Prepared Percussion: Recording Tricks

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.

Recording Secrets

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.

Recording Tricks

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.

Sound Tables

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.

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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.

Recording Tricks

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.

Bass Drum

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).

Recording Tricks

Fig. 5 Marco Giovino created a custom hi-hat using chains that hit an Italian tile.

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Drum Substitutes

Although you’ve spent a lot of time and money getting your set to sound just right, sometimes a song needs something that gives it a bit of attitude or “adds the eyebrows,” as Frank Zappa would say. The perfect sound might be as close as your kitchen, basement, or garage.

Drummers have a natural inclination to substitute everyday items for real drums. Elvis’s drummer, D.J. Fontana, says he cut a number of classic tracks by slapping cardboard boxes. Crickets drummer Jerry Allison also played the drum parts on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and “Baby, I Don’t Care” on boxes. Singer/songwriter Nick Lowe has mentioned his love of the “telephone-book snare.”

The trick is to keep an open mind about the sound potential of mundane household items, because it’s not the relative pitch of the item that matters, but rather the part it plays in the groove. You might think you want to hear a high-pitched, metallic sound to fill the backbeat role of a snare drum in a song, only to find that the punchy and dark thump of a drum stick on a pizza box delivers the goods. The effect can be further enhanced by using dynamics processing, such as compression and gating, to extract an even more powerful tone.

The sound you get from a box, tub, phonebook, or trashcan is greatly influenced by what you hit it with. If a drum stick gives you too much of a click, try using a yarn or felt mallet. For bigger items, I like to use something with weight and mass, such as a large super-ball stuck onto a chopstick. On really large items, such as 50-gallon oil drums or dumpsters, I sometimes use the side of my fist because it helps bring out the low-end.

Although engineers often use a sampled sound in a rhythm part, it’s more fun as a drummer to actually play the instrument so that the timbre varies naturally rather than remaining static (unless that’s the effect you are going for). If I’m substituting a tub or box for the snare, I’ll actually place it on the snare stand and incorporate it into the entire kit. However, when the replacement instrument is too big or fragile to be played at the same time as the rest of your kit, you’ll have to overdub it. To do that, you will need as much isolation between your drums as possible when you record so that the instrument you’re replacing doesn’t bleed into the other mikes. One way to do this is to substitute something very soft and quiet in the kit as you play. For example, if you plan to replace the snare part with a sample, try putting a pillow or some other quiet object on the snare drum when you do the main take. This gives you something to hit, so you can get your groove on, but the result is quiet enough that you can easily swap it out for the sample later on.

If you’re recording and editing with a digital audio workstation (DAW), you can use a drum-replacement plug-in, such as Drumagog 5 or Slate Digital Trigger, to replace the drum hits with samples. (That’s drum-replacement software, not drummer-replacement. We still want a live drummer laying down the feel so we can enhance the part with sampled sounds at a later time.)

If the sound you want to use is so fragile that it can only be hit a couple of times before it breaks, no problem; all you need to record are a few hits. Then you can duplicate the best ones and lay them into a track, whether you’re using Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic, Cakewalk Sonar, MOTU Digital Performer, or some other DAW.

Overall, the most important thing is to listen to the new sound in relation to the song, rather than on its own. What might sound dry and dull when soloed might be perfect once you hear it within the mix, whether it’s supporting one of the drums in your kit or replacing it all together.