Editors Note: This is the first in a series of educational articles from Mike Sessler on micing percussion instruments. You can read about Mike’s background at the bottom of this article.
Chasing the Holy Grail
Getting a great live snare sound sometimes feels like chasing after the Holy Grail. And if you ask 10 FOH engineers how to go about it, you’ll get 11 answers. The truth is, there is no one way to mic a snare. How you go about it, which mic’s you choose and where you place them will all depend on a variety of factors.
The first factor is the snare itself. A 12” maple snare will sound quite different from a 14” aluminum one. Some snares are dark and full-bodied, others sound like gunshots, while others sound like metal trash can lids. You will select your mic to either highlight or mitigate those properties, depending on the style of music.
Popular music calls for a forward and powerful snare sound, while jazz works favors a smoother, laid back sound. Finally, you will have to adjust your snare strategy based on the musician. Some drummers attempt to put the stick through the snare head every hit, while others are far more controlled. Some are consistent, others get a different sound and volume with each crack of the stick.
Choosing a Mic
While not an absolute rule, the majority of mic choices for snare are dynamic. The reason for this is simple; SPL handling capacity. The snare is a pretty loud instrument (and if you don’t believe me, stand next to a drummer for a few minutes). When a mic diaphragm is set just a few inches away from all that SPL, it needs to be able to handle it without distortion—or splitting in two.
There are many popular choices for snare mic’s, and a quick search online will turn up a dozen options. Don’t be afraid to try ones that aren’t marketed as snare mic’s, either. Often, the best sounds come from unusual choices.
Some engineers pay a lot more attention to mic selection than others. I know some who will use whatever mic is in the locker and “fix it with EQ or plugins.” That’s one approach to take. I would argue that you can get a much cleaner sound by matching the mic to the snare, musician and musical style.
My rational for this is simple; phase. Once you start adding all kinds of EQ and plug-ins to the signal chain, the phase starts to shift around. Remember, phase is time and the snare is an instrument of time. Messing with the phase will mess with the sound and make it harder to fit the snare into the rest of the drum kit.
Over the years, I’ve found that making a good mic choice makes my job at FOH a lot easier, so I am careful with my mic choice.
Placing the Mic
Again, there are no hard and fast rules here. Some like to point the mic across the top of the snare. Others will point it straight down toward the rim. Still others point toward the center of the drum and some will shoot for a point halfway between the center and the edge. Each positioning will emphasize certain frequencies while de-emphasizing others. What you want to bring forward will depend all many of the factors mentioned above—the drum, drummer and style of music.
As the position of the mic moves from pointing to the center to the edge, the sound will often get brighter. If you find your snare is sounding a bit dull and not cutting through the mix enough, you can point down closer to the edge. If it’s cutting too much and taking over, move it more towards the center. It’s amazing how small differences in placement will make large changes in the sound. So before you reach for the EQ or fancy plugin, try a few different positions with the channel flat.
Another consideration is whether to use one mic or two on the snare. Some engineers are adamant about using one on top and another on the bottom, while others use nothing but a top mic. It’s hard to argue that one is better than the other, especially when you look at the big name engineers who use both techniques. Which you choose will come down to the sound you’re trying to achieve (and the channel count of your console).
When you’re using two mic’s (one on top, one on the bottom) the top mic will provide the crack and the body. The bottom mic will give you the buzz of the snares. In proper balance, this sounds great. I’ve used both methods and lately have gravitated toward a single top mic. Then again, I’m about to start experimenting with mixing in a bottom mic.
I recently changed my top mic choice and I want to see how a bottom mic will round out the sound. And this is one of the most fun things about mic’ing drums; there is always something else to try.
Keep it in Phase
Keeping the mic’s in phase is important with most sound sources, but it’s critical with drums. Because the impulse of the snare is so short in duration, it doesn’t take much in the way of time variations to screw up the sound. Remember, phase is time, and if you’re out of phase, you’re out of time.
If you’re using a top and bottom mic on the snare, you will likely flip the polarity switch for the bottom mic. Try to keep the diaphragms in the same plane, and coincident to the heads to cut phase interactions. You may find you have to add a tiny bit of delay to one or the other mic’s to keep things sounding fine.
It’s easy to tell if there is phase problem; solo up the top mic, then add the soloed channel of the bottom mic and listen to the combined sound. If the snare immediately thins out and sounds worse, you have a phase problem. Again, fix that before you go reaching for the EQ knobs.
Good Choices Make Great Sounds
I often tell my kids when they’re heading out, “Make good choices!” This admonition applies to drum mic’s. Good choices—mic, positioning and phase alignment—will give you a great snare sound. All this before you add EQ or plugins. If you get it right at the source, the rest of your job is a lot easier.
About Mike Sessler
Mike Sessler started Church Tech Arts in 2007. The website provides quality articles on sound, lighting and
video applications for the house of worship industries.
Mike has written over 1,500 articles that have been read widely across the world. Mike works as a Project Manager for AVL Projects at Visioneering Studios in Irvine, CA.
For 20 years Mike has also been active as a technical arts director for a variety of churches. We are thrilled to provide this first, in a series of articles on live sound techniques from Mike.
If you would like to contact him directly, click here to send him an email.