"Presets" for acoustic instruments? Well, kind of . . .
by Craig Anderton
Recently while engineering a session in the Santa Fe University of Art & Design's recording studios for the hip-hop group ICC, we were laying down a percussion part with various hand drums (e.g., conga, djembe, bongos, tumba, etc.) when producer Brian Hardgroove wanted a less resonant, more “dead” sound. The object was to avoid conflicts with the main drum track, which had a lot of presence and in some sections was relatively “busy.” I tried the “tape your wallet to the head” trick, but while that muted the sound somewhat, it didn’t change the fundamental character enough.
However, a simple, inexpensive solution that can deaden a percussion instrument’s was available right there in the studio: foam. You want high-density, open-cell, medium firmness, bendable polyurethane foam as used for mattresses, pads, dog beds, bay windows, and the like so you can stuff it into the drum’s body through the opening in the drum’s bottom. You don’t want foam that’s too thick, as it will be difficult to insert into the drum.
Fig. 1: ICC's David "DJ" McKenzie playing the "prepared percussion" setup. Note the thick cloth on the big conga, and duct tape on the stick tips (click to enlarge).
Bendable but medium-firm foam tends to hold its shape when put inside the drum, allowing anything from maximum deadness by stuffing it in to the point where it restricts the movement of the drum head, to using a smaller size bent in half to act like a combination absorber/diffuser. It has no effect on playability, and you wouldn’t even know it was there except for the difference in tone.
For one of the larger drums, putting a thick cloth over the drum head gave a similar result. This needs to be secured somewhat so it doesn’t slip around, but other than that, doesn’t really interfere with playability. And there was one more final touch: when using sticks instead of hands to hit the drums, wrapping duct tape around the tips prevented “clacking” on the higher-pitched drums (Fig. 1).
You might be surprised at how a little experimentation with foam can impart a really different sound to hand drums. It’s not quite like having different “presets” on an acoustic instrument, but the difference can be just what’s needed for a session.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.