6 things you should know about recording with a percussion ensemble

6 things you should know about recording with a percussion ensemble

Those of you who have ever recorded a CD with a percussion ensemble will have to agree with me: it is a very delicate task.

Ok, I am not saying that recording with a rock band or a symphony orchestra would be much easier, but a percussion ensemble is not something you see in a recording studio very often. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s better to prepare in the best possible way.

I know that for a fact, because in my career I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity of recording several CDs, four of which with percussion ensembles. The most recent one is the CD of the Adria Percussion Ensemble, which was recorded no more than two months ago and which will be published shortly.

In this post I will therefore give you 6 tips on what you should do if you are preparing to record a CD with a percussion ensemble.


Percussion instruments are bulky and although a normal size recording studio (let’s say 30 m2) could easily accommodate a bass marimba, a vibraphone, and a drum set, when we also need to add a set of 4 timpani, orchestral bass drums, few other keyboard percussion instruments, drums, and various accessories, and then record live, well… it’s not going to happen.

As you know, most original pieces for percussion ensembles cannot be recorded with overdubbing, meaning you cannot record one instrument at a time. You all need to be in the same space to see and hear each other perfectly.

Marimba and girls
Marimba Recording Session © Ugo Bolzoni, Courtesy of NFRS Studio

This means that having the availability of a large studio or, as it often happened to me, of the stage of a theater, is absolutely necessary. It in fact allows the instruments to be placed at the right distance from each other and thus prevents the endless echoing effects between different microphones, which make the editing and mixing process a basically impossible task.

However, even if you don’t have such a space available and you are about to start working in a normal recording studio, maybe even recording with overdubbing, still take a survey of the space and review the playlist very thoroughly.

At this point, let me tell you about a problem I faced while recording my last CD: the recording studio included 4 rooms: 3 small ones and a large one. Since you could not fit neither a drum set nor a bass marimba in the small rooms, these two instruments ended up being positioned together in the large one. The problem with this arrangement was that the instruments could not all be recorded at the same time. Consequently, for some of the pieces, a drum track was recorded first together with the vibraphone and the bass (which were playing in separate rooms) and at the end the marimba was finally added. For those pieces for which this arrangement was not possible, the marimba track was recorded first and then all other instruments were added later.

No problem, everything went well… but it’s still better to know AHEAD OF TIME what to expect.

Fundamentally, a CD is the product of the combined effort of two categories of music experts: musicians and sound technicians. In the case of percussion ensembles, sound technicians perform a truly enormous amount of recording, editing, and mixing.

Paolo Parolini in the studio
Me – Professional Mode ON! © Ugo Bolzoni, Courtesy of NFRS Studio

On your part, do your best to work with those who are recording you because:

  • not all sound technicians have had previous experience recording marimbas and vibraphones. Besides, these instruments have a very complex texture and their dynamic range which we, as percussionists are used to, go from very very low to super loud, the I-will-break-your-eardrums kind of loud. This is why you’ll need to be patient if you’ll end up having to record the same part multiple times while the sound technician will try different microphones and settings;
  • trust sound technicians if they tell you to change mallets or drumsticks, tune a drum differently, use a different cymbal, and so on. You are responsible for the sound you want to reproduce in you CD, but you can’t know what goes on in the control room until you hear it yourself. Let sound technicians advise and guide you, that’s what they are there for;
  • during the mixing process, work with the sound technician to achieve a good sound and the right balance among the instruments in all the pieces. As usual, not everyone is a fan or have ever listened to a CD by a percussion ensemble. If you have a good idea of how you want to play your CD, don’t hesitate to share it with your colleagues!


Get it!?!


Oh yes: by the way, playing in a percussion ensemble is a really fun experience. I already talked about it in my post 5 good reasons for starting a percussion ensemble. However, when you are in a recording studio, you are working and therefore you have to concentrate – ALWAYS.

A recording studio is not a rehearsal room.


If you are an habitual reader of my blog, this statement will sound like a broken record to you: learn to use the metronome.

Up until now, I always talked about that little annoying tool for its important role in the study process, such as for example when you are learning a new piece for marimba.

However, when you are in a recording studio, especially playing a certain type of music that requires a constant pulsation speed, being unable to play with a click track, means not being able to play at all. Period.

This is true not only for the obvious reason that the metronome helps you play at the right speed, but mostly because recording with a click track will allow to:

  • edit the different parts with great precision, by cutting, mixing, and even recording again the ones that have mistakes or imperfections;
  • choose the best tracks and eliminate the ones which you played less convincingly;
  • record one instrument at a time in overdubbing, because each part can (theoretically) be recorded independently from the others thanks to the use of the click track.
  • Percussion Ensemble Recording
  • Recording claps for a percussion cover of “Happy” by Pharrel Williams. © Ugo Bolzoni, Courtesy of NFRS Studio


Finally, I am going to end with my usual advice: as for everything else in the field of music, put your heart into what you are doing. Otherwise, the CD of your ensemble will sound like a rhythmic solfege with elaborate sounds.


Conclusion: have you ever experienced recording with a percussion ensemble? Tell us what tips you would give a percussionist who never did.