I have a great appreciation for drummers that say things like: “I can move that cymbal if you need to get a mic in that spot.” This appreciation extends, of course, to all other musicians who offer to make concessions for the good of the show. It displays a sense of everybody on the deck being a part of the same team.
So it might seem a bit odd that my standard response (especially to drummers) is: “Let’s use the setup that you’re most comfortable with, and I’ll work around that.”
For a very long time I thought this was just a case of good manners – that sometimes, you have to sacrifice the demands of SR (sound reinforcement) for the happiness of the player. One day, though, it finally hit me. Especially in the case of drums, the player’s comfort is inextricably bound up with being able to mic the kit effectively. If the player is not fully comfortable, your “favorite pet” mic placement may not be worth two hoots. (I’m not actually sure what a “hoot” is worth in US dollars these days, but I think their value collapsed shortly after the Civil War.)
“Oh, Danny,” you say, “It can’t be that big of a deal.”
I’m pretty sure it is, actually.
Little Things Aren’t As Trivial As You Think
It might not seem that altering how a drumkit plays is that big of a deal. As long as the drummer can still reach everything, they’re fine, right?
I’m not a drummer, but I know a few. I’ve had some pretty deep conversations about things as (seemingly) simple as how a stick feels when it’s held correctly and strikes correctly. We’ve talked about subtlety and muscle memory. We’ve talked about tightening and loosening heads and having revelatory experiences as a result. As far as I can tell, dadgum nearly EVERYTHING on a drumkit has an effect on the sound and feel, and one thing being out of true can make the whole collection of bits feel “off.” Maybe not impossible to play, but definitely wrong in one way or another.
Further, I’ve got first-hand observation of just how not-subtle it is when there’s a change in how drums and cymbals are hit. There’s a particularly loved band in these parts that used to have two percussionists. Most of the time, the main percussionist would play and sing at the kit, while the other handled congas and “toys.” The main percussionist used a lot of stick side on the cymbals, which created a very aggressive and dominant cymbal tone. Later in the show, the main percussionist would let the other handle the kit. Percussion-human #2 favored the tip of the stick much more when playing the hat, ride, and crash – and the result was a much more delicate and fast-decaying sort of sound. (Now, that’s just the natural difference in how those two musicians played, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to impose a kit setup that pushed either one of them away from their preferred style.)
The way the stick hits the drums matters. A lot. When you move things around and mess with that, then you may be changing the drummer’s sound without meaning to. Yes, there are drummers who can adjust, but you have to realize that the greater the adjustment, the more their playing will shift from the semi-conscious part of their mind to the conscious part. Too much of that shift can cause the drummer’s part of the show to drop from “great” to “just okay.”
And there’s a point where any drummer (even a really good one) is just not going to be able to fully compensate for something, which means that the sound that they’re making probably isn’t “their sound” anymore. Now, this can sometimes be a good thing. An inexperienced percussion player may be hamstringing themselves with a bad layout, and an alternate setup may be just what they need to improve their tone. On the flipside, though, an experienced drummer with good tone partially relies on their kit layout to facilitate the getting of that sound. Mess with that layout to get your “super secret special-sauce mic placement,” and you’re running a risk of actually invalidating that mic placement by imposing a tonal change on the instrument you’re trying to capture. The risk may be negligible, minimal, moderate, tremendous, or lethal, and it’s hard to know which one of those applies if you haven’t worked closely with the drummer before.
Drumkit Ergonomics First, Mic Placement Second
I don’t want to send the message that I’m unsympathetic to the needs of SR. I’m an audio-human for cryin’ out loud! Most of the “dudez and chix” in my field have encountered at least one setup that was laid out in such a way as to not be possible to run through the PA effectively. Eventually, you’re going to run into a drum-noise production musician who wants a sound-reinforcement outcome that is physically incompatible with the kit, the room, the PA, the mic placement, the playing, or all of those at once.
Even so, I must be pretty insistent that the first priority when micing drums (or anything) is that the drums be placed properly for the player to get “their sound.” The reason for this insistence is because, if you’re trying to capture the best possible sound for the drummer, then the first thing necessary is…gosh…for the player to actually be able to produce that sound in the room.
See, microphones are not humans. They don’t have imaginations, pattern recognition, differential analysis capability, emotional bias, or anything else. Microphones do nothing more than MERCILESSLY translate into electricity EXACTLY the sound pressure events that arrive at their capsules – all while filtering those events through their own mechanical and electrical quirks. If an acoustical event isn’t taking place, you have no hope whatsoever of capturing that event. This is why recording engineers like Slipperman go on public record with statements like this (which I have edited for brevity and language):
“You gotta start in the room with ‘the sound’…This is MAJOR, once attained, we now have a starting point…If you can’t get by this first hurdle IN THE ROOM. You are in deep !@#$…. I can’t help you. God can’t help you. YOU ARE !@#$ED. !@#$ED. KILL YOURSELF. It is imperative that the zorch-!@#$o-twerg playing guitar is hearing ‘his sound’ in the room. IT CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.”
(By the way, the “Recording Distorted Guitars Thread From Hell” is incredible, and I urge you to set aside time to read as much of it as you can handle. I’m a bit dismayed at how mean to musicians it is at times, and it has lots of unfriendly language, but that doesn’t invalidate the insights you can gain from it all. The archive is here.)
Anyway, the point is that a mic only gives you what it can hear, plus all of the mic’s imperfections. Some of these imperfections are known, desired, and even adored. Some of these imperfections can even be used to help alleviate problems with a sound that IS occurring in the room – there’s no denying that. The point, though, is that a mic placement which takes advantage of the mic’s quirks is undesirable when the placement forces the actual acoustic event AWAY from what you actually want to hear.
There’s a lot that mic placement and subsequent processing can do. Minor and major miracles are possible. Heroic outcomes are celebrated, sometimes rightfully and sometimes not. With all of that, though, I am personally convinced that there is no amount of trickery (aside from flat-out sound replacement) which will turn a drum that can’t quite be played correctly and can’t quite fit the groove into a drum that can. Further, I’m pretty darned sure that the job of most sound craftspersons is NOT to get “our sound,” but to get the player’s sound. Unfortunately, the seduction of getting OUR sound is so powerful that we easily become over-reliant on tricks and by-the-numbers procedures. What we really should be doing is solving the puzzle of effectively translating the sound of the players to the audience, without getting any more in the way than is truly necessary.
…and, of course, if the players want to achieve a certain sound, we should work with them on achieving that sound. However, we have to take care to do so in a way that encourages the musician to comfortably produce that sound (as much as possible) as an acoustic event. If production of that sound is comfortable and easy for the musician, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to somehow capture that event in a consistent way. The capture might not take place with our favorite mic and placement…and that’s okay. As much as possible, we need to first let the band get their best possible sound without all our gear and fussing.
Because you can’t mic things that aren’t there.