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All the World's a Stage

11/1/1999

Books about miking techniques typically cover the subject of drum-set miking but rarely focus on percussion and almost never on world percussion. If an ensemble of African, East Indian, or Brazilian hand drummers walked on stage (an increasingly likely occurrence these days), many club sound engineers would have little idea about which microphones to position where. This article covers miking common percussion instruments, as well as many esoteric ones that you may encounter.

I queried three professional sound engineers-all veterans of the San Francisco Bay Area's bustling multi-ethnic music scene-about their approaches to miking percussion. Cuba native Oscar Autie is the engineer of choice for Conjunto Cespedes, Jesus Diaz and Qba, Munequitos de Matanza, John Santos and Omar Sosa, and Talking Drums. Jeff Cressman's credits include sound reinforcement for Keith Terry and Crosspulse, Jai Uttal, and Sheila E. Finally, Greg Landau, who engineered and produced two Grammy-nominated albums for Ritmo Y Candela, works with performers such as Eddy Palmieri, Susanna Baca, Cubanismo, and the Puerto Rican group Plena Libra.

BEGIN THE BEGUINEWhen miking percussion, you are usually best off taking a naturalistic approach. Miking in these instances is not about sound design or heavy processing of signals. Rather, the goal is to capture and reproduce the true sound of each instrument and then to fashion a natural-sounding mix in which each voice can be heard clearly among the rest.

Most percussion instruments have a distinctive, identifiable voice. Staying true to this voice-characterized by the instrument's timbre and relative pitch-doesn't mean that you can't equalize or process the sound later; indeed, emphasizing each instrument's identifying characteristics can help clarify and distinguish among multiple percussion voices in the mix. As always, though, it's smart to emphasize the sound first through proper mic selection and positioning.

Begin by listening critically to each instrument to determine its primary tonal characteristics. Listen close up and from a few feet back to find the sweet spot, which is the point or area from which the sound resonates and projects most effectively. The sweet spot is usually where you'll want to position the mic or mics so as to best present the instrument through the speakers.

Of course, many other factors can influence mic selection and placement, and whether you use EQ, compression, or other processing. These wild cards include the size of the room and stage, style of music, number of members in the group versus number of channel inputs, available microphones, and quality of the P.A. system. With so many variables, your ears and judgment are the sole constants. Only by listening carefully to each instrument-and to the overall sound-can you best determine which mics to use and where to position them.

But regardless of the variables, some rules hold true much of the time. First, let's look at different types of microphones and which are most appropriate to use for the stage.

LAY OF THE LANDThe preferred microphones for live-sound reinforcement are usually dynamic mics because they are more rugged, less expensive, and less sensitive than condensers-a quality that frequently translates into less feedback. Live-music venues with their own sound systems typically have a cache of dynamics on hand, such as Shure SM57s and SM58s. The SM57 is an excellent all-around choice for miking live percussion; it can be used on just about any instrument with good results. Another ubiquitous dynamic mic for live sound is the Sennheiser MD 421, which is typically used on toms and other medium- to low-pitched drums.

Of course, numerous other good-quality dynamics are on the market, including many engineered to perform similarly to these two long-standing workhorses. I refer repeatedly to the Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD 421 in this article, in part because they are the mics most often mentioned by the three engineers I interviewed, and also because they represent two functionally different takes on the dynamic: the small diaphragm and the large. But don't let that lead you to overlook other excellent microphones from Shure and Sennheiser, as well as from companies such as AKG, Audix, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, and Electro-Voice.

In addition, many clubs also own at least one pair of small-diaphragm cardioid condensers, such as Shure SM81s or AKG 451s. Although often positioned as drum overheads, these mics are also suitable for other percussion-miking duties, especially those involving instruments with lots of high-frequency content.

Increasingly common, too, are the clip-on small-diaphragm condenser "micro mics" such as the Shure SM98a, Audio Technica ATM35xcW, and AKG 418. Thanks to their small profile, these microphones can be positioned unobtrusively in tight spots (good for jam-packed percussion arrays) and attached to instruments that get moved around on stage during a performance-for example, djembe, ashiko, and bombo-because they are strapped to the player.

Regardless of what type of microphone you use-dynamic, condenser, or both-make sure that it has a unidirectional polar-pattern response. There are three standard unidirectional patterns: cardioid, supercardioid, and hypercardioid. The cardioid pattern gives you the greatest rejection of sound from the rear of the mic. The supercardioid provides a tighter pattern than the cardioid but is open to some leakage from directly behind the mic. The hypercardioid pattern offers even better side rejection but picks up slightly more sound from the rear than the supercardioid.

Mics designed specifically for drums and percussion-for example, Audix's D and Electro-Voice's N/DYM series-tend to use supercardioid or hypercardioid patterns. Properly positioned, mics with these patterns can provide the best isolation when you're miking densely arranged, multiple sound sources (such as percussion setups).

CLOSER, PLEASEWhen you're miking live sound, close-miking is the way to go. It allows greater gain before feedback, and it facilitates good pickup of each instrument and better rejection of unwanted sound.

Mic each instrument individually whenever possible. If you don't have enough channels, you can capture small groups of similar instruments (for example, two conga drums or a cowbell cluster) with a single strategically placed mic. If you have the luxury of extra channels, experiment with miking different parts of the instruments to broaden the scope of the sound.

Be careful of phase problems when you are using two or more microphones close to one another. If you hear phasing, first try repositioning one of the mics, typically moving it away from other mics and closer to the sound source. If that doesn't solve the problem, try reversing the phase of one of the microphones. If neither of these approaches works, stick to a single mic.

In general, low-frequency instruments (for example, tumba, surdo, and bodhr n) are best captured by a microphone with a good low-end response, such as the large-diaphragm Sennheiser MD 421. Higher-pitched instruments (say, bongos and wood blocks) are better complemented by smaller-diaphragm mics such as the Shure SM57 and Audix D2, which can handle sharp transients and high SPLs while still providing a full, natural sound. In addition, the SM57 has a 4 kHz presence peak that helps emphasize attack, making it an appropriate choice for many percussion applications. Most mics designed specifically for drums also have an upper-mid presence peak.

PERCUSS THISThe world is replete with percussion-after all, practically anything that makes a sound when struck can be construed as a percussion instrument (excepting, perhaps, your kid brother). And even among "officially recognized" percussion the selection is vast, encompassing a wide range of shapes, sizes, materials, and sounds. Obviously, attempting to cover every known percussion instrument would be impractical. Most of them, however, can be categorized by design and tonal characteristics. And once you get the hang of miking a particular type, you can approach other instruments of that ilk in a like manner.

Virtually all percussion instruments fall under one of two categories: membranophones and idiophones. Anything with a head is generally considered to be a membranophone, and anything without is an idiophone. (A headed tambourine or rattle-outfitted djembe could be said to blur the distinction, but you get the idea.) For the purposes of this article, I have further divided the membranophones into single-headed and double-headed drums. The emphasis is on hand drums, but I've also included timbales. I'll discuss other divisions under each category.

SINGLE-HEADED DRUMSSingle-headed hand drums span an array of sizes and shapes, from cylindrical and conical drums (for example, congas, bongos, and requinto) to goblet-type drums (such as dumbek and djembe) to frame drums (bodhr n, tar, various Native American drums, and so on). They can also produce a wide variety of sounds, from bright, crisp sounds executed near the rims to lower and more resonant tones produced by center hits (not to mention slaps, pops, and finger ruffs, among other actions). I'll start with the hand drums that you're most likely to encounter on stage-bongos and congas-and then group instruments roughly by region.

Common Single-Headed DrumsBongos. Bongos are typically played with the drums mounted on a stand or supported between the performer's knees. If the player is sitting, Autie suggests miking the bongos from underneath with an SM57, an Audix D1, or Sennheiser MD 421. Position the mic under the chair with the capsule angled up at the bottom of the drums at a distance of three to five inches (see Fig. 1).

You can also mic bongos from above, whether the player is standing or sitting. Position the mic between the two drums, facing the heads at a distance of about three to six inches.

Congas. In general, place the mic at the top of the drum opposite the player, about two inches in from the rim and two to six inches from the head. Position the capsule so that it faces downward between 45 and 90 degrees, adjusting the angle to get the sound that you desire. You can boost bass response through proximity effect by moving the capsule closer to the drum head. To pick up more attack, move the mic back a bit and aim the capsule more toward the area where the player's hands hit the head.

Congas are often played in sets of two or three, with each drum pitched differently. From low to high, the drums are called tumba, conga, and quinto. The tumba, as I mentioned previously, is best miked by a large-diaphragm dynamic mic, whereas the conga and quinto are better complemented by small-diaphragm dynamics. To obtain separation between the drums, use one microphone on each drum and angle the mics away from one another (see Fig. 2). If the congas are on stands and you have enough extra inputs and mics, you can pick up more low end by positioning a mic beneath each drum, facing up into the cavity. On the other hand, if you are limited to one channel, you can capture a balance of two drums by placing one microphone between them about four to six inches above and angled toward the center area of the heads.

Timbales. Timbales typically consist of two drums, a bell/block cluster, and a cymbal. You can mic this array of instruments in a number of ways. If you're short on channels, you can position a single small-diaphragm condenser mic above the array, angled down, to capture the whole setup. The more common approach, however, is to use three mics: an overhead small-diaphragm condenser positioned to capture the bell/block cluster and cymbal, and a dynamic on each drum. Each dynamic is positioned over the rim of the drum, pointing at the head, as with a rack tom. But with this approach, the penetrating sounds of the bells and blocks sometimes bleed into the dynamic mics, overwhelming the sound and spoiling any separation.

To enhance separation between the bell/block cluster, cymbal, and drums, Autie recommends using four mics: two dynamics and two small-diaphragm condensers. The trick is to mic the timbales from the bottom, with the dynamics just inside the drums, about two to three inches from the heads, and angled toward the outside of the drums. (This approach has the added advantage of emphasizing cascara patterns, which are played on the shell.) Mic the cymbal with one of the condensers (say, a Shure SM81 or AKG C 451), keeping the mic in fairly close-no more than a foot from the cymbal. Use the other condenser (an SM57 or similar dynamic would also work) on the cowbells and blocks, positioned about three to seven inches above the cluster, facing the player (see Fig. 3).

Cressman also shared a trade secret, this one on how to get a good ambient sound from a timbale setup while also avoiding feedback. Using the standard miking configuration-two close mics on the timbales and another over the bells and cymbal-mix the overhead mic through the mains but leave it out of the monitors. Then sneak in the close mics in the mains to give the timbales more punch. Finally, if the bell/block cluster needs a little help, mic it separately, leaving this signal out of the monitors as well.

Exotic Single-Headed DrumsDjembe. The African djembe is played either balanced between the drummer's knees or hanging from a strap around his or her neck. A clip-on mic facilitates close-miking, but if the drum is adorned with rattles, a clip-on mic is not advised. Either way, position the mic two to five inches from the head and adjust the angle to capture a balance of highs from the edge and lows from the middle.

Also from Africa comes the ashiko, a conical drum often used for soloing. The ashiko can be miked similarly to the djembe.

Dumbek. The dumbek, used in Middle Eastern music, is traditionally played by the musician in a seated position, with the drum cradled between one arm and leg. To pick up the range of tones from the head, position a mic near the edge of the head at a distance of two to three inches and angled 45 degrees toward the center of the head. For a fuller, more bass-rich sound, position another mic at the rear of the dumbek, about two inches beneath the opening. This will capture the low-end boom coming from the drum cavity.

Listen for phase problems when using two mics simultaneously. If you perceive some undesirable phase cancellation, reverse the phase of one of the mics at the console. If there is no phase-reverse switch on the board, try moving the top mic farther back, or just go with one mic. Which ones you choose for the top and bottom depends on the emphasis you want for the style of music being played. If the music calls primarily for the dumbek's low tones, try using the bottom mic only.

Bodhran. The Irish frame drum known as bodhran (pronounced "ba-ran") has a lot of low-frequency content. Again, the best way to accentuate the bass is with a punchy, large-diaphragm dynamic like the Sennheiser MD 421. Position the mic behind the drum, facing the underside of the head but off to one side. To capture more attack, mic from the top as well (again phase-reversing one of the mics). Just be sure to stay out of the player's way. A clip-on mic may be helpful here.

Mic other frame drums, such as the tar from Africa, in a similar fashion.

Cuica. The cuica, a friction drum from Brazil, differs from its cousins in that it is stroked, not struck. The player firmly rubs a wooden post attached to the center of the head inside the drum cavity with a cloth to create a unique, voicelike groan that sounds at times like a chimpanzee chattering. Landau recommends miking the cuica from the top at a distance of three inches to a foot to capture the sound coming off the head. (In this case, you won't have to worry about getting in the way of the player's hands.)

Mic the bass cuica from underneath with a large-diaphragm dynamic to better capture the low frequencies. Here, though, you will have to take the player's arm motions into account.

Pandeiro. Also from Brazil, the pandeiro is used in samba and bossa nova. This frame drum comes in different sizes and typically has a single row of dry-sounding jingles, like a tambourine. For a large pandeiro, use an MD 421 to better represent the bass frequencies. An SM57 or similar mic will work fine for smaller pandeiros. Landau recommends placing the mic in front of the pandeiro at a distance that the player can work with-generally, about six inches to a foot. The player can then lean into the mic for emphasis and back away to lower the level.

Requinto, seguidora, buleador. From Puerto Rico comes this family of single-headed, barrel-shaped drums. The requinto is the small drum, the seguidora the medium-size, and the buleador the largest. Mic all three as you would congas.

Tabla. The tabla, used in East Indian music, consists of two drums. The smaller drum is called the tabla; the larger, called the baya, produces the characteristic low-end modulations. A single microphone positioned strategically above and between the drums can be used to pick up the sound of the set. Individual miking, however, better represents the different sound qualities of the small and large drums, allowing separate equalizing as well.

Because the tabla are fairly quiet instruments, getting enough gain before feedback in loud situations is your biggest challenge. I recommend using a mic with a tight pattern-and, again, the SM57 is a good choice.

Kanjira. The kanjira is a small, South Indian tambourine with a thin, lizard-skin head. To accentuate this instrument's crisp highs, mic it from the front with the capsule angled toward the center of the head. The same technique can be used for other small frame drums, such as tamborim.

DOUBLE-HEADED DRUMSDouble-headed drums project sound differently from single-headed drums. Because they have no open end, you must mic both heads to get a full sound from double-headed drums.

Bata. Bata drums, from Cuba by way of Yoruba (now Nigeria), have a distinctive asymmetrical, hourglass shape. The drums come in three sizes-iya (large), itotele (medium), and okonkolo (small)-and are characteristically played by a group of three musicians sitting together (see Fig. 4). For each drum, the larger end is called the enu, and the smaller end the chacha.

Your goal is to represent six distinct voices-two from each drum-so as to highlight the melodic interplay between the three players. Accentuate bass frequencies from the large end of the iya and itotele using a large-diaphragm dynamic like the MD 421 or a mic designed for use on low-frequency sound sources, such as the Audix D4. To represent the high end from the smaller heads use an SM57 or Audix D3 (see Fig. 5).

The okonkolo's pitch is on the high side, so SM57s and D3s are appropriate choices for miking both the enu and chacha. Place the enu mic about three to five inches from the head, angled at the edge of the drum, and the chacha mic approximately three to six inches from the head, angled toward the center.

Bombo. Played with a stick and a mallet, the South American bombo produces two distinct sounds: a deep bass from the soft-beater mallet hitting the head, and a "click" sound from the stick on the rim. According to Landau, the bombo can be difficult to mic because the goatskin head has hair on it, which dampens the drum's resonance. In addition, bombo players tend to move around a lot.

Again, the MD 421 is a good choice for capturing the lows, but an MD 504 will work too. Mic the bombo from the top, placing the mic about a foot away to allow for the movement of the musician. Work with the position at this distance to pick up a good balance of both the sound of the stick hitting the rim and the boom from the mallet hits. If more stick sound is required, angle the capsule more toward the rim.

Mrdangam. The mrdangam, commonly heard in the music of South India, has a large head on one end and a smaller head on the other. This drum should be miked like the iya or itotele to capture the lows from the larger head and the highs from the smaller.

Surdo. The Brazilian surdo is a deep-sounding drum with lots of resonance, making it a great candidate for the MD 421. Mic the surdo as you would a floor tom, with the mic capsule situated an inch or two in from the rim, angled down and pointed at the center of the head to capture the most low end.

Talking drums. Talking drums, which are of African origin, are part of a larger family called pressure drums, which are distinguished by an hourglass-shape shell with heads at either end laced evenly together across the length of the drum. Pressure drums are typically held between the body and upper arm and struck with a curved mallet. The pitch is modulated by squeezing the lacing, which increases tension on the heads.

Landau recommends an SM57 for miking talking drums. Aim the mic at the top head to capture the mallet attack and head tone, and leave plenty of room for the player's broad arm movements.

IDIOPHONESMiking the various idiophones-hand percussion such as shakers, maracas, caxixi, cabasa, guiro, reco reco, cowbells, wood blocks, temple blocks, claves, cua, and tambourines-is fairly straightforward for live performance. Put the mic directly in front of the instrument, positioned to allow a working distance of three inches to a foot. The player, of course, determines the specific distance based on the volume levels that he or she desires. In general, you'll need to bring shakers, maracas, and other quiet instruments in closer, whereas you can capture cowbells and other loud instruments from farther back. As for which mic to use, again, you can't lose with the SM57.

Berimbau (and caxixi). The berimbau, from Brazil, is a wire-strung wooden bow attached to a resonating gourd. The player uses one hand to rhythmically strike the wire with a slim stick while using a flat rock or coin in the other hand to apply pressure to the wire, thus altering the pitch. The musician can also vary the pitch by moving the gourd against his or her midsection.

The caxixi, a basket-type shaker with a loop handle and hard leather base, is typically held in the stick hand to add a rhythmic rattle effect.

To capture a balance of the various sounds-the metal string being struck, the low resonance of the gourd, and the rattling of the caxixi-Landau recommends placing a small-diaphragm condenser (for example, a Shure SM81) in front of the player above the gourd level. Angle the mic 45 degrees downward, toward the gourd. In this position, the mic will pick up the string sound as well as the sound of the gourd lifting off the player's stomach.

It's also important to capture the full tone of the caxixi and the impact of the beads hitting the leather base inside the basket, so make sure to aim the mic to capture the sound of the basket part of the caxixi.

Cajon. Originally from Peru, the cajon is a square or trapezoid-shaped wooden box with an opening on the bottom or a sound hole in the back. It is played much like a drum, although the larger models typically also serve as a seat in which case the player may also rock the cajon back and forth to vary the tone.

Generally, the cajon is miked from the back at the sound hole (like a bass drum) with a mic that is well suited to accentuate bass frequencies. Autie prefers the Sennheiser MD 504 for this purpose. For smaller cajons, Landau uses clip-on microphones at the sound hole. In situations where you want more attack (to help the sound cut through the mix), Autiee recommends placing an SM57 about six inches from the top surface and angled toward the player's hands.

Shekere. Originally from Africa, the shekere is a dried, hollowed-out gourd that is wrapped in a beaded net. This drum projects a combination of high-frequency transients (from the beads slapping against the gourd) and low boom from the mouth of the gourd when the instrument is struck at the base.

Position a Shure SM57, an Audix D2, or a similar microphone three to six inches from the instrument. Again, the musician will determine the distance during the performance. If you have enough inputs available, Autie suggests also using an MD 421, angled downward and aimed into the mouth of the instrument, to better capture the low note. If several shekeres are being played, a melodic conversation between the gourds can be captured with this technique.

TO SQUEEZE OR NOT TO SQUEEZEUsing compression on percussion instruments is a subject of debate among live-sound engineers. Some believe that avoiding it when possible is best, while others use compression prodigiously to control the wide dynamics of an energetic percussion performance.

If you opt to use compression, moderation is the key. Compression increases the risk of feedback and can also alter attack characteristics-an essential element in the sonic nature of percussion. In general, try to maintain as much transient punch from percussion instruments as possible, so as to keep the sound natural and to help the instruments cut through the mix.

Usually, a compression ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 with a moderate threshold setting and gain reduction of about 2 to 4 dB is adequate for situations in which you feel you need compression. Low-frequency instruments such as the surdo and bodhr n may require higher ratio and/or lower threshold settings, to keep the sound from overwhelming the mix.

THE PDQ OF EQWhat you end up doing with EQ depends on a variety of factors, including the acoustics of the space, the proximity of the musicians to the monitors, and how much the sound from the floor monitors is affecting the sound from the mains. Seldom does a venue have ideal acoustics or a premium P.A. system, so a bit of work on your part may be required to bring certain instruments out in the mix. It's hard to generalize because each situation is different. As a rule, though, always try to enhance the sound first by working with mic placement rather than equalization. Only after you have achieved the best sound possible from mic selection and positioning should you reach for the EQ.

When using EQ, make sure you are clarifying the mix rather than muddying it. Listen carefully to the results while the full ensemble is playing and adjust the various channels accordingly. Hand drums can typically benefit from a little boosting in the 2 to 5 kHz frequency range, to bring out the "slap" and "pop." To reduce muddiness, try cutting a couple of decibels around 250 to 350 Hz. If an instrument sounds too bassy, roll off the lows below 100 Hz with a high-pass filter. (You can also back the mic off a bit to lessen the proximity effect.)

EXIT STAGE RIGHTMany percussion instruments-taiko drums and gamelan, for example-are obviously not covered in this article. Hopefully, though, you'll be able to extrapolate from the techniques detailed above to prepare yourself for miking almost any percussion instrument that comes your way.

Always remember to use unidirectional mics, selecting the particular polar pattern according to your needs for off-axis rejection. Dynamic mics are usually best for the job because of their durability, ready availability, and decreased sensitivity (as compared with condensers). On the other hand, small-diaphragm condensers are often preferable for use on cymbals, bells, and blocks. You can also use clip-on condensers on a variety of drums to minimize clutter and allow the musicians to move freely around the stage.

Finally, always listen critically so as to select the best mics for the job, and position them to capture the most natural sound from the instrument without inhibiting the player's range of motion.

Karen Stackpole is a recording and mastering engineer and an active drummer and percussionist. Many thanks to Oscar Autie, Jeff Cressman, and Greg Landau for their valuable assistance.

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