THE MAIN PERSPECTIVE
Recording Latin percussion is somewhat tricky; even though the number one audio rule is “there are no rules,” recording and mixing good Latin ensembles requires some knowledge about the overall sound and a general perception about how to mix them stylistically. It’s even more demanding when you can’t be at your comfortable multi-channel studio, with a big live room that has space and mics for the whole band. You’ll still need at least one general take of the band — or the percussion section with the bass — so the rest of the band can play over it to get their own tracks recorded individually; you’ll also need a good set of mics, like a couple of ribbons, a couple of SM57s, and some condenser cardioids.
For the general take of the band, I place the band in a semi-circle and set a couple of mics in an ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française, named after the developers of this technique) arrangement in the center so the distance to the mics is distributed equally. As this technique uses cardioids, try some M930s (Figure 1). The mics can sit further back from the source without capturing too much of the reverberation compared to other techniques, enabling you to use this in over-reverberant spaces where other techniques would capture too much of the acoustics.
To get the most natural vibe, don’t pan congas all the way to opposite sides. Actually, recording good congas — or bongos, timbales, zurdos, djembes, or any other good set of percussion — does not need to be done in full stereo, given they will sit better when they’re together at the same side of the stereo field. Place a condenser-cardioid mic in the center of the two congas, at a 45° angle, one foot away of the set, and you are done (if desired, you could record them with separate mics to have extra control on individual channels for EQ). Replacing the 414s with SM57s is common, but that depends on the song’s dynamics.
Record every set of percussions individually, then recreate that in your mix. Pan the congas slightly to one side, the smaller percussion in the center, and timbales to the other side. The “more cowbell” rule also applies; you can sit the set of cowbells to the same side as the timbales, as that’s their natural position.
You’ll find too that the brasses are all at the same side of the stage, so panning the trumpet to the center, the sax to the right and the trombone to the left is highly unrealistic.
Recording the brass with a dynamic microphone could suck some life out of the performance, but combining it with a ribbon microphone can help to capture most natural brass tones. Don’t close-mic the instrument; the mic needs to get some of the room sound. When recording trumpets alone, place the mic below the bell’s line-of-sight, rotated at about 40° to avoid higher SPL levels and tilted upward, about 4–6 feet from the trumpet’s bell.
To record a three-to-five piece brass section, I like using the ORTF technique too; but place the performers in the front of (not around) the mics, to capture the essence of a section of players in a stereo field without having them too far apart from each other.
Once the brass section is recorded, set them slightly to one side of the main mix. If there is a solo line, create some automation to send it to the center.
These techniques are also very useful when doing Latin productions with virtual instruments instead of actual ones. Get those cheesy GM drumsets out of your sampler and pan the instruments the “right” way. For those samples of brass, record individual MIDI channels, one for each brass type (say, trumpet, sax, and trombone), then play each one individually and mix them like a real ensemble. Avoid quantizing for the brass, but you might need to do some micro editing of the length of every note to make sure all three “musicians” are playing to the same “tumbao.” Where’s my mojito? Salud!
Currently touring as the frontman of the band WoM, Gus Lozada also hosts conferences and clinics in Latin America about music production, moderates the “Nuestro Foro” and “KSS — Keyboards, Samplers and Synth” forums at Harmony Central, and writes for EQ. Send him some feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.