Drums: To Shield or Not To Shield?
This is always an interesting topic to tackle because there are merits to both sides of the story. Most musicians don’t love the vibe of the drummer sitting in an iso-booth and audio engineers detest the house mix being at the mercy of live drums—but it’s a worthy cause nonetheless, and deserves proper thought and discussion. This is by no means a recommendation for what you, your auditorium, and your band should adopt outright—merely my thoughts and experiences from our travails and where we’ve currently landed at...
Our original stage was built with a fully enclosed drum room complete with carpet, sound absorption panels, and a dedicated air system. It was truly an audio engineer’s dream but not very usable from a creative or lighting standpoint. Even though we have a large auditorium, once the drums were brought out of this controlled environment, numerous negatives were brought to the table.
Fast-forward a bit to a few years ago when we started changing the musical style with more focus being put on the drums, guitars, lighting, and design. Although it would’ve sounded awesome to isolate the drums again back in their dedicated room, it still wouldn’t have worked from a creative or design standpoint, let alone the vibe and energy it would rob from the band. We knew that just shielding the drums wasn’t going to do it—the sound was still obliterating the front rows and adding a mushy sound to the audio mix since you heard a lot of the drum sound emanating from the stage rather than the PA.
So we started building our own “drum room” out of regular plexiglass drum shields available on the market. We would combine a few sets of these together so they would go all the around the kit (leaving a small gap for an entrance and fresh air). By the way—don’t ignore the “awesomeness” of the stage set in this first pic...more on that at another time.
Eventually, I had a local custom plastics manufacturer build us various clear “lids” that would lay onto our contraption instead of the “insulated” panels included in most of these systems.
Over the years, we went through several renditions of this type of setup and dealing with the lighting and design eyesore it created. As we progressed, I ended up having a local plastic company custom fabricate a virtually seamless box. It was in several sections that all attached with clear fittings and it had no 90º seams—all the corners were rounded corners so you never really saw a hard edge. This idea worked pretty cool and it was definitely the best solution we had used to date—the flat pieces were so wide and without seams that to a great extent, it disappeared on video.
I should take a moment here to mention a few notes about drums mics... I have used about every conceivable combination of microphones and techniques out there but being a drummer myself for many years, I have become extremely picky about this subject... For the most part, I quit using overhead drum mics for live applications years ago—I just got tired of not hearing enough cymbals and clarity of the kit in the mix. This has really given me more control over each specific cymbal on the kit just the way you would deal with the kick, snare, hat, and toms... As for the cymbals themselves, I usually mic them from underneath (unless the bleed from another drum or something is too much)—right now, something like the Shure SM98 seems to work quite nicely... Dumping overhead mics is about the only way you can get away with a drum shield—having close mics on everything allows you, for the most part, to “ignore” the zillion percent increase in reflections within a plastic box...
So all that was great—band sounds awesome, drums are controlled, everything was perfect EXCEPT...it still looked like an aquarium onstage, the band hated it, the drummers loathed it, and our lighting designer had pictures of it on his dartboard. I don’t know where it became my fault, but I think somehow I became the “COTM drum shield guy” although in most of my previous experiences, I had never really liked or even used shields unless I was with a band doing a TV appearance or an awards show or something—but I must admit that it did sound amazing to have that kind of drum containment in our auditorium.
At the conclusion of our auditorium remodel and overhaul about a year ago, we were analyzing everything and really wanting to make good decisions on our band sounds and setup and it came up just how hard a time the band and drummers were having with the aquarium—the sound inside the various contraptions was just out of control (a whole drum kit surrounded by 5 sides of highly reflective surfaces—ugggg). Even though I had never been married to a drum shield I was still pretty much a jerk when I first heard the band discussing the possibilities of ditching it. I mean, this was my mix at stake—the whole world might stop spinning or something... Um, yeah, whatever man. When I realized how negative it was for the guys onstage, it was apparent that I needed to relax and keep an open mind and remember the years of awesome concerts I had mixed over the years with no plexiglass in sight... So we ventured out into the nakedness of going “au naturel” on the drums and just throwing them out there. Since the new PA had considerably more presence, body, and low-end—it seemed like it would work.
So can you hear the drums acoustically coming from the stage? Certainly. Is it out of control? Not as much as you might think—although for awhile I don’t know if I would’ve wanted the seat right down front on the drum side of the stage... So we have gradually worked on several different things—paying a lot more attention to how the drums sound and are tuned without microphones (so it still sounds good for the adjacent seating) and the volume the drummers play at (not just killing it every time we play). And most recently, we started using extremely thin cymbals—specifically the Bliss line made by Dream—which have been a huge step forward and it wasn’t very expensive. This has been a huge, huge factor in minimizing the “white noise” elements of the crash-rides used in a lot of the current worship songs. We are also experimenting with smaller and lighter drumsticks and are currently trying out Vic Firth 55A sticks. If you’re interested in knowing more about our drum heads, size of cymbals, etc., drop an email to our Band Director, Marcos Cruz.
The overall result has been incredible—we also added a short piece of drum glass on the side of the kit closest to the seats to help shield the snare volume a bit and it works like a charm. The acoustic volume has changed enough that you really only hear the drums from the PA and it really sounds fantastic, earthy, and live.
These types of changes prove that all of these ideas had merit and worked fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a drum shield or drum isolation room, but for us right now and in the creative flow we are working in at the moment—this works best. Only by everyone working together and being willing to experiment a bit were we able to discover a solution that made sense, served both the musicians and the production staff, but most importantly, serves the people in our seats.