BY NORMAN WEINBERG
If you love playing music, you know about the particular adrenalin rush that races through your body when you hear something that knocks you out. A truly great sounding cymbal can command an insane price, many drummers own multiple snares so that they can choose just the perfect color for a song, and just about everyone is searching for that perfect bass drum sound. Well, Russ Miller and Yamaha have teamed up to create a new tool that just might give you that perfect bass drum sound, and force enough adrenalin through your system to keep you wired all night long!
The SKRM-100 Russ Miller Signature Subkick is called a “low frequency capture device.” It looks like a drum, but it’s not a drum. You can see a speaker behind the black mesh “head,” but it’s not a speaker. It’s a speaker functioning as a reverse-wired microphone. Microphones and speakers share many of the same electronics. The capsule inside a dynamic microphone is designed to capture sound by transferring the vibrations of sound waves into electrical signals. Speakers are designed to transfer electrical signals into sound waves by moving the speaker cone back and forth. For nearly 50 years, recording engineers — always on the lookout for new and creative techniques to record and manipulate sound — have used large speakers to record the very low frequencies of bass drums, bass guitar cabinets, and other instruments with a lot of low-end power and energy.
Yamaha has taken this basic idea and created a user-friendly way to tap into the technology. Yamaha’s Subkick is a 6 1/2″ speaker that has been mounted into a standard 10″ Yamaha birch and mahogany 7-ply drum shell. The shell is outfitted with Yamaha’s tom-mounting bracket and the entire system comes complete with a special 800 series stand designed to hold the Subkick close to the floor. Two mesh-style heads complete the package to protect the speaker on one side and provide an audience visual on the other. Instead of rigging up a speaker, messing with transformers and DI boxes, and custom soldering cables, just pull out the Subkick, put it on the stand and you’re ready to significantly beef up your live kick drum sound or lay down some tracks with enough bottom to rattle the walls.
IN THE STUDIO
The best way to learn about a device like this is to book several hours in a recording studio and check it out in a controlled environment. So, that’s what we did.
When a speaker is used for this application, it becomes a large-diaphragm dynamic microphone. Because the speaker cone is so huge, it reacts in a more sluggish manner than a traditional microphone. It doesn’t respond well to higher frequencies and doesn’t capture transient spikes very well. For that reason, you really should use the Subkick in conjunction with a regular bass drum microphone.
Every microphone has a certain “signature” that colors the 100-percent pure and natural acoustic sound of an instrument. This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just reality. Many recording engineers and producers pick their mikes to match a particular color that they want to capture to tape or disk. As you might expect, you want different characteristics from a bass drum microphone than a microphone recording a Brazilian caxixi or a ride cymbal.
In order to keep our sanity, we used the same miking arrangement for three different instruments: a Shure Beta 52 as the bass drum mike dedicated to picking up the attack of the drum with the Subkick sitting about 8″ in front of the audience-side head. The Beta 52 was selected because it is one of the mikes recommended by Russ Miller. It’s known to be a little brighter and can capture a tighter sound than some other kick drum mikes, making it a good choice for grabbing the mid frequencies of the beater ball coming in contact with the head. Some engineers feel that this mike is somewhat lacking in natural low-end. We felt that these features made it a natural choice for pairing with the Subkick.
For our tests, we used three different bass drums: a 1970 Sonor 22″ x 18″, a 22″ x 18″ Pearl Master Studio with a 6-ply birch shell, and an 18″ x 16″ Pearl Master Studio with a 4-ply shell (actually a converted floor tom). All of our test drums had ports in the front head, making it easy to place the Shure inside the shell and aim it right at the beating spot. The Subkick was then placed 6″ to 10″ away from the audience head. This made it easy for the Shure to capture the snap of the stroke and the batter head, while the Subkick could concentrate on the ambient sound of the resonant head.
Our first thought was that the 6 1/2″ speaker might actually be too small to do the job. Many engineers use 10″ to 15″ speakers for this application. We quickly learned that this idea was wrong. It may be due to the use of the shell rather than having the speaker freely suspended in front of the kick drum.
In the booth we brought up the channel with the Beta 52. Okay, good sound, lots of tight tone, bright attack, good decay. Then we brought up the fader on the channel with the Subkick. Talk about instant gratification! The difference between the Beta 52 alone and mixed with the Subkick was night and day.
What is a good bass drum sound? It’s much easier to describe a bad bass drum sound. But when listening to the kick drum with both mikes, several words were thrown about in the studio: fat, round, warm, dark, balanced, resonant, attack, natural, chocolate, hearty, shell resonance, rich, chest thumping. All of these words are good words.
I can tell you that it was instantly obvious when we added the Subkick into the mix. It enhanced the Shure’s sound without additional EQ or processing of any kind. You simply cannot get this same effect by adding a low-end boost to your regular kick mike. Adding the Subkick not only makes the sound richer, but also increases the duration of the decay, adding more resonance and roundness, and definitely captures all the low-end your drum has to offer.
All three instruments sounded much better when tracked with the Subkick. There was a general consensus of those in the studio that using the Subkick on the larger 22″ drums was more dramatic than on the 18″ drum. It was also general consensus that you could put the Subkick in front of any bass drum — high class, low class, or no class — and it would improve the color and character of the instrument.
However, you can’t go into a studio and leave all the knobs in the “zero” position, can you? That just wouldn’t be natural. We felt that we might do some experimenting to get some sounds that were even more distinct.
In both recording and live sound reinforcement, you’ll vastly increase the creative possibilities by keeping both bass drum mikes assigned to different channels. This makes it easier to experiment and add your own sonic signature during mix-down.
To get a little more snap from the drum, we added a boost at about 200 cycles to the Shure. You certainly don’t have to add any low-end EQ to the Subkick, but Russ Miller suggests that you can get even more power by adding a boost at about 30 Hz. The analog board that we used in the recording studio had a shelving EQ that kicked in at 60 Hz, so getting control of that 30 Hz range was impossible. The solution was to bounce the recording into Digital Performer and then use the computer’s plug-ins to control those extremely low frequencies.
Once we added a boost at 30 Hz, we entered a whole new world of bottom. This baby grabs so much low-end that it rattled the change in my pocket. Using a felt beater, we got a sound that just slapped us in the chest. Changing to a plastic beater enhanced this effect. The written specs in the manual say that the unit captures 50 to 2 kHz, but Russ Miller told me that they “put the unit on a spectrum analyzer and the response is audible from 30 to 600 Hz.” In the studio, we heard very little acoustic energy above 700 Hz. Miller also said that there is a pretty dramatic spike in the response curve at around 60 Hz.
The next step was to try adding a little compression with a slow attack that resulted in more snap by increasing the ratio between the initial attack and the sustained tone. By this time, when we took the Subkick back out of the mix, the Shure sounded anemic, pale, and thin on its own.
Just for fun, we added another plug-in called “Trans X” by Waves that lets you emphasize or deemphasize the transient of any sound. We added this plug-in to both mikes and just about fell out of our chairs. Okay, this is the bass drum sound that I’ve been looking for. Our engineer, Wiley Ross, felt that the resultant sound on the big Pearl drum was better than just about any of the kicks he’s heard in professional sample libraries.
Along with experimenting with the audio chain, you might want to try a little experimentation on the Subkick itself. J.R. Robinson, Steve Gadd, and Russ Miller all use 10″ Vintage hoops on the Subkick. They feel that it adds more length to the tone and more tenability to the heads. I wasn’t able to check it out, but it makes sense.
In addition to tracking the bass drums alone in an isolated environment, we tracked a kit to see how the Subkick’s tone worked within an entire drum-set environment. As might be expected, there was very little bleed from the rest of the kit into the Subkick device. This is in part due to its close proximity to the kick drum, and to the fact that other instruments don’t have much acoustic energy in those very low frequencies. The same wooden shell that focuses the bass drum’s sound energy so efficiently into the speaker, also acts as an acoustic barrier to vibration coming in from the top or bottom of the device.
While all of our experiments and testing was done in the studio, the Subkick would be an obvious addition to any drummer’s live rig. There’s no doubt that adding a Subkick system to your regular kick drum microphone is going to give you a much better bass drum sound instantly. Your kick drum will sound much richer and have increased depth and power. Period.
Remember that ears and tastes are unique and certain musical styles may demand totally different audio footprints. In order to see if the Subkick is for you, you’ll have to give it a test drive at a gig or in the studio. The Subkick sounded great in conjunction with the Beta 52. Although it will sound slightly different with other mikes, it should enhance any microphone’s tone in a similar manner. However, I can assure you that if you’re trying to get a bigger low-end out of your kick drum sound, this baby will make it happen huge.
That being said, the Subkick isn’t exclusively for stadium rockers. It can help you get a gorgeous bass drum sound even at low dynamics. We found that soft strokes with a felt beater had an enhanced luxuriousness and roundness that was beautiful to hear. Even at soft dynamics, the Subkick’s presence added a new dimension to the character of the instrument. The drum took on a “cone-like” decay that was smooth and tonal. Adding a small boost in the low-mids offered a little more puffiness to the tone and took some of the attention away from the extreme low-end.
The SKRM100 is small enough to be included in any drummer’s bag of tricks, and is certainly a must-have for anyone tracking drums in the studio or using sound reinforcement in a live venue.
Description: Low Frequency Capture Device
Microphone Type: Dynamic
Polar Pattern: Bi-directional
Output Jack: XLR (cannon)
Frequency Response: 50 Hz to 2 kHz
Heads: Black Mesh
Speaker Size: 6 1/2″
Shell: 10″ x 5″, 7-ply birch and mahogany
Stand: 800 Series stand Included