We took three drum mic packages into the studio for a live showdown.
Although most engineers will tell you they select microphones based on the type of instrument or the tonal quality of a particular instrument, we all have a trusted set of “go to” mics when it comes to recording drums. In the last few years, many microphone manufacturers have grouped sets of drum mics into affordable, easy-to-use packages for both the studio and live performances. This month we put three sets of drum mic packages through their paces to test what kind of performance you can expect.
To focus on each mic’s tonal qualities, transient response, and overall sound, we opted to forgo using any overhead mics for the evaluation sessions. Although you would rarely, if ever, record kick, snare and toms without overhead mics, we wanted to avoid having any contribution from condenser overheads to better hear the nuances between these various dynamic mics.
The Audix DP-5A arrived with five Audix dynamic mics. The D6, which is designed for kick drum, the i5 which is recommended for snare, two D2s for rack toms and a D4 for the floor tom. Shure’s PGD Mk 4 package included the PG 52 kick drum mic, and three PG 56 mics, suitable for snare or toms, along with four XLR mic cables. Shure offers a number of other drum mic packages but this is their least expensive, and it would appear to be a good choice for a home or project studio on a budget. Sennheiser does not have a complete package, but offers a 3-pack of its Evolution e 604 dynamic mics, so we added their Evolution e 902 kick drum mic to complete the package.
Both the Audix and the Shure packages ship in very convenient and rugged road cases, making either ideal for use in the studio or on the road. The Sennheiser mics came with soft zipper bags. All three packages included easy-to-use, snap-on drum clips, designed to attach to a drum’s upper rim. These clips made positioning the mics on toms very easy, eliminating the need for the inevitable struggle to squeeze boom stands on the toms underneath a drummer’s cymbals. (More on these clips later.)
Shure’s PGD Mk 4 has a street price of $250, the Sennheiser e 604 3-pack plus the e 902 kick mic street for $540, and the Audix DP-5A package (which has one more mic than the others) comes in at $660. It should be noted that in addition to providing good options for drum recording, all these dynamic mics have many other uses in a typical studio, so whichever package one purchased, their every day use would extend beyond micing drums.
Bang on the Drum
For testing, local drummer Ian Keighley brought in an all-wood kit that he had collected over the years and has used often in the studio. It consisted of a birch Pearl Master Studio 22” bass drum, Ludwig 70’s-era pink champagne maple toms, and a Mapex 6.5” Deep Forest wooden snare. We decided to start the night off by recording just the bass drum using the various kick drum mics, all placed in an identical position, about 16” in front of the resonant (outer) head, and just a bit off axis from the hole in the front head. We selected that position based on where our ear picked up a rich deep fundamental tone, along with enough snap from the beater striking the batter (rear) head. All recordings were done flat with no signal processing.
Our listening panel was made up of myself, regular PSE contributor Jeff Crawford, and a third local engineer, Phil Johnson. The Shure PG 52 was our first mic. After damping the toms to minimize sympathetic vibrations and turning off his snares, Ian started out by playing whole notes with plenty of space between them so we could clearly hear the attack and decay each mic delivered. Later, he played faster, syncopated patterns typical of an up tempo rock tune. Rather than take time to evaluate the PG 52’s sound, we jumped ahead to the Sennheiser Evolution e 902.
Right away we noticed some fundamental differences between the two, especially the brightness and attack that the e 902 emphasized. Last up was the Audix D6, which seemed to have a sound somewhere between the other two kick drum mics. After we had recorded another similar kick drum performance, we sat back and rally started closely comparing what we heard.
Three Flavors of Kick
The Shure PG 52 delivered a fairly rich, smooth tone that was described by the panel immediately as being “dependable…a typical sound you hear on plenty of records.” Jeff mentioned that it likely wouldn’t stand out in a mix on its own, which often can be a plus, depending on the type of music you are recording.
“It’s got a little bit of a ‘poofy’ sound, which would be perfect for a jazz date,” Jeff also offered. “For a rock date, I’d simply add a touch of EQ to bring out the attack of the beater a bit more.” Phil and I agreed that it had adequate low-and mid-frequency response, when we compared it to the sound of the kick in the room itself. Overall, the PG 52 delivered solid low end performance.
The sound of the Sennheiser e 902 was a radical departure from the 52. As we were setting levels, comments started noting the vastly different sound that it was reproducing. This mic was much brighter and emphasized the snap of the beater on the drum head. This lent
the 902 a great deal of clarity as our drummer began playing more double-hits and fast syncopated patterns on the kick drum. Every single attack was well-defined. “This mic would be my first choice for a metal band, as it would cut through a very thick mix with ease,” suggested Jeff. Phil, too, commented on the “very crisp top end, and plenty of bottom.”
Finally, we fired up the Audix D6 and the panel discovered that as advertised, it delivered lots of bottom end, but a pleasing amount of snap and crispness, although not as much as the e 902. The sound seemed a tad smaller than the 902, but the panel felt that this made it a good overall choice. The panel felt the D6 had a punchier sound than the PG 52, but not as much top end as the 902, making it a good
middle of the road choice amongst these three kick mics. Jeff added, “For me, I always prefer to have more to work with than less, since I believe you end up with a better overall sound by using subtractive, rather than additive EQ. If I had to choose only one of these kick mics, I’d go with the 902.”
Bring on the Rest of the Drums
Now we put the various mic packages through their paces, using a snare mic and one mic each on the rack and floor toms. We used the supplied drum clips on the toms, but opted to use a boom mic so we could vary the position over the snare drum’s top head for the best response. All three of the drum clips supplied worked like a charm. We gave a slight edge to Audix’s innovative D-Vice, because its mini-gooseneck allowed for more precise placement, raising and lowering the mic’s height and easy swiveling. The other two clips allowed basic adjustments and worked fine on the toms.
Make sure to tighten up all the various adjustments, since as Ian was pounding on his floor tom, the D-vice started to rotate, eventually aiming our mic away from the drum head since we hadn’t cinched it down enough! Once that was remedied, we centered the kick and snare in the stereo sound field and panned the two toms hard left and right, tracked about 3 minutes of straight ahead grooves, the settled in to evaluate each package.
Once again, we led off with the Shure products.The three PG 56s delivered a nice overall sound from Ian’s kit. The panel described the snare as having “plenty of snap, pretty much the expected sound that a good dynamic delivers.” The toms had “that classic 70’s tom sound, good attack and a smooth decay.” Interestingly, now that we were recording with four mics, the kick sound opened up a bit more than the earlier recording made using just the PG 52. The leakage we were picking up in the PG 56s provided some added depth and spatial information that enhanced the kick’s sound in the overall mix.
When we switched over to the Sennheiser package, we found the 604s to be very easy to place, due to their small size. The 902 delivered a full, bright kick sound, but the mic also picked up plenty of the top end of the snare, making it sound even brighter. The panel “loved the sound of the toms” using the 604s. They described the 604’s sound on the toms as “beefy, with a gutsy punch and plenty of attack.” Interestingly, the only drum that didn’t fare well using the 604 was the snare. The panel characterized it as “a bit brittle and lacking a solid middle.” We ran out to hear the snare on its own and sure enough it did have a full, rich tone which we didn’t hear coming through clearly using the 604 placed a few inches over the top head, in the same place that the PG 52 delivered a very usable snare sound. Overall, the panel agreed, “If I was working with a thick mix, these mics would make it easy to hear the kick and toms.”
Finally, we switched to the Audix package, which offered the i5 for snare, the D2 for rack tom, and D4 for the floor tom. The D2 and D4 are both hypercardioid mics, so the rejection of off axis sound is a little greater than the 604 and PG 56, which are both standard cardioids. Audix designed the D4 as a versatile mic that is at home on percussion, acoustic bass, bass cabinets, floor toms and small kick drums. As we set levels, one of the first things we noticed was that the snare had much more attack, and very crisp, precise transient response, more so than either of the other mics tested. It also provided a sonic image that was closest to the actual sound of the snare drum itself. Jeff felt that, “The toms are also the most natural sounding of the three set ups we tried. The Audix package delivers a very cohesive, balanced overall sound for this particular drum set.” Phil added that “the D6 sound blends perfectly with the rest of the kit. We’re hearing a nice attack with a full, rich lows.”
Is There a Winner?
Based on overall sound quality of the entire package, the Audix DP-5A outperformed the others in terms of delivering the most natural, balanced sound. It is also the most expensive of the three packages tested. For sheer value, the Shure PGD Mk 4 offered a good starter drum micing system with drum clips and 4 XLR cables at a price that is a real steal. As mentioned, for a home or project studio starting out, its value can’t be beat.
The Sennheiser package, which we made up for this evaluation, was the most intriguing of the three systems tested. The e 902 kick mic would make a fabulous addition to the mic collection of anyone recording high energy music such as metal, fusion, and many styles of denser pop/punk. It offered an astounding degree of clarity and very accurate transient response, so even for straight ahead rock dates, one could easily taper the high end response to taste with some minimal EQ as the panel suggested. The 604s delivered the gutsiest tom sound of all three systems tested, but didn’t deliver a snare sound comparable to either of the other mics in this evaluation.
Jeff offered some final thoughts on selecting drum mics for recording a drum kit. “I don’t judge individual mics by themselves; instead I listen to their contribution to the overall mic array I’ll use on a drum kit.” Everyone also agreed it’s vital to budget enough time to discover the best mic placement for each drum. Conversation wound up with some friendly banter that the drum sound still had to be married to the rest of the ensemble and ultimately, particular instrument mic choices must serve the overall sonic image that an artist is attempting to achieve. Regardless of the theory, in practice, each of these mic packages offers good performance and value, which ultimately aids an engineer in doing his or her job to the best of their ability.
Shure PGD Mk4 Drum Package
Shure Application Guide for Micing Drums
Sennheiser e 902 spec sheet
Sennheiser e 604 spec sheet
Audix D6 spec sheet
Audix D4 spec sheet
Audix D2 spec sheet
Audix i5 spec sheet
Special thanks to the staff at Audix, Sennheiser and Shure for providing the mics for this month’s test sessions.
In his thirty-plus years working in the music business, Keith Hatschek has been a musician, educator, recording engineer, producer and marketing exec. He currently teaches Music Management at the University of the Pacific, where he recently helped install a Pro Tools HD recording studio as part of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. He’s the author of The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry.