I’m always asked how to mic drums or how to control the levels for the loudest instrument on the worship stage. After asking a few qualifying questions to determine the whys and the wherefores, I may then offer some suggestions. It’s funny, because the problem is so common, to where the solutions always seem to be the same.
Drums are not loud. Drummers are!
Getting great sounds from your drums requires someone who knows how to play them.
Don’t get me wrong, the drums need to be round and sound as good as they can beforehand. They will sound better with new heads that are tuned correctly and musically (think intervals, i.e., perfect fourths) and the rings and rattles within the drum set have been reduced or eliminated.
There is an old saying: Garbage in, garbage out (or GIGO for short).
The saying certainly applies to any instrument or voice. No microphone will ever make something that sounds bad on its own, sound better.
I still marvel at how a church will often spend an inordinate amount of money seeking to fix a problem with the wrong approach. For example, Plexiglass screens and enclosures (which actually result in more problems in many cases), electronic drums (if you can find drummers who want to play them), may help to reduce the level at times. However, you’re not addressing the root of the problem, which is: the drummer lacks skill and doesn’t know how to play to a room or blend with the band.
Why not invest in the person?
Whatever the Plexi-screens or new Roland TD electronic drum kit end up costing the church, would certainly pay for a plethora of drum lessons. Teach the drummer how to play, with skill and dynamics, and meet the problem head-on.
1. A good drum(s), tuned and free from unwanted tones. The instruments should be chosen for the room they will be played in. Think size and projection.
2. Find the location on the platform where the drums sound best. I don’t care if they look cooler over there, where do they sound best?
Do not underestimate this step.
Move things when necessary.
3. Try to keep the cymbals from getting into vocal microphones. You’ve been looking for a different result, but never end up changing anything. That’s the definition of insanity!
4. Having a drummer who knows how to play his instrument. One who knows how to play to the particular space that he’s in, and how to play well with others. Plays with dynamic control.
5. A sound operator who will know what microphone and mixing applications will work best. One who also has a relationship with the drummer and band that serves their needs but, and more importantly, serves the needs of the congregation.
6. Microphones: Typically, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, fewer microphones will almost always sound better than more.
If your sound system is mono, you can ditch the second overhead (unless you’re recording in stereo). One condenser over the center of the kit will get the whole drum set. This one microphone can provide the body of your drum sound.
When using two overheads, you can cover more area and pan the kit in stereo. However, you can also introduce phase interactions which negatively affect the sound, if you aren’t paying attention.
This two-microphone setup works very well. I can play you a thousand records recorded this way.
Another way to use two microphones is one Overhead and one Snare mic.
Three Microphones: Perhaps you need to hear more of the snare. Add a snare microphone. Typically, a dynamic (moving-coil) will be placed 1 inch to-2 inches above the snare’s rim. Point it down to get more attack or aim it toward the center for tone. Keep it out of the drummer’s way.
Different tones and responses will occur, depending on the type and polar pattern of the microphone when moved an inch or two. Always move the mic before equalizing.
A four-microphone setup covers the entire kit 80 percent of the time.
Such a setup could include two overheads (small or large diaphragm condensers) in a spaced-pair (pay attention to horizontal and vertical planes so that the microphones are equidistant from the snare or the center of the drum kit) or coincident (X-Y) arrangement.
If you’re into discovering older microphone applications, used on countless records, try the four-microphone setup, known as the “Glyn Johns” technique. You’ll be amazed at the results.
If you want to put a microphone on every drum, go ahead, as long as you’ve taken the time to prevent phase anomalies from occurring. Use your EQ to bandpass the different drums and cymbals. High-pass (low-cut) the snare, hi-hat, upper toms and overheads.
Try to keep reflections from hard surfaces, such as sheetrock or plexiglass, from entering into the multiple microphones, as this will definitely smear the sound and negatively affect your sound.
There is not enough time or space to go deeper in this article about microphone choices, polar (pick-up) patterns, equalization and dynamic processing (compression/gating), monitoring, to make them sound even better, but if you start here, you will hear a difference.
Record the rehearsals and services. It doesn’t have to be a multi-track off the mixing console. I want to hear the room in this case. A small handheld recorder with two microphones built in or connected, will give you a great reference for how things sound in the sanctuary.
Listen to the recordings with the worship leader and the band. Use this as a baseline and strive to get better.
Don’t underestimate the importance of team and relationship; communicating our needs to each other and building trust. This will almost certainly help to achieve the best sound, as much or more than any technical tweak ever could.