Latin music is popular all over the world, but it has its own unique assortment of quirks and exotic instruments. Four of the genre's leading engineers explain what it takes to make a conga sing and timbales talk.
I once did a story on a company in Miami that specialises in the post-production of commercials for broadcast on Latino television networks in the US. One company executive told me the 'secret' of that business. "Make it louder and brighter than everything else," the Cuban émigré told me. "That's what Latinos like."
Boris Milan, an engineer and mixer who came to the US seven years ago from Caracas, Venezuela, and has recorded and mixed for top Latino artists including Carlos Santana, Lola Beltran and Tania Liberdad, doesn't disagree. "Latin music is all about rhythms, and there is a lot of percussion going on all the time," he explains. "You can't just set it and forget it. You have to understand the instrument and where it sits in the music to know where it's supposed to be in the mix."
To the nuanced ear, there are significant differences between the often frenetic rhythms of Cuban salsa, the smoother sounds of Brazilian samba, the sophisticated syncopations of Argentine tango and the larger-than-life sounds made by instruments like cuicas in African music. But there are ways to approach each instrument to capture an authentic sound and place it in the soundfield.
The conga (pronouced cun-ga) is one of the most basic Latino instruments, but its ubiquitousness has tended to stereotype it sonically. "Start with the tuning of the instrument," cautions Sebastian Krys, a native of Argentina who came to Miami and has become a first-call engineer for artists including Gloria Estefan, Carlos Vives and Shakira. "I listen to Cuban records from the '60s and even the '40s and '50s, and you hear the traditional sound of the drum, which is pitched much lower than you hear nowadays. Now they tune them way up, which is a result of them being used on a lot of pop records, which tend to favour brighter sounds. People go more for the slap than the tone, then try to put the tone back in with EQ. That's self-defeating. You'll be amazed at how good a conga sounds tuned a bit lower."
Boris Milan likes to place condenser microphones such as AKG 414s on congas, but if the song has a fast tempo he finds that dynamic mics such as the Sennheiser 421 or even the workhorse Shure SM57 catch both the tone and the attack well. He places the microphones at the top of the drum, pointing about 45 degrees down and a foot or two away from the player. "I won't put a microphone on the bottom, but sometimes I'll set one up about four or five feet up and less than a foot away, aimed at the player."
Milan cautions recordists to use a very light touch with compression. "A fast attack will diminish the slap, which destroys the definition of the sound," he explains, but adds that the release of the compressor should be fast. He's equally light with EQ. "Just enough to bring some air around it, some presence," he says. "I'll cut a bit at 200Hz and add a little between 300 and 400 Hz."
Carlos Alvarez has recorded congas thousands of times, for artists including the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Jaguares. Perhaps it's the South Florida influence, but the Miami native likes to add a third microphone, such as a Shure SM52, sitting on the floor and aimed up at the crevice in between the conga drums. "I do that if I can isolate the congas sufficiently from the rest of the band," he says. "I did an instructional tape once with Giovanni Hidalgo, and used that along with some Royer ribbon mics on top about four inches away and it sounded incredible."
How the conga is played also makes a huge difference, and it's something the engineer can coax to an extent. Just as pop music has affected conga tunings, it has also influenced how the conga is played. "I did a record with Sammy & Junior in Brazil once and I was surprised that they didn't hit the conga very hard," recalls Krys. "That helped give them a much nicer and deeper tone."
Javier Garza, who mixes and tracks for artists including Jacqui Velasquez, Ricky Martin, Sandy & Junior, Jon Secada and Luis Enrique, also likes to mic the bottom of congas occasionally, if they're raised on stands, using an X-Y pair of Neumann U87s in front of the congas and angled towards the rims about a foot away, with a third U87 about two metres in front. "Most of the resonance from a skin instrument comes from the bottom opening," he says. "The conga playing pattern always involves a hand actually moving on the skin, not just hitting it. A condenser microphone captures more of that."
Timbales are the trap kits of salsa, comprised of two timbale drums and augmented with cowbells, wood blocks and occasionally a cymbal. Milan places two Shure SM57s beneath the pair of timbales pointed outwards towards their rims, and puts a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones, such as Neumann KM184s, overhead in an X-Y configuration. "This captures both the drums and the transients from the cymbal and cowbell and block," he says. "When the percussionist is doing chapeo [the technique of alternately hitting the skin and the metal sides of the timbale] the 57 gets the mid-range tones. If it's a bigger timbales setup, instead of an X-Y above I'll move the overhead mics outward to make the image wider, and then use any microphones I have laying around pointed towards the cowbells and other instruments."
Timbales tend to be highly resonant, so Milan rarely puts any reverb on them when they sit in the track, but will use a plate on them when they take a break. "They'll solo for a second in between verses or sections, and that's when they make a big statement, so the reverb helps highlight it there," he says. "Otherwise, no reverb on these instruments."
Alvarez likes to start his timbale miking process from the top down. "Stand in front of them, from the perspective of the player, and listen to where the mics should go," he says. "I'll put some Schoeps SMC5 mics, padded, as overheads; KM84s are good, also. Beneath, I try to use microphones that are a little dull, like the Royer ribbons, because they don't over-emphasise the highs and they catch the mid-range so that it offsets the high-end stuff. I also like to use an SM57 for the cowbell. It's a bit dull and that catches the attack of the bell nicely."
Everyone has their own thoughts on timbales. Krys says he likes yet another approach. "I use a couple of [Sennheiser] 421s underneath and pointed outward from each other in a 'V' shape," he explains. "Then, a couple of Audio-Technica AT4051 condensers or KM85s about three to three-and-a-half feet above as overheads. I might add another mic or two for the cowbells and wood blocks and blend them together to make stereo."
There are lots of high-pitched Latin instruments. Garza says they tend to saturate the high end of recordings. He uses condenser microphones and cuts the EQ by 3-4 dB in the 6kHz range for instruments like tambourines and shakers. "That lets some of the other instruments, like marching snares, live up in that range," he says.
Sebastian Krys uses a distant microphone, usually a condenser, set up 10 to 12 feet away to capture claves. "On the old records they sound very cool when they sound dark and are coming from the other end of the room," he says.
- A-go-go (Brazilian): A group of two or three bells joined together and played by striking with a stick and squeezing, to create syncopation.
- Bongo (Cuban): A small double drum held between the knees of the seated musician.
- Cabasa or Afuche (Brazilian): A round coconut shell, having small seashells strung around it, with a handle. The updated version is a wooden cylinder that has a metal cover with metal beads, played by rubbing the beads against the metal cover.
- Claves (Cuban): Two strikers of resonant wood.
- Conga (Cuban): A major instrument in the salsa rhythm section. There are three drums in the conga family — quinto (small), conga (mid-sized), and tumbadora (large).
- Cuica (Brazilian): A drum with a skin at one end, either plastic or animal, with a stick attached. You play it by rubbing the stick through the open end with a wet rag or sponge.
- Ganza (Brazilian): A shaker — a cylinder or square-shaped cone that can have various materials inside, from small metal pellets to rice, for different sounds, and is played in a forward-backward shaking motion.
- Reco-Reco: The Brazilian version of the Cuban guiro or gourd, but made out of bamboo cylinders with grooves and scraped with a thin stick.
- Shekere: An African-derived rattle made from a gourd and covered with beads in a net-like pattern.
- Surdo (Brazilian): A large bass drum, sized from 16 x 28 inches to 22 x 24 inches, using a large drum sling to carry on the body. This instrument is played with a mallet and is the heartbeat and the pulse of the samba.
- Timbales (Cuban): A percussion setup consisting of two small, metal single-headed drums mounted on a stand, with two cowbells, and often a cymbal or other additions.
Then there are the more exotic instruments. The surdo is like a moveable floor tom, played with a beater. Krys will mic it close-in, within a foot of the top skin, with a large-diaphragm condenser such as a Neumann U87.
Another low-frequency instrument is the caja or cajon, also known as the flap box. The player will sit on it and bang it with a fist or open hand. "There's a whole bunch of different ones — Columbia and Spain have their own version, and so do Cuba and Chile," says Milan. "The hole is in the back but there are also some snares inside that rattle a bit. You want to blend those sounds." He does it with a Sennheiser 421 or 414 in the front, placed about three feet ahead of the player, with a second 421 several feet from the rear port, although he's experimented with dynamics, such as the AKG D112, in that role. "Put it at a slight angle looking at the sound hole, the same concept you'd use for a kick drum," he says. "It will also pick up some of the rattle, and it has a kind of gated sound effect. I might also put a second condenser mic behind that one, but you have to watch for phase issues."
When mixing, Javier Garza translates a standard kick and bass trick — carving out a frequency 'hole' in the kick drum sound to put the bass into — over to pairing a kick drum and a surdo on the same track. "You'll want the punch and attack from the kick drum and the 'thump' from the surdo, so I keep the punch notched up a bit around 100Hz and notch the surdo down a little around 200Hz," he explains. "Also, keep them tight — gate it a bit to get rid of any extra sub-frequency ring, to give low-frequency percussion like the surdo and the bass guitar more space."
The djembe is a similar instrument. Garza addresses its high SPL value with a 421 for the top skin, and uses a condenser microphone placed behind it, about a metre away from the bottom opening, for ambience and to catch the low frequencies. Krys will place a 421 in the front and an SM57 on the back, and record them to a mono track. "I treat them like a full-range instrument rather than a set of separate sounds," he says.
That's often a philosophy, not a technique. When Krys encounters a gaita — a deep, airy-sounding flute that's not unlike a smaller version of the Australian didgeridoo — he purposely avoids trying to record it like a conventional flute or clarinet. "I'll put a microphone up a couple of feet above the player's head and pointing down at the instrument, but never try for a real direct sound," he says. "You want to try to get the whole instrument. When you listen to old recordings of these instruments, you realise that they were not intended to be used in recording studios. They were built for non-amplified street performance. I treat it like a field recording. I think that gets you more of the total experience of the instrument than trying to mic it close-in and direct."
If you're fortunate enough to work with a veteran percussionist playing an exotic instrument, trust his or her judgment. "I was working with Juan Luis Guerra once and the percussionist had a very metallic-sounding quiro," says Alvarez. "His live sound guy came over to the board and turned 15kHz up, like, 20dB. I raised my eyebrows but you know, that was just what it needed."
And if you really want an exotic instrument, try the abdomen. That's what Carlos Alvarez had to record for a track for Spanish artist Alejandro Sanz. "He was slapping and scraping his belly to get some different percussion sounds," Alvarez recalls. "I close-miked his stomach with a pair of 414s, one on either side. It sounded pretty good."
Cuban salsa combos are generally made up of a piano, acoustic bass, timbales and congas. Just as experienced engineers stress the importance of tuning the percussion to match the key of songs, they also emphasise that the piano is as much a percussion instrument as it is a melodic one. Latin engineers treat it like a guitarist treats a vintage amp. "It's not so much how you mic the piano as it is finding one that sounds right for salsa," says Krys. "You want a bright-sounding one; one that sounds a bit nasty, not nice and warm. The old salsa guys grew up using really crappy pianos that they then beat the crap out of playing them, and that sound has remained part of it. Yamahas tend to be brighter. I'll put a pair of 414s over the upper end of the soundboard and a U87 over the low end and it's just fine like that."
Gut- and nylon-stringed guitars get similar treatment. "More aggressive" is how Krys says he mics these, using a Sennheiser 414 or Audio Technica AT4051 placed slightly below the centre of the guitar, and closer to the neck than the sound hole, picking up the string noise.
Salsa and other Latin genres traditionally have been recorded in small rooms, a matter of circumstance rather than choice; huge ambient rooms are just not a staple of the Caribbean and South America. Thus, the recordings tend to be dry, relying largely on the inherent ambient tones of the percussion instruments. The resonant ring of the metal sides of a timbale, for instance, provides a kind of high-pitched reverb of its own. Also, the density of percussion sections, especially on Brazilian samba, mean that artificial reverb will just add more mud than ambience.
"If I have a decent-sized room to work with, I'll experiment by adding some room microphones — maybe an 87 — to congas and timbales and maybe the cowbell, but just a little of the room," says Garza. "I keep the percussion as dry as possible. To keep the space around percussion, I'll notch the low-mids down a bit on the EQ on guitars. If the drums are very heavy, I'll pull the low-mids back as much as 8dB at 250Hz. The surdos and congas tend to breathe in that range."
Milan says proper panning also helps this cause. "People often like to hear the timbales panned hard left and right, but that can cause conflict with congas," he explains. "I'll move the timbales closer to the centre and spread the congas a bit more. Remember that, unlike with pop, where drums are the center of attention, percussion in salsa and tropical music is there to support the vocal." Milan also uses a very light touch when processing percussion, suggesting a plate reverb, at 800 milliseconds at most. "The faster the song, the less reverb should be used," he says. "Over 125bpm, you really want almost none."
Javier Garza brings up an interesting point. The dearth of seasoned percussionists outside certain geographic locations — there are probably very few really good timbadores in Minsk, for instance — has led to more pervasive use of sampled and looped percussion parts. Garza would always prefer a good live percussionist, but says that while sampled percussion is often somewhat stilted, good samples are preferable to badly recorded live percussion any day. "Too often I run into live percussion done in someone's house that's just not as good as a sample or a well-programmed percussion part," he says. "Unless the house is in Havana."