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Tracking Killer Drums with an Avid Mbox

December 1, 2010
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BY GINO ROBAIR

With only two mic inputs, the Avid Mbox, like other 2-channel interfaces, presents a challenge when it comes to tracking drums. However, with a little experimentation and an open mind, it’s not difficult to get a solid drum sound with only two transducers, a decent room, and some compression. Sure, you could pre-mix several mics to a stereo pair using a mixer. But there a number of options when you want to keep things simple.

(Although you’re using only two microphones, be sure to check that they are in phase by centering their pan position, and listening for any peaks or dips in the frequency spectrum when you pull up both faders.)

Mic Choices
One issue to address when choosing mics for the Mbox is that the preamps offer less than 60dB of gain, making it difficult to get a good record level with some dynamic mics, and ribbons in particular. And because both channels get phantom power at the same time, you cannot combine a ribbon and a condenser mic without some help: The Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter boosts dynamic and ribbon mics by 20dB while matching their impedance needs, without passing the +48V to the mics themselves; the phantom-powered Røde D-Power Plug is a single-channel way to increase a dynamic mic’s output by 20dB.

Kick and Snare
If the song is based on a solid backbeat, simply miking the kick and snare can work wonders. The trick is to place the snare mic in such a way that you capture the right amount of hi-hat for the track. Typically, this setup doesn’t yield pronounced cymbal and tom sounds, which might not be an issue for some songs. However, a clever arrangement of the drum part will allow you to overdub accents and fills using a different mic placement.

Overhead and Kick Drum
It worked for Ringo, and it might work for you. The early Beatles recordings placed either a dynamic or ribbon mic facing down over the drums, with a dynamic or ribbon pointed at the bass drum. With this setup, you need to find the position where the overhead mic gives you a good balance of snare, hihat, toms, and cymbals. The kick drum mic should be placed where it yields the right amount of punch and tone for the song.

Overhead and Room Mic
This setup has many variations, depending on what you want to achieve. Place one mic above the drummer’s head as before, then use the second mic to get the listener’s perspective of the full kit, rather than just an isolated bass-drum sound. Often, placing the room mic a few feet in front of the kit at knee level, pointing between the kick and hi-hat, will give you a punchy sound that has the various instruments properly balanced. The distance between the front mic and drums will determine the amount of room sound you capture. Again, be sure to check for phase issues between the two mics before you hit the Record button.

Stereo Overhead: Drummer’s Perspective
Good drummers balance the sounds of their kit as they play, so why not take advantage of what they’re hearing? Place a stereo pair of cardioid condensers above and slightly behind the drummer’s head, pointing down at the drums. The goal is to get the right balance of drums and cymbals. Consequently, mic selection and position are important: If the pickup pattern of the mics is too wide, the cymbals may overpower the drums.

Although placing the mics in an X/Y pattern offers a familiar stereo image, experiment with either a spaced pair or an ORTF configuration if you’re not happy with the balance between drums and cymbals. The height of the mics above the drums, as well as their distance from the ceiling, also play a role in how successful this setup is, so be sure to take those elements into consideration.

Stereo: Audience Perspective
You can explore the same stereo configurations with the mics set up in front of the drum kit in order to capture more of a concert sound. The issue here is getting a punchy enough kick drum sound, so be sure to listen for low-end timbres as you look for the best place to set up the mics. Often, setting them up between knee and chest level will provide the most satisfying balance between cymbals, snare, and kick.

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