It’s been said that you can’t have a great mix, without a great drum sound.
While I say it can be done, you’re likely to be mixing a song or band, that is void of drums, to do it.
If you happen to be unfortunate enough to be listening to a band with a drum kit that has weak and/or bad sounds emanating from it, a fight quickly arises, for one to be interested in the music.
I learned a lot time ago to put a large priority into doing my best to get my drum sounds just right.
It’s not just one area I will look to concentrate on, it’s a combination of many things that eventually come together, that results in the best possible product. To do this, you must weigh several things together; the style of music, drum kit quality and tuning, the drummer’s style of playing, the room environment, microphone choice and placement, and EQ choices balanced with other inputs from the stage.
The Drum Kit Itself
It’s very difficult to get a great drum kit sound, without a great drum kit. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
I’m not going to cut this short here, if there is one instrument on stage that you need to invest in, it’s a quality drum kit.
Whatever genre of music style you play, that drum kit needs to not only be a quality kit, but a well-tuned kit as well. Tuning can drastically range, based on the musical style. A rock snare drum just isn’t the same as a R&B snare drum. Likewise, tonality needs to be accurate. Investing in new drum heads on a regular basis, is important in achieving this. If you haven’t changed your drum heads in a year or more, for instance, you’re a century past their expiration date.
Mixing drums and EQ
While there can be a whole series of articles on this, to sum it up here, what you do on the audio mixing console can be entirely driven by mic choice, genre style, what your console is capable of, combined with your personal choice.
I’ll be honest here, if you looked at my drum EQ, you’d scratch your head.
I’ve looked at other great engineers’ EQ setups, and it’s just as bizarre. The only reason for that is because there are so many microphones we use, that can play multiple roles, combined with various genre styles of music, along with so many tools that exist in today’s digital consoles. It’s a bit of anything goes.
A few things to mention here is, as you add more mics to your drum kit, the more you need to reconcile the phase relation of all those mics, as you begin to put all these mics through the PA system. You also need to take into account the drum bleed that will occur into other mics that are nearby on stage, such as those for vocals.
Mic placement may become more important, as you seek out more rejection to reduce bleed, from other parts of the drums. This can help with reducing phase. The same would be true potentially in your vocal mic choice, if you can, to do the same.
A trick I have used a lot lately, to improve some drum kit phase issues, is under mic’ing all my cymbals (hi hat, overheads, and ride).
If you are already close mic’ing most of your drum kit, this works well. Many drummers have loved this in their monitor mixes. However, if it doesn’t work for them, you may need to place separate traditional overhead mics, for their monitor use.
For under mic’ing, I have been a fan of Triad-Orbit (https://www.triad-orbit.com) and their mounting system solutions.
Microphones are very taste driven, in my opinion, and most of my choices directly reflect the style of music that is being performed on stage.
Once I figure out the sound that I need to go after, I may choose microphones, based on how subtle, bright, dull, or flat that I need. Other times, my mic choices are based on what’s available. The great thing is, a lot of mics are super-versatile, and you may surprise yourself by experimenting with different types of mics in various roles.
After I determine what type of mic to use, look where I need to place each of the mics. While in studio, you may have the luxury to do just about anything. On a live stage, though, I may be limited to where I can get a mic stand or clip a mic to a drum rim. The pattern of mic may play a role here as well, for both isolation reasons to reduce bleed from other areas on the kit, but also mics that I may need a wider pickup pattern from.
Below, you will find a quick rundown of some of the industry standard go-to mics, including some budget-friendly options.
There are a lot of manufacturers out there that make a variety of great mics, which cover multiple roles as well as very special ones. While this list could be very exhaustive in length, I’ve instead chosen to cover some of the more popular mics that have become an industry standard.
There are a lot of options out there, but the key here is to remember what sound you are going for. The kick mic may be some of the most specialized mics out there, and it’s for a good reason. Some mics listed here are heavy and not so heavily pre-EQ’d.
Bright, Punchy MicsAudix D6, Sennheiser e602 & e902, Shure Beta 91
Versatile, All-genre MicsAKG D112 & D12, Shure Beta 52A, Electro Voice RE20 & RE320
You may find a lot of these mics may be used for a variety of other uses, such as vocals, instruments and more. That’s OK, since you get a lot of use and versatility out of some of these choices.
Bright-Punchy Mics: Shure Beta SM57A, Audix i5, Telefunken M80
Versatile, All-Genre Mics: Shure SM57, and a transformer less SM57. Try it, take the transformer out, as it will open up the sound of this classic industry standard, like a blanket was lifted off of it. But do know that by doing so, you will lose a good -10 dB of gain.
Although I’m not listing a lot here, you’ll find Sennheiser being the most mentioned here. I don’t know what these folks know, but they make some amazing tom mics, which have been the industry standard for years.
Bright, Punchy Mics: Sennheiser e602 & e902, Audix D2 & D4 (both provide rim clips, I’m a huge fan of the Sennheiser clips)
Versatile, All-Genre Mics: Sennheiser 421, DPA 4099, Shure Beta 98A & PGA 98AMP
Something to know here, if you are in a small venue, there is a good chance you’re not using much of your cymbal mics. Investing in expensive mics in such instances isn’t as important, unless you are recording, mixing for broadcast, or mixing in large stage environments. I try to choose versatile condensers that can perform multiple tasks, and those that have high pass roll offs and/or polar pattern adjustments.
In no particular order, here are some of my go-to’s that cover a variety of budget levels:
AKG 451, AKG C414, Shure KSM 141, Shure SM81, Shure Beta 98A, Neumann KM184, Neumann KM84, Audio-Technica Pro37.
For those who are looking for an easy all-in-one kit, several manufacturers have assembled some very affordable drum kit microphone packages. Of those I can easily recommend: Sennheiser, Audix, Shure, CAD Audio, and Audio-Technica.
Remember, it’s not the how or what you use, in the end if it sounds amazing, you win!