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Drums: Kick-Drum Miking Strategies

October 1, 2009

Does one need a strategy to mike a kick drum? After all, it’s just a big tube of wood with plastic stretched over each end. It’s not like you are trying to defeat Rommel in North Africa. How hard can it be? Well, as some professional recording engineers tend to make simple operations incredibly complex, some guidance may be in order.

Prep the Source

Make sure the beater (rear) head of the drum is in good condition and evenly tensioned. Cracked or massively bashed shells are to be avoided. Also, nothing can ruin a good kick track like a squeaky beater pedal. Oil up the pedal until the squeak is greased into submission, or buy a brand-new, non-squeaky one.

Select the Mic

Kick drums can really push some high sound-pressure levels, so condenser mics must be used with care. Although a good condenser can capture nicely detailed lows and mids, it can overload when pummeled by those SPLs. Take care to position the mic where it isn’t getting a sonic beat-down, or utilize the mic’s pad switch (if it has one). Modern ribbon mics are pretty macho these days, and if you’re very careful, a Royer R- 121 can give you a natural and organic thump. Just don’t point the ribbon directly where the rush of air is headed, or you still might turn the mic into a $1,000 maraca.

If you’re the timid type, a simple large-diaphragm dynamic mic—such as an Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser MD421, AKG D112, or even the old reliable Shure SM57—will give you an excellent, well-rounded sound. My hot tip of the day is to seek out a shockmount made for whichever mic you use. All sorts of floor vibrations—from stomping feet, bass guitar rumbles, and various other drum noises—can be transmitted up though the mic stand, and, believe me, none of them make a kick drum sound better.

Head Games

Depending on the type of sound you are after, the disposition of the front head of the drum can make a great deal of difference as to where you place the mic. Remember, you are looking for that perfect balance between the low-end resonance of the drum itself and the high-end attack that comes from the beater.

Trad jazz vibe

Leave the front head on, and try placing your mic about 12 inches away from it, and pointed off-axis.

It’s the ’80s

Using a front head that has a hole cut out for a mic often delivers a good balance between swack and boom— just like your fave bands from the early days of MTV (well, at least the ones that didn’t trigger drum samples, but that’s another story). Experiment with putting the mic just an inch inside the hole, and then test a few positions until it’s in as far in as it will go. Try to keep the mic pointed offaxis from the beater.

Wide open

Taking the front head completely off can provide the greatest flexibility in getting sounds, and will accentuate the attack of the beater without sounding too clicky. Place the mic halfway between the bottom of the drum and the beater, and somewhat off-axis.

Sweetening the Punch

If you spend the time placing the mic correctly, you shouldn’t have to play with EQ too much. I generally avoid boosting low frequencies, as this can add sludge to the sound and step all over the bass guitar. However, if the kick sounds too much like a cardboard box being whacked with a rolled-up newspaper, try cutting the 200Hz–500Hz range a couple of dB. Boosting just a tad around 3kHz–6kHz should add punch.

Kick drums generally love a little compression, so experiment with ratios from 2:1 to 4:1. You’ll likely want fast attack and release settings, but monkey with the threshold until you get the sound you desire. Adding a noise gate will keep the other drums and instruments from bleeding into the kick track—which may save you from pulling your hair out at the mix.

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