TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 46 Percussion In The Mix

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked in some detail, at mixing the Drums. Today we consider Percussion. This large and diverse group of instruments range in size from small finger-cymbals and whistles to various drums, congas, gongs, xylophones and marimbas. Percussion instruments cover anything that makes a sound when struck, shaken, scraped or rubbed.

Finger Cymbals & African Kambala Drum.

Considering how well any instrument will work in the mix, is dependant on how well it was recorded in the first place. Because this group of instruments is so varied, there are several different mic techniques to record them… single technique works for them all. So it’s essential the best technique is used for each instrument, otherwise you may have to deal with some serious compromises in the mix stage.

You might use a close mic on congas or drums if they’re in a static, fixed position. But that wouldn’t necessarily work well for some instruments like the tambourine which requires a lot of physical movement and is moved back and forth, when played. This would mean that the sound quality would change dramatically when miked close. And of course the further away you mike an instrument, the more you will pick up of the room acoustics.

Whistles Are Commonly Used In Latin Music Genres.

So think carefully before recording percussion. Each instrument will require a unique approach. We discussed the recording of several percussion instruments in this blog.

Also when recording, you have to be careful to not make the instrument too bright (in other words, don’t add too much high range EQ). Be especially attentive if you’re going to digital, as there’s no softening of the higher frequencies like there is with analog.

Recording Marimba With A Spaced Pair.

If a song features a melody played on a solo glockenspiel or marimba, for instance, it can be panned down the centre or off to one side if recorded in mono. If it was stereo miked, it could be panned across the stereo image from left to right or vice versa. Just don’t make the spread too wide – larger than life stereo images rarely sound that convincing.

Instruments like the glockenspiel have fast transients. And with a large instrument like the marimba (above), close miking might not pick up the extremities as well as the middle. The position you place your mics will of course depend on the pitch range that the player will be using on the instrument, for a particular song.

Also consider that the use of different types of mallet will produce quite different tonal results with these instruments, which means that EQ settings will vary from one situation to the next.

The percussion group of instruments is too large to describe the preferred EQ for each one in a mix. So we will suggest some ‘basic broad brush strokes’ you can apply to either high or low-pitched instruments. But their ultimate role and sound in a mix will be determined largely by the specific instrument, the music genre and how much importance each instrument plays in a particular song.

Sheila E On Timbales & Vocals Along With Dave Koz On Sax At  The Hollywood Bowl, California.

Just remember the tone of an instrument can be altered dramatically by using a different mic in a slightly different position. Some mics naturally enhance the higher frequencies, others improve the low-end. And the closer you mic anything, the more you will boost the low-end.

See these blogs for more information on mic types and techniques.

The higher pitched percussion instruments can sometimes benefit from boosting their high frequencies…..a few dB over 10 kHz for instance. To eliminate boxiness and the effects of close miking, try cutting below 500 Hz.

To help lower pitched percussion try cutting below 250 Hz and boosting around the 2.5-5 kHz range to add attack. If the instrument needs brightening up, add a few dB in the 8-10 kHz range.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear sound qualities that you don’t like, rather than knowing what’s right. To find the ‘right’ EQ that works best for an instrument, insert a parametric EQ and boost each band with a narrow bandwidth one at a time. Sweep through each band until you find a frequency that produces an unpleasant result. Then cut that frequency by an appropriate amount. Repeat this procedure with the other bands until you achieve a sound which you like and hopefully still sounds natural. And always remember to compare the EQ’d sound with the original to ensure it’s actually an improvement.

Global Drum Project Featuring Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead) & Zakir Hussain.

As I’ve mentioned many times before…’s becoming my mantra…..the sound you get from any acoustic instrument (percussion or otherwise) depends greatly on the mics you use, the position you place them, the player, the condition and tuning of the instrument (if it can be tuned) and last but not least, the room you’re recording in.

If you can control each one of these factors and produce a positive outcome, then the sound you record from the instrument should be good to great – which should give you an easier time in the mix. Ignore any one of these factors and you could end up with a sound that cannot be ‘fixed in the mix’.

Percussionist Playing Cowbell.

Certain percussion instruments are featured more than others in some genres of music. Take the cowbell for instance… Salsa music it’s very prominent, in fact it’s almost as loud as the lead vocal. So in that genre, if you don’t give importance to the cowbell in the mix, it can make the song sound weird or out-of-place.

Timbales Are Often Miked From Below (As Well As Above).

For music which features timbales, the common way to record them is to mike them from on top and below (the bottom mics will likely need their phase flipping). Again in Salsa music, the player will often hit the side of the timbales (known as Cascada) which is captured by the bottom mics.

So if you don’t know what to expect from your percussion players (and how they are going to play their instruments) before hitting the record button, you could end up missing a vital part of the instrument’s sound, which leaves you short – as it were – in the mix.

Guiro With Scraper.

A tasteful reverb or echo/delay on a specific piece of percussion, can often work well in the mix, e.g. marimbas, whistles and guiros – giving a very ethereal  tone. You could try adding a tight, room reverb to a marimba panning them both to the left side, then add a longer, hall reverb and pan to the right. Trial and error often wins out, resulting in a unique sound. Don’t forget to EQ the reverb so that any offensive frequencies or muddiness is removed.

The following technique produces a ‘stereo’ effect from a mono source. Add a short delay to the percussion signal – somewhere between 1 ms (millisecond) and 15 ms – usually works. But start low and increase the delay until you achieve the desired result. Pan the original signal hard left and the delayed signal hard right (or vice versa). Then switch your speaker monitors to mono to check the ‘stereo’ effect still works.

Many percussion instruments can produce high sound levels with extreme transients. So some compression can help to keep the instrument within usable limits and from using up too much headroom in the mix. Try between a 3:1 to 6:1 ratio. You will need quite a fast attack, between 10-20 ms (milliseconds) and a threshold setting of around -10 dB. The release can be about 50 ms. Due to the gain reduction achieved, you will need to re-instate the gain so that the output level matches the input.

If you need more information on compression and other dynamic processing, check out this blog.

Sir Elton John’s Percussionist – John Mahon – Uses A Whole Array Of Percussion Instruments.

It’s common to record a percussionist who has a whole range of instruments that have to be recorded simultaneously. So listen with your ears to the setup of the instruments and place your mics accordingly, to capture all the instruments as well as possible. This will need a fair amount of patience and experimentation.

Wind Chimes, Cymbals, Wood Blocks – Are All Common Components For A Percussion Setup.

In the mix, a group of percussion instruments can be spread across the stereo field if multiple mics have been used or alternatively placed to one side. And don’t forget, if you’ve used multiple mics check for phase issues.

If you end up recording each one separately as overdubs, you can then apply EQ and compression if necessary and pan each instrument exactly where you want in the stereo field. This allows you to fill any holes in the stereo picture. Occasionally a single instrument may be panned in real-time, from left to right or vice versa during the mix. But as with all ‘special effects’, don’t overdo it.

Mixing a collection of percussion instruments with multiple mics in one performance take, is going to be a challenge (similar to the challenges of miking and recording a complete drum kit). As mentioned earlier, some percussion instruments are quite quiet whilst others produce high output levels. The initial problem you have to figure out is where to place the correct number of mics to capture each instrument with enough separation between them, so that you can mix the collection effectively. If this proves too difficult, you might be better off recording each instrument individually as an overdub. This will then give you total control in the mix stage.

If you need some inspiration on how to treat drums and percussion in your mixes, take a listen to Latin based or influenced music…..Djavan, Santana, Lee Ritenour, Peter Gabriel – ‘So’ & ‘Security’, Grace Jones – ‘Nightclubbing’, Yello – ‘One Second’, Wally Badarou – ‘Echoes’ or Buena Vista Social Club.

Next week we’ll look at Bass, Electric and Acoustic Guitars in the  mix.

If you have any questions regarding the recording, overdub or mixing process so far, drop us a line. Our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a…

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…service to musicians of all genres.

So if you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.

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