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January 15, 2013 / Randy Coppinger

Djembe Microphone Comparison

I was going through projects and found djembe recordings that my friend Austin Farmer and I made a while back. Djembe is one of my favorite percussion instruments, and we found microphone choices that were too good to keep archived.

Drummer Austin Farmer plays djembe for microphone comparisonI was taught to record djembe from above, 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 under, 8 inches (20cm) from the bottom rim. To help decouple the djembe from the floor and give a bit of clearance for a mic underneath, we set the djembe 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. Then hit the edge of the drum where it sounds higher and let that ring out. And finally play a pattern of center and edge to hear everything together. Whenever there are fast transients I consider using analog compression before the AD converter. But for this shootout, I also wanted to be able to hear each mic raw. Luckily the Martech MSS-10 mic preamps I used had two sets of outputs. I routed through compressors and directly to the 192 IO at the same time and recorded all four tracks.

Let’s start with the Audio Technica AT 4050 above and the AT 4047 underneath. We first hear each mic individually without compression, then a mix of both microphones including the analog compression.

The 4050 is one of my all-time favorite under $1,000 condenser microphones. It’s a fantastic general purpose mic and we hear how great it sounds on djembe. I love the overhead detail that lets us hear the snap of hand against drum head with that nice, full bass.

The Audio Technica AT 4047 is another cost effective mic and a great utility piece that can add some nice “color.” Compared to the 4050 the bass is much tighter and there is less detail in the high frequencies. Because it sounds dark, I expected more from the 4047 as the bottom mic. The mix of 4050 with 4047 was good, but I suspect the overall mix would have been even better with a 421 underneath instead.

For comparison, let’s have a listen to the discontinued AKG C-451 EB with CK-1 capsule and the Sennheiser MD 421.

I loved how articulate and tasty the 451 sounded. It seemed like I could hear each part of the hand hit the drum skin separately. But all of that detail forced me to watch my levels closely. I was especially impressed with the bass response… full and rich sounding djembe even without a mic underneath. I’m told the AKG re-issue of this mic — the 451 B — doesn’t hold a candle to the original. I love my 451 EB with the cardioid CK-1 capsule for percussion and this recording is proof that it’s a great choice for djembe.

My studio mentors used a 421 underneath djembe. And no wonder: it sounds great in this application. Despite the crazy irregularities in the pickup pattern (or maybe because of it) the low end really rings out nicely. This microphone 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 I used here. This confirms 421 as my first choice mic under djembe.

The Signal Path
VU_Nov26Top 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

Why bother with analog compression?
(1) Some argue that the finest details of fast transients are diminished in the process of digital conversion, so really quick 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.

Explore Audio Technica, AKG, and Sennheiser microphones.

Other microphone comparisons:
Neumann vs Gefell
Neumann vs Studio Projects

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Leave a Comment
  1. Black Circle DJ / Jan 15 2013 9:20 am

    I guess I hear a small difference, but it is hard to really know what is better because the drum is not being hit very well. The best microphone/pre/compressor setup still sounds bad when the instrument is not tended to correctly.

    • Randy Coppinger / Jan 15 2013 9:40 am

      Differences in performance are probably more noticeable than differences in microphones. It is difficult to create a good mic comparison and this may not be one of my best. However, I think we can focus on the microphones to hear significant differences in these recordings. Also, the djembe fundamental is well below 100 Hz, so differences may be less obvious on headphones or small speakers.

  2. Josh / Jul 6 2013 3:59 pm

    Thanks for sharing, I found this useful to get a ballpark of what mics would sound like from above, and below, then mixed. Definitely helped newbie’s to djembe recording like me. Thanks so much for the effort!

    • Randy Coppinger / Jul 6 2013 4:05 pm

      Thanks for your interest and kind words, Josh. Whenever I ponder what kind of sound we *should* hear from a percussion recording, these recordings are a handy reference for some of the differences between microphone types. Happy recording.

  3. Josh / Jul 7 2013 11:14 pm

    Since referencing your article and a couple of other sources, then using my only available mic (so only one option to place it above or below – using my Groove Tubes Md1b) for a Djembe recording done in my home studio, I found it interesting that mic placement made such a huge difference to the sound (this would come as no surprise to others I’m sure, but for a newbie it might be). The difference between top and bottom and various distances within each had considerable impact. So microphone can help but certainly having ‘skill’ (or patience) in proper mic technique seems even more important for the difference one can make in getting a better result. Anyway, thanks again.

    • Randy Coppinger / Jul 7 2013 11:21 pm

      I could not agree with you more! Mic placement is a huge deal and by far more important than mic selection (unless you’ve chosen an incredibly inappropriate sounding mic). Thanks for sharing your experience and best wishes as you continue your recording adventures.

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