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How to Record Obscure Percussion Instruments

When you think of recording instruments, things like electric guitar, drum kit, bass, percussion, piano, organ and vocals probably come to mind. That’s mostly because they tend to be more prominent in western music.

Of course, there are horn sections, string sections and choirs. We’re all familiar with those too. A lot of studios don’t see them on a daily basis though.

What the …

There’s a good chance that at some point a musician will bring in an instrument you’ve never seen before. Especially when you’re in a major city like NYC or LA.

I’ve been in front of and behind the glass when this has happened. I’m going to share my experiences.

First, as an engineer, you have to throw out the notion that you just stick a mic “there” and be done with it.

You must also keep in mind that just because the most sound is coming from one area, it might not fully represent the instrument.

I have been on sessions as a sideman where I’ve seen engineers give a funny look at something, grab a mic and never look back. Sure you can get lucky once in a while. But, ignorance is usually not bliss.

I’ve also witnessed some really gifted engineers handle the situation very differently.

What did they do differently? They were very inquisitive about the exotic instrument. They asked a lot of questions. Where did it come from? How does it get used? Where does the sound come from? How are you using it in the music?

All of this before they pick out a mic. If you’re lucky, the person who bought the instrument has some background knowledge.

Berimbau Blues

Recently, I did a session with Nation Beat and Maracatu NYC leader/drummer Scott Kettner. The concept behind our session was to combine elements from the American Delta and Northeast Brazil. I would be playing slide guitar and he would be playing the drum kit he assembled from various Brazilian percussion instruments.

The instrument that was the most odd was the Berimbau. It’s a single string percussion instrument. It reminded me slightly of the Diddley Bow, even though they’re used in a very different manner.

You Can Stick That Up ….

When it came to placing a mic, I was lucky. Scott happens to be the leading expert in Maracatu in North America. He knows a lot about Brazilian percussion instruments.

Because of the rather large setup, there was a limited selection of mics left. We had a complete drum kit set up too. This was so he could switch between the composite kit and a traditional Tama trap set.

Here’s the set up:

IMG_4221

The Berimbau is not a very loud instrument. I knew I would have to get a mic really close or it would be all bleed.

There was a Sennheiser E906 laying around. It’s a super-cardioid mic. It’s great with fast transient signals.

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I listened to the instrument quite a bit and then placed the mic underneath where a lot of the sound was coming from. Mostly in hopes of rejecting the other drums. It sounded pretty good. Job done, right? Nope.

I asked Scott if it accurately replicated the sound of the instrument. He said it didn’t. I quizzed him further. He told me that there wasn’t enough attack. Hmmm … Makes sense because I was thinking the intent was to have less attack. It’s all about perspective, right?

This meant I was going to have to move the mic to a place that will get more bleed. I tried to find a spot that still rejected as much bleed as possible.

Here is where the mic lived:

IMG_4222

IMG_4223

We listened to the new track, made a small tweak to the tone using a Pultec EQ and boom … Got it.

Duh!

Sure a lot of engineers are saying “it’s not rocket science” right about now. Correct, it’s not. The main point is, when you start recording an instrument (especially one you don’t know), don’t think that there is only one perspective of the instrument.

Let’s listen to the sound of the Berimbau:

Wondering about that giant bass drum sound? It’s an Alfaia. I’ll get to that in another article.

IMG_4225

The crack sound is a small cymbal on a Maracatu snare drum.

Funky Drummer

Often world instruments have a lot of funk to them. They buzz, crackle or make all kinds of weird noises. They’re supposed to. Don’t let your Apple Loop mind try to fix every quirk.

Here’s a video we made from the session to give you some perspective on how it was being used.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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