Prepared Percussion: Recording Tricks
If you’re looking for something that will fit in a louder musical context, try placing a small- or medium-size chain on one of your drums to add some rattle. If you put it on the snare and turn off the strainer, the result is a high-pitched tom sound with some grit. As you’d expect, different sizes of chain sound different on the drum, but often all you need is something small to spice up the instrument. If the music requires you to play so hard that the chain jumps off of the head, attach the chain’s ends to your drumhead with gaffer tape.
Percussion instruments with little or no sustain — wood blocks, cowbells, and claves — can also be placed on a drumhead. In this case, the object will dampen the head, and vice versa. What’s interesting about this is that the parts of the head that remain uncovered by the object will now have a different pitch and a shorter decay.
I often place a couple of heavy items — a large cowbell or a portion of a car muffler — on my largest floor tom in order to divide the head into smaller sections, each of which has its own tone. These preparations are great for Latin and jazz styles when you’re looking to add something to a rhythm part that has a quirky timbre and a loud, sharp tone. And because the instruments are so close together on the head, you can accent or ride on a variety of different-sounding surfaces without having to reach very far.
For this kind of sound, I use a dynamic mike, though I back it off 6” from the drum in order to capture all the timbres emanating from the head, rather than just a specific part. To keep other sections of the kit from bleeding into this track, choose a mike that has a tighter pattern, such as hypercardioid, and then aim the mike so the surrounding instruments are in the null points of its polar pattern.
My favorite sound is the semi-resonant one you get when you place a cymbal face-down on a drum. This technique works best when the cymbal completely covers the head and is heavy enough that it doesn’t bounce around when you play it (unless you want that effect). For example, I have a heavy 14” hi-hat cymbal that fits perfectly on my snare head, and the combination makes for a very trashy backbeat. However, I’ve also placed heavy crash cymbals on my toms and used them for ride patterns.
Each part of the cymbal will yield a different sound when struck, so be sure to try out the rim, bell, and top and see what you get. This is another preparation that you can add and remove quickly, so it’s easy to use in a gig setting.
While I’m on the subject of amplifying objects acoustically, be sure to check out the sound-reinforcement properties of a block of Styrofoam, like the kind that comes with appliances or audio gear. To hear a quick example, push one end of a spring or Slinky into the block, then hold the block upside down and strike the spring as it dangles. The result will be a complex blend of harmonics that sounds electronically generated.
Fig. 4 For this session, I was asked to play a wooden cajon as a snare, using an open hand. The track was then compressed and sent through a guitar-amp modeler.
As the lowest sound in the kit, the most obvious way to treat this drum is to flip its tone upside-down and emphasize high frequencies. Rather than tightening the head to raise the pitch, you can create upper partials by attaching objects to the head.
My favorite trick involves a simple 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper. If the front head has a sound hole, simply tape two edges of the sheet across the hole, so the page rattles when you hit the kick. If you have the front head removed, tape the page across the open space. When you place a dynamic mike a few inches away, but pointing at the paper, you’ll still hear the kick drum’s low tone, but with the added noise of the page flapping with each burst of air.
If you want to record a normal kick sound simultaneously so you have more options when mixing, place a second mike facing the batter side of the kick and assign it to a separate track. Aim the mike capsule at the spot where the beater hits the head, but in a position that won’t be in the way of the player. At this point, the two mikes are out of phase from each other, so you will need to flip the polarity of one of the mikes at the preamp or mixer by pressing the button that has a picture of a 0 with a slash through it (0).
Fig. 5 Marco Giovino created a custom hi-hat using chains that hit an Italian tile.