Live acoustic drums can be one of the most difficult instruments to mix in a church setting. However, if you have an acoustic drum set in your church you want them to sound great. Easier said than done, right? If you have ever felt like your acoustic drum mix leaves something to be desired, here are 3 steps to help you improve the music that your congregation hears.
1. Tune your Drums
This is simple and yet complex at the same time. Your bassist and guitarists probably tune their instruments before each set. Some probably tune between each song. So why is it that so many of us overlook tuning the drums? Tuning a percussive instrument isn’t as black and white as tuning a melodic instrument. A guitar has 6 separate pitches that each string get tuned to and if one is out in tune, the whole instrument is considered out of tune. But with drums, while each drum does have a fundamental pitch, it is widely debated and quite subjective as to what pitch is correct is for each individual drum. The bottom line is that the drums need to be tuned, and there some simple steps to follow to make sure you do it correctly. The YouTube channel “Drumeo” has some great resources like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3qMyc1G3XE on tuning drums. My suggestion is this, tune your drums when you put new heads on them, and then adjust the tuning each week before your soundcheck and warm up to make sure that you are getting the most from the drum set that your church has. There are also many great tools available that go from cheap to not so cheap such as the Evans Torque Key, the Drum Dial, and the Tune Bot. These can make your life a little easier and help keep your drum tuning consistent. Tuning your drums will make your drums sound better in your live mix.
2. Mic Placement
I could write many articles on mic placement alone. There are no hard and fast rules to putting microphones on a drum kit, however, there are a few guidelines to get you off and running. These rules can save you time while getting you closer to your end goal. I think for a lot of churches less is more. A single overhead picking up the whole drum set and a 1 mic for bass drum and 1 mic for the snare drum is all that you might need. Fewer microphones are simpler to mix. There are also fewer issues to worry about concerning phase cancellation and possible feedback if you start with a simple setup. I would even advise new volunteers to start here and if you find that you have a good handle on a 3 mic setup, but the sound that you want isn’t achievable then experiment with adding more.
If your mixing board allows it, and you have enough mics, you will want to start by placing a microphone on each drum in your kit (bass drum, snare, tom toms), these are referred to as the close mics. You will also add a least 1 or a set of 2 overhead mics. There are 2 schools of thought here. The first is that you are using your overhead(s) to get the sound of the cymbals. The second is that you are getting the entire sound of the kit with overhead(s) and using the close mics to beef up the transient, or the sound of the stick hitting the drum heads. Either of these methods are acceptable. The point is for you as the sound engineer to experiment with placement and find out what works best for you band and more importantly for your room and congregation. In a small sanctuary I have found that there is already getting quite a lot of the drum’s natural sound in the room and so I to use overhead microphones as a way to pick up a little more of the cymbals. Although, in a larger room you may find that using overhead mics is a great way to pick up the entire sound of the kit.
In keeping with the thought of experimenting with placement of microphones to find what works best for you, here are a practical starting places that I like to use.
- Kick Drum: Place the mic in the sound hole, aimed at a 45 degree off axis from the beater. Pointed between the batter head and the shell. The closer you aim at the kick beater, the mic click or attack you will get. If you point it closer to the shell, you will get more resonance. Sometimes you will see the kick mic right at the edge of the sound hole in the resonant head. There is a lot of air leaving the kick drum through this hole and this can make the mic sound a bit pillowy.
- Snare Drum: Place 2 fingers under to bottom of the microphone head, aimed at the center of the snare drum. The very front of the mic will be about an inch over rim of the snare. If you want a less attack and more ring put the mic higher and point if between center and closer to the rim.
- Toms: Place 2 fingers under to bottom of the microphone head, aimed between the center of the drum and the rim. Toms have a lot of resonance, starting closer to the edge than the center will help pick that up. If you want more stick attack point the mic closer to the center.
- Overheads: Face the drums from the front of the kit place 2 mics 4 feet above the snare, one mic to the right of the hihat and one mic to the left of the floor tom. Each mic should be the same distance away from the snare drum. This helps with making sure the snare phase coherent in both microphones.
These tips should get you up and running. Most of the time these will work well, but remember there are no hard and rules here. Use these as a guide to get you started.
In this day and age it’s very common to find a mixer for your church that has a lot of great features. This can be incredibly helpful, but it can also be a dangerous pitfall when the time comes to process the drums. Even the simplest of mixers will have EQ and panning. This is where I would recommend that new volunteers start when mixing drums. If you have taken the time to tune your drums and experimented with mic position then chances are you have reached much better starting point to put your EQ to use. Start slowly with small moves on your EQ. Boosting a mid band frequency 10db will increase harmonics above and below the central frequency that you have boosted. Listen to what the drums already sound like in the room and use your EQ to help it. A little goes a long way. If you find that you hate the sound of the drums in the room, then chances are no amount of EQ will fix that. I have found that EQ’ing drums works much better when you start with sounds that are already great without EQ. At this point it’s important to recognize whether or not EQ is hurting more than helping.
Once you have a pleasing drum sound that has been properly EQ’d you can move on to dynamics processing. Digital mixers like the Behringer X32 provide you with a myriad of options for dynamics processing. There are gates, compressors, expanders on every channel. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to touch on basic compression. Several years ago when I was new to live sound mixing in my church I had an 8 channel compressor. Whether I needed it or not, I used all 8 channels every week. I’m certain that now, 10 years later, listening to my early mixes would make me want to get up and leave church. I digress, here are couple of quick tips for getting started with a compressor.
- For Kick, Snare, and Toms: start with a slow attack. Faster attack times will kill the transient or initial hit of the drumstick or beater on the drum head.
- For Kick, Snare, and Toms: start with a moderate to fast release time. If your release is too slow the compressor won’t recover between drum hits.
- In a live setting and depending on how dynamic the drummer is I look for 3-6db of gain reduction. Too much compression can take away from the dynamic of the drummer’s performance and sound a bit unnatural.
- For Overhead mics capturing just cymbals I set the attack fast and the release medium. I want 1.5 to 3db of gain reduction usually. Just to tame the cymbals a bit for extra loud hits.
These are settings that I like. Remember there are no set rules here. Use your ears and practice. Mixing live drums is both a bit of science and art. Just like playing an instrument, mixing one takes practice. Repeat settings that you like and make changes to settings that you don’t like. Mixing drums can be challenging, but the more you practice the more you will improve and hearing yourself make improvements will be rewarding. Most importantly remember that whether you are paid or a volunteer at your church, your service and you mix if for the Lord first, and to serve your musicians and congregants second.