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Hand Percussion Recording Tips

A box of hand percussion instruments is one of the best investments you can make for your home studio. Shakers, rattles, tambourines and other clicky things can be added to just about any style of music from folk to electronic to heavy metal (hear White Zombie for proof of tambourine in metal).

You can these instruments to fill out sparse arrangements, increase energy in a chorus or to add emphasis to certain beats.

Once you start building your collection it’s hard to stop, most small percussion instruments are inexpensive and many you can make yourself. Having a variety of options will get you closer to the ideal sound for each song and minimal processing after recording.

As with any musical instrument, there is more to playing percussion than just shaking or smacking it. Even the humble egg shaker is capable of a variety of distinct sounds just by changing hand position. I recommend watching some videos on YouTube for egg shaker, maraca, and tambourine for ideas and techniques.

One of the most important things in getting a natural sound from shakers, tambs etc is distance. Ideally you record the performance in a large space with not a lot of acoustic treatment. Hang the mic up high above the player pointed down. I have compared recording a shaker overdub in my control room vs the hallway outside with tile floor and it was dramatically different. Having the reflections from the floor and walls helped create a more 3D sound even with one mic. Placing acoustic treatment behind the mic or on the sides around the mic sucks all the life out. Any shaker tracks I’ve recorded close and in dryer environments (acoustically) have had a harsh, scratchy sound and were much harder to fit in a mix.

If you do prefer the sound of a close miked percussion performance play across the mic, rather than directly towards it for a more even low and mid frequency response.

Experiment with microphone options, condensers and dynamics will bring out drastically different qualities in percussion. Condensers at a distance will capture a more realistic sound, FET models will pick up the fast transients more accurately than tube models. Dynamic mics react much more slowly and have a less accurate but still very usable sound. Combining a few types of mics may help get you the perfect sound.

For music styles like indie rock, an audiophile quality recording of a tambourine isn’t going to be very helpful, you’re just going to have to distort and filter it later! Instead, experiment with different mics, tape recorders, toy mics and effect pedals to make things nasty. Besides being a lot of fun, it can be exactly what the song needs.

For processing these tracks I like short delays and reverb to create a doubling effect but it all depends on what the role of the percussion is in the arrangement, whether it should be drawing attention or just adding texture. Close miked percussion tends to need more processing especially if you want it to sound natural (you see the contradiction there?). Using high and low cut filters to limit the spectrum to only whats necessary often helps when there are many of these parts.

Alright, now that you are prepared, make some noise!

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