Hang Drum Recording Technique (NOW WITH AUDIO!!)

I recently had the bright idea to compose a piece for hang drum (official name “Hang”), marimba, vibraphone, bells, drum set, and percussion that turned out to be nine and a half minutes long. This will undoubtedly be a monster of a piece to record, but I had to start somewhere. I started with the Hang because that was the backbone of the whole piece (more on the musical aspects of the piece later). I hadn’t recorded a hang drum before, so before starting the session I did a quick search for hang drum recording techniques online and found one picture that made no sense at all, and not much else that was very helpful (doesn’t mean it’s not out there). I figured I would go by a few basic mic’ing principles that I picked up in college:

First, “You’re not mic’ing the instrument – you’re mic’ing the air around the instrument.”

Now, this sounds MUCH more esoteric than it actually is. It’s really a great concept to keep in mind when mic’ing anything. Sound is vibrations in the air which are picked up by the mics, so that’s what you want the mics to capture (based on your mic’s pickup pattern), and not the instrument itself. 

Second, “Q: How do I mic this thing? A: How do you listen to it?”

Disclaimer: That Q&A doesn’t apply in every situation, but in this case it did help to weed out a few mic positions and save some time. Getting back to the strange method I saw in my short research on this topic, there were two large diaphragm condensers on the player’s right and left, facing each other and pointed down toward the instrument at about a 45 degree angle (spaced pair, maybe?). There was also a third mic in this same position in front of the player. Phasing issues aside, referring back to the second bold point above: unless you have very spaced out ears (we’re talking 3-4 feet) with a third ear extending out from your forehead, chances are that’s not how you would listen to the instrument. You most likely have two ears, which makes it worthwhile to go with a plain and simple stereo mic’ing technique. I set up two AKG C214’s right next to each other, facing out at about 35 degree angles, 8-10 inches directly above* the center note of the Hang. Since the 214’s have a cardioid pickup pattern, this mic position allows for full coverage of the instrument’s nine notes. When panned about half-right and half-left, it gives a very real representation of the Hang through the MOTU 8Pre Interface.

HangRecording2

*I also saw another picture where someone had one mic out in front of the instrument pointed down at a 45 degree angle, about a foot and half or two feet in front of and above it. The issue with that is the Hang is a circular instrument with notes all around it, so mic’ing it from any one side will produce louder results from the notes closest to the mic, while the notes farthest from it might not pick up as well (think of how the sound waves will spread similar to the Sun’s light and heat affecting planets closer or further away from it).

HangRecording3

That’s why I figured that a stereo pair right above the center note would be best, and to my relief, it didn’t really need any further processing from there. It had just enough of the “proximity effect” to sound full, articulate, and “beefy” without sounding too bassy or muddy, and the instrument itself is very resonant, so any artificial reverb just clouded it up. When all of the other instruments are added in, I’ll re-examine the Hang tracks for further processing, but for solo purposes, this is the setup I’ll be sticking with – very pleased with the results, and can’t wait to share when the track is complete! I would love to hear your experiences recording the Hang or any other instrument that gave you a challenge!

Here’s a little something that I improv’d on the Hang with this mic placement. I enabled free downloading for this track on soundcloud.

HAPI Drums

Jeff Willet playing an E minor pentatonic HAPI Drum

Jeff Willet playing an E minor pentatonic HAPI Drum

Getting back into showcasing some of the different percussion instruments that I play, I definitely feel that the HAPI Drums deserve some recognition. They have brought some of my pieces to life with their unique melodic and percussive qualities, and captured audiences’ eyes and ears for a few years now, hopefully not just because they look like waffle-makers (although that would a be great selling point – “Free Waffles with Purchase of CDs!” – I’ll consider it). As for their percussive and melodic capabilities, they are precision-tuned steel tongue drums in a set key, played with fingers or mallets (I prefer fingers), with a sound somewhere between a Hang Drum/HandPan and a vibraphone. The different pitches come from the different sized cut outs on the top of the instrument, and the percussive tones can be achieved by hitting in between those notes or in the center of the drum on the logo.

A Brief Description

The HAPI Drum is another example of an “idiophone” – you hit it, it resonates, and thats where the sound comes from – very simple design (in the same family as my Udu Drums). The notes are strategically positioned around the top of the instrument so that when you hit one note, the other notes around it ring sympathetically to create its unique timbre, which I can only describe as “colorful” and packed with overtones, yet when you hit one note and mute all the others, it has a very dry/dull sound – go figure, you sneaky ears!

Tuning, Usage and Design

As I mentioned before, each HAPI drum is in a set key. There are plenty of options available as to which key, but choose carefully to pick the one that appeals most to you. I first went with the E minor pentatonic tuning because of how well it would go with my Kalimbas (in A minor), and then I added the D minor pentatonic to have a full octave and a half of the D Dorian scale between both of them. This continuous series of notes in a scale (each drum has 8 notes total, these two have 4 overlapping notes) allows for some nice melodic applications in a few pieces, while sometimes I’ll take a more rhythmic approach – I’ve even used them for bass lines occasionally.

Playing and Recording Techniques

HapiMicPosition

Mic position for a HAPI Drum

As far as the playing technique goes, there really is no right or wrong way to play a HAPI Drum! I often use something similar to tabla techniques with them for more precision and speed. Because the instrument has such a long sustain, muting techniques are a nice contrasting touch to use also. For more recent recordings, I’ve been treating them like guitar tracks, and “doubling” the tracks – playing it twice, each on mono tracks panned hard right & left to fill up the stereo image a bit more. To record these wonderful instruments, I’ve had the best luck with a large-diaphragm condenser mic positioned about 12 inches/30cm directly over the center of the drum, in a cardioid pickup pattern. For recording two HAPI Drums at the same time, place the mic at the same height, centered between the two drums (or just use two mics). Any other positioning will affect how present certain notes will be (closer notes to the mic will be louder, and those further away won’t be heard as well).

See And Hear For Yourself

For anyone curious as to what HAPI Drums actually look and sound like, here are a few examples of pieces featuring them from The Gathering Mist’s albums. They always seem to interact well with any other instrument too:

“Overtonality”

“Oasis”


“Underwater Groove”


“Frequencies”


“From The Four Winds”

My ONLY critique about this instrument is its name, which isn’t really a major concern. HAPI stands for Hand Activated Percussion Instrument, which doesn’t describe what it specifically is at all. Most percussion instruments are hand-activated, and these even also include mallets to “activate” the sound with as well. But that being said, they’re incredible instruments and I appreciate everyone who’s checked them out! For more info on Hapi Drums, check out the blog that I wrote to introduce them at Steve Weiss Music, where they can now be purchased too!