The all-wooden box drum, or cajón may be the world’s most popular percussion instrument, yet it is also one of the hardest to amplify because it produces sharp bursts of sound energy (transients) when played. Finding microphones that really capture the subtle ‘woodsy’ tone and transient-rich sound of his cajón was proving something of a challenge for percussionist David Mortara – until he discovered the DPA d:dicate range.
Mortara is the band leader of MALAMBO, a London-based group performing Canción Criolla (Creole Song) and Afro-Peruvian Music. MALAMBO has performed at the Southbank Centre (Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall), the Bloomsbury and Ealing Festivals, and on the club and corporate entertainment circuit. Corporate gigs can take place in some very unusual and acoustically problematic spaces not designed for critical listening – such as the Victoria & Albert Museum Refreshment Rooms and Cannon Bridge Roof Gardens in London.
Originally from Peru, the cajón is an all-wooden box drum is played by slapping the front face with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements such as brushes, mallets or sticks.
“For years I struggled to achieve a decent, faithful live sound on cajón with those popular models of directional dynamic microphones one encounters on-stage”, Mortara explains. “Although directional dynamic microphones can be good, my sound always lacked articulation and sparkle; as greater mass and inertia of the moving parts in dynamic microphones (compared to condenser microphones) “smear” transient details.”
He adds: “Also, the sound character of my instruments would alter when placing directional dynamic microphones up very close, to minimise reverberant spill and feedback, because these microphones exhibit bass “tip-up” (known as the Proximity Effect). I’d spend ages during sound checks getting the engineer to adjust EQ settings for something sounding natural. On occasions, my cajón would end up sounding like I was playing a biscuit tin!”
Mortara contacted UK distributor Sound Network and was put in touch with Les Mommsen, chief technician at London’s Union Chapel. Mommsen suggested a close mic solution that involved the use of two d:dicate 2011C Cardioid Condenser microphones – one front and one rear – plus a d:screet 4061 Miniature Omnidirectional Condenser capsule, which was used as a low level mixing option and positioned on the ‘sweet spot’ of the cajón’s rear sound porthole.
In his capacity as a freelance sound engineer, Mommsen provided sound tech services at two recent MALAMBO gigs – one at Ceviche Old Street, a large and busy restaurant in London’s financial quarter, and another at a private venue in Kent.
“The DPA solution was ideal because it delivered a very natural low end response and allowed us to capture a really big sound from the cajón”, Mommsen says. “The restaurant venue, in particular, was a challenging acoustic environment because it had a lot of tiled surfaces and was also pretty noisy. By close miking the drum we were able to reduce off-axis spill and really capture the nuances and subtlety of the instrument.”