HomeBlogsbillhare's blogRecording VP? You’ll Be Sorry You Asked!

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Eric asked in the VP Forum:

OK, so I've recorded on a half-dozen albums, but I've never really been able to determine the BEST way to record VP. I've done one track of basic kick-snare, and then gone back and added all the other stuff; I've done snare only, then added kick drum on a separate track; I've done the whole thing live. I guess I'm looking for other possibilities. How do YOU record your VP?

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To which I replied:

Wow, Eric - are you sure you want to hear the answer to this one?

After many hundreds of albums, I still don't have THE answer, because I've learned there isn't one. It's always a combination of techniques that seem to work, but "best" is another question entirely!

What will work for Wes Carroll won't necessarily work for Andrew Chaikin (and having worked closely with both of them I'm qualified to say that you can replace "won’t necessarily" with "definitely") so you can see the point I'm going for here. You need to either find this for yourself, or work with a producer compatible to your goals and style. I think you've given me my question for my next recording article, which I will write on the airplane I'm about to board! :-)

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OK, welcome to 30,000 feet over someplace between California and Illinois! And speaking of vocal percussionists, the reason I am on a plane in the first place is that I’m heading to Chicago for the official release of Freddie Feldman’s “Dark Side of the Moon A Cappella” project! This is a travelogue as well as technical article!

Let’s begin with the most important part (or obstacle) to this process - the performer him/herself:

As I mentioned above, I am in the fortunate position to be able to work with some of the best VP’ists on the planet. I also work with people whose entire vocal drumming vocabulary consists of “Dvvvv Ksssh, Dvv Dvv Ksssssh” repeated ad infinitum, no matter the song or style – only the tempos change!

Obviously, the more skilled a performer is, the less we recording folk want to get in the way of that performance. On the other side of that coin, we might need to CREATE the performance for a less skilled (or even unskilled) performer. Add the thousand degrees of ability between these extremes to the variables mentioned above and you can see that I will never be able to answer this question concisely, but hopefully at least start you in the right direction for your experiments!

Let’s start at the top end of the spectrum.

The cold reality: The number of vocal percussionists that have the magical combination of understanding of groove, feel, steady rhythm, musical appropriateness to the material, etc - even before getting to the nuts and bolts of various sounds they can make – is extremely small. In my experience, this top echelon of vocal drummer comprises far less than one percent of the VP population.

Back in California now (I write slowly), and today I am working with one such vocal drummer – Jon Pilat of Hookslide. Very easy to record – basically he listens to the cue track (a midi piano track of the arrangement for the singers to later follow) along with a click (metronome) track, starts at the beginning of the song and does a performance until the end of the song. This is by far the exception to the rule, though – most recordings are done only a few notes at a time.

But even the best vocal percussionists can use some production help, just as instrumental drummers or any other studio performer can – very few studio performances of any kind are completely untouched. This is true from major hit records on down through the amateur level and below!

Of the thousands of events Jon just laid down (each high hat, snare, bass drum, fill, crash cymbal, etc, is an “event”), some are bound to be a little off, so we’ll listen through and fix little errors – moving a snare or high hat a bit here and there, re-doing a few drum fills, etc. As far as the recording equipment itself, we found that a hand-held RØDE NT3 mic worked well for his particular style, as well as gave him freedom of movement to groove with the music, rather than be constrained to stand still in front of a stand-mounted microphone.

Easy enough, but this won’t be effective for the other 99% of mouth drummers out there – what about the opposite end of the spectrum?

For the “Dvv Dvv Kssh” crowd, I recommend that before going into the studio, you get Wes Carroll’s “Mouth Drumming” videos or at least visit www.mouthdrumming.com, as well as reading his articles here on the CASA site. Learning a few new sounds really expands the possibilities. If you are in a collegiate group and there are other groups on campus with more advanced vocal percussionists, see if they can give you some tips before you start recording.

Even without any of the above, it’s still possible to make a decent VP track with someone who knows nothing about VP by using samples. Samples are basically single sound bytes lined up in a pattern (Wes’ front page has a great example of this!)

You can have your would-be percussionist start with a high hat (“ts, ts, ts”) sound, find the best one (or two or more), line them up in a quarter, eighth, or sixteenth note pattern in the tempo of your song and you’re off to a good start. Make a snare sound (which can be a clap, the above mentioned “kssh” sound, or the more challenging “pf” snare being used by the more experienced percussionists) for the 2nd and 4th beat of most pop songs and things will start to drive a bit more.

Add the kick (bass) drum with either a slap to the chest, or any of several vocal sounds being used today. These samples can be placed in any pattern you like, I leave it up to you or your engineer to figure out what works best here, or find a friend who is a drummer and ask them for help in placing your samples.

One problem in working completely with samples is that it is likely that the repetitive sounds as well as working to the “grid” of placing samples will make it sound a little fake and stiff. Sometimes, this is still the best solution if there is no other performance capability to speak of.

Other times, this sampled pattern is a good start, and now a beginner to intermediate level percussionist can augment that by adding live performance on top of this – cymbal crashes, little augmentations, etc to break up the monotony. Again, this has more to do with the musical understanding of percussion rather than the sound, so yet one more grey area for you to contend with!

To finish out this pile of vague information, I present the thousand degrees of middle tier VP:

There are many vocal percussionists out there who can get through a bar or two with a decent feel, but get tongue-tied after a few seconds. Most drumming on current music is built out of 2 or 4 bar “loops” or patterns repeated over and over. Maybe one pattern for the verse, another for the chorus, and one for the bridge as well. If the percussionist gets through a couple nice bars of verse material, I’ll make a note of those bars and try to get a couple bars of chorus material and so forth. Then I will plug those measures in to the rest of the bars of the song. This also has the danger of getting repetitive, but at least represents the “feel” that the performer was going for rather than just a bunch of sounds laid out on a grid. Again, this can be covered up by adding fills, crashes, etc (you don’t need to do too much, even adding an open high hat – a longer “tssss” sound randomly every few bars – can help.)

I find that a combination of all 3 techniques will work sometimes, other times just one. Unfortunately for you, that’s the best answer I can come up with – after 20-plus years of doing this, I’m still learning myself! Good Luck!