Back in the eighties, the first cajons started to appear in western pop music, causing an entire generation of sound engineers to scratch their heads in confusion. In the time since, plenty of proven methods have been developed to amplify and record the cajon, and here, we explain them all – so both sound engineers and percussionists can get the best out of this versatile beat-maker.
- Mike-Up the Soundhole
- Put a Microphone Inside the Cajon
- Use a Pickup
- Recording: Add an Extra Microphone
- Beware of Phase
- See also…
Mike-Up the Soundhole
A popular method for amplifying a cajon is to simply mount a kick drum microphone on a short stand and stick it just inside the soundhole or position it just in front of the soundhole. This will capture a lot of the lower frequencies, and since it’s placed behind the cajon and the percussionist, the microphone is well out of the way. There are a couple of disadvantages to this approach, though. You’ll need to give the trebles quite a boost to get the snare sound of the cajon to punch through (since most cajons are fitted with snare wires). Also, a lot of percussionists have a habit of tipping the cajon back a little bit while playing, so they can reach every bit of the front playing surface, which can dramatically affect the sound. It also runs the risk of knocking the microphone out of place, adding an extra ‘dunk’ to the beat.
Put a Microphone Inside the Cajon
To avoid the issues thrown up by miking up the soundhole, a lot of engineers try placing a microphone inside the cajon, laying it on a little cushion. Technically speaking, this is not the best place to put your mike if you want to get the best sound. Most of the time, you’ll be using a cardioid microphone, which is directional, so the face of the mike that’s actually picking up the sound is pointed at the lower edge of the playing surface. A better solve would be to use a flat boundary microphone. These specialised microphones (also known as PZM – pressure zone microphones) are condenser microphones with a flat shape so they can be placed on the floor, on a table or… inside a cajon. Because the internal microphone capsule is angled upward, boundary microphones are better equipped to pick up more of the detail as the cajon player’s hands hit the different parts of the playing surface.
A boundary microphone inside a bass drum
Use a Pickup
There are cajons with a built-in pickup, but you can also get pickups that can be installed in a standard cajon. Pickups are a great solution, since they’re far less sensitive to feedback when compared to microphones, and are more focussed, so when setting up on stage, they won’t capture the sound of the other band members as well as the cajon. However, a pickup will never sound as natural as a good microphone.
Recording: Add an Extra Microphone
When you’re recording a cajon, you might notice that the methods described above don’t really cut it. Sticking a microphone inside the cajon will give the sound a lot of definition, but it won’t have the ambience of a big live venue, resulting in a kind of claustrophobic-feeling recording. However, in a studio, you don’t have to worry about feedback or crosstalk, so you can set up a second room mike, a little way back from the cajon to capture the ‘room sound’ – much like you would with a drum kit. What can also work beautifully is a stereo setup, where two microphones (either small or large diaphragm condensers) are positioned in a stereo configuration to give the recording a big and dynamic feel.
Beware of Phase
If you’re setting up multiple microphones to capture the sound of the cajon from different positions, then things can start sounding a little bit dead. If this happens, then what you’re encountering is a problem with phase. For example: if you put a flat boundary microphone inside the cajon then set up an X-Y stereo microphone pair in front of the cajon (about a metre away from the playing surface) then the difference in the distance means that the sound will be picked up by the boundary microphone a couple of milliseconds before the stereo pair. This might not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to mean that the lower frequency sound-waves of both microphones can ‘match up’ and cancel each other out, resulting in a volume drop. The easiest way to solve this issue is to reverse the polarity of the boundary microphone or the stereo pair.
You can find more help to solve phase issues in this blog.