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Miking Jazz Drums Part Three – The Wrapup

We’ve discussed the unique demands of recording a jazz drum kit twice before (see Part 1 and Part 2). First we talked about the role that cymbals play in mainstream jazz and how that affects the balance you need to attain when miking the drums. Second, we talked about the fact that jazz drummers hear their entire drum kit – snare, kick, toms and cymbals – as a single, integrated instrument, rather than separate elements, which requires different approaches to panning and separation. We’ll wrap up with some elaboration on those points and some more specific mic placement suggestions.

Cymbals – Besides the cymbal-oriented approach we discussed in part 1, you need to be prepared for the fact that jazz drummers play with a great deal of dynamic diversity, inserting accents, barely audible ghost notes, striking a ride cymbal with the shoulder of the stick rather than the tip, and other techniques to extract the maximum tonal possibilities from the cymbal. This is the primary reason close-miking cymbals is risky – without significant use of compression, the dynamic range may be a problem. Yet with compression, the drummer’s musical personality may get squashed.

Toms and Kick – We mentioned that many jazz drummers use the “kick” drum more like an additional tom, using it for accents and fills rather than to define the pulse. Additionally, you’ll find most jazz kits have both top and bottom heads on the toms, and also two heads on the kick, usually with no sound hole or other venting. When combined with jazz players’ tendency to use fairly thin heads, this can result in more overtones (or “ringiness”) than you’d find with a pop/rock kit. Again, this makes close miking problematic. You might end up capturing unwanted overtones that either die away or blend nicely a few feet away from the drums.

The “Single Instrument” – Remember that this genre of music was born long before the era of multi-track recording and close miking. Jazz drummers usually think of their kits as an integrated instrument rather than a collection of layers. The best way to understand this sound is to have the drummer or ensemble play, stand a few feet in front of the drums and LISTEN. Even if the somewhat abstract rhythmic concept and constant interaction among cymbals and drums may be foreign to you, you need to accurately capture the drummer’s intent.

How to Mic? – Here are some options (and of course, your mileage may vary). For a true vintage – pre-stereo – sound, place a large-diaphragm condenser 3 or 4 feet in front of the entire kit. Set it at about ear level (your ears, as you stand in front of the drums), and point the capsule approximately between the drummer’s chest and ears. If the kick is too strong, tilt the mic up a bit. If the drums are “lost” in the cymbals, tilt it down.

Step up to stereo using overhead mics to cover the entire kit. You have some options here. Parallel cardioid mics pointed straight down will work (remember to apply the 3:1 rule). So will an X-Y stereo pair. Multi-talented drummer Steve Smith prefers a Shure VP88 – a stereo mic with an adjustable mid-side matrix that adjusts the degree of image separation. Start with the mics about three feet above the cymbals and adjust for a good balance of presence and ambience.

Now, if necessary, you can add a kick drum mic. Again, close miking is not your goal. In fact, a good starting point is to match the distance from the overhead mics to the nearest cymbal. With this combination of overheads plus kick, you’ve achieved a miking technique that served jazz recording for decades.

Budding recording engineers, are you infuriated yet? Well, close-miking jazz drums is an option but consider these words from an engineer who has recorded many jazz legends: “I always start with the overhead mics and then close-mic all the drums, but tuck the close mic sounds into the overhead mix.” In other words, use close mics only if the drums lack presence, and then only enough to catch a little attack.

“What About Bleed?” – Will this approach result in bleed? You bet! But remember that bleed is purely a result of studio multiple miking techniques. Before “bleed” there was “blend!” Here’s our New York engineer again, discussing a session with the legendary Roy Haynes: “All I did was place some gobos around him to keep the horns out of his mics, rather than try to keep him out of the other mics – the bleed of a great drummer like Roy Haynes is a part of the sound of a good jazz date.” That’s something to keep in mind.

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