TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO PART 23 – RECORDING PERCUSSION

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 23 Recording Percussion

At TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group, we’ve recorded, mixed, produced and mastered virtually every genre of music over the years. So, if you have a music project that needs some TLC, give us a call. We have facilities in the UK and USA and are offering some great recording packages at the moment. And don’t forget, your mastering needs can all be handled online.

Thanks to everyone who checked out the last few blogs on recording drums. This week we will continue with Percussion.

African Kalimba, Indian Tabla and Vietnamese Bamboo Xylophone.

Almost every country or ethnic region has its own collection of percussion instruments. From the African kalimba and traditional Indian tabla to the Vietnamese bamboo xylophone.

Over a decade ago, the virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma established the Silk Road Project. If you’re interested in music with an international flavour, where percussion plays a major role, take a listen to The Silk Road Ensemble.

Check out Pat Metheny – Orchestrion …..mechanically controlled percussion and other instruments using solenoids and pneumatics.

However, percussion instruments are most likely associated with various kinds of Latin music, but are used in all types of music these days…..to add some zest to the sound.

So whether you’re recording is inspired by Argentine Tango, Cuban Salsa, Brazilian Samba, artists such as Carlos Santana, Chick Corea or the smooth sounds of Djavan, Lee Ritenour and Pat Metheny – it’s useful to know how to handle this extremely varied group of instruments.

It’s worth noting that in some Latin music, the Piano and Guitar are often treated as percussive instruments too. Take a listen to Ruben Gonzalez in the Buena Vista Social Club (produced by Ry Cooder)….the 70 plus pianist plays a beat up piano which is characteristic of their sound.

Pianist – Ruben Gonzalez.

I remember very fondly, going to see lots of Latino bands when I lived in Los Angeles. They always delivered their music with passion and exuberance. This is not boring music!….And a lot of the excitement that is generated in this genre of music is produced by the percussion, whether it’s a blistering timbale roll or conga solo.

This group of instruments can broadly be divided into two sections.

  • Those that are tuned and play a melody eg. glockenspiel, marimba and tubular bells.
  • And the section that is struck, hit, scraped or stroked eg. various types of drums, triangle, gongs, castanets and shakers etc.

Marimba and Tubular Bells.

For many of the tuned percussion instruments eg. xylophone, marimba and vibraphone, you can use condensers or ribbon mics. Ribbons especially, are quite delicate mics, so place them carefully out of the way of the player’s mallets.

This group of instruments can produce some pretty high harmonics, so a dynamic mic will not always produce the best results.


Stereo Pair Above Marimba.

Marimba sound great with a stereo pair a couple of feet above or slightly in front of the instrument. If the player will be using the whole range of the instrument, a Spaced Pair set up will work well – but remember the 3 to 1 rule. Sennheiser 421s/441s or Royer 121s are popular choices. Soft mallets will give a warm sound – hard will give more attack.

The X-Y configuration (see Home Music Studio Part 6) needs a little trial and error to find the best position. Don’t place the mics too close or your stereo image will be narrow and you may not pick up the extremities of the instrument.

The Blumlein technique (see Home Music Studio Part 13), because it uses figure-8 mics, will capture more of your room acoustics. So if your room does not have great acoustics, you may prefer to use one of the other techniques.

A Rode Mic Over Glockenspiel.

Glockenspiels can be miked a little closer above the bars, but not so close that they can get hit by the player. Try a single or couple of Rode NT5 condensers.

Whilst Tubular Bells, being in the vertical position can be miked from the backside with the mike aimed towards the top. Try Shure SM81s or AKG 414s.

A Selection Of Hand Percussion – Cowbell, Bar Chime Set, Rocar, Metal Agogo, Cabasa and Bead Shekere.

Many instruments in the second section of this group – the shakers and scrapers (see some examples in the picture above), can be close miked if you wish, so your room will have less effect on the sound.

However, many of these hand percussion instruments involve a bit of movement when played, so there are some engineers who prefer to mike from a distance, to make sure the instrument does not wander off mike and to capture more of the room sound. You will have to decide if your room adds or detracts from the sound your recording, by experimenting.

Nana Vasconcelos – Percussionist Extraordinaire.

And if you do mike more distant, choose your mics carefully. They will need to be very responsive to capture the fast transients produced by these instruments and have a low self noise value – meaning they don’t add too much noise to the recording themselves.

This section of the percussion group is so large with so many varieties, it’s impossible to cover every single instrument. So as a general rule if the instrument is loud like the maracas and involves a fair amount of movement to play it, you could place the mic a few feet away. If it’s quieter like an egg shaker, less than a foot should be about right. The agogo bell sounds nice when miked from a couple of feet distant.

The EV 635A/RE15 are reasonably priced and work well on the tambourine, maracas and shakers as does the Beyer M500 ribbon.

Both large and small diaphragm condensers work best for this collection of instruments. But experiment to find the mic that best fits the instrument.

Remember, most condensers will need phantom power (typically 48V DC, but check the specs of the mic you’re using, just to be sure).

Left – Congas Miked From Above With A Spaced Pair Of Condensers. Right – Timbales Miked From Above With An X-Y Stereo Pair.

The congas and timbales, produce high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels) which means you may need to back off a condenser to a safer distance, use its attenuation pad or use a dynamic mic instead.

Try a pair of AKG 414s, Sennheiser 421 dynamics or AT 4033 cardioid condensers about 18 inches to a couple of feet above and 6 inches out from the rims. SM57s do a good job of capturing the tone and attack.

You can also try miking the timbales from below with a couple of SM 57s pointing up towards the edge of the rims. These will capture the hits the player makes to the metal sides – a technique often used in Latin music where the player hits the skin and the side alternately, called Chapeo.

Timbales Miked From Below.

A budget mic solution might be to use Behringer B1s (below) – affordable condenser mics. They’re popular in a lot of Home Studios setups and give surprisingly good results, but at less than £100, don’t expect the same results you would get from Neumann 87s.

Behringer B1 and AKG C418 Miniature Clip Mic.

Or try the AKG C418 miniature clip-on condenser mic (above), specifically designed for drums and percussion.

Starting in next week’s Home Music Studio series of blogs, we’ll move on to the use of Signal Processing…..EQ, Compression, Expansion, Reverb and Echo, Flange and Chorus, Pitch Shifting and much more.

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