Tom-Tom Mics: Why Choose ‘A’ and Not ‘B’?

by David Morgan
in On the Digital Edge
Earthworks DP30/C ‘Drum Periscope’ mic on tom
Earthworks DP30/C ‘Drum Periscope’ mic on tom

While watching last week’s Chelsea Blues football (soccer) match, I received a phone call from an old friend and colleague, Tony Blanc. He had taken over the mixing duties at FOH for Cher, a former client of mine. I was pleased to hear that, as Tony is a terrific mixer and will do an excellent job with that show. Cher shows are great fun for a FOH person and my memories from the three years I mixed her shows at Caesars Colosseum in Las Vegas are all good. As a Cher alumnus, I was flattered that Tony chose to contact me. We hadn’t spoken in a while and our catching up discussion ended up stretching out well into the second half of the game. Sorry, Blues!

Our chat turned into a discussion regarding the various microphones one might choose to employ for tom-toms. In specific, Tony wanted to know which mics I had used on Nate Morton’s drum kit during that earlier Vegas run with Cher. I was happy to share with him that the drum mics were mostly products from Earthworks. Five DP30/C Drum Periscope series microphones were deployed on the toms. In addition, we used a DP25/C on snare top. From Earthworks Studio Reference line, we had SR25s on both hi-hats, another SR25 under the ride cymbal and two SR40s on overheads.

The 2009 through 2011 Cher shows in Las Vegas were my introduction to employing Earthworks products for drums. We had begun using the Earthworks PM40 system on the grand piano in 2008 while mixing the Bette Midler shows in the same venue at Caesars Palace. The extremely positive experience with these breakthrough piano mics gave me the confidence to experiment with more products from our friends in Milford, NH. Using these extremely fast, ultra-transparent microphones allowed us to create an open, realistic drum sound that worked extremely well in that particular venue, both on the stage and in the house mix.

Originally debuting in 1960, Sennheiser’s MD 421 still remains a popular choice on high-SPL sources.

Entering the Time Machine

The conversation with Tony got me thinking about the various mics I had used on toms, each with varying degrees of success, throughout my FOH mixing career. As did any other sound tech who started out in clubs, I first used whatever was around at the time — Shure Unidynes or Unispheres, various older Electro-Voice models, maybe a Radio Shack generic or two, and the odd lower-end AKG or Sennheiser products that one could find buried somewhere near the sound “console” at a club. If I was lucky in my search, and if there were enough inputs on the mixing board, I would try to have a mic for the kick, another mic splitting the snare and hi-hat and two mics creatively positioned between the toms and the cymbals. The mics were almost always dynamic models and typically in questionable condition.

As my mixing career progressed, I experienced the intense gratification that accompanies submitting an input list to a sound company and being able to use actual pro-quality mics. In the late-1970s, most live engineers were using either Shure SM57s or Sennheiser MD 421s on toms. By that era, mixing consoles for live audio had grown in both size and functionality enough to individually close-mic each tom. At the time, it seemed to be an incredible luxury and I had to learn how to manage as many as a dozen different mics on a single drum kit. The exposure to these higher-end products expanded my conceptions regarding live mixing.

The 57s had a warm, thick aspect that I really liked and I was able to adapt their sound to most applications, but the larger Sennheisers could really cut through a mix and jump right out when they needed to be very prominent in the mix. Sennheiser’s equivalent of the Shure SM57 was an unusual looking model called the MD 409. When I first went to out on the Doobie Brothers’ tour in 1978, the band was using these unique microphones for vocals. This square, black and gold mic had a characteristic sound that was somewhere between the SM57 and MD 421. I absolutely loved the sound of an original 409 on rack toms in combination with 421s on the floor toms. Sadly, Sennheiser ceased manufacturing the 409 in the early 1980s.

Each of these three mics shared a common trait. All were very large in size when compared to the tip of a drumstick. When extended out over the top skins, the heads of these mics became easy targets for random high-velocity impacts. Deep dents on the grille of a MD 421 often resulted in the severe restriction of the diaphragm assembly’s movement. This damage could vastly alter the frequency response. Strong stick impacts to the rear grille surface (the black side) of a MD 409 could easily explode the entire capsule assembly. Hitting a SM57 hard enough could dislodge the entire black plastic cowling that covers the mic engine. A subsequent hit could then easily destroy the now-unprotected diaphragm assembly. During those years, sound companies were forced to provide a constant flow of replacements for these road-wounded tom mics.

Condenser Alternatives

This wanton carnage stopped when Shure introduced the first great sounding mini-condenser microphone, the SM98. My friends at Shure, notably Harold Blumberg and Lee Habich, asked me to road test the prototypes of these revolutionary transducers. I was impressed with what I heard with them up on the toms of Brian Brake’s kit on Whitney Houston’s 1986 “Greatest Love” tour. In fact, I was so favorably enamored with this breakthrough product from Shure that I ended up doing the initial magazine print advertisement for the SM98 in 1986. The product was far from perfect; there were so many little parts involved for each mic and the clamps were cumbersome. However, the leap forward in audio quality made the added effort involved in deploying them definitely worth the extra time one invested in setup. The SM98 quickly became the industry-standard for tom miking in all live performance situations.

SM98s provided the big, fast, cannon-like tom sound so many of my fellow live sound mixers had been striving to achieve. Before the introduction of the SM98, the only alternatives among condenser mics were the large diaphragm products such as the AKG C414. Risking damage to high-end studio mics was something that nobody really wanted to consider. The SM98’s small size made it far less vulnerable to random stick blows, and the thick foam windscreen that covered the pattern modification assembly added an extra layer of protection. We used these revolutionary mics extensively and extremely successfully on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour in 1987. The results from that tour completely solidified my appreciation for these versatile and remarkable products from Shure.

Subsequent miniature models from Shure have shared the 98 nameplate but are vastly different designs than the original SM98 and SM98A. Beta 98 is built from a lavalier series engine and, to my ears, is better suited for brass or wind instruments than for drums. The newer Beta 98A series of miniature cardioid condenser mics is another 98-family product that’s new from the ground up. To me, it sounds far better to me for drum and percussion applications than its immediate predecessor. I’ve experienced very good results from using the Beta 98AMP models on toms. The original design SM98s remained my go-to choice for tom-toms for nearly 20 years.

Back to (Dynamic) Basics

Before I predominantly began using various Earthworks models, I achieved great results with a Sennheiser “evolution” Series product. The e904 mic is an excellent choice for producing a punchy rock sound from the toms. The strong low and low-mid frequency response yields a powerful big sound reminiscent of the much-sought-after original design MD 409s. The available rim gripping, shock mounted soft clip system makes tom miking a breeze. The excellent side rejection works very well in louder stage environments. Sennheiser has issued two retro-looking square mics in their evolution Series, the e609 and the e906, but the e904 is definitely the way to go for me. I am currently using those particular mics on tour doing stadium shows in South America to fatten up the drums in these very large venues.

I have also experienced extremely good results using the venerable beyerdynamic M201 as a tom mic. This oft-overlooked workhorse dynamic mic has a fantastic characteristic sound that’s perfect for drummers who have chosen a duller or softer tuning for their toms. The sound of these very high-quality dynamic mics is a bit brighter than their Sennheiser counterparts and the M201 helps add a bit of extra definition to the drums. In fact, people often mistake the M201 for a condenser mic because of its shape and extended high frequency response. And as it easily handles high SPLs, the M201 was also my first choice as an under-snare mic for many, many years.

Choice is a beautiful thing. Listen well and choose wisely.

Safe Travels!