July 20, 2023

Best Overhead Drum Mics for Live Sound

Choosing the best drum overhead mics can make a significant difference in the overall tonal response.

If you’re working to capture the best possible drum sound for a live performance, selecting the right overhead microphones is crucial. These microphones capture the whole kit's sound, providing depth, width, and clarity to the mix. Whether you opt for a mono or stereo setup, choosing the best drum overhead mics can make a significant difference in the overall tonal response. In this article, we will explore various microphone options and configurations to help you make an informed decision and enhance your drum sound for your live gigs.

How Many Mics Do You Need?

There are various configurations for drum overhead miking, but most of them rely on one or two microphones. Using a single microphone will result in mono sound, meaning you'll have a single channel of audio reproduced through all of your speakers. Employing two microphones allows for a stereo application, where the audio is split into left and right channels produced by separate speakers.

Mono applications are cost-effective as you only need one microphone, allowing you to save money or invest more in a higher-quality single microphone. However, using a mono microphone application doesn't provide the benefit of stereo width. Keep in mind that many live sound reinforcement systems operate in mono.

Stereo applications offer the advantage of providing a stereo image, resulting in better width and depth in your mix. If your main mix is in stereo or if you also broadcast your mix, a stereo application with two microphones will likely deliver superior sonic performance compared to a mono application.

Drum Overhead Placement:

There are several ways to position your overhead microphones to achieve a pleasing drum sound. The ideal placement will depend on your drum kit, drummer, and the environment. Here are a few suggestions to get started.

If you only have a single microphone, you can use a mono setup by positioning the mic directly above your kit, centered and approximately 24 inches above the cymbals. You'll need a microphone with a wide cardioid polar pattern to capture your entire kit. Adjust the height to ensure you're capturing the full width of your drum set.

There are two main categories of stereo microphone positions for drum overheads: XY (or coincident pair) and spaced pair. For an XY setup, use two cardioid microphones, typically small diaphragm condensers. Position them with the capsules as close together as possible without the microphones touching. Place the microphones directly above the drum kit, angled at approximately 45º pointing towards the left and right sides of the kit. This will result in a V shape with about a 90º angle between the microphones. You can slightly adjust the angles to achieve the best coverage for your kit.

In a spaced pair configuration, position each microphone directly above one side of the drum kit. One microphone should be above the snare drum, crash cymbal, and hi-hats, while the other microphone should be above the floor tom and ride cymbal. Adjust the position of the microphones up and down, left and right to achieve the best coverage for your specific setup.

Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics:

Small diaphragm condensers are the most common type of microphone used for drum overheads. They tend to provide accuracy and good transient response, which helps the attack characteristics of your drum tones cut through the mix.

  • Neumann KM184

The KM184 is a studio staple microphone that also works great in live reinforcement environments as drum overhead microphones. These microphones tend to have a slightly darker tone compared to other small diaphragm condenser microphones, making them a good option for balancing overly bright cymbals. However, they are relatively high-priced, so purchasing a pair may be cost-prohibitive.

  • AKG C451 B

Like the KM184, the AKG C451 B is a studio recording staple microphone. The C451 B has a brighter tone than the KM184, making it a good complement to darker cymbal tones. It also includes a pad and low-frequency roll-off, providing more control over the microphone's output. Similar to the KM184, the C451 B is a pricier option.

  • Shure KSM137

The Shure KSM137 offers a great mid-range price option. A pair of KSM137s is priced similarly to a single Neumann KM184 or AKG C451 B. The KSM137 includes a pad and a low-frequency roll-off. These flexible microphones also work great on other acoustic instruments such as acoustic guitars and pianos.

  • sE Electronics sE8

Although sE Electronics may not be as well-known as Shure or AKG, the sE8 small diaphragm condenser holds its own against better-known brands. The sE8s feature excellent transient response and a smooth top end, which works well with a variety of drum tones.

  • Audix ADX51

The Audix ADX51 is included in Audix's popular drum miking kits, making it a common overhead microphone. While it may not be a microphone you would buy on its own, if you're looking for a complete drum miking solution, the Audix kit that includes two ADX51s will provide a solid overhead miking option along with the bass drum, snare drum, and tom microphones.

  • Rode M5

The Rode M5 is a great budget option for drum overhead microphones. Although it may be noisier than some more expensive options, the cost-saving makes it a popular choice for churches and venues on a budget. Additionally, the mic's higher noise floor is less likely to be noticeable in a live sound application compared to a studio setting.

Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics:

Large-diaphragm condensers are more commonly used in recording studios as drum overhead microphones than in live sound reinforcement. However, the added warmth provided by many large diaphragm mics can be equally beneficial in a live sound environment.

  • AKG C414

The AKG C414 is widely recognized by sound engineers as a high-end instrument microphone for both studio and live sound venues. It comes with a high price tag but offers world-class performance and versatility. If you can afford it, a single or pair of C414s will almost certainly enhance your drum kit's tone. The C414 comes in two models - the XLII and the XLS. Both options work great as overhead microphones, with the XLII being brighter and the XLS being darker and warmer in tone.

  • AKG C214

If the C414 is too expensive for your budget, the AKG C214 may be the perfect choice for your live sound needs. The C214 utilizes the same capsule design as the C414 but utilizes a single diaphragm, resulting in a cardioid-only microphone. As most drum overhead miking techniques use cardioid pickup patterns, the cardioid-only design is a worthy compromise for the lower cost.

  • Audio-Technica AT4040

The AT4040 is another cardioid-only microphone that provides a budget-friendly option for drum overheads. It offers good warmth along with a natural sound and can be used as a mono overhead microphone or in a spaced pair configuration with two AT4040s.

  • Rode NT-1A

The NT-1A is the most affordable large diaphragm condenser on this list, yet it still delivers professional sound quality. This no-frills microphone works well as a single overhead microphone or paired together in stereo. While it lacks a pad or roll-off, the low price compensates for the lack of additional features.

Dynamic Mics:

Condenser microphones are preferred for drum overhead mics due to their sensitivity and transient response. However, dynamic microphones can be used as overhead mics if needed, and their durability and lower cost can be advantageous.

  • Shure SM57

As the quintessential dynamic instrument microphone, the Shure SM57 is a great option as a dynamic overhead drum microphone. The SM57 has a natural presence boost, which helps compensate for its slower transient response. Additionally, its durability ensures it will likely continue to operate even if it takes a fall, which likely won’t be true of a condenser microphone.

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