How do I mic my hand drum?

I’ve been playing the doumbek for 13 years, and in that time, I have never found a satisfactory way to mic it. This has been a severe limitation on my musical endeavors. As a general rule, I play with musicians who amplify their instruments. Think electric guitars, often with effects and distortion. Lately, I’ve been playing with techno/house DJs.

Typically, I’ll use two mics – a top mic and a bottom mic. I do this because the doumbek has a wide range of sounds, from a high “ping” to a nice bass bounce. The top mic goes above the drum head, the bottom mic beneath the opening of the drum. This works for the most part, but I can only turn the volume up so far before it starts to feedback something fierce. Unfortunately, this maximum volume is usually a good deal lower than the other amplified instruments.

Another problem is that, when mic’ed, my drum sounds especially flat and lifeless. I don’t know how to describe it – it seems to lack tone, warmth, and depth. It sounds more like I’m trying to play on a tin can.

I’m open to any novel arrangement you can think of, provided that it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars. Think different kinds of microphones, pickups (?), mic positions, equalization strategies, effects processors, whatever. Please keep in mind that I am a layman as far as sound tech goes, and don’t really know anything about it. But I’m willing to learn!

That’s what I prefer to do.
Q. The doumbek is the same as a Darbuka?

For the top microphone, get it as close as possible to the skin and use a mic. that has low sensitivity - very close mic’ing can produce extreme sound levels and you need to capture the sound without overloading the microphone. When working as a live sound engineer, I’ve often wanted to try attaching a snare drum mic to a Darbuka so as to get it really close and in a fixed position relative to the skin, but have not yet found a Darbuka player that would let me do so, so I’ve always had to compromise with positioning the top mic as close as possible to the skin using a stand (and players always move) which limits how close it can get.

Some microphones to consider for the top mic. Microphones for Snare Drum – Thomann UK

I would look at pickups as a last (desperation) option. A contact mic type pickup can give you raw volume, but I’ve never been able to get a good sound from these on any sort of drum.

An alternative to using two microphones is to use one microphone placed inside the drum. The down side of this arrangement is that you (and the sound engineer) have considerably less scope for adjusting the sound, so it requires lots of experimentation to get the set-up right before getting into the heat of the gig. For this to work, placement in three dimensions is critical - closer to the skin for hand noise, closer to the wall for the higher frequencies, closer to the centre of the skin for more skin resonance, further from the skin for more body resonance. If you get it wrong, it will just howl with feedback.

Another arrangement that I’ve used with large Darbukas and seated players is a floor microphone. This might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but it is surprising the amount of sound and the crispness that can be achieved with this arrangement. I suspect that this arrangement will not be sufficiently loud for your needs, but if you use a large drum, and you are sitting, and the floor is hard (not carpeted), it is worth a try. If using a conventional stage microphone, attach it to a low stand (kick drum mic stands are ideal) and position the microphone head close, but not touching the floor, and pointing at the floor so as to catch the sound from the bottom of the drum as it reflects from the floor. I’ve used this method with much success where the the bottom edge of the drum (the edge away from the drummer) is resting on the floor and there is a gap between the bottom of the drum and the floor on the drummers side of the drum. The microphone is then placed under the drummers chair, pointing at the gap between the drum and the floor.

Phase reversal - some mixing desks are equipped with a phase reversal switch on each channel. This will not make much difference if the player is moving around a lot, but if you are staying relatively stationary it can make a significant improvement to the volume before feedback. If your mixing desk does not have a phase reversal switch, and if you are using a dynamic (rather than a condenser) microphone, it is easy to make a phase reversal switch for your microphone. Dynamic microphones will generally have three wires (one for each pin on an XLR plug). One wire is the shielding and the other two carry the (balanced) signal. A simple switch that reverses the two signal wires will reverse the phase (cross over pins 2 and 3). The “trick” here is to try the switch in both positions and see which position works best - the results vary on every occasion.

Gating and compression: Dynamic compression can add a lot more resonance to the sound - by limiting the peaks, the resonant timbres become far more prominent. However, this can also make the drum more susceptible to unwanted ringing, but that can be controlled by using a carefully adjusted gate. For the gate, the attack time will need to be very fast, and the release time needs to be slow enough to hear the drums “voice”, but short enough to prevent uncontrolled ringing. There’s an art to getting these set up right.

The “if all else fails and I’ll hate myself in the morning” solution:
Attach contact mics to the underside of the skin and use them to trigger drum samples - sorry - I apologies for such blasphemy.

A note about SM57’s - Many mixing desks have quite a high input impedance for the mic inputs which can make SM57s sound a bit dull - they sound much better into a low impedance (600 Ohm) input. If you are using an SM57 and have any choice about what it plugs into, go for a low impedance input.

And while you’re shifting your wiring around, I bet you resolve your “two-microphone sounds like a tin can” problem. Two microphones close to each other can sound really odd if their signals interfere with each other. “Honky, Rain Barrel.”

Is there a condition, any condition ever, when you get a perfect recording? Perfect tone and presentation exactly correct whether or not you’re playing with anybody else?



I know this thread is from years ago, but I have a follow-up question. The microphones I have available to me are: three SM 58’s (not 57), a Shure BG4.1, and a BG4.0. Is there a good way to mic a darbuka with any of those?

If you play the darbuka loudly, I’d not recommend the BG4’s for close mic’ing. SM58’s (an 57’s) are about as indestructible as a microphone can be, and can withstand huge SPLs (sound pressure levels), but this is not the case for condenser microphones. For “ambient” mic’ing, or “overhead” style mic’ing, the BG4’s may sound brighter and more “open” than the SM58.

A note as all these techniques fly by. You and probably the other drum people are miking the room as well as your instruments. Not so with the guitar folks. They’re picking up the vibration of the strings, not strictly acoustic.

The question still stands. Did you ever get a good recording, ever? Have you played outside on an open stage? If your only experience has been in a cramped roadhouse/pub/bar, then that may be your problem. The instant you get at all far away from your instrument, you’re miking the room behind you, the ceiling, floor, etc. That almost always sounds awful > muddy > echoey.