Recording the Drums of Salvador

Life is sweet for Mrcio Victor. At age 25, the heavy-hitting Brazilian percussionist has already worked with some of that country's biggest music stars,

Life is sweet for Márcio Victor. At age 25, the heavy-hitting Brazilian percussionist has already worked with some of that country's biggest music stars, including Carlinhos Brown, Daniela Mercury, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Marisa Monte. He has also been building an international reputation by laying down tracks for artists such as Gloria Estefan, Simply Red, Arto Lindsey, and even Luciano Pavarotti.

But it is his own band, the wildly popular Psirico (pronounced “pee-see-REE-ko”), based in Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, that catapulted Victor into the spotlight more than ten years ago, and which remains the fertile ground for his musical roots and innovations. A 14-piece vortex of talent, Psirico has injected fresh life and musicality into Salvador's pagode music. (See the sidebar “Cultural References” for a definition of pagode.) As the group's leader, lead singer, principle songwriter-arranger, and chief percussionist, Victor is clearly on top of his game.

I met Victor at Groove Studio in Salvador, Bahia, where he was working on tracks for Psirico's upcoming release, Macumba Popular Brasiliero. (The title is a wordplay on “musica popular Brasiliero,” or MPB. Macumba, a Yoruban word, is slang in Salvador for, roughly, “black magic.”)

Groove Studio (, owned by Brazilian axé music star Durval Lelys (see the section on axé in the “Cultural References” sidebar), is one of only a handful of top-notch commercial recording studios in Salvador. Behind the board was Groove's chief engineer, Daniel Reis, one of the city's finest young engineers. Reis had kindly invited me to play assistant engineer so that I could check out the studio and especially how he mics the many different percussion instruments commonly played here.

I was particularly keen on the day's agenda; Victor had invited two of Salvador's most renowned drum groups, Banda Olodum and Filhos de Gandhy (see the sidebar “The Drums of Salvador”), to make guest appearances on Psirico's new CD. As someone who learned his art in the streets in the intensely communal style of drumming that so defines this tropical city, Victor is clearly happy to spread the fruits of his success — giving back to those who share his love for the music, drums, and distinctive rhythms of Salvador.

Opening Salvo

The day started early at Groove Studio. By the time Reis and I arrived midmorning, the covered walkway outside the studio was stacked high from end to end with a huge assortment of exotic — for me at least — drums and percussion instruments. Other than at a music mega store or a NAMM show, I had never seen so many drums in one place.

Groove comprises two separate but interconnected studios. Studio A features a spacious control room (outfitted with a Digidesign Control 24 mixer and Pro Tools HD3 with 192 kHz I/Os); two recording spaces (one small, one medium-size); and a sala de vip (VIP room) behind the control room, which, in a pinch, can be used as a third recording space.

Studio B has a smaller control room (based around an automated Soundcraft DC2020 analog mixer) and one fairly large recording space. Both control rooms are set up to record digitally (Studio B has a Pro Tools TDM system), on analog (using 2-inch, 24-track tape machines — a Studer A827 Gold Edition in Studio A, and an Otari MTR-90 MkIII in Studio B), or both.

Reis had recorded and mixed Bando Olodum's most recent album, 25 Años de Samba-Reggae (RE Music, 2005), and everyone had been thrilled with the huge, in-your-face drum that sound he got. So it only made sense to start with the same setup. Banda Olodum typically consists of 13 musicians: 9 drummers and 4 singers. For the Psirico track we were working on, Victor had specified just one singer, Lucas Di Fiori, whom Reis set up in the back of the control room with a handheld Neumann KMS 105.

As he had done when recording 25 Años de Samba-Reggae, Reis split the nine drummers into three groups, isolating each in its own recording space. He put the two musicians playing surdos de pontas (the largest drums, which produce the alternating low notes on downbeats 1 and 2 and are traditionally positioned on either side of the group) in Studio A's smaller recording space, and separated them by a waist-high gobo. The two drums were close-miked with AKG D 112s and far-miked by a spaced pair of Sennheiser MD 421s positioned high in the room's corners on either side (see Fig. 1).

Reis put the three drummers playing surdos de meios (medium-size surdos, traditionally positioned in the middle of the group) in Studio A's larger recording space, where he close-miked each drum from the top with an MD 421 (see Fig. 2). In addition, he positioned a large-diaphragm condenser mic (a BPM CR-73 II in omni mode) as an overhead a few feet above the middle drummer, who was the drum leader for the band.

The remaining drummers — three repique players, and a fourth person on tarol (a snare drum played with a distinctive buzz-tap-tap-tap ostinato) were set up in the meeting room behind Studio A's control room. Reis positioned an AKG The Tube large-diaphragm condenser mic — set to omni — a couple of feet above the repiques (see Fig. 3). He miked the tarol with a Shure Beta 98H/C, a small clip-on cardioid condenser, attached to the rim of the drum.

For the monitor mix, Reis panned the two close mics on the surdos de pontas to approximately 9:30 and 2:30, with the lower drum on the right and the two overhead mics panned hard-left and -right. For the surdos de meios, the two outer drums were panned hard-left and -right, the center drum (belonging to the drum leader) to 11 o'clock, and the single overhead mic to 1 o'clock. Reis panned the three repiques just right of dead center and the tarol to around 10 o'clock.

To refine the recorded sound, Reis applied a highpass filter (set at 120 Hz) to the track of the overhead condenser positioned above the three surdos de meios. That got rid of the low “boom,” allowing him to raise the level of the overhead mic so as to sharpen the attack picked up from the drum heads. (The close mics were sufficient for representing low end from the drums.) Reis also employed a neat trick to fill out the low end: he added low harmonics to the surdos de pontas tracks using a Waves Renaissance Bass plug-in (we were recording to Pro Tools), fattening the low notes from the two drums and balancing their sustains.

Impressively, Reis's drum mix — pretty much the identical setup he had used when recording and mixing 25 Años de Samba-Reggae — sounded huge, even without further processing (such as EQ, compression, or reverb). The only thing missing was for the producer, Victor, to okay the sound.

Big Challenge

Also on the day's agenda was getting a sound in Studio B for Filhos de Gandhy, a 22-piece bloco de afoxé, or a drum/vocal parade group (see the sidebar “The Drums of Salvador”). This time around, Reis wouldn't have the luxury of multiple rooms; all 22 musicians would have to be recorded in Studio B's one recording space. To get a big sound (comparable to Banda Olodum), a combination of close- and far mics would have to be used, which could be a challenge when miking 22 players in one space.

That particular day, the Gandhys had 16 percussionists and 6 people playing clarins (bugles). The percussion section consisted of 9 hand drummers, 4 agogô bell players, and 3 shekere players. The hand drums included one djembe, a set of three congas, five atabaques, and two rums. (The last two are ceremonial drums used in Candomblé. See the sidebar “Cultural References.”)

Not surprisingly, Reis selected dynamic cardioid mics for close-miking duties: an AKG D 440 on the djembe, a spaced pair of MD 421s on the three congas (positioned so that each mic was equidistant between two drums), and clip-on Sennheiser E 604s on the five atabaques. (The players strap the drums to their waists and move around a bit while playing, so the clip-ons are ideal.)

For the rums (the two bigger drums that produce the music's bass notes), Reis put two mics on each drum — one positioned near the head, the other looking into the bottom of the drum — and reversed the polarity on the bottom mics. He used AKG D112s on the tops of the rums (see Fig. 4). For the bottoms, he miked the bigger drum with an Audix D6 and the smaller one with an AKG D 550 (both are cardioid dynamics designed for low-end duties).

It wasn't necessary to close-mic the agogô and shekere players, who were lined up on either side of the drummers (see Fig. 5), or the bugle players, who were positioned along the back wall (as far from everyone else as possible). Their sounds carried just fine over the thump of drums in the room. A well-placed room mic or two or a stereo pair would be sufficient.

Reis covered his bases by using three different stereo-miking setups. He positioned a spaced (and mismatched) pair of large-diaphragm tube mics (a Neumann M 149 Tube and an AKG The Tube) high in the corners at the front of the room . He put up a Crown SASS-P MK-II (stereo PZM mic) in the center-front of the room, a foot or so above the heads of the musicians and angled down a bit. Finally, he set up an XY-coincident pair of AKG C 414 B/ULS condensers (in cardioid mode) directly below the SASS-P (see Fig. 6).

Change of Direction

By early afternoon everything was set. We were getting a great sound in both studios, and the drummers were ready to roll (and to be photographed — a film crew was on hand to shoot footage for a documentary about the making of the CD). When Victor showed up, though, he listened for a few minutes, then surprised everyone by saying he didn't like the drum sound we were getting. For him, all the close mics were bringing too much focus to individual elements, resulting in an unnatural quality. He wanted the drum groups to sound as they do when you hear them in real life — playing in the streets. So he nixed both recording setups, and soon we were tearing down the many close mics we had so carefully set.

Fortunately, we had recorded some of Olodum rehearsing the song before Victor showed up and had us abandon the multiroom, close-mic setup (see Web Clips 1a and 1b).

To get the “street” sound Victor was after meant recording the nine Olodum drummers together in one space. Reis put them in the larger of the two Studio A rooms. It was a tight fit, but they managed to set up more or less the way they do on stage: the repiques in front, the surdos de meios in the middle, and the surdos de pontas on either end. Reis selected four mics for the job: again the Neumann M 149 and AKG's The Tube, positioned high in opposite corners as a spaced pair, and two Sennheiser MD 421s, also set as a spaced pair, but along the floor, beneath the Neumann and AKG mics.

The change in setups did the trick: Banda Olodum now sounded plausibly as though it could be playing in the cobblestone streets of Pelourinho, in the heart of old Salvador towering over the bay (see Web Clips 2a and 2b). The drummers were playing better, too — putting them together in one room made a difference not only in the sound of the track, but also in the feel of the music.

Hearing Isn't Believing

Of course, capturing a street sound doesn't necessarily exclude close-miking, multitracking, or any of the other options afforded by studio recording. The trick, as always, is to make it sound the way you want — no matter what happens in the studio.

After a few unsatisfactory attempts at getting a great sound on all 22 Gandhys playing and singing at one time, Victor and Reis finally pulled the bugles, quieted the singers, and focused on recording just the percussion. They could overdub the vocals and horns later.

Reis used five mics (in the positions described previously) to capture the sound of the 16 percussionists: the Crown SASS-P stereo mic, the XY pair of AKG C 414s, and the spaced pair of the Neumann M 149 and the AKG The Tube. Much of the success of the recording (tracked to 2-inch tape on the Otari MTR-90) was due to how well Reis mixed the sound in the room before starting to record (see Web Clip 3a). Standing in the “conductor's spot,” with his head just beneath the SASS-P, he positioned the various percussionists in the room as they played, in effect balancing the instrument levels and their positions in the stereo field.

After the Gandhys' percussion track was nailed, Reis cleared the room, set up an XY-coincident pair of AKG C 451s, and overdubbed the bugles. To fill up the stereo field, he arranged the six clarinheiros in a semicircle around the pair of mics, with each player standing about 15 feet back from the mics. After that came a pass for two musicians playing the apitos (whistles), again recorded with the pair of 451s.

Reis recorded the group vocals the following day in the same room. He set up the Neumann M 149 Tube in omni mode and had the musicians form a circle around the mic. The singers recorded six passes, which made for a sweetly chorused sound (see Web Clip 3b).

In Its Spell

Whether you're talking drum sets or drum groups, getting a huge, modern, in-your-face drum sound is a goal worth striving for, and there's a lot to be learned from taking that approach. Throw everything you have at it, making each element sound as big and detailed as possible. After all, you can always scale things back in the mix later, if need be. Right?

Well, not exactly. As this session showed, the isolate-and-close-mic-everything approach is not always in the best interests of the song, particularly when the goal is sonic realism. In this case, in order to obtain the sound of a drum group playing in the city streets, a more ambient approach, using stereo miking, is just what the doctor ordered.

I hope you will check out Macumba Popular Brasiliero when it hits the streets later this year so that you can hear for yourself what the good doctor has been up to. His name is Márcio Victor, and he and his group Psirico are eager to work some macumba on all who listen.

Former EM senior associate editor Brian Knave recently opened the doors to his new project studio in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Special thanks to Daniel Reis, Márcio Victor, Banda Olodum, Filhos de Gandhy, and everyone at Groove Studio.


Here is further explanation of some of the key Brazilian musical and religious terms mentioned in this story.


Pagode (pronounced “pa-GO-djee”) means different things in different parts of Brazil. Usually, though, it refers to a party with food, drinks, upbeat live music, and uninhi-bited dancing. The movement began in the suburban backyards of Rio de Janeiro with traditional samba musicians who were having difficulty finding commercial outlets for their “old-style” music. Like most musical movements, as its popularity and record sales grew, pagode became increasingly commercialized, taking on elements of pop and rock — and eventually alienating many who loved original pagode.

In Salvador, pagode music is perhaps less identifiable as a form of samba than as an offshoot of axé and samba-reggae. It is heavy on drums and percussion, and strongly influenced by African rhythms and vocal stylings. Four instruments form the nucleus of a pagode group: voice, cavaquinho (a small, four-stringed guitar), surdo, and pandeiro (Brazilian tambourine). But in the local taverns and dives where you're likely to find pagode, any number of other percussion instruments — such as repinique, tamborim, and shakers — are likely to get thrown into the mix, along with group singing, lewd dancing, and general rowdiness.


Originally more a marketing term than a distinct musical style, the word axé (pronounced “ah-SHAY”) is a Candomblé greeting meaning “positive power” or “good vibration.” It was first applied derogatorily by a journalist referring to the aggressive, Afro-influenced dance music coming out of Salvador's Carnival. But eventually, the musicians embraced the term, and the labels used it to market the music.

Axé might be described as what happens when electric guitar and its rock-and-roll brethren of bass, drums, and keyboards meet the ABCs of traditional drumming (African, Brazilian, and Caribbean) on top of a triple-deck 18-wheeler with speakers wrapped all around and the volume turned up to 11, far past distortion. (I'm referring to the trio electricos — humongous rolling soundstages that people dance around on the streets of Salvador during Carnival. Not all trio electrico music is axé — just most of it.) A fertile gumbo of grooves, axé mixes rhythms such as ijexá (African, same as afoxé), maracatu and samba (Brazilian), and merengue and reggae (Caribbean), with elements of pop, rock, and electronica. The result is high-voltage, good-time party music with driving, sensual rhythms.


Candomblé (pronounced “khan-dome-BLAY”) is an African-American religion practiced in Brazil and some adjacent countries. It is especially common in Salvador, a natural port city that was a primary destination for the Portuguese slave trade. Descended from the Yoruban religion (the Yoruba live in present-day Nigeria and Benin), Candomblé has much in common with Santería, a religion practiced in Cuba. In Yoruban, Candomblé, and Santería religions, followers worship both a single “god of all gods” (Olódumaré or Olorun) and dozens of “lesser gods” (known as orixás in Brazil) in the form of personified aspects of nature and spirit.

The Yoruban slaves were able to preserve their religion by syncretizing the orixás with Catholic saints and deities. For example, Oxalá was merged with Jesus (or Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador), and Iansã became Saint Barbara.

One key feature the three religions share is ritual music ceremonies involving complex, polyrhythmic drumming. Each orixá has a corresponding rhythm; to attract the orixá's attention, percussionists play the rhythm while swirling participants sing the appropriate call-and-response songs (typically in archaic Yoruban). When the ritual peaks, the orixá descends and possesses the bodies of those who have been initiated as priests and priestesses.


In Salvador, drums aren't frowned upon, or complained about, or quickly hurried off to wherever they can't be heard — basements, practice rooms, nightclubs — as is usually the case in the United States. In Salvador, Bahia, Brazil's oldest city and original capital, drums are a part of life. Salvador, after all, is the locus of Brazil's African Diaspora — the place where countless slaves were shipped, sold, and often tortured or killed, and where the music and intricate rhythms they brought with them took root and gave sustenance through the ages. It is a place where drums have a spiritual as well as physical presence.

And so in Salvador, drums are celebrated. They are played loudly in the streets, in great numbers, and their rousing rhythms echo through the hills and alleyways, providing a spirited soundtrack for the city, and perhaps helping to account for the friendliness and alegria (happiness) for which Salvador is famous. In Salvador, people don't flip you the bird — they flip you a thumbs-up. Maybe all that drumming has some ameliorative effect?

One of the city's oldest and largest drum groups is Filhos de Gandhy (“Sons of Gandhi”), a bloco de afoxé (drum/vocal parade group that plays the afoxé rhythm) founded in 1949. The group got its inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and his teachings of peace and nonviolence. Instantly recognizable in their white robes, terry-cloth turbans, and blue accessories (beads, broaches, and sashes), the Gandhys parade in a sea of white — always playing the same syncopated rhythm, and always attracting admiring crowds and legions of dancing followers. Several famous Bahians have donned Filhos de Gandhy outfits to parade with the group, among them Gilberto Gil (now Minister of Culture for the state of Bahia), Caetano Veloso, and Jorge Amado (a novelist).

Salvador's most famous drum group is Banda Olodum (pronounced “oh-lo-DOON”), which took its name from Olódumaré, the supreme deity in Candomblé. If you've heard the drums of Salvador, you've probably heard Olodum. In addition to 14 of its own albums released since 1987, the band has worked with an impressive roster of international talent, including Paul Simon (on the CD The Rhythm of the Saints and on the video The Obvious Child), Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (on the CD Bahia Black: Ritual Beating System), Michael Jackson and Spike Lee (on the video They Don't Really Care About Us), Billy Paul (American-born international blues-jazz star), Linton Kwesi Johnson (British reggae dub poet), and Mutabaruka (Jamaican Rastafarian dub poet).

Olodum was established in 1979 as a bloco afro, (drum/vocal parade group consisting primarily of African-descended Brazilians). In the early days, the group successfully combined Brazilian and Jamaican rhythms with elements of funk. But it was the invention of the samba-reggae rhythm that led to international recognition for Olodum, and put them foremost among the blocos afros of Bahia.