Real Percussion on Your Tracks
One of the best ways you can make your productions come to life is by adding real recorded percussion instruments. With this in mind it’s important to know how to mix live tambourine, shakers and any other percussion instruments you have in your studio.
One of my favourite electronic producers Louis la Roche recommends buying even a cheap set of real percussion and adding those sounds to all of your productions. Since taking his advice I’ve definitely added life to the drums and percussion in my own tracks. There’s something about the air of a real room and the human element that adds an intangible depth to your music.
In this post we’ll look specifically at how to tame the dynamics of a tambourine and also manipulate its timbre in the high frequency spectrum. This should help you to get a live tambourine recording to sit more steadily in a full pop mix alongside other loops or sounds.
Before going on, it’s worth stating that the following advice is aimed at getting a tambourine sound that works in a produced track sitting alongside other mixed and processed sounds. If the music you are working on is organic, you might want to leave the tambourine sound more raw.
How to mix a live tambourine in a big production
Step 1 – What are we working with
The first step we need to take when mixing any instrument is to ask the right questions. We should think about each instrument on its own terms and not just dogmatically apply plugins. A tambourine recorded with a microphone could have:
- A low end rumble depending on the recording scenario
- Some really sudden transient peaks when the free hand hits the tambourine
- Differences in volume as the tambourine moves around in the mic field
- Inconsistent high frequencies
You can see the audio waveform of the tambourine I recorded in this example in fig 1a below
Although I won’t go deep into EQ in this post, for now we can start with a high pass filter to remove the low rumble before compression. I used a filter at about 250 Hz (fig 1 b below) as we really don’t require too much low frequency information in our tambourine sound. We want the compressors to react to mainly the high part of the sound.
Step 2 – Tame the Transients
Now that we’ve identified the likely areas to work on, we’ll start dynamics processing by taming the loud peaks. If you look at the waveform in the above diagram (fig 1) you can see noticeable peaks on 1,2,3,4. These are the strong beats where the player hits their free hand on the tambourine. Although they are important to state the groove, we want to take them down a bit, so that the other softer beats are stronger in the mix.
To do this you can try using a combination of a compressor and a limiter. I used the stock Ableton compressor to begin with. I added the s(M)exoscope plugin (free) to get a visual on what’s happening. For more on how to use s(M)exoscope check this post. My compressor settings were (fig 2a below):
- very fast attack (10ms)
- very fast release (15ms)
- high ratio of 10:1
- Gain reduction of 2-3 dB
This was followed by a limiter to catch any overs that the compressor was missing. I used a threshold just low enough to knock off another 2-3 dB from the strong beats. You can see the effect of the compressor and limiter on the waveform in fig 2b below:
Step 3 – Multiband Compression
The final step we can take in terms of dynamics which really adds some secret sauce to the tambourine is to use some Multiband Compression on the extreme high end. Here any Multiband compressor will work. I highly recommend the Fabfilter Pro MB. We’ll start by creating a band at 8kHz which will work on the highest frequencies of the tambourine sound (fig 3a below)
You can see that the band is centred around 8kHz. I’ve also tweaked the crossovers so that this band acts like a high shelf on the whole part of the sound above 7-8 kHz.
Now that we have the band in place, all that remains is to adjust the gain and threshold to our taste. What we are aiming to do is compress the high frequencies so that the tambourine will maintain some high end energy in the mix in the crucial region above 8kHz. In this example I settled on a cut of 1dB in gain and then a threshold that meant around 2-3 dB of compression was happening in this area. Fig 3b below.
If this step is applied correctly the tambourine should now feel much more consistent in the highs and allow it to remain focused and present sounding at a lower level in the mix. It can then compete with other instruments that may have a static high end (VSTs and loops etc).
Learning how to mix live tambourine can really help you add real recorded percussion to your productions. With this approach we are able to tame the strong beats enough that we can then bring up the softer beats in the mix. We can then steady the high end content of the sound using Multiband compression. This allows the tambourine to sit well alongside other professionally produced loops or sounds we may have in the mix. Let me know how you get on with this technique and any questions you may have in the comments below.