Best Microphones For Miking Timpani

Timpani (also known as kettledrums) are remarkable percussion instruments. Not only are the tuned drums, but with the simple movement of a pedal, these large drums are effectively and accurately tuned to different pitches.

To capture the sound of timpani for recording or live sound reinforcement, we start with the microphone. Though many microphones work magnificently of timpani, I had but two recommendations for miking these drums. They are:

  • Heil PR30: The Heil PR30 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a cardioid dynamic microphone with a large low-mass diaphragm. This microphone boasts a wide frequency response for a dynamic mic and is a top choice to close-miking timpani and miking timpani in live situations that call for isolation. The Heil PR30 is my recommended microphone when close-miking timpani.
  • AKG C414 XLS: The AKG C414 XLS (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser. The high sound quality and versatility of this microphone make it a top recommendation as a room mic, overhead, or close-miking solution for timpani. With 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 high-pass filters, and 3 attenuation pads, this microphone is a top choice for any mic configuration around a timpani.

Before we discuss the PR30 and the C414 XLS in more detail, let’s quickly talk about what timpani sound like.


Disclaimer:

“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)
  • Instrument
  • 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 Does Timpani Sound Like?

When choosing a microphone for any application, it’s to our great advantage to know the characteristics of the sound source. So what do timpani sound like?

Well first off, timpani drums can get very loud with peaks above 130 dB SPL.

The timbre of a timpani drum depends on where and how hard the head is struck as well as on the mallets.

Striking the head a hand-width from the rim causes a distinguishable pitch to sound from the drum. Striking the head in the middle causes a less defined pitch with inharmonic partials.

Smaller mallets stimulate higher harmonics and a brighter sound from the timpani, whereas broader-headed mallets cause a darker sound with less upper harmonics.

The sound of the timpani resonates from the head and body of the drum in a nearly omnidirectional manner.

The range of the timpani depends on the sizes of the kettledrums used. The bigger the drums, the low the available pitches.

A Note On Miking Timpani

More often than not, there will be multiple kettledrums played in a timpani performance. The standard set for a timpanist consists of 4 timpani. The drums being roughly 32 inches (81 cm), 29 inches (74 cm), 26 inches (66 cm), and 23 inches (58 cm) in diameter. Needless to say, this is quite the massive instrument to be miking.

Close-miking is often the best option in loud performances to isolate the timpani for the other instruments. Of course, the trade off of isolation with close-miking is the inability to capture the full sound of the instrument. Close-miking often yields a boomy sound with prolonged resonances. The boominess is partly caused by the proximity effect of directional microphones.

Overhead miking a set of timpani will yield a fuller more accurate capture of the drum’s sound. Try positioning a pair of microphones evenly above the set so that all the drums are evenly captured.

Know that these are simply guidelines. Get experimental with mic placement to find the right sound that works for you!

For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.

Frequency Range Of Timpani (Standard 4-Drum Set)

  • Overall Range: 73 Hz ~ 3,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 73 Hz – 220 Hz (D2-A3)
  • Harmonics range: 58 Hz ~ 3,000 Hz

So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the timpani. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the timpani is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best timpani microphone.


What Makes An Ideal Timpani Microphone

When looking for a microphone tailored for capturing the sound of timpani, there are a few things to consider:

  • Low-Frequency Response: Choose a microphone capable of accurately recreating the low frequencies of the kettledrums. The proximity effect of directional microphones may help with this.
  • Directionality: Whether you choose to close-mic or use overheads, a directional polar pattern can help isolate the timpani from other instruments and provide a more focused pick up of the instrument.
  • High Maximum Sound Pressure Level: Timpani are loud! Ensure your mics have a high enough max SPL to cleanly capture these drums without distorting.
  • Accurate Transient Response: Timpani have great transient information and incredible resonances. It’s a matter of choice whether you pick a mic with a fast transient response or one with a slower response. The fast response will accurately capture the timpani. The slower response will give a sense of subtle compression, which may sound awesome on timpani.
  • Mounting: Choose a microphone that is easy to mount. When close-miking, a microphone to clip onto a drum could be beneficial. When miking timpani overhead, either choose a strong mic stand/boom arm or a light-weight mic to be positioned easily.
  • Price: Budgeting is always important and often times we’ll be miking 4 timpani which will likely require more than one microphone.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss the recommended timpani microphones according to the above criteria:


The Heil PR30

Heil PR30

The Heil PR30 is a dynamic microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. Heil is known for its outstanding dynamic microphone design, and the PR30 is a great example of superb engineering. This mic in particular excels on timpani.

The PR30 is designed with a low-mass 1½” diaphragm, two mesh screen, and carefully positioned ports. This microphone has relatively flat frequency and transient responses (for a dynamic mic), a consistent polar pattern, and a reduced proximity effect. All of these features allow the PR30 to excel as capturing the sound of timpani.

Frequency Response Of The Heil PR30

The frequency response of the Heil PR30 is listed as 40 Hz – 18,000 Hz. Here is the microphone’s frequency response graph:

Image from Heil PR30 Specification Sheet

There are a few things worth noting about the PR30’s frequency response graph.

The first thing to notice is that there are two lines in the graph.

The blue line represents the 0-degree or “on-axis” pickup of the PR30. This microphone is a top-address or “end-fire” microphone, and so the blue line represents the mic’s sensitivity to sound in its top direction.

The red line represents the 180-degree or “off-axis” pickup of the PR30. What this really tells us is that the PR30 is effective at rejecting sound from its rear (as a cardioid microphone should be).

The low-end roll-off of the PR30 happens below the typical lowest fundamental frequency of a kettledrum (roughly 70 Hz). A roll-off below the lowest fundamentals of an instrument helps to reduce the amount of low-end rumble in the signal while preserving the sound of the instrument.

The presence peak around the 4 kHz mark is to benefit speech since the PR30 is marketed partly as a broadcasting microphone. For timpani, this presence boost helps to accentuate the upper frequencies of the drums’ sound.

The high-end roll-off of the PR30 works well with kettledrums since there’s no a whole lot of harmonic information in the upper-mid and high-frequency ranges. This is especially true when miking the drums closely, where there’ little emphasis on capturing the sound of the room.

For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).

Directionality Of The Heil PR30

The Heil PR30 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar pattern graph:

Image from Heil PR30 Specification Sheet

For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).

This graph doesn’t tell us a great amount of information about the PR30 except that it seems like an effective cardioid microphone. The tiny lobe of sensitivity to the rear of the microphone is likely negligible. Refer to the frequency response graph for an idea of the sensitivity difference between the on and off axes of the PR40.

Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The Heil PR30

The Heil PR30 is a dynamic microphone and has a very high max SPL rating. Although difficult to measure, the rating is given as nearly 150 dB SPL.

For more information on max SPL ratings, check out my article What Does Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?

Transient Response Of The Heil PR30

The transient response of the Heil PR30 is relatively fast for a large diaphragm dynamic microphone. This is largely in part to the low-mass of its diaphragm. However, the PR30 transient response is slower than its ribbon and condenser counterparts.

This yield a slightly compressed sound as the microphone reacts to the transients of the kettledrums. Having a slightly faster or slower transient response is largely a subjective preference. I personally prefer a slower response when close-miking drums and a faster, more accurate response for drum overheads or room mics.

Mounting Of The Heil PR30

The Heil PR30 is not a clip-on microphone and so it’s likely you’ll be need mic stands in order to properly position these microphones around a timpani.

For more information on microphone clips and shock mounts, check out my article How To Attach A Microphone To A Microphone Stand.

Price Of The Heil PR30

As of the writing of this article, the Heil PR30 is $250 USD. That’s great value for such an impressive microphone. Price and budgeting is important when it comes to buying gear. This is especially true with drums, since there will likely be multiple separate drums requiring separate microphones.

For more information on the price of microphones, check out my articles How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples) and Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.


The AKG C414 XLS

AKG C414 XLS

A spaced pair of AKG C414s make for great overhead microphones on nearly any instrument including, of course, timpani. The detailed response of the AKG C414 combined with its versatile options make it an ideal microphone for capturing the sound of timpani.

This multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser has 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 high-pass filters, and 3 PADs. These options give the engineer or performer great flexibility in mic positioning and a wide variety of “timpani sounds” to choose from. Experiment with these mics for best results that suit your production the best!

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. Omnidirectional mode often works best when the C414s are set up as room mics with a timpani in an isolated room. Click here to check out the other polar pattern frequency response graphs in the C414 manual.

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 kettledrums. 

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 timpani overheads?

  • No HPF: To capture the entire audible frequency range. This will capture the full sound of the timpani but may also be susceptible to picking up low-end rumble and electrical hum.
  • HPF @ 40 Hz: This filter will help to remove some low-end rumble from the signal without affecting the lower frequencies of the timpani.
  • HPF @ 80 Hz: A high-pass filter at 80 Hz will do a better job at removing low-end rumble and electrical mains hum from the timpani signal. Although the 80 Hz mark will infringe slightly on the fundamental frequencies of the lowest standard kettledrum, its effect on the timpani sound will be negligible. The HPF @ 80 Hz is my recommendation when using the C414s as timpani overheads (particularly live).
  • HPF @ 160 Hz: This HPF is a bit high and may thin out the sound of the timpani.

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. I’d consider this a flat response, and makes it so the C414s capture an accurate sonic image of the timpani and the room.

Directionality Of The AKG C414 XLS

As mentioned, the C414 XLS has 9 selectable polar patterns to choose from.

9 Selectable Polar Patterns

  • Omnidirectional
  • Omnidirectional/Wide Cardioid (intermediate)
  • Wide Cardioid
  • Wide Cardioid/Cardioid (intermediate)
  • Cardioid
  • Cardioid/Hypercardioid (intermediate)
  • Hypercardioid
  • Hypercardioid/Bidirectional (intermediate)
  • Bidirectional (Figure-8)

When it comes to overhead miking, a the wide cardioid pattern is likely the best bet in order to capture the widest range of the kettledrums while maintaining some isolation from the surrounding sound sources. Here is the wide cardioid polar pattern graph:

For more information on the subcardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Subcardioid/Wide Cardioid Microphone? (With Mic Examples).

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.

Try positioning the pair of C414s so that they pick up the greatest area of the timpani set. Experiment with the distance between the drum heads and the microphones to find the sweet spot.

I’d also recommend experimenting with various polar patterns when miking timpani with the C414s. For example, try omnidirectional for a more natural pick up, or cardioid for more isolation.

Maximum Sound Pressure Level Of The AKG C414 XLS

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?

The timpani can gets loud, maxing out around 130 dB. At a distance above the timpani, the C414s should have no issues with signal distortion. However, to be safe, you could decide to engage a PAD.

Transient Response Of The AKG C414 XLS

The light-weight large diaphragms of the C414 are very reactive, giving the microphone has a very accurate transient response.

Mounting Of The AKG C414 XLS

An AKG C414 XLS weighs 300g (10.2oz) and comes with its own basket shock mount. C414s are easy to mount on mic stands and boom arms so that they can be positioned correctly above a set of timpani.

Price Of The AKG C414 XLS

As of the writing of this article, a pair of AKG C414 XLS microphones sell for about $1700 USD. This may seem like a lot of money, but for the quality and versatility of these high-end mics, it’s a steal in my opinion.


The Recap

So these are my two top recommended microphones for timpani. Of course, there are many microphones (and microphone pairs) that sound amazing on the timpani, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 2:

  • Heil PR30: recommended dynamic microphone for close-miking timpani in studio and live settings.
  • AKG C414 XLS: recommended condenser microphone for timpani overheads and room mics.

Honourable mentions:

  • Electro-Voice RE20
  • Rode NT1-A

For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.