Recording a Djembe Drum

So this is a little bit of a “How to record a Djembe” and a little bit more of “This is how I record hand drums, you should find you’re own method.” 🙂 I say this meaning, I’m not pro.. so take this for what it is. I also am comparing a few mics so you can make your own decision on the type of mic to use.

 


First off, I’m no recording guru, or even have a lot of experience recording for that matter. However, in my quest to get an accurate sound to showcase my djembes, I have found a few mics and a few techniques that I’m pretty happy with. If anyone reading this has input or suggestions please share. I’m definitely not the definitive on the subject, so take my experience for what it is and experiment on your own to find the sound you are after. Different mics add different character and bring out different nuances in the sound. The mics below are the mics I’ve researched and acquired based on spec sheets, reviews, price, and my specific needs…

 

It must be noted that my microphone selection is limited, and was chosen based on a ‘best mic for the buck’ philosophy. After lots of research on both recording and microphones, I’ve come up with a fairly cheap solution for getting a good sound. Micing for live performance is a bit different, so I’m just covering home studio type situations where you are trying to record a rhythm you just learned, a djembekan (solo) or are recording accompaniment djembe parts to practice along with. Also noted that I have chosen to use mics which all have a cardioid pattern, this just means that it will only pick up the sound from the object it’s pointed at. It will get minimum reflections from the sides and hardly none from the back. There are also super cardioid which isolate the sound source even more, and omni, which is …omnidirectional, meaning it will pick up everything from all around…good if you love the way your drum sounds in the room you are recording in and want that sound in the recording.

The room you are recording in will play with the results you get as well. I’m recording in a smaller bedroom about 12 x 14′ that’s carpeted and has lots of clutter. This deadens the sound. Playing in a room with hardwood floors and empty walls creates a much more lively sound. If you’re room sounds bad, recording close to the drum will give the best results, but does take some air out of the recording. If you like the way your room sounds, than back the mic up some and your recording will feel more natural and will have some space to the sound. I like a little bit of liveliness to the sound, so because my room is dead sounding, I put a 2′ x 4′ sheet of plywood under the djembe. I could also clean up the room and take everything out of the room that is soft and absorbs sound. If your room sounds too alive with too many reflections or sounds like you’ve added reverb to the recording, you can hang a rug or two from the walls. Blankets work well as do rolled up yoga mats in the corners. Just depends on how particular you are with the way the djembe sounds.

I have gotten much better results using two mics – a kick drum mic at the bottom of the djembe and either a dynamic on the head or a condenser. Using a condenser I get a lot more bass and detail than with a dynamic.. so if your budget can’t afford two mics, I’d go with a small diaphragm condenser. Here is the current arsenal under review.

4
Rode NT-1A
2
Rode M3
52a
Shure Beta 52A
Shure SM57
Shure SM57

I use the Shure Beta 52A (kick drum mic) placed on the bottom of the djembe, actually inside the bell just a tad, or as close as I can get it. This really brings the life to the djembe’s bottom end and rounds out the sound. I set the levels so it’s just barely there, just enough to feel the bass, but not to make the recording boomy. I’ve loved the sound/response from this mic on the bottom, so I’ve not tried anything else.

 

On the head, I’m putting three mics to the test. A general purpose dynamic mic, the trusty Shure SM57 which has a rugged body and high SPL, as well as the Rode NT1-A, a very internally quiet, sensitive, large diaphragm condenser that is used mainly for vocals but with a high SPL, I wanted to try it out on the djembe. It’s not too common to find a large diaphragm condenser on acoustic percussion, but I wanted to see how it would pan out. I also have a Rode M3 that I got mainly for recording through my iPhone when I attend a class and want a good overall sound. It’s a small condenser mic that requires phantom power that can be supplied either through your preamplifier or using a 9v battery. It also includes a 10 and 20 decibel pad switch on the mic so recording live never clips out the audio. I like the high pass filter that cuts out noise under 80HZ.. it keeps low end rumble and handling noise down. It’s a versatile mic that can be used in various situations including… micing hand percussion, so I set it up in the mix as well, and actually turned out to be my favorite.

Below are some sample recordings. My preamp (M-Audio Fast Track Ultra) lets me have 4 inputs so all tracks were recorded at the same time. I use Logic Pro to record and edit. I was going to position all the mics close to each other, but that’s not really fair because the dynamic mic likes to be super close where the condensers like a little more distance. I played around with the position until I get the best sound out of each mic. The photos above are an approximation of mic placement, not their actual position in recording. I set them up for a better photo but recorded with the drum more centered in the room.

Be sure to reverse the phase of the bass drum mic. I didn’t really notice an issue in the recordings with phasing, until I listented to the NT1-A and the Beta52A. The NT1-A picks up more bass than the other mics did, so what happened is that the low frequency waveform actually canceled each other out, by reversing the phase of one of the mics, the waves work together. Since I was only using the bottom mic for bass, it only effected the low end. It just squeezes the life out of the bass. Phasing is only a problem when using more than one mic and depends on the microphones distance from each other and from the sound source.

Microphone Test Results:

Shure SM57 only:

 

Shure SM57 with Beta52A:

 

Rode NT1-A only:

 

Rode NT1-A with Beta52A:

 

Rode M3 only:

 

Rode M3 with Beta52A:

 

Shure Beta52A Alone:

 

So my tests show that, for a solo djembe, I like the condensers the best. They have more life and space to them. As I’ve said before, I don’t have the best space to record in. I have extremely limited experience in post production, but by listening to CD’s of djembekan and solo recordings that are done right… I can hear what things I might need to add to my recordings to make them a bit more lively. Some space in the room and more reflections (reverb) give the sound of perceived distance and puts the djembe in space in a listeners mind. Since my room is dead, I’ll need to add reverb synthetically to give any sense of space. The plywood helps a bit here, but I’ll need to ad some more reverb for the sound I want. Another thing I notice is detail in sound. This is partially due to expensive studio quality mics and pro studio engineers, and partly due to compression. Compression will take all noises and somewhat level them out, so any soft finger rolls or ghost notes will be more present in the final mix. Before compression I’ll usually add a noise gate. A noise gate will clip out sound you didn’t want in the recording, like passing traffic, a fan hum, or a TV in another room. If you don’t apply a noise gate before you compress, you might end up with a very loud audio copy of Big Brother or The Bachelorette (two common shows playing in the living room when I’m working in my office) in your recording. You can also EQ a bit to color the recording… to bring out the bass or mellow or brighten the sound. Maybe you want your tones to stand out more or your slaps feel too bright, a bit of playing with the EQ will get you the results you want.

Here is my final, processed recording. I added a noise gate to bass and cut frequencies that were over 200hz. I also added some eq to raise the frequencies between 10 and 100hz and lowered the other frequencies. This way I’m only getting bass. On the M3 I used a small amount of noise gate a tiny bit of compression and some eq to bring out the tones better. I also added some reverb to open up the space. I trick I learned while doing this project was how to get a stereo sound out of a mono recording. So I copied the recording to a separate track and panned one hard left and the other hard right. Next I adjust the reverb just a bit so the two tracks are sonically different, then I nudged the second track so it was a few milliseconds delayed. It’s not enough to audibly tell it’s delayed, but it adds a bit of a stereo image and widens the recording.

There are so many possibilities it’s a bit overwhelming for me. The most important thing is to play with mic placement and to play with good clean technique. You can definitely over-process your recording and I hope I haven’t done that here.

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