Do You Really Want the Drums Any Louder?

Mike Lawson • Technology • November 12, 2015

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(c) ShutterstockIf your drummer plays like Chad Smith then the answer is of course, yes! Miking drums is both an art and a science and like anything else takes some trial and error, because every drum kit and performance location is different. However, there are a few fundamentals that apply and will help you get the best sound out of your amplified drum kit.

Figure 1: Blue EnCore 100 Vocal and 100i Instrumental Dynamic MicrophonesMicrophones

As we discussed in the September issue, a dynamic microphone captures sound using a magnet vibrating inside a coil and is designed to pick up sound close to the input source and avoid unwanted sounds from other sources. Dynamic microphones are generally sold as vocal or instrumental (See Figure 1), and for drum kits use the instrumental versions because they have a narrower pick up pattern. 

Figure 2: MXL PA-5K 3-Piece Drum Microphone Ensemble KitUse dynamic instrumental mics on the drums and high hats and place them as close to the sound source as possible. Many manufacturers also make microphones specifically for the bass drum with a frequency response tailored to lower frequencies, and you can often purchase drum mics in convenient kits (Figure 2) for drums.

Figure 3: Blue Hummingbird Condenser Microphone To amplify the cymbals and add additional presence to the entire kit, use condenser microphones above the drum set. I prefer the new Blue Hummingbird (Figure 3) condenser microphones. While offering an amazing sound for the price point, the 180˚ rotating capsule makes positioning and adjusting the mic really easy. Remember that condenser mics require phantom power, which is a 48-volt signal sent from the sound board to the microphone. These microphones are also very sensitive, so be cautious of feedback. 

Mixing the Kit

Now that we have identified the correct microphones, there are a few essential mixer tricks to getting the best sound on the drums. The first is use a gate (Figure 4) on your mics. The gate, available on almost all digital mixers, controls the level at which sound can pass through the mixer based on the volume of the incoming signal. By setting a gate, a drum microphone will “open” when the drum is hit and “close” when the drum is not in use. This means your drum microphones do not all pick up every other drum and sound muddy. To set the gate, I suggest having a student play the drum as soft as they will in performance and increasing the gate until it starts to affect the drum sound, then backing down to the highest level possible without closing on the drum resonance.

Figure 4: PreSonus StudioLive “Fat Channel” Gate, Compressor, and EQ A properly gated and well-positioned correct microphone is the majority of the battle when amplifying drums. The goal is to preserve the acoustic sound of the kit. If a drum sounds unnatural through the sound system, then you can use EQ (Also Figure 4) to take out the specific frequency that is affecting the sound. Do not try to use EQ to change or “tune” the sound of your drum kit, just use EQ to get the most natural sound possible. One easy way to identify muddy frequencies is to boost a very narrow frequency range and sweep through the EQ, and the culprit will jump out at you. Then, simply cut that frequency to clean up a drum sound.

Using the techniques above, and with a little practice and patience, you will be able to get a great sound out of your drum set. In fact, many directors find it useful to mic the drum set even if only a little, because it allows the total mix of the ensemble in the sound system to blend better. If you are recording performances then drum miking is also a good idea for getting a great final mix down. As always, be sure to involve students in the process at all times and teach them how to properly set up and use the sound system. Happy mixing!

John MlynczakJohn Mlynczak is president-elect of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, director of education for PreSonus Audio, and a frequent clinician on music and technology at conferences and school districts across the country.

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