Large Drum Sets vs. Small Drum Sets

All “size matters” jokes aside, there is a lot to be said on this subject. I think there is a different mindset that comes from playing large, small, or “alternative” drum sets. And PLEASE keep in mind that the modern drum set is only about 100 years old anyway, so the “standard” drum sets that we see today could very well change within the next few years if we keep our minds open. My prediction is that we’ll soon start to see more “multi-percussion” set ups rather than the regular ol’ 5-piece preconfigured kits that are sold so frequently and not questioned today.

Back to the topic at hand, growing up I always knew I was a Large Drum Set person. To clarify, I’m talking about 6+ piece kits vs 4- or 5-piece kits. And even on a 5-pc, putting the rack toms off to the side of the bass drum rather than right over it scores some points with me (I call that an “extended 4-piece” kit). I learned a lot from watching Mike Portnoy, Simon Phillips, Neil Peart, etc., and adapted my playing style to incorporate that in there because it was flashy and exciting. But at some point I felt that I needed to reinforce the basics – not just rudiments in this case because they should be a standard practice for all drummers, but HOW to play on a Small Drum Set – to lay back and focus on the simplicity of The Groove. Obviously there can be some VERY impressive ideas expressed on a Small Drum Set like THIS, while many Big Drum Set players can become stuck in their ways or sound “contained,” despite their intimidating setups.

So where is the middle ground? I find that once you find Your Sound, you can really develop it further by experimenting with alternative drum setups. For me, I set up my Large Drum Set with symmetry and geometric patterns in mind. I think this keeps it fresh and lets me explore more possibilities than I would be able to do on a standard out-of-the-box 5-piece kit. It also allows me to see fills and patterns as shapes and to work within a certain shape or start there and expand upon it.

Coming from the Large Drum Set background, whenever I get a chance to play on a Small Drum Set (I’m talking 4-piece), I feel that I can sit back, relax, and just PLAY. I also find that the less “stuff” I have around me, the more I LISTEN to the other players or even myself. I’ve taken this approach back to the Large Drum Set, and have seen my compositions become more focused and less about hitting everything on the kit in each measure. And so when I do go for that 6″ tom or effects cymbal, it has more “meaning” than it would otherwise.

I’ll leave you with this:

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.


*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).


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.

The Dark Arts of Percussion

Q: What is The Dark Arts of Percussion, and should I report you for being a part of it?

      A: No, calm down.


The Dark Arts of Percussion is a new series of albums by Jeff Willet Music. First in the series we have “The Wind Gongs of Willow Grove,” an album recorded only with three Wind Gongs, a gong beater named “King Gong,” and a simple straw brush. It is a meditative album, meant to be listened straight through the six tracks, and focuses on the harmonic content of these wonderful gongs that create a beautiful soundscape that relaxes the mind to a state of deeper thought. The tracks are not named so as to not steer your thoughts in any way while experiencing the sounds contained therein, but rather left unnamed to leave the musical journey up to your own imagination. Much time was spent crafting the sound and the mix of the album to represent what it would be like to hear this performed live as far as stereo imaging as well as careful and precise EQ’ing. These gongs are also special because of where they are from. They were hand-selected in the Wuhan Province of China for Steve Weiss Music before the major brands could get to them. Steve Weiss himself was given the nickname of “King Gong” by Frank Zappa many years ago, and has been a landmark in the Gong and Percussion communities ever since. You can download the album the price of your choice HERE.


The second album in The Dark Arts of Percussion series is still in the works but promises to be much bigger, with more large-scale, percussion-focused arrangements, featuring both melodic and rhythmic percussion instruments from all over the world. Not exactly tribal, not exactly jazz/fusion, but a contemporary blend of multiple genres to let the instruments speak as they wish. Writing, rehearsing, and recording for this album will take place throughout in 2015. More details about the what/where/when/why/who’s of this album will be released shortly.

Even though The Dark Arts of Percussion is primarily a studio project, live performances are not out of the question! Please email for more info.

The Process of Rhythmic Complementing

my, what nice 8th notes you have…” <— Nope, not even close:

Instead of showcasing a specific instrument for this blog post, I want to explain a little bit about a layering concept that I often use as a compositional tool and when I perform live to “beef up” the rhythmic nature of a piece. I haven’t heard any other names for it, so I’ll refer to it as the process of “Rhythmic Complementing.”

Strategic Rhythm Placement to Fill Up the Groove in Your Music

Different from rhythmic counterpoint and polyrhythms, rhythmic complementing (or, … rhythomplementing?) is a way to thicken up the rhythmic texture of a piece of music by filling in the gaps created by the main rhythm. Once applied, the result is a measure of all 16th notes (in the example I’ll give), or just a busier groove than what you started out with, regardless of the meter. There is no exact formula for how to do this, other than this simple set of instructions:

1. Write out the main rhythm of the piece.

2. Write another rhythm above or below the first one, making sure to place a note where there was a rest or held-out note in the first one, to fill in the gaps or “complement” it.

3.  a.) Keep in mind this second rhythm should make sense on its own, too. Notes in the second rhythm can certainly overlap and/or double those in the first rhythm in order to make it all flow better together AND separately.

b.) Or, leave some gaps and fill in only strategically, sparingly, or wherever it makes the most sense or feels right for you and for the piece (although this could be considered rhythmic counterpoint).

4. Expand rhythms out into melody/notation for your instruments of choice.

Intro to "Ceramics" by The Gathering Mist

Intro to “Ceramics” by The Gathering Mist

Keep in mind that not every piece calls for this, so listen for the context of when to use it and when not to. This works well in live music settings also! Its easiest in a group with a drummer and a percussionist, but experiment with other instrumentations too!

A clear example of this is in a piece I did called “Ceramics” from The Gathering Mist’s album, “Reservoir” (notated above – follow along!), which starts off with a jembe playing a syncopated rhythm in 11/8, panned to one side. After four bars a dumbek enters, panned to the other side, playing a complementary rhythm to the jembe, still in 11/8. Four bars later at measure 9, the jembe and dumbek switch parts but the same principle still applies. Once the dumbek enters on the first beat of measure 5, the rest of that beginning section to the piece sounds like straight 16th notes because of this rhythmic complementing process. Enjoy!


There are a couple subtle hints of this technique sprinkled throughout other tracks I did for both of The Gathering Mist’s albums. And keep in mind, this isn’t necessarily confined to only percussion instruments…

Do You Udu?

The Udu drum is another favorite percussion instrument of mine. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and I really enjoy the variety of sounds it can make and the many applications for those sounds in different musical settings. Originally a Nigerian instrument, I have also heard it played in a Latin music setting as part of a Jazziz Magazine CD, gently providing a groove for an acoustic guitar and female singer.

The Udu drum is a unique combination of an idiophone (opposite of a smartphone, try to keep up) and an aerophone. The sound comes from hitting the exterior (usually made of clay) and controlling the air within the resonating chamber(s) by covering or uncovering either of its two characteristic holes. It looks like a water jug/pot with an extra hole in the side (“Udu” translates to “pot” in the Igbo language, I’m told).

Because of the overall teardrop shape of this instrument, the Helmholtz principle of acoustics kicks in and produces a deep low earthy sound when one of its holes are hit and covered by your hand, (forcing the air into the resonating chamber, and out thru the open hole) with the ability to bend the pitch up from there as you release your hand. How low does it go? The larger the resonating chamber, the lower the pitch, and believe me these things could easily pass for an 808/bass drop effect!

The way I use Udu drums in my music varies depending on which kind(s) I believe would fit best with the piece. I am working on a piece now called “Footprints” which features all three Udus playing back and forth and “complimenting” each other’s rhythms and pitches to make it sound like its played all on one instrument. After that, the piece develops and picks up speed which calls for an adaptation of Indian tabla techniques to be played on the Udus – first on one drum, then doubled on another, and then switched up a bit to bring in the third Udu for a more straight-ahead groove to bring the piece to a fiery close. A demo with scratch tracks was previously released of this piece, but I have reworked much of it with only a bit more to go at this point. Look for the final version soon!

I have also featured the Udu drums in a few pieces with The Gathering Mist – see if you can pick out their unique sounds:



About “Ceramics”

In “Ceramics,” I used the Udu pictured below to bring in some low-end to support the tuned flower pots, shekere, tambourine, and melodic HAPI Drums for much of the middle section.
Lots of very interesting layering combinations and rhythmic/melodic concepts in this piece…

…as well as little subtle parts in many other pieces across both albums – bonus points for recognizing those too!

My Experiences With The Marimba

Paul Orsulak and me practicing for our percussion recital, late 2009 - this same instrument heard on The Gathering Mist albums!

The marimba used to be a sore subject for me until a couple years ago. The high school I went to is well known for their show-style band and drum line, aka no pit band/front ensemble/indoor drum line/weekend tournaments. Friday night is game night – and you won’t be able to hear much afterwards. Our drum line was always right around 25-30 deep, usually with 8 snares, 6-8 bass drums, 3-4 “squints,” and 6-8 cymbal players. Like I said, no mallets. More on the Rolling Thunder Drumline later though…

Concert season would include mallet parts for most pieces – and as I was one of the few percussionists there who could read music, I would sometimes play these parts while everyone else would get the cool drum parts. I would try to make the best of it though, especially on Robert W. Smith’s epic piece for concert band, “Africa,” for which I was on chimes with 2 mallets – a difficult part in itself with 8th note triplets while the rest of the band played with a straight 8th feel. I remember a couple other pieces where I was “stuck on bells” or some other “lame mallet instrument.” Great. But then I went to college…

To audition for the college I would eventually graduate from, I needed to perform a snare drum piece, a timpani piece, and a mallet piece, along with whatever else was involved (sight-singing, yada yada yada). I spoke with Nancy Zeltsman (before I really knew who she was) and she gave me a 2-mallet marimba solo called “Hegira” for my audition that one of her students, Carrie Magin, had composed, along with a CD for reference which helped a lot (Thanks Nancy!). I spent every night in a practice room learning that piece in addition to the famous timpani piece “March” by Elliot Carter – turns out its a really fun piece with stick-flipping, quintuplet and septuplet phrasing, and polyrhythms – my favorites!

These were the most difficult pieces for those instruments I had ever done, and I was really on my own learning them for an audition. But long story short it went well. Got in, did my time, graduated, here we all are. Studying with the percussion teacher there was very beneficial to my own playing as well as for my solo project The Gathering Mist. I had written a piece which I wanted to feature fingerstyle acoustic guitar on, but it was a difficult part. The rest of the album was just about finished when I remembered that the one track still had programmed MIDI guitar scratch tracks on it – unacceptable for the finished product after so much work on everything else. Since my fingerstyle acoustic guitarist search came up dry, I said “screw it, I’ll just play it myself on marimba.”

At that point I was comfortable enough playing with 4 mallets, and the recording went pretty smoothly after a bit of practice. Hearing the playback of the two tracks on my first solo album, Rhythmic Epiphany and then on the one track from my second album Reservoir that feature the marimba, it made me a little more self-confident with my mallet playing. Proof that the best way to improve is to (practice a lot first) record yourself, listen back, and be your own biggest critic with regard to timing, tone, etc. The way I think about it is similar to voice-leading on 4-part choral-style music – Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass – you have 4 mallets, two in each hand – yes there’s 5 octaves worth of possible notes to play, but wherever your next note is, one of those four mallets is going to be closest to it, so you don’t have to work as hard as you would with only two mallets (this goes for linear playing only – thicker chordal textures have more notes, so yes more mallets.)

So I got more and more used to it, and ended up playing the huge 5-octave marimba with 4-mallets for two pieces in my senior recital (another piece only required 2 mallets but was WAY more difficult, go figure), as well as a few other pieces for other recitals here and there. My experience with the marimba happened at a good time too – right as I was getting into other forms of melodic percussion – especially the Kalimba and HAPI Drums.

Anyway, why I’m posting this: I ended up overcoming some difficulties I guess and now I’m proud enough of the results to include it on a few tracks for The Gathering Mist – Enjoy!




Brand New Blog!!

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