My first experience of recording a percussionist

A post about recording bongos and other percussion.

I recorded a percussionist the other day. It was my first attempt at recording a musician other than myself since starting my album. Dave’s his name, and he plays the drums for Standard Deviation, the band I sing for. Let me tell you how things went. 

Getting to the session

It’s quarter-to-three in the afternoon, and I’m running late. I’m supposed to be at Dave’s place by three to work on my song The Sun is Up. But, ‘typically,’ I hadn’t checked my diary, so I thought we’d agreed to meet at three-thirty. Bugger!

Anyway, I’m driving to the session, and, as usual, the roads are a mechanised mess.

A lady with an American accent provides directions. Isn’t GPS wonderful? Well, it is so long as you input the correct destination. Going by the twists and turns Barbara (that’s what I call the GPS lady) instructs me to take, I wonder whether I’m going the wrong way.

I check the address on my phone, but the surroundings now look familiar, and a large white apartment building emerges. This is the place.

“You have reached your destination,” says Barbara. “Your destination is on the  right.”

Thank goodness!

There’s a thick glass door at the front of the building, and it’s locked. No ‘riff-raff’ can infiltrate this place. But, there’s an intercom, so I push a button and announce my arrival.

Dave answers, and he’s obviously satisfied that I am me because the door clicks open.

I walk into the building with my gear and head towards a winding staircase. But, then, I hear a familiar voice calling me. Oh, it’s Dave. He must live on the ground floor. I guess you have to be ‘special’ to live upstairs.

Despite being on the ground floor, Dave’s place is awesome. Apparently, the apartment building is about a hundred year’s old and once housed city councillors and fire-department people — a rather strange combination. There are no cobwebs or antique fittings in this abode, though. The interior is ultra-modern.

Setting up

Okay. Enough about Dave’s place. I’m a musician, not a writer for NZ House and Garden. It’s time to record.

In my band, Dave plays a full drum kit. However, I don’t have the gear or know-how to record all of that. And, besides, I’m making a simple acoustic album. So, today we’re recording bongos.

To start, I log into Dave’s internet — I need to be online to use Protools. However, things aren’t going well; error messages appear — something to do with a firewall? Heck! So, I hot-spot my phone to my laptop. Problem solved.

Recording bongos

It’s thought that bongos originate from Eastern Cuba, although no one knows for sure. A set consists of two open-bottomed drums: the hembra (large drum) and the macho (small drum). If you listen out for them, bongos feature in quite a lot of modern music. They’re pretty cool.

Anyway, to kick off recording, Dave wants to play the hembra only. So, I place a large-diaphragm condenser microphone about four inches away from the edge of the skin. Dave plays a few ideas, and they sound pretty good.

Dave laying down some beats.

I want options to mess around with, so Dave suggests that we record both drums. I agree, but I wish I’d brought along two mics so that I could record in stereo.

Regardless, I place my microphone between the two drums at a distance of about eight inches. This take is better; the contrasting tones of the hembra and macho is more interesting than the hembra alone. I think this is what I’ll use.

Okay, we’ve got the bongos down. Dave now wants to try some other ideas. We record a small cymbal for the choruses. I’m not sure about that, but I’ll decide later. Now, Dave wants to record a jam block to replicate a rim shot. It sounds alright, but I don’t know.

An example of a jam block.

My assessment of the session

Despite the internet challenges, it was a good session. I think I learned a few things. I’ve since had a good listen to the mix, and I’m definitely going for Dave’s second attempt take both bongos. However, there are more room reflections that I would like, which is due to me placing the microphone too far away from the drums. Also, I think the bongos would sound much better in stereo.

There is so much time and effort required to record an album, and I want my songs to shine. So, if Dave doesn’t mind, I’d like to re-record his bongos with two microphones.

By the time I’ve finished this album, I think I’ll owe Dave a few bottles of nice wine.

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Andrew Healey


Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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