the level until it’s obviously annoying.

Even without amplification, cymbals can easily overwhelm solo and background vocals, strings, acoustic guitars, woodwinds, keyboards, and a whole host of other instruments that have fundamental, and second and third harmonic tonalities between 400 Hz and 10 kHz. [2]

Figure 2: Recording level versus time of the Zildjian ReZo crash cymbal, shown in 10ths of a second. The peak level of sound is reached at 0.15 to 0.2 seconds, followed by the decay. [1]

The only cymbals I consider worthy of miking for live reinforcement are the high-hat pair, presuming the drummer isn’t too heavy handed when the pair are open. There are many effective ways to mic the hat, so I won’t go further into that topic.

If you absolutely have to deploy a couple of overhead mics (e.g., because the drummer insists they’re needed for his in-ear monitor mix) pull them out of the house mix and only consider bringing up those faders during a soft ballad, when the drummer is most likely playing as light as he ever does.

Or, perhaps consider putting up under-hung mics on each cymbal. The closer placement, and upward facing positions, will reduce much of the drum and room bleed (based on the polar cancellation properties of each mic), giving more control over individual cymbal sounds. But even with this technique, be very careful with the levels.

There’s enough energy coming off most cymbals to easily carry into the drum mics, and likely, every other open mic on stage. Obvious examples are vocal, choir, acoustic piano, string and acoustic guitar mics. I’m sure you can fill in other examples.


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About Michael

Michael Fay
Michael Fay

 
Michael Fay is owner/principal at GraceNote Design Studio, an audio, video and acoustic design consultancy; a sustaining member of SynAudCon; a member of AVIXA and the Acoustical Society of America; former Integration Division general manager and senior design consultant with Sound Image; and former editor of Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine.
https://www.gracenoteds.com/

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Douglas Martin says

For an excellent example of cymbal mic'ing in a live performance recording, check out Paul Wertico's drumming on The Pat Metheny Group's live performance of "First Circle" (Metheny/Mays). Mr. Wertico plays only cymbals for the entire nine-minute piece, with six other musicians on stage.

Laurence "larz" Nefzger says

I totally agree that cymbals rarely needed to be miked. There are often more than enough mics around stage that pick up the "white noise" that is generated by the cymbals. But I place a fair amount of blame on drummers. Since the advent of grunge back in the 90's it seems that playing "ride" on the cymbals with the butt end or side of the stick became common. Don't get me started on drummers who crash away on high hats with them in the slightly open position!
I love the drummer who understand how to play the cymbals soft and the toms loud!

touch33 says

Bravo — a well- written piece on a subject near to my heart. Cymbomutes notwithstanding, I find I can usually accomplish all of the cymbal reduction I need with good old absorptive shipping blankets — wrapped around the drummer’s head and secured with StageStick...

Jay says

OMG thank you! It's like you're in my head, haha! This piece should be required reading for every engineer and drummer. Respect. ✊

Len Phillips says

Interesting, I single mic my overheads but drop the fader when things 'get going'. My biggest problem is actually hi-hat, especially drummers who feel the need to hit every quaver.

Jonathan Derek Stotz says

Overly loud and/or harsh cymbals are inappropriate for even the most extreme metal; it's all about balance.

For what I consider to be a great metal production, check out Hospodi by Batushka, released this year to great acclaim by the community. It's not death metal, but black metal, which as a genre includes some of the most lo-fi productions in the history of modern music. Newer black metal productions are arguably more tasteful, due to technological advancements and a changing ideology of the scene.

CRAIG MONTGOMERY says

I can think of plenty of reasons you might want overhead mics, depending on genre like traditional acoustic jazz. Try doing this gig with close mics on the kick, snare, and toms and no overheads. The drummer will death-stare you right off the stage. Here, you get most of your drum sound from the overheads, preferably in a time-coherent way like an X-Y pair.

Even if it's not trad jazz, I still like to have them, with very little gain and a lot of high-pass. They can give a little HF presence to the ride, and some 'air' and stereo spread to the overall drum sound that you just can't get with close mics and artificial reverb.

Ben Burns says

Also agree, to an extent - we have all heard terrible sounding shows because of this issue.
BUT, as both a FOH engineer and a drummer I must say dealing with overheads is project (and track!) specific, as well as taking into account the size and type of venue - plus the usual absence of sufficent acoustic treatment..

Eg. In a small club with glass mirrors all around the stage ? then yes of course, there will already be more than enough cymbals to get to the moon and back. Take that setup to a football stadium with a heavily draped 30 meter wide stage and its a different story.. even with a hard hitter.

People like Greg Price mention measuring and matching the distance from the snare to each ‘overhead’ to get a phase coherent set of inputs - which again, has to be project specific. The main kit balance can then come from the oh’s and we use the close mics to ‘fill in the gaps’ - but you need very good players and well tuned instruments.
This technique has worked for me with no close mics at all except a kick.. like an open jazz setup where the drummer ‘mixes’ her or himself.
Finding the right mic placement and distance is key - sound proppegates from cymbals almost like a figure 8 pattern, so sometimes you can use that to your advantage.

It has to be partly down to the drummer to assess the acoustic situation and play accordingly, sympathetic to the rest of the musicians and the room. Honestly good players will do that.. but often an excited kid will not.
So it is also down to the engineer to know when there is a quietish ride part that needs lifting, or perhaps some soft mallet work such as rolls/swells.. also knowing when to mute.. oh’s sometimes get their own VCA/DCA on shows I mix - project dependent of course.
At FOH you can really shape and actually create dynamic range if required.

There are also different types of cymbals, as mentioned - I have used the mesh cymbals and can confirm they work very well for both overall SPL reduction and faster decay times. Perhaps used in conjunction with the damping rings mentioned a solution could be tailored to each performance space.

Rant over.

Philip Galaura says

Spot on. Thank you.

Sal says

Thank you for this article, it was very informative and helpful.
Our church converted an acoustic kit to edrums using triggers from Jobecky. But we still have acoustic cymbals and there’s two overhead right & left mics plus one near the high-hat and that’s really unnecessary and it’s a big problem with the FOH audio engineer for the reasons stated in your article.
I’ve been drumming for over 55 years and only play the cymbals to what is appropriate to what I hear in my headphones, which is a problem in itself as I’m not playing to the room like in the old days.
I’ve also heavily muted the cymbals with stick-on dots which should never be done to cymbals because the life is sucked out of them, and it’s still a problem with volume.
We are going to have to use triggered low-volume cymbals, such as those from Magnatrack.
I would not suggest using Cymbomate dampeners as the only sound using those is the ping of the stick on the cymbal.

Jeff Schmitz says

I'm more inclined to blame the drummer and band leader for including too much cymbal in the arrangement. If a song is arranged well, then including the correct amount of cymbal (Overhead mics) is essential. I happen to know the venue you reference and most of the drummers need a some coaching.

Kyle says

This is a great way to kill your drum sound.
Overheads do more than capture the your cymbals. They also capture the full sound of the drum kit as a whole. I believe the main problem here is the choice of cymbals. If you pay no attention to what cymbals you chose, and just use whatever you find, then you will most likely have a cymbal that is loud and harsh. Using cymbals that are darker and that fill a lower frequency space will usually make a big impact on the overall sound. These kinds of cymbals will not take over the entire mix, even when hit with a great deal of force, and their sustain will be kept at a minimum. Obviously, turning the overheads up to much will not result in a pleasing sound, but getting rid of them completely will kill the natural sound of the drums.
Lastly, drums are a resonant instrument. If you don't like the sound of them, then you might as well use electronic samples or just omit them altogether, because that's just the way then sound.

Dolf says

I'm a retired sound-engineer with over 50 yrs experience in major recording-studio's /mobiles and live-sound. I think this drummer was not very professional and maybe was already deaf from his own cymbal noise ? ;-). You can even get a great drumsound if you use only 1 Kick and 1 or 2 OH mics. (in the right room, even with hardrock). Also some famous jazz-drummers that I recorded at North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland even asked for that specifically (1 OH + 1 Kick mic), especially if they didn't have their own sound-engineer with them (mostly not). They know how to play in balance (unlike some "soundengineers" mix) and tune their kit properly, as well as experienced studio session drummers and most professional pop/rock drummers. . Keep up the good work !

Dolf says

p.s. you don't have to put a drummer in a boot in a live situation, a perspex screen in front of the kit is enough against cymbal spill to the front (vocal)mics on stage. Most cymbal energy comes from the edge/side, but every engineer knows that (I hope).

DG says

Note. In this case the perspex screen is BEHIND the drummer and gitarist, see the clever setup of the orchestra (reverse). Concert is in a former church (Paradiso - Amsterdam), recorded for Dutch radio (audio) with the video's of smartphones from the audience (crowd sourced ;-). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS-64ce_bqE

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