A killer bass-drum sound is an integral part of a killer mix.It’s the foundation, the meat of the meat and potatoes (snaredrum being the potatoes), the beast of burden that the otherinstruments ride on. The kick drum, typically the lowest“note” in a mix, sits just beneath or “inside”the bass notes, giving substance, impact, and definition to the lowend.
Understandably, capturing that low note is not a job one leaves upto just any microphone. Manufacturers often dedicate at least onemicrophone in their product lines to recording bass drum and otherlow-frequency sound sources. This is usually a rugged, large-diaphragmdynamic mic with high-SPL handling and a frequency response tailored tocomplement or enhance the sound of the drum.
Over the years, a handful of dynamic microphones have distinguishedthemselves as exceptional bass-drum mics, including the AKG D 112 andits predecessor, the D 12; the Electro-Voice RE20; the Sennheiser MD421 (also known as a great tom mic); and the Beyerdynamic M 88. (Someengineers prefer using condenser miccrophones for recording kick drum,but that’s a different story.) In recent years, the variety ofbass-drum mics on the market has expanded considerably. Some of theabove-mentioned companies have come out with new models, and severalother manufacturers have added bass-drum mics to their catalogs.
With all those kick mics to choose from, what’s theprospective buyer to do? Short of purchasing one of each and takingthem into the studio for a spin, there’s little opportunity tocompare them. Even the best-equipped music stores don’t providethe proper environment and necessary gear for assessing how well amicrophone records, especially when it comes to drum mics. For thatreason—not to mention the fact that EM currently has fourdrummers on its editorial staff—we thought it was time thatsomeone did a critical comparison of kick-drum mics.
We researched the market and turned up 11 dynamic mics designatedfor bass drum. Prices ranged from $120 on up, so we leveled the fieldsomewhat by considering only those priced between $250 and $400,thereby eliminating the two lowest-priced models. Subsequently, twomanufacturers chose not to participate in the comparison tests. Thisleft us with seven microphones: the AKG D 112, Audio-Technica ATM25,Audix D4, Beyerdynamic TG-X 50, Electro-Voice N/D868, Sennheiser E602,and Shure Beta 52.
Even then, the playing field still was not exactly level because themanufacturers employ different designs for their bass-sourcemicrophones and aim at somewhat different markets.
The Electro-Voice N/D868, for example, is labeled “BassDrum” right on the mic, and the accompanying literature describesit as “designed specifically for bass drums.” The AKG,Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, and Shure mics, however, are described moregenerally as being suitable for low-frequency sources, including kickdrum, bass-guitar cabinets, and so on.
An application booklet that comes with the Audix D4 specifies kickdrum, floor tom, and bass-guitar cabinet, but extends the applicationsto djembe and Leslie bass cabinet. Audio-Technica describes the ATM25as well suited for “drums (kick, tom, snare), timpani, piano,acoustic and electric bass, trombone [and] vocal pickup wherelow-frequency emphasis is desirable.”
These distinctions may seem negligible, but they proved relevant inour comparisons. Although we tested the seven mics on bass drums only,it became evident that, in terms of alternate applications, some of themics were more versatile than others—or perhaps even bettersuited to other instruments than to bass drums.
It should be noted, too, that each of the mics is intended for livesound as well as studio applications. However, our tests were performedin the studio only (two studios, actually).
Our first step was to request two identical mics from eachmanufacturer; that way, we could compare each pair for consistency.Also, if one of the mics proved defective—a situation that hasarisen in previous microphone comparisons—we would be able toproceed with the tests using the good mic.
To check the mic pairs for consistency, we recorded mono programmaterial to two separate tracks—one through eachmicrophone—and then compared the results. I also talked and sangthrough the mics. Within each pair, the mics sounded virtuallyidentical, except for the two ATM25s, which sounded quite differentfrom each other. (As it turned out, one of them was evidently damagedduring shipping.)
Method to the Madness
We performed the comparison tests both at my own personal studio andat Guerrilla Recording in Oakland, California, a professional facilityco-owned and operated by musician/engineer Myles Boisen, who kindlyacted as my assistant. We recorded all tracks one at a time to aprerecorded click track, side by side on the tape, to allow easycomparison through mutes. The tracks at my studio were recordeddirectly to tape on an ADAT XT through a dbx 1086 mic preamp (with thedynamics section bypassed, of course). At Guerrilla we recorded to1-inch analog tape (Quantegy 456) on a Tascam MS-16 through a FocusriteRed Series mic preamp. Care was taken to equalize levels during bothrecording and playback.
Altogether, we recorded five bass drums. At Guerrilla we wereassisted by San Francisco Bay Area drummer John Hanes, who played twodifferent drums: a 20-inch Pearl Masters Custom with both heads intactexcept for a circular pattern of holes punched in the front head (forsonic purposes) and, inside, a rectangle of foam wedged between the twoheads; and a 22-inch Gretsch with a large hole cut beneath the centerof the front head. For the 20-inch drum, we positioned each mic abouttwo and a half inches from the front head with the capsule aimeddirectly at the head near the hoop of the drum (see Fig. 1). Forthe 22-incher, the microphones were positioned barely inside the holeand aimed just beneath the beater-impact point (see Fig. 2).
In my studio, I recorded three bass drums: a vintage 22-inch Ludwigwith the front head removed and a cotton packing blanket lying insideand touching the batter head; a 20-inch Gretsch with a medium-size,off-center hole in the front head and a flannel baby blanket positionedinside the drum and lightly contacting each head; and an 18-inchSlingerland with both heads intact and no muffling except for a stripof felt beneath each head.
To accommodate the varying manufacturer-suggested optimal micpositions, I recorded the 22-inch Ludwig drum twice—once witheach mic positioned just barely inside the drum and pointed at thebeater (see Fig. 3), and again with each mic inside the drum,about three to four inches from the batter head and aimed almostdirectly at the beater-impact point (see Fig. 4).
For the 20-inch Gretsch drum, I positioned the microphones justinside the hole, again aimed at the beater (see Fig. 5). For the18-inch Slingerland, I positioned the mics slightly off center andabout three inches back from the front head (see Fig. 6). I alsoemployed different beaters on the kick pedal: the Slingerland andGretsch drums were played with a wood beater, and the Ludwig with astandard felt beater.
We used different drums, beaters, mic positions, and rooms, ofcourse, to broaden the scope of the tests. The three drums recorded inmy studio, for example, represent the three most commonly used sizesand respective tunings of bass drums. Each is specific to a particularstyle of music, a different school of thought on tuning, and adifferent approach to recording. Together with the two bass drumsrecorded at Guerrilla, this selection is fairly representative of thevarious sounds an engineer is likely to come across when recording bassdrums.
To provide a foundation for making sense of our findings (as well asto assist those who aren’t familiar with acoustic drums),I’ll describe the sound of the different drums and their usualmusical contexts. The 22-inch, one-headed, blanket-stuffed Ludwig drumproduces a low note with lots of attack, few overtones, and not muchresonance—basically a tight, dry thump that’s often favoredfor old-school rock, funk, blues, and reggae.
The 20-inch Gretsch, on the other hand, produces a slightly highernote and a rounder, more resonant tone. There’s still plenty ofattack (thanks to the hole in front, the blanket inside, and the woodbeater), but the resonance provided by the front head definitely fillsout the sound, resulting in more of a musical note than a quick, drythump. This more modern sound works in many musical settings, fromgrunge to jazz.
The 18-inch Slingerland produces the highest note, thanks to itssmaller-diameter shell, and is often favored by jazz players. Thecurious thing, though, is just how huge a little jazz kick can soundwhen it’s recorded. That’s partly because 18-inch kickdrums are typically tuned fairly open (that is, with both heads intactand little or no muffling inside), and therefore have lots of resonanceand a long decay; but I’ve also heard the theory that small drumstend to sound bigger simply because the microphone (which is small) canhear more of the drum. At any rate, the sound of the 18-inch drum werecorded was full, round, and very resonant, with a slight“boinginess” and a fair amount of overtones.
Both of Hanes’s bass drums were tuned to produce a balancedand versatile tone. Each employed thick batter heads with some form ofbuilt-in dampening to cut down on overtones, but neither was outfitted(infitted?) with a pillow or blanket. Although I would characterizeboth drums as sounding more resonant than dry, the 20-incher—thedrum Hanes prefers for his swing and jazz gigs—was the moreresonant of the two. Yet both drums produced a well-articulated attackthat clarified the thump—overall, a rather modern, rock-typesound.
To further our sense of how each mic would perform in real-worldapplications, we also recorded an adjacent overhead drum track (using aNeumann U 87; see Fig. 1) for each pass recorded at Guerrilla.These overhead tracks proved useful during playback for comparing thesound of the bass drum in the room with the sound captured by the kickmics.
Also, Boisen laid down bass lines alongside the drum tracks recordedat Guerrilla so that we could hear how well the kick tracks sat in amix with the bass—an important consideration. We also triedcompressing the tracks, to see how each kick-mic signal would behave inthis common processing application. At Boisen’s suggestion, weused a UREI LA-4 compressor set to an 8:1 ratio, with only a touch ofgain reduction. (The LA-4, a vintage-model, optical compressor with anaturally slow attack and release, is one of Boisen’s favoritesfor kick drum and other low-frequency sources. Bear in mind, however,that a different compressor would likely have yielded differentresults.)
To guard against fatigue, we did additional listening tests onseparate days from the recording sessions. At my studio, we listened onAudix 1A monitors; at Guerrilla, we used Event 20/20s (the passiveones). We also made a point of listening to the ADAT tracks recorded atmy studio in the control room at Guerrilla Recording. Not surprisingly,the tracks sounded somewhat different depending on the monitors androoms we used. When played at my studio, the tracks exhibited slightlymore bass content.
To expand the coverage, I enlisted the help of other ears, includingthose of EM Editorial Assistant Rick Weldon and Associate EditorGino Robair. Weldon plays guitar and bass in several bands, two ofwhich have released CDs that Weldon helped record and mix. Robair, anaccomplished drummer, recordist, and producer, owns Rastascan Records,a label with more than 40 titles in its catalog, most of which aredevoted to improvisational music. Also, Hanes listened to the tracks herecorded and offered comments.
But before getting into the sonic results of the tests, let’sfirst consider cosmetic and ergonomic issues. The latter are especiallyimportant: if a microphone can’t easily be attached to a micstand or is difficult to position once attached, you may soon tire ofdealing with it—no matter how good it sounds.
AKG D 112. The D 112 is a curious-looking mic that resemblesa small football (or maybe a jumbo egg) stuck in a stirrup. Itswire-mesh grille, bisected by a teal-green, metal protective band,indicates the capsule side. The polar pattern is cardioid.
The shape of the D 112 and the included nylon mic clip make forquick and easy positioning. The clip’s nylon threads compromiseits durability, though. (I know this because I own a D 112, and thethreads are stripped after a few years of use.)
The D 112 comes in a hard-plastic, foam-lined case with cutouts forthe mic and clip. An applications booklet is included, complete withdrawings of mic positioning for kick drum, bass-guitar cabinet, doublebass, tuba, trombone, and sax. The unit comes with a one-year limitedwarranty.
Audio-Technica ATM25. As kick-drum mics go, the ATM25 is onthe small side, but its chunk-o’-steel housing packs considerableheft. Finished in a low-reflecting, gun-metal gray, this little brutesports gold-plated XLR connectors and an integral stand clamp.
Generally, I’m not a fan of integral stand clamps, especiallyif the design impedes quick setup and positioning. Besides, if theclamps break, they’re not as easy to replace as a separate micclip. But the ATM25’s integral clamp is a sturdy, all-steelhunker with an adjustment screw perfectly turned to fit the hand.Thanks to the microphone’s small size, I encountered no seriousslowdown while attaching the ATM25 to a mic stand. I merely treated theentire assembly as a big wing nut and screwed the mic on. Once it issecure, positioning is a snap. The clamp is easy to remove, too, if youever need to replace it.
The ATM25 has a hypercardioid polar pattern. It comes in a paddedvinyl zipper pouch, which is packaged inside a foam-lined cardboardbox. A one-year limited warranty is activated when you return theproduct registration card.
Audix D4. The smallest and lightest of the bunch, the AudixD4 is a cute mic about the size of a saltshaker. Its aluminum body hasa sleek, black fusion-coat finish, and its stainless-steel-mesh grillecap seems unusually tough. The polar pattern is hypercardioid, and theXLR connectors are gold-plated.
Like the D4 itself, the included mic holder is small andlightweight. Fitted with metal threads, it’s made of a sturdyhard plastic and snaps on and off the mic quickly and easily. Thanks toits small size, the D4 is a cinch to position, and it can fit in placeswhere some bigger microphones can’t.
The D4 comes in a padded Cordura zipper pouch inside a cardboardbox. It carries a two-year warranty against manufacturing defects.
Beyerdynamic TG-X 50. The TG-X 50 is a big, side-address micwith a vintage vibe. The body looks like it’s made of blackBakelite, but actually it’s two metal halves joined together.Rather than a wire-mesh grille, this mic has vents like aradiator’s. Two teal-blue stripes and the word“Front” announce the capsule side of the mic. The polarpattern is hypercardioid.
Included with the TG-X 50 is a simple (and quite tough)metal-threaded nylon clip that snaps or slides readily on and off themic. The clip is easy to position, but it’s not particularly snugfitting—I wouldn’t happily trust it to hold the mic high inthe air over, say, the bell of a tuba, because a hearty blow to thestand could send the mic toppling. For bass drums and otherlow-to-the-ground applications, though, this shouldn’t be aproblem.
There is, however, a slight disadvantage to the side-address designof the TG-X 50—at least if you’re looking to stick the micinside the kick drum. Twice, while I was recording the 22-inch Ludwigdrum, the TG-X 50 rolled off the foam-and-blanket bed on which I hadpositioned it inside the shell. I finally had to tape the mic down toget through the track.
The TG-X 50 comes in a padded nylon zipper pouch packaged in acardboard box. The company provides a one-year warranty on parts andlabor.
Electro-Voice N/D868. The N/D868 is a fat cylinder of a micwith rounded contours and a no-frills look. Its steel body has aflat-black finish and a one-piece, densely woven wire-mesh grille cap.Electro-Voice calls the mic’s polar pattern “cardioidvariant”; from what I can gather, this means that it has beenengineered to provide a full cardioid pickup pattern in front, but withbetter rear rejection than you typically get with a cardioidpattern.
The microphone holder that comes with the N/D868 is a sturdy, thickplastic affair with metal threads and a knurled metal adjustment knob.It works beautifully, providing quick, secure, and easypositioning.
The N/D868 features gold-plated XLR connectors and comes in anespecially nice Cordura zipper pouch complete with a gold-monogrammedlogo (and, of course, a cardboard packing box). Also included with eachN/D868 is a printout of the frequency response for that particular mic.(Manufacturers often provide only a representative frequency-responseplot for each model.)
The warranty is impressive: it guarantees the mic againstmalfunction from any cause for two years. In addition, the acousticsystem contained in the mic is guaranteed for a period of ten yearsfrom the date that Electro-Voice discontinues the manufacture of theN/D868.
Sennheiser E602. The E602 is a large, modern-lookingmicrophone that is shaped something like a shuttle craft from thestarship Enterprise, but without windows. It has a tapering body with ascalloped top, a low-reflecting gray finish, and a one-piece blackwire-mesh grille cap.
We found the E602’s integral stand clamp a bit bothersome. Theclamp, made of nylon, is connected close to the rear of the mic,throwing off the weight distribution of the whole assembly and makingit tricky to get the threads started correctly. The threads are alsomade of nylon, which increases the likelihood of cross-threading andmakes durability a concern. (Even the European-thread adapter is madeof nylon.)
On the plus side, there are little hash marks on the clamp that lineup with hash marks on the mic, so it’s easy to note and repeatthe angle at which the E602 is positioned. I can’t say I wouldever actually use this feature, but I suppose it could come in handyfor super-meticulous types.
The E602 employs a cardioid polar pattern and is notable for havingthe biggest diaphragm of the bunch (one and a half inches in diameter).The mic comes bubble-wrapped inside a cardboard box and has a nylonzipper pouch. A one-year limited warranty is offered.
Shure Beta 52. The Beta 52 is a big, heavy, and bulbous micthat looks sort of like a handheld blow dryer. It has sensuous,art-deco curves; a distinctive blue-gray metallic finish; and a large,one-piece wire-mesh grille cap. The polar pattern is supercardioid, andthe XLR connectors are gold-plated.
The Beta 52 comes with a unique and very cool-looking integral standclamp, complete with metal threads. Functionally, though, it leaves abit to be desired. For one thing, the XLR-connector well is positionedless than one-eighth inch from the thread well. This prevents the useof certain mic stands (including those short Atlas stands that are soconvenient for miking kick drums) because the XLR connector on the miccable gets in the way of the clutch grip. Furthermore, the adjustmentscrew is small and too rounded off, making it somewhat hard to turn.Also, the size and shape of the mic and clamp together render the wholeassembly a bit cumbersome.
Another minor concern is that the wires from the XLR connectors passoutside the stand clamp to reach the mic body. Although they areenclosed within a protective spring, the design would seem tocomplicate repairs, and the exposure of the spring doesn’tinspire confidence in the mic’s longevity.
The Beta 52 comes bubble-wrapped inside a cardboard box, along witha large vinyl zipper pouch. The cartridge and the housing areguaranteed for two years, and the transmitter parts are guaranteed forone year.
Now Hear This
The first thing we noticed when listening to our recorded tracks wasjust how different the mics sounded from one another. In a previoustest (see “Attack of the Cardioids” in the September 1998EM), Boisen and I had compared eight large-diaphragm condenser micsthat spanned a much broader price range—and yet the differencesamong them were far subtler than those we heard in the kick-drummicrophones. It can be said without exaggeration that these sevenmicrophones provide seven different flavors of kick drum.
Overall, though, the mics seemed to fall into two camps: those thatleaned toward a more natural sound (the Audio-Technica ATM25, AudixD-4, Beyerdynamic TG-X 50, and Electro-Voice N/D868), and those with amore tailored response (the AKG D 112, Sennheiser E602, and Shure Beta52). But the delineations weren’t always clear, and varyingdegrees of “natural” and “tailored” sound wereevident within both camps.
We also noticed consistent sonic differences between the analog anddigital tracks, with the analog tracks sounding fatter, warmer, andpunchier in most cases. (But then, it’s hardly a secret thatdrums and bass typically sound better when recorded to analog tape.)This somewhat complicated our findings, just as the other variablesdid—drums of different sizes, different recording environments,and different ears. But in the end, those same variables brought us toa better understanding of each microphone’s sonicdisposition.
Tastes, of course, vary—and in music, taste rules. Obviously,when there are seven flavors to choose from, everyone isn’t goingto pick the same one. (This tendency was amply illustrated byWeldon’s consistent preference for the more unusual-soundingbass-drum tones. For one of the tracks, he noted that the sound was“the most like a piece of wood with pieces of metal sticking outof it.” Then he added, “That’s good.”)Therefore, rather than simply declaring a winner, our purpose here isto describe the mics in enough detail to give a sense of how eachsounds relative to the others, as well as how it handles in the studio.We hope that readers armed with this information can more easily findtheir way to the sound (or sounds) they’re trying to achieve.
AKG D 112. The D 112 has a signature sound with pleasantlyhyped lows and low mids and distinctive-sounding—though notparticularly accurate—high mids. This tailoring generally leadsto a full, ready-to-mix drum sound with plenty of attack and low end;however, depending on the drum and mic placement, it can also cause themids to sound a tad scooped out, resulting in a slightly flat or boxysound. At other times, though, the D 112’s low-mid emphasis(around 250 to 300 Hz) results in too much shell tone, sometimesnoticeably altering the note of the drum.
Overall, the D 112 was a consistently good performer in all ourapplications—and it was definitely the most versatile of thethree “tailored” mics. It sounded awesome on the 18-inchkick drum (“like a cannon!” I wrote in my notes). On the20-inch Gretsch, Robair described it as “powerful,” with a“strong transient” and “nice-soundingthump.”
On the 22-inch Ludwig, the sound was good in both applications, butI preferred the close-miked track, which was tighter and morecontrolled. Almost everyone else, though, seemed to prefer theincreased resonance that emerged when the microphone was positionedfarther back.
Of the seven mics we tested, the D 112 exhibited both the least rearrejection and the most off-axis coloration. The snare sound bleedingthrough it, for example, was always clearly present and distinctlycolored, emphasizing the high, thin “crack” of the snaredrum. And talk about bleed: on the 20-inch Pearl track, which wasrecorded in a resonant wood room with high ceilings, the D 112 capturedalmost enough kit for the one track to serve as the whole drumsound.
The D 112 tracks were quite complementary to Boisen’sbass-guitar tracks, offering an immediately usable mix with little orno EQ tweaking. The tracks also fared well with the LA-4 compression,which produced more tone and sustain with no damage to the attack.
Audio-Technica ATM25. The ATM25 produces a solid thud withdecent transient response, but on the whole its sound is often lackingin lows and in low mids (depending on the application), resonance, andclarity of attack. The sound therefore tended to be a bit muffled anddull. Also, the ATM25 often seemed farther away from the source thanthe other mics did.
The ATM25 was not as easy to place in either of the camps(“natural” versus “tailored”) as some of theothers we tested. Compared with the more tailored mics, for instance,it tended to produce less low end and sometimes a higher note; incontrast to the more natural-sounding mics, it seemed muffled and lessimmediate, with not as much definition (“click”) from thebeater.
Overall, the relatively nonresonant ATM25 sounded better on thesmaller drums, particularly on the 20-inch Gretsch (which is a fairlyresonant drum to begin with). Also, Boisen liked it on the 18-inchSlingerland drum, noting “lots of tone, especially in themidrange” and “lots of good lows,” though “notenough attack.” Robair, too, noted “lots of very lowenergy” but felt that the mic “emphasized the wrongfrequencies for this application.”
Of the two 22-inch Ludwig tracks (close- and distance-miked), Ipreferred the sound when the ATM25 was positioned closer to the head.The sound seemed almost gated, very thuddy and quick to decay, and withsufficient lows—quite usable for certain kinds of mixes.
When mixed with the bass-guitar tracks, the ATM25 sounded somewhatunfocused or indistinct, without enough of either attack or lows. InBoisen’s words, it “just couldn’t compete with thebass.” The ATM25 didn’t do so well with the LA-4compression, either. (To be fair, the compression we applied to thebass-drum tracks worked well with only two of the mics—the AKG D112 and the Beyerdynamic TG-X 50.)
The ATM25 provides excellent rejection, especially of highfrequencies. Also, it was a bit hotter than most of the othermicrophones.
Audix D4. The D4 captures plenty of attack but rarely enoughlow end. In fact, I kept wanting to add some 60 or 80 Hz to the signalto make up for the paucity of oomph. Also, despite its fast transientresponse and reasonably natural tone, as compared with the other mics,the D4’s overall sound was rather small and thin, two-dimensionalor flat, and not particularly exciting. Altogether, the D4 was ourleast favorite of the seven microphones.
The D4 definitely fared best on the smaller drums, especially thedouble-headed 18-inch Slingerland. Robair and I thought it soundedreasonably good on the 20-inch Gretsch, too.
A tip in Audix’s application guide advises, “When usingthe D4, the closer you get to the beater, the less bass you willhave!” Indeed, Audix recommended that, to increase bass response,I position the D4 a bit farther back from the drum in all theapplications. However, when I compared the close- and far-miked 22-inchLudwig tracks, the close-miked track had slightly more low end andfullness and, to my ear, sounded better. (Neither track, however, hadas much low end as those recorded with most of the other mics.)
Of course, low end is not always what you want from a kick-drumtrack, especially in some modern, nonmainstream styles of music. Forexample, although the sound of the D4 on the Ludwig drum wasn’tmy favorite, I could imagine it working well in certain rap, hip-hop,or techno productions.
In the mix part of the tests, the D4 blended fairly well with thebass but had—not surprisingly—an overly prominent attackand not enough lows. Again, it worked better with the smaller of thetwo drums. The LA-4 compression didn’t do anything to help thesound.
The D4’s off-axis rejection was not very good, either. Infact, it picked up almost as much room sound as the AKG D 112, butwithout that mic’s peculiar high-end coloration.
Although the D4 seemed to be the least well suited to the specifictask of recording kick drum, its sound did suggest that it might be amore versatile, all-around instrument microphone than most of the othermics in this comparison.
Beyerdynamic TG-X 50. The TG-X 50 has a distinctive (and notalways pleasant-sounding) high-mid “presence” boost andsometimes lacks sufficient lows, but otherwise it tended to be the mostnatural sounding and “honest” of the seven microphones.(This was also apparent when I sang through the mics; the TG-X 50 cameclosest to representing my voice accurately.) Also, of the bunch, theTG-X 50 had the best transient response (“lots of drive,”as Hanes put it) and produced the most dimensional “image.”Listening to the TG-X 50 tracks with my eyes closed, I couldpractically see the drum being hit. And Robair said he felt as if hewere being “poked in the eardrum,” so present and punchywas the sound.
Along with emphasizing attack, the TG-X 50’s high-mid boost(which starts at around 1.5 kHz and peaks at 6 kHz) tends to enhancethe wood tone of the drum. But it can sound, depending on theapplication, either a bit “honky” or“cardboardy.” The cardboard quality was more evident on thesingle-headed drum, which of course sounded dry to begin with. Thehonky sound came out on the 20-inch Gretsch, a drum with a midrangeresonance that did not need enhancing.
The TG-X 50 is not a mic for positioning inside the bass drum closeto the batter head. The close-miked track sounded boxy and even mildlydistorted, with a surfeit of attack (“too pointy,” Boisensaid) and not much oomph to back it up. Resonance was restored, though,with the mic positioned farther from the head; still, the sound wasthin compared to that of the “tailored” mics.
In many applications, the TG-X 50 sounded similar to the Audix D4(both are in the “natural” camp); however, the TG-X 50 hadconsistently better transient response, was noticeably moredimensional, and generally sounded bigger.
Interestingly, the TG-X 50 elicited the most mixed—evencontradictory—responses from among our testers. What some peopleliked about it, others didn’t. For example, I liked it on the18-inch jazz kick, where it captured a quite natural sound withremarkable depth of field. Boisen, though, thought it sounded small andtoo bass-lean in this application. Also, Boisen declared that the soundwas “unusable” on the 20-inch Gretsch drum, while Weldonliked it.
Also interesting to note is that initial responses to the TG-X 50were generally on the negative side—especially when we comparedit with the more bass-heavy, “tailored” mics. Yet often,the more we listened to the tracks, the more we liked this mic, duelargely to its realism, exceptional presence, and clean, tightsound.
Although it was a clear candidate for some low-end boosting, theTG-X 50 mixed nicely with our bass-guitar tracks. Furthermore, itbenefited from the LA-4 compression. (As an aside, Boisen and hisstudio partner Bart Thurber tried using the TG-X 50 to recordbass-guitar cabinet. They were both pleased with the results.)
The TG-X 50 was the hottest mic of the bunch; we found that ittypically required 6 to 9 dB less gain than most of the othermicrophones. Off-axis rejection, though natural sounding, wasn’tparticularly good for a hypercardioid mic.
Electro-Voice N/D868. All things considered, the N/D868 wasthe most consistently pleasing performer of the seven mics we tested,and the one that most of the judges preferred most of the time. Infact, it was one of only two mics that didn’t sound inferior inat least one application. (The AKG D 112 was the other.)
Like the Audio-Technica ATM25, the N/D868 falls predominantly intothe “natural” camp, although its hyped lows could alsoqualify the mic’s response as “tailored.” Certainlyits sound is quite different from that of the Beyerdynamic TG-X 50,which was the most all-around natural-sounding mic of the bunch.
My nickname for the N/D868 was Big Thumper. This mic produced a fat,round, warm, and solid thump that was immediately likable but sometimesbegged for a modest boost at around 4 kHz to make up for itsunderstated attack and slightly covered sound. Accordingly, Robairdescribed the N/D868’s sound as “nicely balanced” and“pleasing,” though “a bit dark,” and itstransient response as “mushier” than the TG-X50’s.
In some ways, the N/D868 resembled the Audio-Technica ATM25 tonally,except that the N/D868 provided more low end and resonance and a lowernote overall. Also, the N/D868 sounded less covered and dull.
The N/D868’s hearty low end made for a slightly boomy sound insome of the applications (the far-miked 22-inch Ludwig and thedouble-headed 20-inch Gretsch), but usually the tone, though alwaysresonant, was nicely balanced and the pattern tight. Weldon describedthe Gretsch track as having a “woody full ring” and notedthat the “beater melds right into the shell resonance.”
The N/D868 tracks sounded great mixed with the bass-guitar tracks,though again a slight boost at 4 kHz helped define the attack edge. Asfor the LA-4 compression, it proved unflattering for this mic (as wellas for most of the other mics with hyped lows), causing the signal tolose thickness and low end. However, off-axis rejection wasexcellent—“the least hi-hat bleed of any mic wetested,” noted Boisen.
Sennheiser E602. The E602 blends chest-thumping lows (in the50 to 100 Hz range) with smoothly boosted highs and high mids (in the 2to 12 kHz range) to deliver a huge and very detailed—though farfrom natural—sound. The result is a highly processed tone thatseems perfectly dialed in for arena rock, providing that awesome“kaboom” that makes folks want to raise their Bic lightersand wave them back and forth in salute.
The E602 would probably be a great mic for live-sound engineers tohave at a gig where lots of stray bands pass through, as they’dbe assured of getting a monstrous kick-drum sound—no matter whatlame excuse for a drum set got deposited on the stage. I christened theE602 the Great Equalizer (pun intended) due to its predictable,instantly identifiable response that coaxes from every drum a quitesimilar, over-the-top sound. The E602’s preponderance of lowslargely obscures midrange shell tone, minimizing the distinctive voiceof each drum in favor of a singular, killer tone. That’s not abad thing if it’s consistency and reliability you’reafter.
In the studio, the E602 was quick to impress, especially when thetrack was soloed. (“If you find yourself asking,‘Where’s the beef?’” quipped Boisen,“here’s your answer.”) The sound is thick withgut-rumbling lows and sustain, and it packs plenty of punch and claritywithout an overabundance of attack. Certainly, if you mix songs forcars that go boom in the night, this is the kick mic for you.
On the other hand, for more mainstream types of mixes, theE602’s abundant low end could be too much of a good thing. Evenin our simple bass-and-drums mix, the mic’s tracks had excessivetone, causing them to compete with and somewhat mask the bass lines.Also, with all that bass going on, the clarity of the attack wascompromised.
Not surprisingly, the E602 was something of a mismatch for the moreresonant, double-headed kick drums. On the 18-inch Slingerland, forexample, the lows were overbearing (“Who needs a bassplayer?” I scribbled in my notes) and the tone“tanky,” like the sound of a rubber kick ball being bouncedon concrete. And on my 20-inch Gretsch, the excessive sustain remindedme of a Roland TR-808 kick.
I liked the E602 best on the 22-inch, single-headed Ludwig: whetherclose- or far-miked, the tracks sounded great. The E602 was alsoexceptional on the Pearl 20-inch drum recorded to analog tape. In thisapplication, the tone seemed quite natural; in Boisen’s words, ithad “ample lows” and an “integratedattack.”
Like most of the other bass-heavy mics, the E602’s sound wasnot improved by LA-4 compression. On another note, however, this micprovides exceptionally good off-axis rejection—especiallyconsidering how much high end it captures.
Shure Beta 52. The Beta 52 has a distinctive soundcharacterized by a big dose of “smacky” attack and ampleshell tone but not always enough lows and low mids. The hit isexceptionally immediate and full of impact, and for some styles ofmusic—say, tight funk and disco—this mic would seemready-made; however, its very “tailored” response resultedin a slightly artificial quality that didn’t always float ourboats.
A sharp, 12 dB boost around 4 kHz is evidently responsible for theBeta 52’s click-heavy attack—an exaggeration thattranslated better to analog tape than to ADAT, where it usually soundedexcessive. On the 22-inch Ludwig tracks, the tone was definitelyimproved with the mic in the far position. When positioned right upnext to the beater, though, the Beta 52 didn’t capture nearlyenough lows, and the attack sounded rattly and faintly distorted.
The mic’s bumped-up mids (starting at around 1 kHz) and highmids didn’t always complement the more resonant double-headeddrums, either. On the 18-inch Slingerland, for example, the Beta 52enhanced the drum’s “boing” and, in Robair’swords, made the track sound “kind of hollow.” (Weldon, onthe other hand, liked the sound for its quirkiness.) However, on the20-inch Gretsch, the tone was more usable, with decent lows but stilltoo much attack.
Again, the Beta 52 sounded better on the drums recorded to analogtape, where it captured more lows and had a better-integrated, lessclicky attack. Of the two drums we used for our analog tests, the22-inch fared better and proved the best application for thismicrophone. In these more favorable applications, the Beta 52 soundedsimilar to the AKG D 112, but with less low end and more attack. Also,its lows were similar to the Electro-Voice N/D868’s—exceptthat there wasn’t as much of them.
The Beta 52’s tight sound worked well in the bass-and-drumsmix, where it provided the necessary detail and punch. Again, though,we found ourselves reaching for the EQ to boost the lows a bit,particularly on the 20-inch kick track. The LA-4 compressiondidn’t help matters, either, causing a loss of valuable lowend.
Off-axis rejection was decent, but the Beta 52’scharacteristic response was evident in a distinct coloration on thesnare drum leakage.
Well, there you have it: seven different microphones and sevendifferent bass-drum tones. So why, in this age of conformity, wouldmanufacturers produce such different-sounding mics? Well, largelybecause there’s no such thing as a “right” or“wrong” sound—especially when it comes to percussioninstruments. What each of these mics embodies, then, is itsmanufacturer’s idea of how a kick-drum mic should sound. Andclearly, each has a different idea.
Of course, because there is no right or wrong sound, it’sabsurd for me to tell you which mic sounds best. After all, each is awell-made, fully professional instrument that is capable of recordingpro-quality tracks. However, having gotten familiar with all seven ofthem, I can definitely say that there are some I would like to own morethan others.
My first pick would be the Electro-Voice N/D868. Better yet, I wouldbroaden my palette by acquiring at least two of the seven mics. In thatcase, my preferences would be the N/D868 and the Beyerdynamic TG-X50—two microphones that have distinctly different sounds. Butagain, that’s just my opinion.
When asked the same questions—Which mic would you choose ifyou could afford only one, and which two of the seven would youbuy?—both Boisen and Weldon also specified the Electro-VoiceN/D868 as their first picks. But they would supplement it with theSennheiser E602. Interestingly, both gave the same reason for theirsecond choice: they felt they could rely on the E602 to deliver aconsistently good sound, no matter what the bass drum itself soundedlike.
Robair, on the other hand, chose the Sennheiser E602 as his firstpick, and would supplement it with the AKG D 112, were he able toacquire two of the mics. His reasoning was more like mine: both micssounded great to his ears, but they sounded different enough from eachother to cover a lot of ground.
But hey, don’t just run out and buy a mic based on ourpreferences. Rather, consider your own particular applications andparameters (types of music, drums, room, and the like), as well as yourmusical tastes, and then review our detailed descriptions of eachmicrophone. Hopefully, that will steer you in the right direction.
Brian Knaveis an associate editor atEM.Thanks to Myles Boisen, Mary Cosola, Carrie Gebstadt, John Hanes,Gino Robair, and Rick Weldon.
Because the colloquial terms for frequency ranges are socommonly—and inconsistently—bandied about, I have specifiedthe ranges below as they have been referred to in these comparisontests.
Lows 20 Hz–80 Hz
Low Mids 80 Hz–320 Hz
Mids 320 Hz–1.2 kHz
High Mids 1.2 kHz–7.5 kHz
Highs 7.5 kHz–20 kHz
Kick Drum Microphone Specifications
AKG D 112
20 Hz–17 kHz
30 Hz–15 kHz
38 Hz–19 kHz
Beyerdynamic TG-X 50
15 Hz–18 kHz (close miked)
40 Hz–16 kHz (@ 1 meter)
20 Hz–10 kHz
20 Hz–16 kHz
Shure Beta 52
20 Hz–10 kHz
174 dB (@ 1 kHz)