Published in Canadian Musician, Sept/Oct 1998
In the last 10 years, I’ve had the pleasure of engineering many African percussion albums. Through these projects, I’ve learned a lot about the art of recording live percussion and its’ been an amazing experience to capture the energy of passionate, talented percussionists. I thought I’d pass along some tips and valuable experiences.
One the most common mistakes I’ve seen in the miking of certain drums — such as djembe or any other drum with a strong low end — results from the misconception that one microphone alone on top of the drum will do the trick. Unlike the typical one microphone method of miking toms in a drum kit, miking just the top of most other drums will not necessarily get the best sound for the situation. Using only a top microphone will give you plenty of “slap” but not enough of the bass. Most of these drums are usually played slightly off the floor which makes it easy to put another mic directly up into the drum from the bottom. A Sennheiser 421 microphone or an AKG D112 works extremely well for this. For the top of the drum, the 421 works well but any good condenser microphone also works well. Ideally, if tracks are available, I always put the two microphones on two separate tracks. That way, in the mix, I can balance the two microphones to my taste. During recording, I EQ the bottom mic by taking out a lot of the mid-range and highs, leaving a very muddy track when you hear it by itself. However, when you add this muddy track to the top microphone you end up with a crisp, fat drum sound. If you don’t have enough tracks, EQ the bottom mic similarly, record the two microphones to one track balancing them according to the situation.
Recently, I co-produced and engineered an album entitled “Dance The Spiral Dance” in Woodstock, New York with artist Ubaka Hill, a master of percussion. While I utilized the above tip very effectively on this album, in this next story, you’ll see a situation where an additional technique helped enhance the sound even more. One of the pieces was a djembe duo, so I set-up four microphones. Two for the top of each drum and two for the bottom of each drum. The sound was great but a little voice kept saying to me “this could be better still” but I wasn’t sure how. The studio in Woodstock has a particularly “live” room with great acoustics and it occurred to me that we weren’t capturing the ambiance of the room. I wanted it to sound like you were IN the room with them. After two takes with the original set-up, I asked for a five minute break to follow my instincts. I set-up an extremely high quality stereo condenser microphone and placed it about four feet above both drummers…and wow!… the sound difference was night and day. I was glad I listened to that little voice. Moral of the story: it’s important to get the most out of a good sounding “live” room by considering the use of distant microphones as well as close microphones.
Another song, presented yet another challenge. Here’s a quote from Ubaka’s CD insert notes regarding this song; “This is the first time in drum and percussion recorded music in the U.S. that women of many different ancestral bloodlines have recorded together”. In fact, there were 33 women drummers playing at the same time in one large room. From an engineering standpoint, this was an enormous challenge. Without a doubt, the theory that “less is more” played a very important role in my approach to miking this extravaganza. The drummers were placed in three sections (right next to one another) according to which part they were playing, “bass, middle or melody”. In front of each section, I placed two microphones in an “XY” stereo configuration approximately “ear” height. High above the room, I also placed two microphones, one in each corner. In addition, I randomly chose two drummers in each section to place bottom microphones under their drums so that I would have some low end to work with in the mix. The end result– the raw energy captured on tape–is quite remarkable.