Prepared Percussion: Recording Tricks
Fig. 1 Place a hi-hat cymbal upside-down on a floor tom to amplify its harmonics.
In 1940, composer John Cage discovered that he could expand the timbre of a piano by placing objects between the strings. The result became known as the “prepared piano,” and it revolutionized the way musicians view the instrument. Since then, every instrument has been scrutinized in a similar manner, as players explore new ways to prepare guitars, saxophones, violins, trumpets, and, not surprisingly, drums and percussion — all in an attempt to expand the colors they can use when recording and gigging.
If you think this is esoteric nonsense, guess again. Jazzers added rivets to their rides decades ago to create the sizzle cymbal. And in the ’60s, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr placed tea towels over his snare and toms to mute the tone, which the engineers at Abbey Road fattened up with a heavy dose of compression. These days, rock drummers routinely stack cymbals to create dry, trashy sounds that are perfect for accents.
In this article I’ll describe ways to spice up your tracks by adding objects to your drums and cymbals, including tips on how to record these novel sounds. Later, I’ll talk about substituting the various drums in a kit with household items, to further expand your palette.
Fig. 2 For certain takes, Marco Giovino (Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy) holds the longer chain in this photo in his left hand along with a drum stick to create a gated-snare sound. The chain also comes down on a washboard attached to his leg. The metal ring with jingles is a custom Hammerax Vroom, which he places on his floor tom.
Get Prepared For Creativity
Technically speaking, most drummers already prepare their instruments by muffling them with bits of tape, pads, or sound rings. Start by removing all the artificial dampening you’ve applied to the heads. The tips in this article work best when the heads are able to ring naturally.
As you experiment, remember that the sound you hear in the room is not necessarily what you’ll hear on playback. Mike choice and placement influence how the drums sound while recording; compression, gating, reverb, and other effects can be used to shape the sound as you track or when you mix. I often urge my recording students to start with bright, noisy, or long-ringing sounds, because you can always quiet things down later. However, it’s harder to add harmonics in post-production without resorting to plug-in effects, which are handy but can add an artificial quality to the instrument. What we’re looking for are sounds that have an organic feel.
Fig. 3 I’ve divided up the head of my floor tom using heavy objects. Each uncovered part of the head has a unique sound, and the metal is muted slightly when it’s sitting on the drum.
Your drums are more than just instruments; they are resonators. A drum shell amplifies the sound of a vibrating head, which moves in a very complex way as the sound decays. In addition, drums amplify the sound of objects sitting on the heads, such as a cup cymbal, an ice bell, or a Chinese opera gong. The weightier the object is, the more interesting the resulting sound will be.
For example, place a hi-hat cymbal upside-down on a floor tom, being careful that its edges don’t hit the drum’s metal hoop. Then tap the cymbal with a stick or mallet. If you press the center of the cymbal so that it goes up and down against the head, you will add a bit of tremolo as it rings. These harmonic subtleties are best captured with a condenser mike, placed 6” or more away. Adding a bit of compression and reverb will enhance sustain, so it seems to ring longer than you would expect. And because the cymbal or gong can be quickly added and removed, it’s a technique you can easily replicate onstage, given the right level of amplification.