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Recording Mythology, Pt. 21 / Bongo Fury

A good friend bought a pair of bongo drums. I am under the impression that he miked them up and attempted to record a track with them. I also gather that the recording didn’t turn out to suit him because he later asked if I’d write a blog on recording bongo drums.

Here it is.

Drums of any sort are one of the last things that any engineer learns to mic successfully. It isn’t easy, it requires anywhere from three to fifty-eleven microphones, placement is crucial and it takes forever to mix them. That is until it becomes second nature. Which takes several years. Which is also why engineers get paid well for their services.

First of all, drums of any sort will reverberate in a room that hasn’t been heavily treated with absorptive materials. Since drums are of indefinite pitch, they create sound waves across a very broad segment of the spectrum. Thus, if a room isn’t properly treated the slap-back echoes will be plentiful and the mic will be extra careful to reproduce every stray piece of racket that it can dredge up, insuring that your tracks will sound horrible.

If you can’t afford to give the recording space a proper treatment, or if the spouse won’t hear of it, all hope is not lost. There are two separate approaches to tackling this problem and today I’ll outline the one which utilises the tools we’ve discussed in earlier installments. Next time, in part 22, I’ll explain what can be done in the absence of these electronic sculpting tools.

First, you’re going to want to decide what your miking needs are going to consist of. I’m sticking with bongos here to keep from spreading myself too thin here. I’d mix bongos down the center, personally, so a single microphone would certainly do the trick, but I’m also very bad about multi-tracking each instrument. In other words, I’ll give the instrument one mic but two tracks. I like to do this in order to give the illusion of depth to my mixes.

I’m not advocating the use of one mic only, but a lot of folks only have one decent mic, and many times this mic will serve as the sole tool used to record each track. Additionally, if you want to use stereo miking to do bongos, you are going to be dealing with phase problems. This seems like a minor issue until you record the perfect track and find out that, on playback, it had disappeared. Lets put it this way: When using two mics, the sound waves have to hit the diaphragm of the microphones at precisely the same time in order to sound best. If the alignment is off a little bit, it won’t sound as good. If the alignment is off exactly one half of the wavelength, one signal will amount to +1 while the other signal will amount to -1 and this will sum to zero. Stereo mics take a lot of the headache out of this, yet they are somewhat more costly and hardly as flexible as two separate mics. Take your choice. If you want to use two mics, you want to use those which exhibit cardioid pickup pattern.

Or use one mic and track to two separate tracks. The best mic for this application will be one utilising an omnidirectional pickup pattern. Next, put on the headphones, turn up the mic a bit and, using a boom to hold and position the mic, bring it in close to the heads, about 3 cm away from the edge of the drum body. Imagine that you are looking across the top of the drum head at a very shallow angle. Another way to put it would be to imagine the angle that you would skip a stone across the surface of a body of water. This is the angle you will want to aim your mic across the drum heads. When using one mic, simply bisect the plane and aim the mic down the middle. If you are using two mics, each mic gets a respective drum head and you get to do all of the following twice.

Bring up the slider and while popping on one head and then the other, begin to crank down the gate on your compressor until you can tell that the gate opens immediately when you strike the head and then closes just as quickly. What you want to do here is to completely eliminate any of the room reverberation coming back down the mic. Next adjust the compression to take away the peak spike of the sound wave. You aren’t wanting to smother the life out of it. You will want to retain the dynamic of the strike but just flatten out the peak a tad. Readjust your output gain as necessary on your compressor.

Now move to the EQ unit and mix them up warm and fat on one channel and tight and crisp on the other channel. Monitor each process separately. When you are satisfied, bring up both channels and pan one left slightly and the other to the right. Wow! How freaking cool! This is how to gain depth.

The signal is going to be extremely dry now, and so if you are into recording wet, now is the time to add a little reverb tail to your mix. Just enough to make it sound convincing! I find that most beginning home recordist don’t know when to stop using an effect. They figure if a little is good, a lot must be better. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

It goes without saying that you will twiddle with the controls for the next three hours until you get everything just right but if there’s any truth to the adage that the adventure is in the journey, not the destination, what are we waiting for?

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter, a composer, slinger of fun both far and wide and purveyor of honesty.

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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