Drum and Instrument Mic'ing Part 2

Image courtesy of Art Bromage

Image courtesy of Art Bromage

Last time around, we started talking about using mic’s in a live setting. We talked about some options for the drum kit and how to change some variables to get the right sound. Today, we’ll consider some of the other instruments on stage and how we can make them sound great. 

Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut

Sometimes, we get so used to using the same mics on something we never consider what would happen if we change them out. Or we just use whatever the last guy was using on a given instrument, without questioning if that’s the best approach or not. A great example of this is the Hammond Organ. When I arrived at my last church, we had a B3 connected to a Leslie 112 cabinet (the classic combination). We had been using two very expensive, variable pattern condenser mics on the top speaker (AKG C414), and another mic usually used for toms on the bottom rotor (Audix D4). It was what we had and it worked OK. But it was just OK.

Then I got talking with a B3 playing legend (alright, name drop, it was Bob Heil…) and he suggested changing it up a bit. So I packed up almost $2,000 worth of condenser mics and replaced them with about $500 worth of dynamic mics—Heil PR-30s—and swapped the bottom mic out with one normally used on a kick, a Heil PR-48. He suggested positioning the top mics 90° to each other and flipping one of them out of polarity. 

The first weekend we tried that, without telling our B3 player what I had done (and it’s his B3, so he knows what it should sound like), he started playing and almost immediately pulled out his ears and asked, “What did you do to the B3; it sounds so much better!” He suggested we move the lower mic back a few inches to smooth it out—which we did—and it sounded fantastic.

I’ve had similar experiences with electric guitar cabinets. Simply trying a different mic, or moving either closer or further from the center of the speaker will dramatically change the sound. Don’t be afraid to put two different mics on a guitar cabinet and mix the two (or use one or the other depending on the song). Our job as sound techs is to find the combination that sounds the best. That often takes experimentation and the willingness to try something new. 

What I’ve found is that getting the right mic—properly matched to the source—in the right position will dramatically improve your sound. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you are using less EQ and fewer plug-ins to get the sound you want. 

Finding the Right Mic

Finding the right mic is often a matter of trial and error. However, it’s helpful to ask what other engineers are using, and find out how they are using them. Talk with your dealer and see what options are out there for a given instrument. And if you buy a mic that doesn’t end up working for purpose you intended, try it on something else. A friend of mine is using a mic marketed as a tom mic on his guitar cabinets with great results. 

Ultimately, we have to remember we are in the sound reinforcement business. We take what’s on the stage and make it louder. Getting great sound starts with a great sounding source. Work with your band to get that part right first. Then choose the right mic, get it in the right spot and listen to your mix improve.

Elite Core

Drum and Instrument Mic'ing, Part 1

Photo courtesy of goatling

Photo courtesy of goatling

A while back, I found myself in a somewhat unusual situation; I just couldn't get the toms sounding good. I say it’s unusual because most weeks they dialed right up and sounded really good. We had a house kit that we used every week and while the drummers changed, for the most part, the tone remained the same. But not that weekend. They didn’t have the snap they usually do, and were not sitting right in the mix. I tried EQ, I tried compression and gating. I even tried changing the plug-ins. But nothing really worked. And since we start from a baseline that should sound good, I knew something was amiss. 

Then it hit me—I hadn’t set the drum mics up, a less experienced volunteer had. I ran down to stage and sure enough, they were all out of position. Not by a lot, but by enough. I quickly repositioned them (they probably moved a total of 1 1/2” inches) and returned to FOH. Finally, I had my toms back. I reset my EQ, and compression to my usual starting points and went on with the rehearsal.

I share that story at the beginning of this series to demonstrate that quite often very small changes in mic position can yield large changes in sound. Sometimes, we will rely too heavily on “fixing it in the mix,” when what we really should do is head down to the stage and move or change the mic. Sometimes, the problem is having the wrong mic on the instrument. I’ll illustrate that point in a moment. But first let’s consider the instrument that probably has the most mics on it; the drum kit.

Drum Kit Mic’ing

How you mic your drums will depend on the room, the size of the kit, your mic inventory and the style of music you’re dealing with (not necessarily in that order). Generally speaking, most of us will have at least a mic in the kick, on the snare and high hat. Which mic you use for each will depend on taste and/or budget and inventory. There are plenty of mics to choose from for the kick (the Shure Beta 52, Audix D6, AKG D112, E/V RE320 and Heil PR-48 are popular choices), and each has a different sound. 

Placement is just as critical as mic choice. First, listen to the kick drum by itself. Get right up on it, and listen to what it sounds like. If the front head has a hole in it, I typically start with the mic sticking in the hole about 1/2, and give it a listen in the PA. If I like what I hear, I’ll leave it. If not, I may move it inside to get more of the snap of the beater on the front head, or outside to get more boom. There aren’t necessarily wrong positions; it all depends on your set up. By the way, I start this exercise with the EQ flat and leave my compressors bypassed. I want to hear what the drum really sounds like. After it sounds good with no FX, then you can work with those tools. 

For snare and tom mics, your life will be much easier if you are using rim-clip mic mounts. These give you the ability to put the mics right close to the drums without having stands all over the place. Positioning again starts with listening. If the drums don’t sound good up close, tune them (or have someone tune them). 

There are a lot of ways to get your positioning dialed in, but here’s one way to get them in the ballpark. Turn one hand over and place it near the rim of the drum. Use your other hand to flick the drum head (or use a stick). As you hit the drum head, move your other hand around and you’ll feel the hair on the back of your hand vibrate. The place where the “tickling” sensation is the strongest is a good starting point for the mic. 

Sometimes you’ll want them low and near the heads, other times, it will sound better with them off the heads just a bit. Always listen first, then adjust. Once you get it sounding good with no EQ, compression or gating, you have a good starting point for great sound. This takes a while if you’re doing it yourself, so it’s good to have someone else help.

There are plenty of ways to position a high hat mic, but lately I’ve found myself swinging a boom mic stand over the center of the cymbal and pointing the mic toward the outside rim, away from the snare. This takes advantage of the natural null in the cardioid pattern of the mic to reduce the snare spill into the high hat mic. I prefer the sound of this position, but many like to come in from the outside and get more of the open/close action of the hat. Use what works well for you. Or try something different. 

Many times, you don’t really need overhead mics. If you have a smaller (or really live) room, you may have too much cymbals already. But if not, there are two basic approaches here. One is to take one or two condenser mics and position them a few feet above the kit, on the left and right sides. These act as “whole kit” mics and will pick up all the drums as well as the cymbals. This technique can add some overall sparkle to the whole kit, though you may have to delay your close mics to keep phasing issues to a minimum. 

Another approach is to use dynamic mics with a tighter pattern—such as a Heil PR30, my personal favorite—and use them more as cymbal mics. I’ve been doing this lately and really like the results. By minimizing interaction between the drums (mainly the snare) and the cymbal mics, phasing is reduced and I find the whole kit sounds tighter. 

Yet another option is under-mic’ing the cymbals. I’m seeing this more on awards shows and concerts as it gets some of the hardware out of the way. I have not personally done this much as I’ve not had the right mounts, but some friends have tried it with good results. This definitely offers more of a cymbal mic sound, which might be just what you’re looking for.

But this is not a right/wrong thing; take the approach that works best for you in your room.

So that’s the drum kit; but there are plenty more mic’s on stage that we need to account for. But we’ll save those for next time!

DPA Microphones

Console Layout

Image courtesy of Jiahui Huang

Image courtesy of Jiahui Huang

Based on some of the consoles I’ve seen, console layout is something that doesn’t seem get a lot of thought. However, a properly laid out console not only makes mixing more fun, it can keep us from making big mistakes during a service. 

Legend has it that in the early days of mixing, as analog consoles got larger, engineers noticed that channels farther from the master had more noise in them. So it made sense to put the money channels—the vocals—nearest to the master. As the master was typically on the right, that meant the left-most channels became home of the drums—who would notice noise in the drum channels? 

Somewhere along the line, a somewhat common layout emerged: drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals. As consoles and input count continued to grow, we started seeing the master section land in the middle of the console instead of on the right. In that case, usually the band fell to the left while vocals and effects fell to the right.

Back then, where channels showed up on the console was completely dependent on what inputs they were plugged into Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader. But before we do any patching—digitally or analog—it’s important to spend some time thinking about why channels go where they do. 

Why You Do Is More Important Than What You Do

I’ve seen all sorts of...interesting...channel layouts on consoles. Drums spread all over the place, the lead guitar next to the pastor’s mic, vocal effects in the middle of the keyboards. It’s as if someone just patched inputs into the first open channel or floor pocket without any thought at all.

And while there are all sorts of ways you can lay out your console, the first consideration is to make sure you do it on purpose. Don’t just shove inputs into any old channel. Take some time to think about it and patch it in a way that makes sense. Keep all the drum channels together, and then keep the band together. Having all the vocals next to each other makes it a lot easier to find them. Put the channels you adjust all the time closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end every time. Think about how you mix, then organize the channels in a way that supports what you do.

For Example…

There is no “right” way to organize a console. But here are some ideas of how to do it. Personally, I like to start with drums (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads), then bass, guitars, keys, vocals and finally effects. Other channels like speaking mic’s, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console. 

I like my VCAs on the right, which puts my vocals right in the middle in front of me. My preference is to mix more on channel faders than VCAs, but I know others who prefer the opposite.

I also know guys who put the bass right next to the kick because they like to work those two together. I used to keep my bass in my guitars VCA; but lately, I’ve been putting in with the drums. Others dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass. 

Stay Consistent

When I mix on analog consoles, I still follow the same basic layout. The advantage of a consistent layout is that I can mix almost any band on any console and without looking know where the faders are. In contrast, I’ve watched other guys mix and spend half their time searching the board for the guitar fader, only to miss the solo. 

Regardless of how you choose to layout the console, once you come up with a plan, stick with it. Adapt and change as needed, but maintain as much consistency as you can.

Small Digital Consoles are Tricky

The current trend toward smaller mixers (i.e. fewer faders) with higher channel counts makes smart layout absolutely critical. If you only have 16 handles to deal with, you simply must be intentional about what you put where. In that case, I would most likely not use up the first 8 faders on the top layer for the drums. 

In that case, it might be more prudent to put a drums VCA on channel one and treat it as one instrument (which, arguably, you should do anyway). As you fill up your fader bank and channels spill into another layer, it is often a smart idea to duplicate a few channels on every layer. For example, you might want to have the worship leader’s mic on the same fader of every layer so you can get to it quickly regardless of the layer you’re on. 

The fewer faders you have, the more strategic you need to be with grouping channels into VCAs. How you group the channels will be dependent on your band and your workflow. 

I once mixed a 28-input CD release party on 12 faders. I built multiple layers that were very similar, but expanded various sections. For example, layer one had the drums as a single VCA. But layer two gave me all 8 drum channels. Layer three split out all my effects, which were a single VCA on layer one. Things that didn’t get used often were down on layers four and five, but the lead singer’s vocal and guitar were always in the same place on every layer. 

I spent about 30 minutes initially setting up the board, then tweaked my layout during rehearsal based on what I was doing. Of course, this is easier with a digital board than analog, but the principles remain. Think about your layout and adjust it until it makes sense and works for you.

Why Church Sound Is So Bad

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Last month, I came across a post on Bobby Owsinksi’s Big Picture Music Production Blog that really resonated with me. It was called Why Do Concerts Sound So Bad?. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and it was good to hear someone else put into words what I’ve thought. I’ve heard some pretty dreadful concerts, not to mention conferences and trade shows. But I also hear some pretty poor sounding church services and I think many of the reasons concerts sound so bad carry over into church. I’m not going to re-hash his post—he did a fine job with it—instead, I’m going to append five reasons why I think church sound can be so bad at times.

No Training

This is certainly one of the biggest reasons church sound is so bad. Sadly, it’s also one of the most easily remedied. I say sadly because it saddens me that more churches don’t bother to do it. I have received email after email from pastors and worship guys lamenting how bad their sound is, but when I suggest bringing a pro out to train them, you’d think I was asking for a gold plated Rolls Royce. 

Most pastors spend a few years in school leaning how to preach and communicate, and then it takes them 10 years of actual practice to really get good. Yet they expect a volunteer who mixes once a month, who has no training (other than figuring out that moving faders up makes it louder) to mix a flawless service. Mixing is hard. It takes time and effort to learn to do it well. And it takes some good instruction. 

Poor PA

Again, this is a common one. Traveling around to see churches all over the country, I’m struck at how many terrible PA’s I find. From line arrays hung up against side walls to the old “flying junkyard” to random collections of speakers hanging everywhere, I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas. Sadly, not all of it is old. I saw a post on social media where someone was excited about their newly hung speakers. Two subs facing each other in the center of the seating area, and full range boxes outside the subs pointing down and across each other. Side note, if that’s not immediately apparent why that’s all a terrible idea, please don’t ever hang speakers in your church.

The common denominator in these situations is the sound is going to be bad. A highly trained professional with a great band and a solid console might be able to make is sound tolerable. But it’s never going to be great. If you want great sound, you need at least a decent PA. And that will require hiring someone who knows how to design and install a decent or better PA. 

Sound Guys Who Have Been Trained Wrong

Bobby O points out that we have a whole generation of mixers who somehow got the idea that the kick and snare is the most important thing in the mix. Now, they are important, but they are not the most important. In live concerts he points out, the vocal is king. I would argue that the same is true in a worship service. Worship leaders are leading the congregation. However, the congregation cannot be led if they can’t hear the vocal. Believe it or not, the kick drum helps very little when it comes to learning a new worship song. Same for the bass and low toms. If I can’t hear the vocal, I can’t follow the melody and I can’t learn the song. It’s really that simple. 

Young guys hate it when the old farts tell them they’re doing it wrong, but guys, I’m telling you, if I show up at your church and all I hear is kick, bass and snare, you’re doing it wrong. 

Too Loud

Again, I’m going to sound like an old guy here; but I’m really not. I like volume and I led the charge at my church for years to get the maximum volume raised up. Under the right circumstances, volume can help create energy and engagement. Those are good things. But like the increasing reliance on the kick and subs, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. I recently received an email from a reader asking for help because their new, young sound guy likes to run rehearsals at 105-115 dBA. 

Precious few PA’s, rooms and bands sound good at that level. I guarantee theirs doesn’t. In addition to the hearing damage the engineer is inflicting on themselves and the rest of the crew, it’s screwing up their perception for mixing the services (look up Temporary Threshold Shift). 

Volume is relative. Larger rooms with better PA’s can stand more volume than small ones. But not all songs or worship sets require maximum volume. And if you crank it up, you better know what you’re doing to keep it from becoming so harsh it hurts. Or better yet, back it down a few dB. Chances are, everyone will thank you. 

The Band is No Good

So far, we’ve talked about technical systems and technique. But there is one other element that leads to bad sound in churches—bad bands. I’ve heard my share of them, too. I recall being at one church helping train their team, and I played back some tracks from my band at Coast Hills. It didn’t take much to get it sounding great, even on their mediocre PA. Then their band took the stage. The first question I got was, “What did you do to the bass? It sounds nothing like it did a minute ago.” I replied, “That's not my bass player Norm up there on stage...”

In fact, this bass player was terrible and yet had a pedal board bigger than some electric players I’ve seen. I changed nothing on the channel strip and the bass went from very solid (even on their less-than-stellar PA) to pretty much mush. The lesson is simple; sometimes there’s not much you can do. I worked at that bass for a while, and it never got better not good. It all starts at the source.

There you go. This is not an exhaustive list; I’m sure we could come up with some more reasons church sound—or concert sound— is bad. But this is what came to my mind. What else have you seen, and how can we fix it?

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