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The Beats Between: Capturing Varied Percussion & Fitting It Within The Mix

Understanding the musical genre as well as your band will dictate whether that percussion sound is subtle or dominant. This is where your own artistry can shine. Here are some thoughts on the topic and approaches...

Effects Observations

When it comes to the percussion rig, compression is useful for matching the up the different dynamic ranges produced by the variety of instruments. I find that hand drums have only a moderate difference between the initial transient and the shell decay and don’t require compression.

But things hit with sticks, such as the instruments in the timbale and the tom sections, can benefit from either limiting the initial transient or raising the level of the decay with parallel compression.

Gating can be used sparingly to help reduce bleed from one section to the next. For example, I want to avoid picking up the timbales in the conga mics, so I set the gate threshold on the conga section so that most of what happens in the timbale section is not picked up by the conga mics.

The same applies to the toys section, but I’m very careful to avoid making it obvious that gates are employed. Careful setting of threshold along with the use of sidechain filtering can help.

Equalization in the form of high-pass and/or low-pass filters is essential to my mix. I set these filters to help further exclude and isolate the different sections. The hand drums range from around 80 Hz up to 5 kHz, but not much more. The toys section ranges from around 250 Hz to way out past 20 kHz, while the toms live lower on the scale, 40 Hz out to 3 kHz.

Parametric filters can be used to further enhance the tone. Hand drums can be particularly honky in the midrange from 315 Hz to 500 Hz, and sometimes need a slight cut in that region. A slight wide boost in the high mids, around 4 kHz, can help bring out the contact between hand (or stick) and drum.

My technique for panning percussion is simply based around the physical stage location of each section. In the hand drum section, I pan the outer two congas slightly left and right while the middle conga and bongo are panned center. The tom section has three mics, panned from the smallest to the largest drum, left to right, a little wider than the hand drums. The timbale section has just one mic that is panned just slightly left since the timbales are on the stage right side of the riser.

The toys are mostly located on a small table, on the stage left side of Andy’s riser. There are two mics for the table as well as one for the chimes. I want these to have a stereo spread but tilted right to complement the timbale section – which, please recall, is tilted left. The table mics are panned at 10 and 1 o’clock, and the chimes are panned hard right.

It Depends

Determining where the percussion kit should sit in the mix is a much more subjective topic. If the song is in a genre that features percussion, such as latin or reggae, the percussion kit should be equally as loud as the drum kit, allowing the occasional fill or rhythm to dominate the mix.

When mixing pop and metal, I keep the percussion slightly below the drum kit unless it’s a featured part. Classic rock usually has a good deal of percussion while country does not.

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By beginning with proper mic placement and then moving through all the steps to precise panning, everything in the percussion rig should be heard in the mix with the characteristic dynamics intact but isolated properly from the rest of the sounds on stage.

Understanding the musical genre as well as your band will dictate whether that percussion sound is subtle or dominant. This is where your own artistry can shine.

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