How do the pros approach live sound reinforcement of the rhythm section? For the answers, we turned to Karen Stackpole, a triple threat Bay Area drummer, sound engineer and writer. Not long ago, she polled a handful of sound pros on their favorite techniques in an article that ultimately appeared in Electronic Musician. That sounded like a very good starting point. We, of course, added Shure mics to the equation.
Here’s a rudimentary primer for miking the rhythm section: guitars, bass, piano, and drums.
This quick overview should help minimize the deer-in-the-headlights feeling you may experience when faced with a daunting live-sound situation – like when you put up an open mic on a stage peppered with monitors, only to elicit the screeching howl of the dreaded feedback monster.
Start with the Right Mics
The best way to figure out where to place a mic is to listen to the source – in this case, the instrument or amplifier. Try using only one ear to simulate the mono pickup of a mic, and listen up close and also from a few feet away. How does the instrument radiate sound? Put the mic where the instrument sounds best to your ear. Sometimes two mics are necessary to capture the full range of a particular instrument.
You’ll always need to use unidirectional microphones in live situations, for isolation of sound sources and to avoid feedback problems with the monitors.
If you have problems with the monitors, mics with a tighter pickup pattern (hypercardioid or supercardioid) are best. For area miking (that is, drum overheads), you can use a transducer with a wider pickup pattern. In most circumstances, you will want to put the mic as close to the instrument as possible without interfering with the player’s range of motion. This will ensure a more focused sound with less ambient reverberation and bleed from the other instruments onstage.
The Match Game
Mics have different frequency response characteristics that make them more or less appropriate for specific applications. Analyze the quality of an instrument’s sound to decide which mic best suits the job.
If the instrument is soft, a tight-pattern condenser might be just the thing for getting a hotter output.
If the instrument is loud, choose a mic that can handle high SPLs.
Is it bright? Try a mic that will impart a little warmth.
Does it have lots of midrange? Perhaps a Shure SM57 would be a good match.
Does it sound bassy? Try a large-diaphragm dynamic to capture the lows fully.
The electric guitar is perhaps the simplest instrument to mic, given that an instrument mic aimed at the amp’s speaker always does the job well.
There are two primary schools of thought for miking a guitar cabinet. Either point the microphone straight into the cabinet and directly at the speaker’s voice coil (the advantage being consistency of sound), or put the mic on the edge of the speaker and angle it into the voice coil (for less spiky mids). In both cases, you should place the mic right up against the grille.
Consider this type: Unidirectional dynamic microphone
Any condenser microphone works well for miking an acoustic guitar, as long as the stage sound isn’t too cluttered or loud. If the volume is cranked up and the guitar needs to go through the monitors, you may prefer a dynamic mic with good high-end response to get sufficient gain before feedback.
If the guitarist has a pickup, try taking it direct. If the sound is too dry and the guitarist is using a lot of effects or EQ at the amp, you may need to mic the amp, using the same approach as for miking an electric guitar amp, and combine that sound with the direct signal. You could also mic the guitar itself and blend that with the direct signal for a fuller sound.
Electric or Acoustic Bass
Although it’s standard practice to send the bass direct through the P.A., in some circumstances an engineer will also mic the bass cabinet. The mic you choose should capture lots of low end. Large-diaphragm dynamics are good choices.
If the bass cabinet has a mix of 10-inch and 15-inch speakers, you have a couple of options. For more low-end oomph, put a mic on the 15-inch speaker. If you’re a funky slap-and-pop bass player, try putting a mic on one of the 10-inchers or on the horn for more high-end definition and better transient response. Keep in mind that the direct injection (DI) box will give you plenty of low-end fundamentals and that extra twang, so a little lower midrange support from a miked cabinet can fill out the sound.
Acoustic upright bass
It is desirable to take a direct signal from an acoustic bass pickup, though most double-bass players (especially jazz cats) wrinkle their noses at DIs because they never sound the way players like them to sound. In such a case, you should also mic the bass. It’s prudent to retain the option to use the direct sound, however, because in a loud situation where you may not get enough gain or definition from the mic, you can still boost the level to give the bass presence in the mix.
The output of an acoustic bass is relatively low, so you have to put the mic in as close as possible. Unidirectional mics are prone to proximity effect (a boost in the low frequencies) when placed very close to a sound source, so you may need to roll off some of the lows. You can fasten low-profile microphones to the tailpiece, to an f hole, or to the ridge that’s just above the waist of the instrument. Don’t clip them on the bridge – that can inhibit vibrations.
Most engineers prefer to get a direct feed on electronic keyboards. If the keyboardist has an amp and prefers that sound, you can mic the cabinet (as you would a guitar amp with a Shure SM57) and combine that sound with the direct signal.
Going direct or using a direct box is generally better, because you tend to get a cleaner sound. In the case of a Fender Rhodes suitcase piano, try going direct and miking the speakers on the piano to represent the Fender Rhodes sound fully.
Consider this type: Dynamic instrument microphone
Shure mic: SM57
For miking grand pianos, engineers often favor condenser mics. Ideally, you should use a pair of mics to capture the low and high strings Place one mic several inches over the bass strings and the other over the high strings, and angle them apart for greater separation. The closer you get to the hammers, the more attack you’ll get; the farther away from the hammers, the mellower the tone will be.
If the environment is loud, try securing the mics inside the piano and closing the lid for greater isolation. You could also clamp the mics to the soundboard (using a piece of foam to protect the wood) with LP Claws or similar mic clamps. A single SM58 pointing into one of the soundboard holes will also do the trick if you have only one input and the piano is going through the monitors.
Open the top and place a split pair of microphones inside, aiming slightly toward the hammers to capture both the low and the high keys. Condensers are preferable, but SM57s work quite well, too. You could also mic the piano from the back, taking time to find the sweet spot. Remember to listen – and to think from the mic’s perspective. Another option is to take the front off by the player’s feet and to mic the strings from that angle (if the player isn’t stomping the pedals or the floor too vigorously, that is!).
Drum sets vary in size, number of components, tonal quality, and head configurations. But most standard kits have a snare drum, a bass drum, a floor tom, one or more rack toms, a hi-hat, a ride cymbal, and a crash or two.
A fat but crisp sound is desirable for snare drum, and a Shure SM57 is the workhorse for capturing this essence. A Beta 58A® can also sound very good on snare.
Place the mic at about 11 o’clock from the player’s perspective, between the hi-hat and the rack tom, about two inches from the head and angled toward it.
For more lows, angle the capsule closer in toward the head; for a crisper attack, move the mic slightly farther from the head and point it more toward the center of the drum.
If you want to get some extra sizzle from the snare wires for a funky sound, put an additional mic on the bottom head, pointing up at the wires. Use a dynamic that has a lot of high end and flip the phase of the mic on the bottom head to avoid phase cancellation.
A punchy kick-drum sound with a lot of low-end oomph makes the rest of the band really pump. Quite a few mics are designed specifically for kick-drum miking, including the Shure Beta 52®A.
Usually a kick drum will have a hole in the front head. Put the mic just inside the drum to start. For more attack, move the mic closer inside and aim it at the beater. For a fuller, rounder sound with less attack, draw the mic back farther and angle it slightly away from the beater. If there is no hole in the front head, start with the mic about two to four inches in from the rim and point it at the head, adjusting the angle to get the desired sound. Listen up close to the drum with one ear as someone plays, find the spot where it sounds the way you like, and put the mic there. Refrain from placing the mic at the very center of the drum – that’s a dead spot.
Miking toms can pose a challenge if a drummer has a lot of cymbal stands. Fortunately, you have the option of clip-on tom mics well as mic- that come in handy for fastening tom mics in place and neatly out of the way. Place the mic near the rim of the drum, pointing down at the head, and adjust the angle and distance for more low end or more attack. If you want greater separation, angle the mics apart.
Hi-Hat and Cymbals
The use of overhead mics is standard for capturing the cymbals and the overall kit sound, and a split pair will pick up both sides of the kit. Condenser mics are ideal for overheads because of their excellent high end and natural transient response.
If you have only one overhead, place the mic centrally over the kit, and move it around to compensate for the playing style and the kit’s characteristics (that is, quiet ride cymbal, loud snare, and so on). Just keep the overheads out of the monitors to avoid feedback. If the hi-hat needs more bite, place a small-diaphragm condenser mic a few inches above the hi-hats, angled at the area just below the cup.
Miking stage instruments is a subjective art, and there are nearly as many opinions as there are engineers. By now, though, you’ve picked up enough pointers to start miking the most ubiquitous instruments in standard venues.
If you have some time and the luxury of access to a variety of live-sound mics, the next step is to experiment a little with selection and placement before you have a show.
Keep in mind the constants – namely, the proper etiquette for avoiding feedback, and close miking with unidirectional mics for maximum pickup and isolation. Use this article as a guide, but remember: ultimately you should rely on your ears to determine the best mic placement for optimum sound.
About Karen Stackpole
Karen Stackpole got started in live sound reinforcement in 1988 and expanded into studio work in 1991. In 1997 she launched Stray Dog Recording Services, a mobile recording business, in addition to working on projects as a freelance live sound and studio engineer and drum tech.
Karen is an active member of Syn-Aud-Con and the Audio Engineering Society and is also a performing and recording drummer/percussionist. As a freelance writer she regularly contributes to Electronic Musician and DRUM! Magazines. In 1999 she joined the Sound Arts faculty at Expression College for Digital Arts and directs the Studio Maintenance course.
Visit Karen and Stray Dog Recording Services on MySpace .
SN thanks Karen and Electronic Musician magazine for allowing us to adapt the content that appears in this article.