How to mic a cajon
How to mic a cajon can be a tricky business and there are quite a few ways of doing it for both live and studio settings. What you end up doing for either on stage or in the booth depends on a variety of factors. Lets just take the studio for example, what is your room like? is it lively or dead? or does it sound great for acoustic drums naturally? What type of microphones are available and is your engineer willing to experiment? As with a lot of drum sessions, experimentation is key. There is no, generally speaking, one right or wrong way to record the cajon but there are a few techniques that have been tried and tested. The thing with the cajon is that even though it may sound good to the ear, it is sometimes a bugger to get it sound the way you want in a studio or live setting.
Along with having my own experiences, I decided to ask some of my pro-audio engineer buddies who have a fair bit of experience behind them what they thought, and they came back with some pretty solid solutions.
Mic the front and back
What seems to be a general consciences, and I have to agree, is that you really want to mic both the back and the front of the cajon. This will enable you to capture the wide frequency range that the instrument produces. I would say that in the studio this is an absolute must. Mattie Foulds, who is not only an engineer/producer but also a drummer with many years of experience suggested the use of a Neumann U 87 about a foot from the from the front of the cajon and a bass drum mic in the sound hole to catch the depth. He recommended an Audio Technica ATM25 or Beta 91 for the bass end. The Neumann U 87 is really an incredible mic but not the cheapest piece of kit coming it at around $3000 – $4000 so lets look at some other alternatives.
Iain Thompson, another experienced engineer in the business uses an Audix D6 on the back end and a Beyerdynamic M 201 pointed at the front. I have used this combo before and it will definitely give you a solid result at a lower cost. He also recommended the use of a Beyer m88 for the bass end with the careful use of a high pass filter.
The Beta 91
The microphone that was mentioned the most and the one I always go to is theShure Beta 91. This is a half cardioid condenser microphone and is commonly used for kick drums. In my experience both live and in the studio this is the best mic for cajon out there and if you want to buy a mic for you cajon to use live, this is it. The way I place the mic is on a small folded towel or small pillow inside the cajon. This will help prevent the mic from moving around inside.Matt Malakowski, an engineer I have worked with many times said: “when using the beta 91 you should also use a really tight parametric cut around 95-110 depending on the cajon and PA and a little tweaking of 600-1k and the top end and you’ve got huge sounding cajon for days with no feedback”. I would trust Matt with my cajon sound in any situation. You could also put a mic on the front and blend the sound but the great thing about the 91 is that it works very well on its own. This is the mic I use, particularly for a live situations. You just can’t beat it for the cajon as it will pick up the wide range of frequencies the drum will produce by its self. You can consult your engineer about adding a second mic on the front but this thing will stand up to the task in small clubs to stadiums. It also handles the risk of fead back very well.
Shure Beta 91 – One of the best all-in-one cajon mics around.
The Sub Kick
A while back I did a session with Minneapolis singer/songwriter Molly Dean. We had just finished miking up the cajon when I saw a Yamaha Sub Kick in the corner of the room. The sub kick is a low-frequency capture device that picks up the low frequencies (100Hz-2000Hz) that a normal microphone can’t. I felt we just had to see how it sounded. We already had a kick mic in the back and the cajon sounded punchy enough but once we added the sub kick it gave the cajon an immense amount of extra beef. If you have one of these lying around, you should for sure try it out on the back of the cajon along with a regular kick mic.
Let the room speak
If you have the advantage of having a nice sounding room you will also want to set up some room mics. Audio veteran Alex Fiennes gave me another great suggestion for utilizing the room sound. He suggested using an MS pair in front of the cajon. The MS technique gives you more control over the width of the stereo spread than a typical XY microphone recording technique, and allows you to make adjustments at any time after the recording is finished. Here is more information about the MS pair. I would think about using a kick mic along with this just to have some extra low-end if you need it.
This may sound obvious but make sure you use your ears. They will tell you if you are getting a good sound or not. Use some good headphones and experiment with placement until you are getting the sound you want. Don’t think that you can fix a bad sound with plugins and effects. This is simply not true. One of the best pieces of advice when I asked my engineer friends about this was from Jim Sutherland who simply said: “Experiment until it sounds good.”
Back end microphone suggestions:
Front end microphone suggestions:
Readers feel free to comment with your own suggestions. I would love to get your input.