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Drums: Energize Your Songs With Easy Percussion Tracks

August 1, 2009

If you feel the tracking process is done once the drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, and vocals are down, then you may be missing out on a lot of fun. Percussion tracks can be a huge—and hugely entertaining—part of the “sweetening” phase of your recordings, and, no, I’m not talking about simply adding a tambourine to every snare hit (that is, unless you’re planning to overdub a platoon of tambourines to rival anything Phil Spector did during his pre-jailbird days as the creator of the Wall of Sound). After all, even basic sample libraries offer a fair amount of exotic percussion instruments, and you shouldn’t just leave these fabulous sounds to waste away due to neglect. Furthermore, you can score non-virtual percussion instruments relatively inexpensively by raiding toy stores, or go the distance by purchasing professional percussion tools from your local music store (or online). Whether you sequence or trigger samples, or actually put hand or stick to wood, metal, or drum skin, exploring the sonic and rhythmic attributes of percussion can add new layers of excitement to a track you thought was totally cooked. Here are three percussion options from a recent acoustic production of mine.

Stealing Time

Okay, there’s not much “new” in today’s music world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow a cool idea from a different discipline and make it part of your own thing. For example, Cheryl Munoz, background singer and percussionist for the Ol’ Cheeky Bastards, also studies flamenco dancing. When she saw and heard a cajon being played at a flamenco dance concert, she decided to purchase one and incorporate it into the Bastards mix of folky, punky, Celtic music. The cajon’s unique hand-slapped snare, tom, kick drum, and wood block sounds now appear as the main percussion treats on OCB’s Working Class Heroes and Truths [Rotten Eggs]. We attached an Audix F-90 clip-on mic to the side of the port on the back of the cajon, which allowed us to record the cajon performances with Munoz sitting in the control room, and listening via the monitor speakers, rather than headphones. This situation meant she could play as if she were performing live—a “comfort” plus as she was still a newbie cajon player—and there was virtually no signal bleed from song tracks into the microphone.

Shaker “Hi-Hat”

Hi-hat cymbals are supposed to be aggressive and bright, and they do a marvelous job driving everything from funk to metal. But what if you’re dealing with some gently strummed acoustic guitars and the hi-hits are just obliterating them? This was kind of a big problem, because I had programmed a hi-hat groove and all the instruments were tracked to the offending cymbal sear.

Ultimately, I decided to replace the hihats with a shaker egg that exhibited a sweeter, less-sizzling sound, and the mild sh-sh-sh-sh fit in beautifully with the acoustics, kicking the groove while simultaneously not pilfering all the tonal attention. I dug the effect so much that I doubled the shaker track—one with a red egg and one with a black egg (somehow, I fooled myself into thinking the color actually made some kind of timbral difference)— and panned them hard right and hard left.

Bongo Time in India & North Africa

For a more rockin’ acoustic track, I channeled my inner beatnik and laid down a sixteenth-note onslaught on some bongos, one finger hitting the “high” bongo, and another finger swatting the “low” bongo in an approximation of a rock hi-hat part. (And, yes, I was replacing the hi-hat cymbals again—which, at this point, were rapidly being demoted to click tracks.) The Audix F-90 came in handy once more, as it could be affixed to one of the tuning rings. Just for the sake of doing something idiotic (see how much fun percussion sessions can be?), I decided to double the bongo groove with sampled tablas. Then, I tripled the same rhythm part by playing a dumbek I had bought on a whim. The rhythmic layer was spooky, spicy, and driving, and I panned the bongos in the middle, with the dumbek mixed slightly lower in volume on the right, and the tabla samples sitting a bit under the dumbek volume on the left. What a blast!

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