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Djembe Mic Shootout

Page history last edited by Randy Coppinger 10 years, 11 months ago



On May 6, 2010 my friend and percussionist Austin Farmer (@drumfarmer) brought his djembe into the studio for a mic shootout. To help decouple the djembe from the floor and give me a little bit of room to sneak a mic underneath, we set the bottom rim on four pieces of foam.  It worked pretty well.  Austin and I decided that he would hit the center of the drum and let the low fundamental (71 Hz) ring out. Repeat. Then hit the edge of the drum where the pitch is higher and let that ring out. Repeat. Then play a pattern of low and high pitched hits to hear them together.


I had two goals.  I was being loaned a Woodpecker active ribbon from Blue Microphones and I wanted to hear how it would perform on percussion.  I also wanted to break out some of my lower cost mics including a bunch of used ones I bought on ebay.


Why djembe? Well I really like the way it sounds. I wanted to find out how these mics performed with fast transients, and djembe has fast transients. I wanted to find out how these mics performed across a wide frequency spectrum and djembe certainly offers that too.  And unlike a full rock drum kit, you can cover the instrument with just a couple of mics.  Well, you could cover a drum kit with a few mics, but most people don't. :)


I was taught to record djembe on top much the way one records congas or tom toms.  That mic was placed 16 inches (41cm) from the center of the drum with the mic near the outer edge pointing across to the center.  There is a lot of bass that resonates out from the bottom of the drum so another mic was placed there, 8 inches (20cm) from the underside rim.  Some mics were easier to place underneath than others but I tried to be as consistent as possible.  With all those fast transients I like to use some analog compression before the AD converter.  But for this shootout, I also wanted to be able to hear each mic before compression.  Luckily the Martech MSS-10 mic preamps I used have two sets of outputs, one before a line amp and one after. I patched the first out to compressors and the second out directly to the 192 IO and recorded all four tracks.  I also setup an omni moving coil mic for room and to more easily hear Austin when he wasn't playing.  Combined that was 5 tracks each pass.


The acquisition chain was: 

top mic > Martech MSS-10 > 192 IO analog in 1

bottom mic > Martech MSS-10 > 192 IO analog in 2

top mic > Martech MSS-10 > Purple MC77 > 192 IO analog in 3

bottom mic > Martech MSS-10 > Summit DCL-200 > 192 IO analog in 4

room mic > Focusrite Red 8 > 192 IO analog in 8


Blue Woodpecker (active ribbon, figure-8)

with AEA R-84 (ribbon, figure-8)

Audix F-10 (cardioid) top

and bottom

Audix i5 (cardioid)

with Audix D6 (cardioid)

Studio Projects LSD-2 (cardioid)

with M-Audio Sputnik (cardioid)

M-Audio Sputnik (cardioid)

with Studio Projects LSD-2 (cardioid)

Oktava MK219 (cardioid)

with Oktava MK319 (cardioid)

Oktava MK319 (cardioid)

with Oktava MK219 (cardioid)

Audio Technica AT 4050 (cardioid)

with Audio Technica AT 4047 (cardioid)

Audio Technica AT 4047 (cardioid)

with Audio Technica AT 4050 (cardioid)

AKG 451eb CK-1 (cardioid)

with Sennheiser 421 (cardioid)

Beyer m201 (hypercardioid)

with Electrovoice RE 20 (cardioid)

Audio Technica ATM250DE (dual element,

cardioid condenser, hypercardioid dynamic)

with Shure SM7B (cardioid)


What you can hear on the SoundCloud player is the raw top mic, the raw bottom mic, then a mix of the two compression tracks.  BEWARE!  If you listen on underpowered amps/speakers (like my M-Audio AV 20s), you can very quickly clip the output.


Djembe Mic Shootout by Audio Superfreak

Click the down arrow on the right side of the SoundCloud player to download the full 24bit, 48k, WAV.

For all separate tracks (and a ProTools session) download here!


Overall Observations


The compressors were really spanking the signals!  Why bother with analog compression?  Two reasons: (1) Some argue that the finest details of fast transients are diminished in the process of digital conversion, so really fast analog compressors get better results when used before digitization, and (2) I like to present the AD converter with an "optimized" sound (similar to how engineers used to record to tape) because it gives the converter the best opportunity to capture the essence of what I'm recording.


The MC77 worked so well for the top mic and the Bomb Factory 1176 plug seemed to work well too. There is significant variation in peak levels on a dynamic instrument like this and compression really brings the instrument to life by helping to manage those fast transients. Now the dynamic mics (including the ribbons) had a compression-like quality to them, which is why dynamic mics are a popular choice for percussion. While they are more even, they are not as well mannered as any of the compression tracks. I really like some of the top end detail from a few of the condenser mics, so I lean toward those with compression.  Newbies/amateurs may get better results with dynamic mics though, especially if the only peak meters one has are in software.


I have to admit, most of the bottom mics should have sounded better. Not to fault the mics, but to fault me and my mic placement. Very few mics are going to sound good that close to the ground. You can hear a lot of comb filtering from the floor reflection.  As one would suspect, the hypercardioid mics and figure-8 mics did fairly well because they were basically dead-sided to the ground. So my advice to anyone recording djembe who wants a mic underneath: take care positioning the player; get as high off the ground as you can. If you are within less than a foot to the ground, choose a highly directional mic and place it carefully, listening for comb filtering.


Individual Mics


AEA R-84: The ribbon mics sounded different. I like different. If I had not been demo-ing the Woodpecker it would not have been my instinct to try either of the ribbons. But I'm glad I did. The R-84 had an interesting concussion sound on the big hits that reminded me of the way an explosion sounds. It didn't sound "real" to me, but it was fun, and different than the "thwack" most of the moving coil mics rendered on the big hits. I thought the R-84 sounded good underneath, although there is a lot of air turbulence down there which is really bad for ribbons, so I might not actually want to use it underneath on a regular basis. If nothing else, using the R-84 underneath made me realize that a fig-8 or hypercardioid pattern would be helpful for minimizing reflection off the floor.


Blue Woodpecker: This mic has a very high output, generated by the active electronics inside the mic. In my Acoustic Guitar Shootout I discovered the noise floor of the amplifier. That got me to thinking, is there a distortion ceiling? As near as I can tell, that fuzzy sound when the Woodpecker was placed under the djembe is exactly that: distortion of the active electronics. Now it's possible that what we are hearing is hyper-extension of the ribbon element, the kind that damages ribbon mics. But the mic didn't sound any worse for the wear after these recordings, so I suspect it's the electronics clipping. I did not hear any distortion when I used the Woodpecker on top though, either because it handled the sound well or because the peaks are so fast that the distortion isn't significantly audible. And I really liked the way it sounded on top. It had some of the same "concussion" on big hits that the R-84 did, but had better presence. I probably wouldn't want to use the Woodpecker on top if I didn't have another mic to help fill out the low end.  Conversely, the Woodpecker makes a great top mic in conjunction with a mic underneath.


Audix F10: I didn't realize until recently that Audix has discontinued this cheap little mic. I bought 3 of them on ebay really cheap. They were marketed for percussion (among other things) and have a very hyped frequency response. Honestly, I expected them to sound less realistic than they did. There isn't a lot going on in the mid-range, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on what else was going on in a mix.  I think the unique sound of these mics might help distinguish percussion in a busy track.  The fast transients were very well behaved and the low end sounded good too, making the F10 easy to record. I was also surprised how little floor reflection I heard from this mic, which is weird because the "cardioid" pattern is really inconsistent across the frequency spectrum. In summary, not the best sounding mic for a track featuring exposed djembe.  But bang for your buck a nice little choice, easy to record and potential "different color" to help in a busy mix.


Audix i5: Marketed as "better than a 57", I don't often reach for this mic. For one thing, I kinda like 57s and I don't often find this mic better. But I thought it sounded really great above the djembe, with a surprising amount of detail, decent mids and respectable low end. If I had only one mic/track for djembe in a busy mix I'd be tempted to use the i5 on top. Not that this mic is going to rumble any subwoofers all by itself, but there was enough low end to hear djembe as opposed to conga.


Audix D6: This is one of my Go To mics for rock kick drum. But I thought it sucked underneath the djembe.  Now that may have everything to do with mic placement and I will take as much blame for how crappy it sounded as I hurl at the mic. I really expected the D6 to fill out the bottom, especially down in subwoofer range.  Instead, it sounded like a little toy drum.  I might try D6 again with different placement under a djembe, but I doubt it. And I suspect the i5 would have sounded much better in the mix with a different mic underneath.


Studio Projects LSD-2: Basically this is a C3 (the multi-pattern version of a C1) with two capsules, designed to be used for coincident stereo. And since I used it in cardioid, it kinda covers the whole "C" class by Studio Projects.  These mics are really cheap.  And like many cheap mics, the pattern is highly irregular across the frequency spectrum. This is an especially big deal for coincident stereo! And in other applications the C mics by Studio Projects can have that harsh top end we expect from low cost Chinese mics. But for djembe this mic sounded quite good. I especially liked the low end when this was underneath. On top I seemed to be hearing a lot of upper mids, but the top end and low end weren't missing per say, just slightly less noticeable. I continue to recommend the C1 / C3 / LSD-2 as a good first mic for hobbyists on a budget.  Even if you can afford better mics over time, this one still proves useful, as demonstrated here.


M-Audio Sputnik: To be fair, I accidentally left the low rolloff engaged when I used this tube mic underneath. So the "honk" we hear could simply be a really steep rolloff that kept the mic from sounding better.  On top, the Sputnik sounded real and organic to me. And this was the most well behaved condenser in the bunch, which would make recording djembe easier for someone who wouldn't / couldn't manage fast peaks. It had a nice balance across the spectrum and would be a good choice on top along with a bass supplement underneath.


Oktava MK219: This is a surprisingly dark condenser. Both Oktavas show up on ebay frequently and they tend to be cheap. This early model seems to have been replaced by the newer MK319. The manufacture of older Oktavas like this one was spotty, so no two of them sound quite the same. And while this mic has a veiled sound more remniscent of a moving coil mic, it does have not that thick smack of a dynamic. So if you ever need your djembe (or any other percussion) to sound dark, the MK219 might make a good choice on top. Underneath I heard more upper bass and would have preferred it sound deeper.


Oktava MK319: This mic and the MK219 both have irregular patterns, making them tricky to dead-side. That was more of an issue near the floor than on top. The MK319 was more open and had some hefty bass over the djembe. It sounded pretty good underneath too. It didn't sound all that natural on djembe, nor would I expect it to cut well in a busy mix. So while this mic doesn't have a lo recommend for this application, it would get the job done in a pinch. And because this mic has a peculiar sound, it could help distinguish djembe from otherwise similar instruments in a mix.


Audio Technica AT 4050: This is one of my all-time favorite under $1,000 condenser mics. It's a great general purpose mic and is a stand out on djembe. I love the overhead detail that lets us hear the snap of hand against drum head and the bass is nice and full above or below. There is an odd hollowness underneath that probably could have been improved by moving the mic or switching the pattern. It sounded good with the 4047 underneath, but I suspect the overall mix would be even better if the 4050 was over with a 421 underneath.


Audio Technica AT 4047: This is another cost effective mic and a great utility piece that adds some nice "color" to a mic cabinet. Compared to the 4050 the bass is much tighter and there is less detail in the high frequencies, but it still sounds natural. For a really aggressive part (or player) this mic could tame the extremes a bit while keeping all of the mid-range energy. I didn't like this mic underneath all that much, but it did a respectable job and was certainly usable.


AKG 451eb CK-1: This was the most articulate mic of the bunch. It seemed like I could hear each finger and part of the had hit the top separately. All of that detail forced me to watch my levels closely.  The "eb" designation on this mic stands for Extra Bass, for a full and rich sounding djembe even without a mic underneath. I'm told the AKG re-issue of this mic, the 451b, doesn't hold a candle to the original. I love my 451eb with the CK-1 capsule for percussion and this recording is proof that it's a great choice for djembe.


Sennheiser 421: My studio mentors always used a 421 underneath a djembe. And no wonder: it sounds good in this application. Despite the crazy irregularities in the pickup pattern (or maybe because of it) the low end really rings out nicely.  This mic can handle SIGNIFICANT sound pressure, so I have no reluctance shoving it up inside the drum.  I think it would sound even better with a different mic placement than what I used here.  This confirms 421 as my first choice mic under djembe.


Beyer m201: This is another mic that asks to be used on percussion. The m201 has surprising detail, like the i5, but the m201 seems more balanced and realistic sounding. It still has that moving coil "thwack", but probably the most natural sounding version of it. The low end is tight but well represented. Like the i5, if I had only 1 mic/channel for djembe this would be a good choice.  All the better with some deep bass support from another mic underneath. And while this mic can handle major sound pressure, it has the lowest output of all the mics in this shootout. Not a problem for djembe, but it might limit your ability to use this rugged, well balanced workhorse to mostly loud sources.


Electrovoice RE 20: Another classic mic that tends to be used for sources with lots of bass, the RE20 had a big, full sound. This mic is kinda bulky and holds a pretty consistent cardioid pattern, both of which made it more difficult to use underneath than some other mics. But I'd be glad to have an RE20 underneath djembe. A fine choice.


AudioTechnica ATM250DE: This is a secret weapon for percussion. To get the best of both sounds -- condenser and moving coil -- Audio Technica built both elements into the same housing, right next to each other, minimizing timing differences between them. So if you point them at the same source, such as our djembe here, you can blend as much of one against the other without fear of comb filtering. Now because I only had one channel of MC77, I chose not to compress either element but record straight into ProTools. Then I used the Bomb Factory 1176 plugin to give them the same flavor of treatment and then I blended the two. This mix is my favorite because you can hear all of the high frequency detail from the condenser element with some great smack and tone from the dynamic element. There is also some decent low end from both elements, but nothing crazy, so I was glad to have a third mic underneath to fill that out. For any project where percussion is featured, this dual element system is a great choice (assuming you have that extra channel).


Shure SM7B: I expected this one to sound similar to the 421 and RE20, but in comparison I think the low end isn't as glorious. It seems better damped, meaning that the mic stops vibrating when the drum does instead of ringing out the way the other mics did. It sounds more organic but still conveys the weight of a log drum. The SM7B would be a good choice underneath if the top mic is thin (or just tight), the percussion is exposed and the djembe needs to sound very realistic. And like the RE20, this mic is kinda bulky.



Well if you read everything on this page, you must be really into mics, or djembe, or both. Even for those who just scanned for interesting tidbits, thanks for checking it out. I'd love the opportunity to improve this by hearing back from you. Let me know what you think, please.


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