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Meet the Cajon
Recording the percussion instrument you sit on...
By Eric Ferguson

The story of the Cajon begins centuries ago when African slaves were brought to the Spanish colony of Peru. The slaves, forbidden to use their traditional instruments, were forced to play tables, spoons, chairs, and other household items. The Cajon is the modern descendent of an instrument made from a simple wooden box.

The Cajon is box-shaped, standing about eighteen inches tall and approximately ten inches deep. The frame of the drum is made of hardwood, with a thinner piece of plywood used for the front cover. The back or side of the Cajon has an open circle cut in it, coincidently about the same size as the hole on your average bass drum head. The musician sits on the Cajon, and hits the instrument with his or her hands. In traditional Peruvian performance, the musician alternates two strokes to the center of the drum with various other rhythmic variations.

Depending on the method of the player, the Cajon can produce many different sounds. Striking the box in the front and center creates a long, deep boom. Placing a foot against this surface can raise the pitch of the tone, and a slide of this foot makes a nice talking-drum style pitch bend. Hitting the edge of the plywood head generates a bright cutting slap similar to that of a conga drum. Other sounds, such as wood block emulating taps on the side of the box, are also possible. Additionally, since the plywood front is often screwed on, loosening these screws slightly can increase rattle within the drum. The overall sonic flexibility of the drum makes the Cajon fun for recording and mixing.

The Cajon, like most drums, can be miked in a variety of ways. Placing a mic outside the sound hole favors the instrument’s immense low-end boom. When possible, I try to use a condenser mic for this task, preferring a condenser’s fast attack and greater bass response. Pencil condensers, such as an AKG C451 or a Neumann KM184, are ideal choices.

Miking a Cajon from the drum’s front side is also possible. This technique focuses nicely on subtle finger effects, and can be preferable when recording a quiet song. The downsides to front-head miking are significant, though, as it tends to sacrifice low-end boom and overemphasize loud slaps. As when miking the sound hole, I prefer a pencil condenser for this task.

When recording the Cajon live or in a crowded studio, I often choose a dynamic microphone. Standard drum mics, such as a Sennheiser MD421 or Shure SM57, are ideal in this situation. Since I typically mic the Cajon from the back sound hole, I find brighter dynamic mics, such as a Shure SM58, ideal for balancing the slightly muffled slap with the drum’s big boom.

My favorite method for miking a Cajon is with a Shure SM91. The SM91 ($225 approximate street price) is a flat-bodied cardioid condenser designed for use inside a bass drum. The SM91 is a staple in the live-sound world, and it is fabulous at capturing the bright snap of a kick drum. With the Cajon, I simply place the SM91 inside the wooden box. The balance between slap and boom always seems about right, and eq is rarely needed. One disadvantage to the SM91 is that the microphone might overturn when the musician plays the Cajon especially hard. Mounting the mic on a small square piece of cardboard can easily solve this problem. I highly recommend the SM91!

Although the Cajon originated in Peru, it has been adopted as the drum of choice in Spanish Flamenco music. Spanish Cajons differ slightly, with the addition of guitar strings strung against the back of the head and within the drum. Spanish Cajons sound remarkably like a snare drum, and further the sonic diversity of the instrument. As an added note, I recently saw a Yamaha prototype of a Cajon that had adjustable string tension. With this drum, the player can vary his or her sound from the traditional Peruvian to the snare-like Flamenco.

Like so many other percussion instruments, the Cajon is fun to play and record. Because of its diversity of tone, the drum makes a great addition to the collection of any percussionist or producer. Since the instrument is essentially just a wood box, new Cajons are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $75 to $300 street price. Have fun!

Eric Ferguson (talkback@recordingmag.com) is a recording engineer and producer based in Los Angeles, recently returned from a world tour with Lee Ritenour and Friends. Check out his website at www.bluecupmusic.com.

 




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