Djembe Recording Demystified

The first part of creating a brand new soundont is the collection of the raw samples. In this case I wanted to sample an African drum called a djembe. I love the variety of tones that can be achieved from this drum in the hands of a skilled player. I’ve also had terrible luck finding one (a soundfont, that is) that I can use on my music system. Necessity being the mother of invention, I decided that it was time to create a high-quality djembe soundfont for my personal use and possibly for sale.

The first step was getting the personnel together. Two of my closest friends joined me in this activity. My friend Ken is a percussionist who owns a high quality 14″ Paulo Mattioli djembe (specifically, the one on the left). The other is my friend Will, an engineer with plenty of musical credits, himself. He also happens to own higher quality recording equipment than I do, plus I trust his ears and musical sensibility.

We met at Will’s house at 10:00 on Saturday morning and set about arranging the microphones. All three of us had headphones on and Will moved the mics about while Ken played a repeated note. When we settled on a position, we moved the mic stand up to it and locked it into place. Here’s the final set: Djembe Miked Up.

Here are the details: The overhead mic is a Behringer B-5 with the wind screen on. Without it we found that we were getting wind noise when Ken lifted his hand up off the drum head on the harder hits. It is set to a flat response and a reversed polarity.

To the left of the drumhead is a Behringer B-2 Pro. It also has the windscreen and is set to a flat response. Both of these mics were run through a Bluetube two-channel mic preamp.

In the bell of the drum was another B-2 Pro, this one set to omni, and direct to the mixer. Anything above line level was clipping the signal. After we finished recording, Will wondered what would have happened if we flipped the phase, but it was too late. I guess I’ll give that a try in mixdown and see what the results are.

All the signals were simultaneously recorded through a Behringer Eurorack mixer onto a PC-DAW running Power Tracks Pro Audio. Since I also use this software, we were able to burn a CD of the rough samples for later mixing in my own studio. All this took about 1 1/2 hours and we broke for lunch.

Now that we had the mics all set up, we had to decide what we were actually going to sample. Fundamentally, the djembe makes three distinct tones – the bass, the palm and the slap. Each of those has numerous variations depending on whether it is on- or off-hand, muted, or for the slap whether the hand rebounds up or slaps off the side of the drum and continues on down.

We also needed to make these samples at different loudnesses, so that when you hit the key harder to play the sample, not only does the volume increase, but the tone changes in the same way that the tone of the real drum changes when you play it harder. We set up a dB meter next to the drum with the intension of measuring and reproducing the volumes, but that proved unworkable.

What we ended up doing was Ken simply played a series of 11 – 15 hits at steadily increasing volume. We did this in 3 or 4 takes, so we ended up with 33-60 individual samples in one long wave file for each type of hit. Sometimes the hits smoothly increase, sometimes there’s a jump or even a small reversal, but with 3 takes we covered everything we should need, and will probably throw over half of it away as duplications.

After taking samples of all the hits we recorded Ken scraping his hand across the drum head in various ways. Finally, we recorded four drum patterns. These will have a few uses. First, I will use the patterns to mix the samples, and then apply the same mix and effects to all of the samples we took on Saturday. Second, we will try to duplicate these patterns in a sequencer with the mixed samples to see how good a job we did.

Next: Mixdown!

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