The US may have exported rock and roll to the rest of the world, but many other countries have made significant contributions to the sound of popular music. To explore some of the most popular world instruments (and ways to mic them), we turned to virtuoso Alexander Duvel. He’s devoted the last twenty years of his life to the mastery of dozens of them.
It all started at Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College, where he found himself plumbing the depths of the school’s more arcane record collections. That led to a gig at one of Chicago’s hippest music stores, the only place with an extensive collection of the djembes, didgeridoos, balalaikas and cajons that fascinated him. Along the way, he gigged regularly, building a reputation strong enough so that when a sitar player was needed for a recent event featuring Fleetwood Mac at Chicago’s Cinespace film studio, the musical director knew exactly who to call.
We caught up with Alexander just as he was about to open a shop of his own, Worlds of Music Chicago. He enchanted us one afternoon in the Shure Performance Listening Center. And we didn’t even need a ticket.
Alexander provided the instruments, the musicianship and tips for miking several of his favorites. Along the way, he gave us a fascinating short course in world musicology that we’ve included here.
Shure provided the microphone, a KSM137 cardioid condenser. The simple reason, according to PLC Manager Dean Giavaras: “It’s a precise instrument mic. It’s easy to use and sounds great on any instrument. The secret is its relatively flat frequency response and even cardioid polar pattern across all frequencies.” Travis Duffield, who works with Dean in the PLC and the S.N. Shure Theater, agreed: “It captures whatever it’s pointed at without changing the sound of the source. It’s a Swiss Army knife: the right tool for almost anything.”
Country of Origin: India
History: Ancient art informs us that tabla-like drums have been played in India for at least 2500 years. Modern tabla performance techniques have been developed and preserved for at least 500 to 800 years, depending on whose history you read.
Examples in Popular Music: The Beatles still rule in terms of pop songs that feature the tabla. Miles Davis incorporated its unique energy into his large electric jazz ensembles. Clint Eastwood has them all over the Dirty Harry movie soundtracks.
Tonal Qualities: One drum has a bell-like, very centered pitch tone. The bass drum is dull and low, but has amazing flexible vocality in the hands of experts.
Miking Challenges: Tabla are relatively quiet, so you often have to close-mic them to get the right amount of sound into the mix. They also have a very wide sound field.
Mic Technique: Two KSM137s, positioned 3–4″ from the drumhead, angled for isolation between the mics.
Country of Origin: South Asia, India
History: Bansuri is one of the easiest instruments to make since it consists of a length of bamboo with holes in it. That makes it one of the most ancient instruments anywhere. It has been used in almost every kind of ensemble for thousands of years and is famously played by the Hindu god Krishna. It has been elevated to the classical concert stage by virtuoso soloists only in the last hundred years or so.
Examples in Classical Music: Western classical musicians like Lyon Liefer are building bridges between the Western flute and the Indian classical flute traditions.
Tonal Qualities: From high and piercing to low, breathy and very melodious.
Miking Challenges: Transverse flutes like bansuri are miked primarily in front of the blowhole and lips, which can require the use of a pop filter to prevent blasts of air hitting the mic inappropriately.
Mic Technique: KSM137 positioned 4–5″ above the blowhole, and angled down pointing at blowhole, to reduce breath sounds.
Country of Origin: India
History: Dilruba is an instrument primarily played by Sikhs in their temple music forms. It evolved from two other instruments called taus and esraj, and its modern design is only about 200 years old.
Examples in Popular Music: The dilruba plays the entire melody and a solo in The Beatles’ “Within You Without You.”
Tonal Qualities: Played with a bow, the dilruba sounds very melodic, with a subtle, breathy quality added by the bow action. The drone strings traditionally aren’t played very often. They are played to add a little color on occasion.
Miking Challenges: Dilruba produces a very weak, but very rich sound field. It can be difficult to use a single mic to get the proper sound. A stereo mic set can be a great solution.
Mic Technique: KSM137 positioned 5–6″ above the bridge and bow.
Country of Origin: India
History: The sitar has evolved over hundreds of years. It is the result of both Islamic and Hindustani court musicians and sufi mystics slowly blending their musical ideas together over generations, beginning around 1000 AD. Its modern form continues to evolve, but its measurements have been standardized. That has increased its production and its popularity inside India as well as worldwide.
Examples in Popular Music: Sitar can be heard prominently on the original version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
Tonal Qualities: Sitar possesses one of the world’s most unique tonalities, due to its hollow construction, a bridge with a large, flat surface and the magical response of the sympathetic strings. They all combine to make the sitar sound the way it does.
Miking Challenges: Sitar is very quiet, barely disturbing the air currents around it. Most of the sound can be captured by a mic positioned in front of the bridge, as close as possible.
Mic Technique: Two KSM137 mics pointed at the body of the instrument on an angle, about 7–8″ away. One “high” pointed at the neck and one “low” pointed at the bridge and body of the instrument.
Country of Origin: West Africa
History: The djembe has been played in West Africa for a thousand years. Its invention is attributed to the Mandinka peoples, and specifically to a caste of blacksmiths called the Numu. Traditionally, it is played to accompany village life rituals, from preparing crops to birthing babies. Today the djembe is played all over the world by hand drummers of all ages and skill levels.
Examples in Popular Music: The djembe can be heard on Paul Simon’s Graceland recordings and some ’90s Peter Gabriel tracks.
Tonal Qualities: The djembe is one of the loudest hand drums in the world, with a very low, good sustaining bass note, and crackling, complex high tones that expert players can manipulate very flexibly. The traditional technique uses the full hand, and the rhythms are very fast and polyrhythmic.
Miking Challenges: The djembe is a most responsive, loud instrument, with a very wide frequency range. It can be close- (only low volume), distance- or stereo-miked to achieve different tonal balances.
Mic Technique: Two KSM137 mics: one 2–4″ above the drum head at a 40–60 degree angle to capture the attack and higher pitch tones, and the second at the bottom of the drum, 2″ above the floor, aimed directly at the opening on the bottom of the drum.
Country of Origin: The Americas
History: Cajon playing was a product of the African slave trade. Slaves were not permitted to make drums or perform the old rituals, so they used discarded wooden shipping crates to play their rhythms. In time, they developed a unique playing style. Today, cajon is growing in popularity and commonly heard in flamenco, jazz, world folk, and even unplugged rock and roll.
Examples in Popular Music: The cajon can be heard on Cesaria Evora’s recordings in the Afro-Peruvian tradition.
Tonal Qualities: Cajons can be made as plain boxes or fitted with snares, bells or other resonating elements. The basic sounds are a rather plain thump (low) and crack (high edge tone), with very short sustain, enhanced with the buzz-rattle of the snare’s effect.
Miking Challenges: Front miking is key. The mic should be placed close enough to get a full sound. Miking the back should be done with some caution since the sound that comes out of the hole is very focused and puts a great deal of pressure on the mic.
Mic Technique: Two KSM137 mics: one dead center, 6–7″ from the front at a slight angle, and the second in the back, right inside the sound hole, which can eliminate some of the “woofiness” of the tone.
What should we mic next?
Our several hours of enlightenment ended when the mics were turned off and the instruments were packed up. We doubled as roadies, helping Alexander load the van on a windy day in suburban Chicago. It felt like we’d hardly scratched the surface, and we knew we hadn’t.
What’s next? Well, someone suggested how to mic a Klezmer band. You know what? We kind of like the idea.
Interested in learning about mic techniques that transcend the typical? Let us know your suggestions.