Overhead microphones are arguably the most important in capturing the sound of a full drum kit. Close miking helps to accentuate. Overheads capture the true sound of a kit. Whether singular or in a stereo pair, overhead microphones are essential to bring the sound of the entire drum kit to life.
Drum overhead microphones range greatly in price. So I’ve decided to list my top 4 recommended overhead mics. The following recommendations work great as stereo pairs and as singulars. However, in the world of stereo, I’d always recommend a pair of overhead microphones versus a single.
Here Are The Top 4 Drum Overhead Microphones
- AKG C414 (link to check the price of a pair on Amazon): These high-end microphones are my top recommendation for drum overheads. The C414 has many switchable options to help compliment any drum kit. A pair of well positioned overhead C414’s will capture a full, rich, and accurate sonic picture on any drum kit!
- AKG C214 (link to check the price on Amazon): The C214 is the cost-effective version of the C414. It’s an electret microphone with fewer switchable options, but has many of the same specs at the high-end C414.
- Neumann KM184 (link to check the price of a pair on Amazon): These small diaphragm condenser are top-of-the-line overhead microphones. Those who love 184’s as overheads really love them, including me! A pair of well positioned overhead KM184’s will capture a drum kit’s sound accurately with a a bit of extra edge.
- Rode M5 (link to check the price of a pair on Amazon): This is my recommended budget option for drum overhead microphones. The specs check out on these well-priced microphones, but they certainly do not have the same sound as the above options.
Because drum overheads are such critical microphones in capturing drum kits, I wouldn’t advise cutting corners. Although more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better, it often does in the case of overheads.
With that being said, let’s go through the above 4 microphones and discuss why they make for great drum overheads!
“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist’s price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.
Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:
- Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
- Microphone technique/placement
- Number of microphones used
- Natural sound of the room
- Content (whether that’s the song, discussion, or otherwise)
- Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)
With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”
What Factors Make A Great Drum Overhead Microphone?
Let’s keep this list short, shall we? After all, we’ve got 4 microphones to discuss!
Although overhead microphones are the most important mics in capturing the full sound of a drum kit, the criteria is simple for choosing the best pair.
- Extended/Flat Frequency Response: Choose a pair of microphones capable of reproducing the entire audible frequency range of human hearing. This will give us the best chance of accurately recreating the sound of a drum kit.
- Higher Maximum Sound Pressure Level: Pick a pair of microphones that can handle the high SPL produced by a drum kit. Distortion is not our friend when trying to reproduce the precise and nuanced sounds of a drum kit.
- Less Off-Axis Colouration: Select a directional microphone with a polar pattern that doesn’t vary along the frequency spectrum. No off-axis colouration means all the drums will sound equally “bright” or “dark.”
So the criteria are pretty simple. Condenser microphones are the most likely mics to exhibit all three of the above characteristics. And so it’s no coincidence that all 4 of the recommended drum overhead mics are condensers. Let’s talk about them!
AKG C414 XLS As A Drum Overhead Microphone Pair
The AKG C414 XLS pair is my top recommendation for drum overhead mics. These large diaphragm condensers are a bit pricey, but worth every penny, in my opinion. Though I do not own a pair myself, the studio I work at does, and I jump at every opportunity I get to use them!
A pair of AKG C414s set up properly as drum overheads will yield a full, rich, and vibrant sound to the entire kit.
The beauty of the C414 is in its versatility. If the overheads are sounding too good (taking away from the spot mics around the kit), there are adjustments we can make. The C414 has 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 high-pass filter settings, and 3 pad options. With just one pair of overheads, you basically have access to a full microphone locker!
Note also that AKG C414s are excellent on nearly everything else in the studio, so you’re not only getting a “pair of overheads” when you acquire these beautiful microphones!
Frequency Response Of The AKG C414 XLS
The frequency response of the AKG C414 XLS is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The C414 XLS (wide cardioid position) frequency response graph is as follows:
Note that the frequency response graphs pertain to on-axis sounds. Directional microphones (like the C414 in wide cardioid positions) are less sensitive to off-axis sound particularly in the high-frequencies.
I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the wide cardioid mode polar pattern since that’s the pattern typically used when these mics are set up as overheads. That being said, I’ve gotten fantastic results using them in cardioid mode (with smaller kits) and in omnidirectional mode (depending on the room). Check out the other graphs in the manual here.
In the C414 frequency response graph, we see that the response is nearly flat from 1,000 Hz down. The line drawn in red is the natural response of the. microphone. The C414 gives us an uncoloured capture of all the fundamental frequencies of the individual drums.
So the main frequency response line is drawn in red. But there are 3 additional lines. One for each of the selectable high-pass filters (HPFs). When should we engage each of these filters when using the C414s as drum overheads?
- No HPF: To capture the entire audible frequency range of the drum kit.
- HPF @ 40 Hz: To filter out the low-end of the kick drum, nearby bass guitar (if applicable), and low-end rumble. Helps minimize stereo imaging in the sub-bass range of an audio mix when a pair of C414s is being used. Still gives a very accurate sonic picture of the drum kit.
- HPF @ 80 Hz: Filters out the low-end of the kick, bass guitar, low-end rumble, and possible hum from power mains. Although this HPF filters out some important fundamental frequencies of individual drum elements, it still captures much of the drum kit’s character. This HPF works wonderfully when the overheads are used in conjunction with spot mics on each drum element.
- HPF @ 160 Hz: This HPF is a bit high but will still do a great job if the other drum elements are close-miked. A pair of C414s high-passed at 160 Hz do a great job as picking up cymbals and drum harmonics, but I wouldn’t rely on them to capture the true sound of a full drum kit!
For more information on microphone high-pass filters, check out my article What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?
Above 1,000 Hz, the frequency response gets slightly coloured, but only varies about 5 dB max between -2 dB @ 1,400 Hz and +3 dB @ 14,000 Hz. This is relatively flat.
The +3 dB boost is the brilliance range of frequencies really helps to bring the cymbals of a drum kit to life, making a pair of C414 a great choice for drum overheads.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The AKG C414 XLS
Most microphones are completely capable of acting as drum overheads. Although a kick drum can possibly get as loud as ~140 dB SPL, that pressure level would be inside the kick drum, and would decrease rapidly before hitting the overhead microphones positioned above the kit.
With that being said, the AKG C414s have no problem with the SPL levels of a kit. Even if the sound pressure level at the overhead mics is a whopping 140 dB SPL, the C414 is designed with pads (passive attenuation devices) that will reduce the audio signal level so it doesn’t overload the microphone circuitry.
Here are the max SPL ratings of the C414 XLS with each of the pads engaged.
- no pad engaged: 140 dB SPL
- -6 dB pad engaged: 146 dB SPL
- -12 dB pad engaged: 152 dB SPL
- -18 dB pad engaged: 158 dB SPL
For more information on passive attenuation devices, check out my article What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?
For more information on max SPL ratings, check out my article What Does Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?
Off-Axis Colouration Of The AKG C414 XLS
Off axis-colouration is a loose term to describe the changing frequency response of a microphone as a sound source is moved away from its main axis (where the mic points). Off-axis colouration is important to consider when positioning overhead microphones since they’re typically further away from the drum kit and the drum kit is a fairly large sound source.
The AKG C414 XLS (wide cardioid position) polar pattern is shown in the following diagram:
You’ll notice in the above graph that the C414 become much more directional at higher frequencies. The 500 Hz – 1,000 Hz range looks more omnidirectional than cardioid while the 16,000 Hz polar response looks nearly like a hypercardioid pattern.
There are numerous ways of positioning drum overhead microphones. The beauty in positioning these microphones is in the balancing act.
In the case of the C414s, the polar response becomes fairly directional around 16,000 Hz in all the selectable patterns (omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure-8).
For more information on microphone polar patterns, check out my article The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.
However, the frequency
With the C414s, I’d recommend trying to place them over the more “important” cymbals so they shine through in the high frequencies of the microphone audio signal!
AKG C214 As A Drum Overhead Microphone Pair
The AKG C214 is what I call the affordable version of the C414. It’s like the C414 without all the bells and whistles.
Here’s a brief list of the differences between the C214 and C414:
- The C214 is a back electret condenser. The C414 is a true condenser.
- The C214 is a cardioid mic. The C414 is a multi-pattern mic with 5 options.
- The C214 has a 160 Hz HPF. The C414 has 3 different HPFs (including 160 Hz).
- The C214 has a 20 dB pad. The C414 has 3 pads (6, 12, and 18 dB).
- The C214 has a slightly higher equivalent noise level (13 dBA) versus the C414 (8 dBA).
Perhaps the biggest difference between these two mics is the price. The C214s are roughly half the price of the C414s!
Other than that, the microphones are very similar. When it comes to drum overheads, they’re nearly interchangeable. Of course, If I was saving up for new studio mics, I’d want to go with the more versatile C414s, but for drum overheads, both these mics look (and more importantly sound) great!
Frequency Response Of The AKG C214
The frequency response of the AKG C214 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The C214 frequency response graph is as follows:
The C214 has a beautiful boost in the high-frequency brilliance range which gives life to cymbals.
The natural low-frequency roll-off of the C214 helps minimize low-end rumble while still being somewhat effective at capturing the entire character of a kick drum.
The 160 Hz high-pass filter effectively eliminates power mains hum, kick drum and bass guitar fundamental frequencies, and low-end rumble.
The natural setting would work well if only two mics were used in capturing the drum kit. The HPF works excellently when the miking of the drum kit is supplemented with spot mics.
Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The AKG C214
The max SPL ratings of the C214 are as follows:
- no pad engaged: 136 dB SPL
- -20 dB pad engaged: 156 dB SPL
Though it’s possible for heavy handed drummers to create sound above 136 dB SPL, it’s not likely the drum overheads will be positioned in a way that subjects them to this level of pressure.
However, if you find your C214s are distorting, there’s a handy -20 dB pad that will raise the max SPL rating to a incredible 156 dB SPL!
I wouldn’t recommend using this big of a pad unless absolutely necessary since the signal-to-noise ratio of the microphone will suffer.
Off-Axis Colouration Of The AKG C214
The AKG C214 is a cardioid microphone and exhibits slightly less off-axis colouration than the directional patterns of the C414.
The AKG C214 has a polar pattern that lends itself greatly to use as a drum overhead microphone.
Within the aforementioned “60-degree-cone” of the microphone, there is less than 4 dB difference in colouration through the entire frequency response. Generally speaking, the elements of the drum kit will be within this “60-degree-cone,” and so the C214 will yield a fairly accurate response will little off-axis colouration.
For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Neumann KM184 As A Drum Overhead Microphone Pair
The Neumann KM184 has been the drum overhead microphone I’ve used the most in my career. KM184 pairs are staples in the mic lockers of many drummers and audio engineers!
A Quick Note On Small And Large Diaphragm Condensers
Whereas the previously mentioned AKG C414 and C214 are large diaphragm condensers (LDC), the Neumann KM184 is a small diaphragm condenser (SDC). SDCs have numerous benefits over LDCs, including:
- Extended/flatter high-frequency responses.
- Better transient response accuracy.
- Better polar pattern consistency.
The main disadvantages SDCs face in comparison to LDCs are:
- Louder self-noise (not necessarily a concern when
mikingloud drum kits).
- Even though, in general, SDCs pick up the same low frequencies as LDCs, they tend to sound slightly less full and slightly more brittle.
Frequency Response Of The Neumann KM184
The frequency response of the Neumann KM184 MT is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The KM184 frequency response graph is as follows:
The KM184 has a beautiful frequency response with a gentle roll-off of low frequencies and
This frequency response may not lend itself particularly well to capturing the full character of a drum kit. However, if we’re close-miking the kick to capture the low-end frequencies, the KM184 really shine as overheads!
These small Neumann mics sound aggressive as mic overheads and are actually my preferred choice when going for that “hard sound.”
Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The Neumann KM184
As with all the microphones on this list, the KM184s shouldn’t distort if positioned correctly as drum overheads. The max SPL rating on the 184 is 138 dB SPL.
Off-Axis Colouration Of The Neumann KM184
The Neumann KM184 is a cardioid microphone. Let’s look at its polar pattern to help determine the amount of off-axis colouration it exhibits:
Contrary to the generalized statement about SDCs having more consistent polar patterns than LDC, the KM184 actually has less consistency than the C414 and C214. Because of this, it may be better to position the KM184 overhead microphones slightly higher than you would the C414s or C214.
The 184s get pretty directional in the brilliance range of frequencies (noted by the 16,00 Hz line). The pattern in these upper frequencies resembles more of a supercardioid than a cardioid pattern. For this reason, I’d advise positioning 184s above cymbals on a kit. This positioning will help the 184s to better pick up the brightness of the cymbals and the body of the drums rather than the other way around.
Rode M5 As A Drum Overhead Microphone Pair
The above 3 recommended mics are fairly expensive. The Rode M5 is the “budget” drum overhead microphone I recommend. For roughly $200 USD, you’ll get a pair of microphones that sound quite nice as drum overheads.
Let’s talk about why the M5 won best recommended budget drum overhead microphone/
Frequency Response Of The Rode M5
The frequency response of the Rode M5 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The M5 frequency response graph is as follows:
If I was to choose a drum overhead microphone based solely on its frequency response graph, I’d pick the M5 over the pricier options above.
The flat frequency response of the M5s makes them a great choice for drum overheads. The slight boost in the upper frequencies adds brightness to the cymbals and the extended low-frequency response will capture the fundamentals of each drum element.
More often than not, a high-pass filter is beneficial for drum overheads. When close-miking the individual drum elements, the low-end of the overheads may interfere, causing phase and “muddiness” issues in the mix.
A high-pass filter at the mic preamp or in the audio console/DAW will work fine to filter out the low frequencies of the M5s.
Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The Rode M5
With a max SPL rating of 140 dB SPL, the M5s will rarely distort when positioned as drum overheads. The drummer would have to be playing insanely loud for that to happen.
Off-Axis Colouration Of The Rode M5
The Rode M5 is a cardioid microphone and has the following polar pattern diagram:
Though this diagram may look better than the other three, it’s missing information. There are no lines to show the polar pattern of the upper and lower frequencies in this diagram. One can safely assume that, like all microphones, the M5 becomes more directional at higher sound frequencies. However, this colouration isn’t too vivid in the mid-range frequencies, which is where the bulk of the information is with drums!
Let’s Recap Each Of These Microphones And How They Act As Drum Overheads
AKG C414 XLS
The AKG C414 XLSs have the fullest sound of all 4 recommended microphones. They’re also lightyears ahead in versatility. I believe every professional studio deserves a pair of these beautiful mics.
As drum overheads, the AKG C414s can be optimized for any setup. No matter the genre, drummer, drum kit, room, or recording setup, the C414s can be configured to be your ideal drum overhead pair!
A pair of AKG C214s is basically a pair of C414s in cardioid mode without all the extra bells and whistles.
These electret microphones are nearly as good as the premium mics they’re modelled after. And for nearly half the price!
The HPF and pad options of the C214 make it a flexible microphone that can be optimized for nearly any drum kit.
A pair of Neumann KM184s is a go-to staple for drum overheads. They just work so well.
These small diaphragm condensers pick up the brightness and character of a drum kit without interfering too much with any spot mics that may be used in a drum kit microphone set up.
A pair of Rode M5s are the best budget option for project studio drum overheads. Although they sound professional, it’s hard to compete with the C414 and KM184s.
For price of a fancy dinner for two, you can purchase a pair of these excellent microphones. And they work amazingly well as drum overheads!
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.