Cymbals can be a tricky thing to successfully mic to achieve the desired results. They can often sound harsh or “brassy.” But don’t despair, there are a number of ways to mic up cymbals and get a nice sizzle without them overpowering the other elements of your mix.
First, I’m going to illustrate what I feel is the best way to mic cymbals for their most accurate representation. The way I do this is by putting two matched small diaphragm condenser mics in a Blumlein array* about 2 feet above the drummers head. The idea of placing the mics there is that they should pretty closely portray what the drummers themselves hear so if he/she’s balancing themselves properly then the mics should capture that.
The mics are at about a 45 degree angle aimed right at the center of the line created by the cymbals above the drumkit. I usually get lucky and find that they end up pointing right at the main crash cymbals on the right and left. Obviously the left facing mic will pick up a good bit of the hi-hat which is fine and the right mic will also pick up a good bit of the ride. Obviously other elements of the kit will show up in those mics as well and to me, that’s just fine too. In fact, I get a good bit of my overall kit sound from those mics.
I soundcheck the drumkit by first bringing up these two overheads to get a feel for how the kit really sounds. Due to the modern demands of today’s concert audiences I usually end up putting a pretty serious high-pass filter on these mics as well as a strong cut at around 400-460Hz. I then bring in all the other elements one at a time to fill in the kit. Again, hopefully you end up with a close approximation to what the drummer hears which is ideally a nice balance of all the kit’s elements.
The second most common method I use is one I utilize when a drummer may not feel comfortable with a pair of mics above his head and/or it’s not physically possible for some reason. In a case like this I’ll use “under-heads” which are mics placed under the cymbals facing up. It’s almost impossible to use a Blumlein array in a situation like this so I end up placing the mics in a pretty typical L/R outer array with the mics about 8” away from the lowest cymbal.
The one drawback with “underheads” is that you can sometimes get some phase irregularities but a few inches to one side almost always clears that right up. Another reason I’m a fan of “underheads” is that I really dislike the look of two big, ugly tripod boom stands hovering over both sides of a drum kit. To me it just ruins the look of the kit and takes away from the whole vibe. I find that the single stand directly over the drummer is far less intrusive and that “underheads” are practically invisible which is even better!
No discussion of cymbals would be complete without talking about the ride and hi-hat. I’ve found that even though I get a good overall sound from the over or underheads I will often still need to “spot” mic the ride and hat. For the ride I’ll put an SDC (often a Sennheiser e614) facing directly down about halfway between the bell and the rim, about 8” off the cymbal.
My technique for the hi hat is similar though I find I often need to angle the hat mic a good bit off axis to soften the hat’s sound a bit. Facing straight at the hatusually makes for too harsh and brittle a sound.
The one thing to remember when micing cymbals is to simply not get too close. If they’re sounding too bright or metallic try moving the mics back a bit, a few inches make a huge difference. Likewise where you aim the mics is very important so take care to point ‘em where they sound best! Cymbals rarely need high end EQ added to them but as I said earlier I find they often need a good filter and some subtractive EQ but take care not to overdo it, a little goes a long way with EQ for sure.
Again, as usual, try different placements, EQs and methods and see what works for you. There are no rules!