An introduction to the Latin percussion arsenal and how to capture it
By Eric Ferguson
The sizzles, snaps, cracks, boings, slaps, and booms of percussion make for some of the best recording fun. With the great variance in the sound and appearance of percussion, such sessions are always educational and never boring. From rhythm-centric Afro-Cuban salsa to rock ‘n roll’s mandatory tambourine, percussion recording challenges engineers to both experiment and meet preset stylistic demands.
I find percussion to be among the easiest and most flexible instrument groups to record. While the sound of a drum or toy can vary greatly with a different mic choice or placement, the different sounds are easy to perceive and all have their own place in other contexts and styles.
From the large family of hand drums, congas are one of the most frequently recorded percussion instruments. Congas are of African heritage, and entered western pop music through the world of Cuban traditional and popular dance styles. Congas are commonly grouped into a set of three; the largest drum is called tumba, the middle conga, and the smallest quinto. In recording situations the number of congas varies with style and musician, so engineers should prepare for several different miking techniques.
When recording a single conga, I typically use one microphone and start with a placement anywhere from 6 inches to two feet from the head of the drum. Unlike toms or snare drums, congas are played with the hands and produce a great variation of sounds and tone. The usual conga performance includes slaps, booms, and muffs, and close-miking usually favors only one of these sounds.
For me, this means that it is the actual musical performance that dictates microphone location. If the conga part only features one sound, I might be tempted to move the mic close and focus on that sound only. If the performance includes many sounds, I usually move the mic a couple feet into the air, well outside the near field, and to a place where the various sounds balance naturally. If the boom overshadows the slap, I move the mic away!
When two or more drums are present, the option of stereo miking arises. Since most drummers choose and tune their congas to match in sound, I typically use a matched pair of microphones to record a two- or three-drum setup. Microphone placement is similar to that used with a single drum, except now the engineer needs to balance both the various sounds and the separate drums. While I start with the mics equidistant from the separate drums, I often find that some attribute of the different congas does match and a slight adjustment in mic placement, EQ, or level helps the separate drums sound more even.
Room sound is a natural component of a traditional conga sound. While tight and dry congas might sound more modern and be better suited for the application of artificial reverb, real room ambience makes congas sound more natural and helps sharp transients sit better in a full mix of other acoustic instruments. In some instances, specifically if the room is especially nice, I might be tempted to set up a completely separate microphone or pair of mics for the room. Usually, though, I find that the leakage of the room into the close mics is perfectly acceptable on its own. As a general approach, I try to find a sweet spot for the close mics that has the perfect balance between all of the various sounds, close miking intensity, and the natural room reverb.
Microphone choice is a luxury commonly available to those lucky enough to be working in a large studio. Fortunately for home recordists, congas sound good under almost all microphones and a large investment is not necessary to obtain a professional recording. Depending on the situation, I choose radically different microphones when recording congas.
In the rare situation of tracking a band with a percussionist present in the same room, I typically choose a dynamic microphone such as a Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD 441. Dynamic mics are far better in dealing with the leakage of a nearby drummer, but typically require more EQ to make the congas sound bright or natural. I should also note that when I track both a drum set and congas simultaneously, I usually have to lower the conga mics to a closer and tighter position. While this does forgo the earlier-mentioned advantages of better tonal balance and increased room sound, it minimizes leakage and helps the congas compete with the drums in a full mix.
Contrary to live-band recording, in the isolated environment of percussion overdubs, most engineers prefer pencil condenser mics. Compared to dynamics, condenser mics have a thicker low-end response, are faster to pick up transients, are more open in high frequencies, and capture more room sound. Two of my favorite conga condenser mics are the Sennheiser MKH 40 and the AKG 451/452/460 series.
One note about using condenser mics on congas—they might sound too good. Recently, when recording a reggae artist, I encountered a situation where a “traditional” lo-fi sound was required. The artist was not satisfied until I replaced the pair of condensers with a single and much cheaper dynamic mic.
A small detail that should be mentioned is the placement of the drums themselves. Congas are usually encountered either sitting straight up on the floor and tilted slightly between the player’s legs, or mounted on a stand six inches to a foot above the floor. In each of these positions a different low end radiates from the bottom of the drum. While it can be fun to mike the bottom sound hole itself, this does not produce the natural and even sound our ears are used to hearing. Instead, bottom-miking usually captures a bass-rich boom and muffled slaps that can be perfect for a unique percussion effect.
One other attribute to conga placement is that most percussionists prefer the drums set up on a hardwood floor. Wood helps radiate the conga’s low end and increases room ambience. I have even seen some well-known studio percussionists travel with their own piece of plywood! If you have the option of wood floors, try to use them when recording congas.
From mics to mix
Unlike what one encounters when recording a drum set, conga recording does not usually require much EQ or compression. When I do need to apply equalization to congas, it is often a little brightness to better hear the “air” of the drum or a gentle low cut or boost to help even out a set of unmatched drums. With compression, I’ve found that a fast compressor can aid in balancing the various sounds the player may create. In instances where the boom of the drum overshadows the slap, a compressor set to limit just the boom by a few dB can help the conga track sit nicely in a crowded mix. Additionally, it can also be fun to create an effect by overcompressing the congas. Severely limited congas, complete with pumping and breathing, might be just what you need in your next lo-fi mix.
In the mixing phase of production, panning and artificial reverb can greatly change the feel and impact of congas. While panning is a relatively straightforward operation, the choice of panning varies with style and preference. Although hard left-right panning creates a wide stereo effect perfect for modern pop music, it might sound unnatural with older and acoustic styles. Experiment with your stereo conga tracks to see what pan setting sits nicely in the mix yet is stylistically appropriate.
The application of digital or other artificial reverb is also a balance of personal taste and stylistic esthetics. For example, when mixing a Latin-pop ballad, a long dark plate reverb might be perfect for congas. In contrast, with a fast jam-band type of track, a natural room effect might be better suited for the style and mix. One of my favorite reverb effects for congas is the dated ‘80s gated reverb. Gated reverb, which is essentially a big reverb with a noise gate applied to its tail, can create a huge space around the congas without crowding the mix with a long reverb decay. Gated reverb is found on almost all effects units and plug-ins, and is fun to play with on many instruments. Be careful with gated verb, though, as overuse tends to remind the listener of big hair and spandex!
I am always excited when I get to engineer a percussion session. The presence of bizarre instruments, the company of fun-to-watch musicians, and the required recording technique experimentation always makes for an educational and memorable session. Since congas seem to always be part of percussion sessions, I have slowly refined my approach to recording these fabulous drums. The next time you get to record congas, try some of these ideas or push the envelope until you match your own personal sonic taste.